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Resistance to conscription in Ireland

Wednesday, 25th April, 2018 4:55pm

By 18 April 1918, the British House of Commons had passed the Military Service Bill, which empowered the British government to enforce conscription.

It meant that service became compulsory in the British forces for all men of military age in Ireland. This was the catalyst for a mobilisation of nationalist Ireland to resist what was seen as a gross imposition by another country of unacceptable measures upon Irishmen against their will.

All newspapers of the day reported on the conference of nationalist and Republican leaders held on 18 April in in the Mansion House, Dublin.

Union leaders, the Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Féin were all present and agreed a pledge against conscription. John Dillon and Joseph Devlin represented the Irish Parliamentary Party, Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith for Sinn Féin, William O'Brien and Timothy Michael Healy for the All-for-Ireland Party and Michael Egan, Thomas Johnson and WX O'Brien representing Labour and the trade unions.

The pledge that was to be taken read: “Denying the right of the British government to enforce compulsorily service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.”

On the evening of the same day, the Roman Catholic bishops held their annual meeting and declared the conscription decree an oppressive and unjust law. Dublin's Archbishop William J Walsh and his fellow bishops issued a statement condemning conscription, saying: “We feel bound to warn the government against entering upon a policy so disastrous to the public interest and to all order, public or private.”

Sunday 21 April 1918 was appointed by resolution of the Irish hierarchy to host anti-conscription pledge at masses to avert the scourge of conscription. Several churches throughout Cork city took part.

Bishop Cohalan administered the pledge to the thousands of men assembled outside the North Cathedral after the noon mass. Across the city at the South Chapel, subsequent to all masses, the anti-conscription pledge was administered. There were large congregations, and at the conclusion of the Intercession Mass at 12noon, which was celebrated by Father McSweeney, a public meeting was held outside the church gate, which had a large attendance.

On 20 April, an emergency conference in Dublin by the Irish Trade Union Congress was attended by 1,500 delegates who decided to hold a general strike on 23 April.

Hundreds of thousands signed the anti-conscription pledge, and the strike resulted in factories, shops, schools and other workplaces closing. Protests were held on the streets of Irish cites.

In Cork, the twenty-four hours were observed with a rigid faithfulness to a united protest against the imposition of conscription in Ireland.

There was an entire suspension of business across the city. No trains on any of the lines converging on Cork termini entered or left the city. Steamboats remained idle at shipways and wharves. All shops of every description shut down with perhaps one or two exceptions.

Licensed premises were unopened even during the hours customary on Sundays. No trams ran on any of the suburban lines from midnight on Monday till the ordinary hour of starting on Wednesday – in short, the commercial and industrial life of the city was for one whole day at a standstill.

The prominent feature of the day was a monster meeting of trade unionists general workers and labour en masse on the Grand Parade. It was immense in its proportions, and the various sections paraded and were played to the venue by many of the city bands, brass and reed, drum and fife, and the pipers.

The weather was dry with a high wind, and this suited the evolutions of a large bi-plane that soared above and about the immediate vicinity of the members. After the meeting ended, and the people dispersed, tables were set up at many points, so people could sign the anti-conscription pledge.

Voluntary workers presided over the tables and provided pencils and papers for the signatures. Tables were occupied until late in the evening.

The stoppage of trains did not deter people from districts about Cork from coming in and taking part in the general protest. Bicycles, cars, and wagonettes were requisitioned wholesale, and vast numbers from the country spent the day in the city. Estimates in the press of the total number that attended the big meeting on the Grand Parade vary between twenty and thirty thousand.

The women’s meeting of protest at the City Hall was also deemed the largest of its kind ever seen in Cork. Held within Cork City Hall, overflow gatherings grew rapidly in the vestibule and onto the street.

Theatres and other places of amusement in the city also closed down in the evening. This in part accounted for the increased crowds that also paraded the streets, perhaps in a less unofficial manner, in the evening. By 10.30pm, however, nearly all had gone back to their homes.

Due to the clear intent of nationalist Ireland to resist such an imposition, the British government did not implement the Manpower Act. The war ended some months later in November 1918 (more on this in forthcoming columns).

Kieran’s upcoming historical walking tours

 

Saturday 28 April, The Victorian Quarter; tour of the area around St Patrick’s Hill – Wellington Road and MacCurtain Street. Meet on the green at Audley Place, top of St Patrick’s Hill, 12 noon. (free, duration: two hours, finishes by St Patrick’s Church, Lower Road)

Sunday 6 May, The City Workhouse; learn about the workhouse created for 2,000 impoverished people in 1841. Meet at the gates of St Finbarr’s Hospital, Douglas Road, 2.30pm (free, duration: two hours, on site tour), in association with the National Famine Commemoration, 2018, Cork.

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