Promising ‘home rule’ legislation gives way politically to a world war

Second in a four-part series.

In early 1916, Ireland seethed on the verge of rebellion against Britain. The debate over “Home Rule,” which would give Ireland a constricted version of independence from the Parliament in London, had been argued for decades, and at the turn of the 20th century had appeared a likely eventuality. Many historians contend that the measure could have passed in 1914. But the eruption of World War I in August of that year shattered any realistic hopes for the quasi-independence the proposal offered.

A statement by the British politician C.T. Grenville all the way back in 1784 foretold the attitude of Parliament toward Ireland in 1916: “Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.” To many Irish, home rule, limited as it would be, seemed the best approach. In 1912, the third attempt to pass a bill was virulently opposed in Ulster by the Protestant Orange Order.

Although proponents pushed hard again in 1913 and 1914, paramilitary groups had begun lining up on both sides of the issue. The Ulster Volunteer Force, in the North, began armed training and was ostensibly prepared to fight and remove Ulster from the British Empire rather than cede any power to home rule or Irish Nationalists. In the South, the mainly Catholic Irish Volunteers also began to arm and train with an eye first to home rule and eventually to full independence.

With the outbreak of the war, the bulk of Orangemen and Nationalists alike put their causes on hold for the greater cause – to do their bit to help the Allies defeat Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hordes of Irishmen from both North and South enlisted in the British Army and were soon immersed in the savage stalemate and horror of the Western Front’s trench warfare.

As Irish casualties and disillusionment with the war escalated, and with no end in sight, rebellion simmered toward a boil with each passing month. The Irish Volunteers now dubbed themselves the “National Volunteers,” but taking the lead was a secret “Army Council” created by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). By 1916, they were joined by a wide array of groups with their own ideas for what independence meant. One of the common threads was armed rebellion. Among the groups were James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army, or ICA, which was composed of trade unionists; the Hibernian Rifles, a small band of Nationalists; Cumann na mBan, women Nationalists willing to fight alongside the men; and Fianna Éireann, which various historians have likened to a an independence-minded incarnation of the Boy Scouts.

The key leaders of the Irish Volunteers were Chief-of-Staff Eoin MacNeill and Commander Patrick Pearse. A teacher and a gifted poet, Pearse had few illusions that an armed rebellion would succeed, but he staunchly believed that only a “blood sacrifice” would ignite a true war for independence in Ireland. Fellow Nationalists had long hoped that Germany would aid a rising against Great Britain. The Kaiser and his military favored anything that might divert British attention and even forces from the Western Front, but no “German invasion” of Ireland was a realistic possibility for Pearse and his comrades. With no chance for victory, Pearse was willing to lay down his life for his belief that a rising would somehow prove the spark for future independence.

Throughout Ireland’s tormented history, informers had helped the British penetrate and turn back Irish insurrections such as those of Young Ireland, in the 1840s, and the Fenians, in the 1860s. British intelligence knew that the IRB was plotting a revolt; and the British knew who the leaders were and were trailing them. Most of all, the British realized that the rebels did not have the weapons and munitions to unleash an island-wide campaign.

A few years earlier, Erskine and Molly Childers had smuggled 1,500 rifles into Howth Harbor (see last month’s BIR); that cache, however, was not nearly enough to battle the British. More ominously for Parliament and the British Army in early 1916, Irish Republican Roger Casement was traveling throughout Germany to recruit an “Irish Brigade” from Irishmen held in German prisoner-of-war camps and to arrange for a shipment of arms, ammunition, and explosives from the Kaiser.

In Boston and other Irish-American centers, few knew how close to a rebellion the IRB and others were. Pearse, Connolly, MacNeill, Eamon de Valera, and other Irish men and women were about to become household names. Ireland’s own Declaration of Independence would soon appear on America’s front pages from coast to coast.