Ireland in April/May 1918 was an island in uproar. The threat of conscription loomed large, and had motivated a unified struggle from nationalist and other groups to oppose it, a struggle that was causing the Dublin administration and London government no end of consternation. Even with better news from the western front, where Germany’s Spring Offensive would peter out over the summer, much of Lloyd George and his cabinet’s attention remained fixed on Ireland. They saw in the war an opportunity to turn things in Ireland to their advantage, which resulted in one of the most controversial aspects of the Conscription Crisis.
We have previously discussed the little remembered “Irish Brigade” that Sir Roger Casement attempted to create prior to the Easter Rising. The effort produced only a small under-resourced and under-trained unit who never got near being the kind of fighting force that Casement envisioned. In April 1918 they were only a few months away from being disbanded. But it was then that this otherwise forgettable piece of Irish military history suddenly spring into prominence.
On the 12th of that month a man named Joseph Dowling came ashore in County Clare. Dowling had been a Corporal of the Connacht Rangers when he became a POW in 1914, during the Battle of Mons. Detained in a German camp for the better part of two years, he joined Casement’s unit when the opportunity arose. Now, a U-Boat had dropped him off with a canvas canoe, which he rowed to the tiny Crab Island. When he realised that this was not the mainland, he was able to signal to fishermen who brought him to nearby Doolin. Dowling claimed to be a survivor of an American ship sunk by the Germans: such a story was not terribly convincing, and he was soon arrested.
The truth, or at least something resembling the truth, came out. Under interrogation, Dowling claimed that he had been sent to Ireland by Imperial Germany to set up a communication channel, for a future landing of arms. He further claimed that he had the additional task of making contact with nationalist leaders. It was a strange claim: Germany at that time were in no position to be sending guns to Ireland, and their previous dalliance with Irish nationalists had not worked out all that well for either side. Dowling specifically claimed he was there to contact leaders of the IPP, which makes even less sense given the situation in Ireland at the time. Dowling was apparently a man given to boasting, and some of what he told his interrogators was not feasible.
He would be tried on various charges and spend over six years in prison before being released. In truth it would have otherwise been a fairly minor episode of the war. Around the same time two Sinn Fein members were arrested in the Irish Sea for attempting to communicate with U-Boats, and Michael Collins also attempted something similar off the coast of Mayo around this time: neither episode is well remembered. But members of the British administration seized on the Dowling incident, believing it to be a great opportunity. Even though Dowling’s tale was so flimsy, and there was precious little to connect him to Sinn Fein, it was decided that this “German Plot” justified the mass arrest of Sinn Fein leadership.
On the night of the 17/18th May, 73 predominant members of the party were arrested. Some were certainly forewarned, by informers within the RIC, that such an event might occur, and some were happy to be arrested, seeing in such things a substantial propaganda opportunity. Among those detained were de Valera, Griffith, W.T. Cosgrave, Joseph McGuiness, Count Plunkett, Constance Markievicz, Denis McCullough and Maud Gonne McBride.
Among those who escaped were Michael Collins and some of his key men, most notably his close friend Harry Boland. His intelligence network was already paying dividends, and he had no intentions of spending more time in British prisons. Many of the more moderate and politically minded members of Sinn Fein were now out of the direct picture: such absences only gave Collins an even greater opportunity to make himself a central figure for Irish nationalism. He was already on the executive of Sinn Fein and was a Director of Organisation for the reborn Volunteers, but now he was a becoming a more recognisable figurehead. Others of a more militant bent, like Cathal Brugha (who was engaged in planning the assassination of British leaders if conscription was enforced) and Richard Mulcahy, also escaped arrest.
The arrests were carried out under the wartime “DORA” legislation, with the Sinn Fein members accused of acting contrary to “public safety”. Lloyd George and others hoped that evidence of the supposed plot would vindicate them in the eyes of the Irish populace and, more crucially for the war effort, in America. But what evidence they had, and what they were able to cobble together, was full of holes and unconvincing. Within days, the “German Plot” arrests became just another stick to beat the British administration with, perceived as being based on total fabrications.
Almost immediately, the effects of public outrage were seen electorally. In June another by-election was contested, this time in East Cavan. It was bitterly contested affair, with the IPP angry that Sinn Fein ran, believing that an agreed neutral candidate should have taken the seat unopposed. Arthur Griffith was the chosen Sinn Fein candidate, who ended up winning easily, riding on a wave of public sympathy following his arrest.
Sinn Fein membership continued to explode (despite on outright ban of it and other nationalist organisations in July), the IPP continued to be diminished, and the legitimacy and authority of the British continued to be called into question. The threat of conscription would pass, and the First World War would end with Allied victory, but these things would not heal the ever greater divides evident in Ireland.
In November, Lloyd George would call the first general election in nearly eight years. It would be the greatest test of Sinn Fein’s popular support, and would prove a last event of consequence before the greater outbreak of violence to come.
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