In a strange twist of fate, the opening salvos of the guns of August 1914 in France came just in time to prevent bloodshed between Irish Nationalists, who wanted to separate from Britain, and Irish Unionists, who did not. The last self-governing Irish Parliament in Dublin had voted itself out of existence and into union with Britain in 1801. Supporters of some form of renewed Irish self-rule campaigned from early in the nineteenth century to reverse the process; some by political means, some by violent actions. Neither approach had had much success.
Gradual expansion of voting rights and parliamentary reform in the 1860s and 1870s eventually made the support of Irish MPs increasingly important in determining who ruled the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The majority of Irish MPs elected to parliament at Westminster were Nationalists. Frustrated with being a permanent powerless minority in London, they pledged to win an autonomous administration in Dublin responsible for ‘home’ affairs; defence and foreign relations would still be managed in London. Irish Unionist MPs, elected in smaller numbers (except in the north east part of the island of Ireland) opposed any transfer of powers, fearing Home Rule would see them becoming a permanent powerless minority in Dublin. Religious aspects complicated the political division – most Irish Nationalist MPs and their voters were Catholic, while most Irish Unionist MPs and their voters were Protestant.
In 1885/6 the votes of Irish Nationalist MPs helped William Gladstone to become British Prime Minister. In return, Gladstone promised to bring forward and support a Home Rule Bill for Ireland. The subsequent vote failed by a large margin but from that point on support for Home Rule grew steadily among British MPs.
Eventually a Home Rule Bill for Ireland was passed in 1912. Two years had to pass before the measure became effective. Tensions intensified rapidly between Irish opponents and supporters of the bill. Both sides went so far as to set up and train their own militias – the Belfast-centred Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formally established in January 1913 to fight against Home Rule, and the Irish Volunteers founded in Dublin shortly after in November 1913 to fight for Home Rule.
A smaller group, the Irish Citizen’s Army (ICA), had already been created in 1913 as a workers’ protection militia during a long and bitter labour conflict known as The Lockout, which had seen riots and running battles on the streets of Dublin. The strike ended in failure for the workers in January 1913, but the ICA, remaining in existence, reformed in 1914 to strive for an independent socialist republic.
By August 1914, the combined paramilitary groups mustered almost 300,000 people (mostly men but also some women, mainly in the ICA – an early equal opportunities revolutionary group) on the island of Ireland: roughly 200,000 for the Irish Volunteers and ICA, and 100,000 for the UVF. Firearms were in shorter supply, with both sides, ironically perhaps, importing weapons from Germany; the UVF organised and landed 25,000 rifles and a large quantity of ammunition in great secrecy at Larne on the northern coast in April 1914, while the Irish Volunteers brought ashore 1,000 rifles and ammunition at Howth, just outside of Dublin in July 1914 in what was more of a very public propaganda coup than a stealthy operation.
Fewer men but more arms in the north; fewer weapons but many more men (and women) in the south; as the days ticked down toward Home Rule becoming effective, the chances of peace being maintained seemed slight to non-existent. The British Army was riven with divisions over the issue; a large number of officers in Ireland had made it clear in March 1914 that they would resign their commissions rather than follow any orders enforcing Home Rule in Ulster. Their loyalties were never tested because Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June.
Looking back now at 1914, we can naturally enough only see it as the year destined to bring the outbreak of the titanic struggle we know as World War I. But during the spring and summer of 1914 itself, for people in Britain and Ireland a great fear and seemingly the most realistic and terrible expectation was a civil war: violence and death unleashed in their own towns and cities, their own countryside. August 1914 then brought something of a relief – an escape from the precipice of civil strife and political crisis, of horror and nightmares at home. Maybe after a breathing space everything could be resolved between Irishmen amicably; once the war on the continent was over. Surely that couldn’t be much longer than Christmas.