Ireland's Attitude To The War

By Herbert L. Stewart

[The Nation; March 30, 1916]

Amid the diverse views, about Ireland which are so freely circulating at the present time, some interest may belong to the judgment of an Irishman who has spent nearly all his life in that country, who has been in contact with politicians of almost every type, who was on the spot during the first two months of the war, and who has eagerly followed, since returning to this side of the Atlantic, every item of news regarding the currents in his native land. The writer claims to speak simply as one whose familiarity with Ireland's recent past, and whose knowledge of the persons who count (as well those who do not count) on her public stage, enable him to interpret with a little confidence the dispatches which reach the American press.


Up to date, some 145,000 Irishmen, born and living in the country, are serving with the colors. Is this a large proportion, or is it a small proportion? Is a spirit of loyalty shown by the fact that there are so many, or is the spirit of dissatisfaction shown by the fact that there are not more?

Perhaps on this question the judgment of two men, Lord Kitchener and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, should carry more weight than that of anybody else. The former declared some time ago that Ireland's response to the call for men had been ''magnificent." This confirms what Mr. Redmond has stated Again and again—that statement has not been challenged—that at the outbreak of the war Lord Kitchener expected from Ireland nothing like the number of recruits that she has actually supplied. No doubt at that time no one was able to forecast the huge dimensions to which volunteering would be required to Grow. But the country has given in fresh men five times the number for which the Secretary of War told Mr. Redmond he would be "profoundly thankful."

In a recent report to Parliament, the Viceroy, Lord Wimborne, attempted to estimate the number of unmarried men of military age who remain "unattested," deducting those who are engaged in such necessary work that it would be disadvantageous for the country to call upon them. How many may be said to constitute the "reservoir" from which recruits may profitably be drawn to fill up the melancholy gaps at the front? Lord Wimborne reached the result that there are between 80,000 and 100,000. We hear—though I cannot say whether the figure has official authority—that from this reserve men are at present coming in at a rate of 1,000 per week. Certainly every effort is being made, as a glance at Irish newspapers will show, and the whole influence of the political leaders is being used to attract more volunteers.

Why, it may be asked, are there so many as 80,000 or 100,000 still outstanding? The population of the country is over four millions. One thing to remember in estimating comparative loyalties, is that in Great Britain itself enough eligible men were still holding back to render necessary the Compulsory Service legislation of a few months ago. How serious the shortage must have been in men that might have come forward will be realized only by those who appreciate how much it must have cost Mr. Asquith to suspend the voluntary principle. But a special reason in the case of Ireland is the overwhelming predominance of the agricultural class. All through the United Kingdom town dwellers have offered themselves in far greater proportion than country dwellers. One may speculate upon the psychology of this; but the fact is undoubted. To a certain extent one may justify it by the need of increased production. And to a further extent it is due slowness, with which a public emergency becomes understood in remote rural districts. Any one who knows the south and west of Ireland can see the force of this. Who that has ever been on the spot has not laughed at the statistical comparisons which we sometimes read, between volunteering among the Connemara bogs and volunteering in Dublin or Belfast? And who with any sympathetic imagination has not been indignant at the outcry of the Northcliffe press against the five hundred Connaught peasants who recently tried to emigrate to America? These poor day laborers were fleeing from penury as their brothers and cousins had fled before them; they probably could not have found Belgium on the map, and were quite innocent of "international obligations" or "public law." But they felt the desperateness of the life struggle in Connemara; they knew of a country beyond the seas which their friends had found hospitable, and from which grain ships had come to feed their grandfathers in the potato famine. Thus while everywhere the farming class has been slow to enlist, that part of the Empire which has only thirty-five per cent of urban inhabitants must appear at a deceptive disadvantage in the recruiting statistics.


Apart from the number of her fighting men, what signs have we of Ireland's feeling towards the Allies?

Every one knows that the Irish are exceptionally obedient to their political leaders. They show it, for example, by electing in so many cases to Parliament, without the trouble of a contest, the candidate who has been chosen at headquarters. We may think this servile docility; but at least it justifies us in estimating the general attitude from the action of the party chiefs. It is needless to quote again from the speeches of such men as Mr. Redmond, Mr. T. P. O'Connor, and Sir Edward Carson. All the world knows what they have said and that in very many cases those of them who have sons to send have given this ultimate proof of their sincerity. With one voice, and sinking all differences, they have endorsed the memorable words of the National leader: "Every Irish soldier who dies on the battlefield to-day dies for Ireland, as truly as any of Ireland's martyrs in the past." Now how far has this been reinforced by popular sentiment? Every elected body in the country—rural councils, urban councils, county councils, poor-law boards, city corporations from Antrim to Cork—can show upon the records enthusiastic approval of the cause of Great Britain. And the men on these organizations know well the temper of that public which they must meet when the poll is next taken.

How utterly negligible are the stray voices on the other side can be realized only by those who have lived in the country and know the orators. When the German press advises its readers to trust more in the representative character of Sir Roger Casement than in that of Mr. John Redmond, it simply illustrates the folly of long-distance estimates. No man in Ireland heeds Sir Roger Casement. And the "suppressed newspapers" of which one hears so much are unknown even by name to many who, like the present writer, have spent much more time than they should have spent upon organs of party feeling.

Why, then, it may be asked, was Ireland excluded from the scope of the Military Service act? Surely for two reasons: first, because it was clear that the number of available men who could with advantage be diverted from their ordinary work was not very great, and that these were progressively offering themselves under the voluntary system; secondly, because, although an immense change had come over public sentiment in Ireland, there remained a section still unreconciled, or at least unenthusiastic, whose resentment would only be inflamed by a new coercion. The wrongs of centuries are not forgotten in a day, and some of the wrongs were not very remote. Great as has been Mr. Asquith's contribution towards healing the old wounds, some of them are still open, and they can only be closed by conciliatory treatment. Statesmen, of the past, whom one could name, would of course have taken another method; but it is such "statesmen" whom we have to thank for the existence of an Irish problem, at all. Some newspapers, particularly in Ulster, would just now be doing a world of harm, if it were not for the fortunate circumstance that their circulation is so small. An acute critic remarked at the commencement of the war that "each party in Ireland would give its boots to prove that the other is pro-German." And even to-day there are not wanting those who would make personal capital out of the country's crisis. A Unionist paper some time ago gravely suggested among the causes of this world catastrophe the sin of the British people in supporting a Home Rule Administration. It was a semi-religious organ in which this appeared, and as the idea no doubt proceeded from a clergyman, it is not for the present writer to criticise theological value. But surely the outraged Belgian nuns must regard such a dispensation as rather one-sided! However, one is thankful to see that the really influential guides of the public, such as the newly appointed Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, are frowning upon the spirit of party, and eagerly fostering the spirit of coöperation and gratitude.


Can any one be so obtuse as to miss the moral of Ireland's position? How else could she have behaved when she had received for the first time the pledge of British goodwill, when she had accepted at the hands of the British democracy irrefragable evidence of a sincere desire to turn down the old pages of coercion, and to begin a new page of freedom? She trusted Mr. Asquith as she never trusted any other Englishman except Mr. Gladstone, and he proved true to her confidence. At the very moment of the consummation of her hopes, Ireland saw a cause strikingly similar to her own challenged by men hardly less similar to her old oppressors. And she was called upon to cement her newborn British loyalty in the ordeal of blood. Who that knows her chivalrous spirit in the past could have doubted her choice?

Among those whom Ireland has sent forth to the war are many who, misled, as the writer believes, through religious animosities, have so far been hostile to their country's national feeling. But let no one suppose that she is less proud of the heroic followers of Sir Edward Carson than she is of those who have answered the call of the United Irish League. If they will not own her she refuses to disown them. The Inniskilling Fusiliers are drawn largely from Protestant and Unionist families, but the Nationalists of the south cherish, their exploits not less than those of the Connaught Rangers or the Irish Guards. The magnificent recruiting figures of Belfast are welcome to them as the equally magnificent figures from Dublin, or the almost unique figures from Waterford. Ireland refuses to distinguish at this hour among her children; she nurses the hope that out of comradeship on the field will emerge a new comradeship at home, that those who together fought and bled at Anzac or at Suvia Bay will feel when they return to the "old sod" that they can never be other than brethren. Despite the efforts of rancorous partisans, fearful for that influence which they can exert only in a divided nation, this result will surely come to pass. "God save Ireland" and "God save the King" used to be regarded there as party tunes; but their strains were mingled as regiments of men accustomed to them both charged the machine guns of the Germans at Mons. They will blend once more as these men come back, forever assured that blessings upon the King are at the same time blessings upon Ireland.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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