No Blood Tax. The Irish Conscription Crisis
The spring battles on the Western Front were headlined in the Irish media as ‘Life and death struggle in the West’ while the German Kaiser said ‘We have now entered upon a decisive battle for German peace. It is a single combat between England and Germany to decide our future position.’ The British Army was faced with its most critical moment since 1914. Between 21 March and the end of April the British Army had lost 300,000 men and there were no ready replacements.
In early April The Nationalist and Leinster Times warned ‘The entire Tory press of England is out for conscription in Ireland. By this time of the day the people of England and the press of England and the Government of England and the high command in France should know very well what the feelings of the Irish people are regarding conscription.’
The British press and the Government were not listening, however. On 16 April 1918, the Military Service Bill extending conscription to Ireland was passed by the House of Commons. This meant that all Irish males between the age of eighteen and fifty-one would be eligible for military service in the British armed forces. In protest John Dillon led the Irish Party out of the House of Commons and home to Ireland. Two days later a huge meeting was held in Dublin’s Mansion House. Almost every strand of Irish nationalism was present – Sinn Féin, the Irish Party, Independent nationalists, Labour and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. An anti-conscription pledge was drawn up to be signed at church doors the following Sunday. It read:
‘Denying the right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.’
A deputation from the Mansion House Conference, including Éamon de Valera and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, travelled by taxi from Dublin to Maynooth College for a landmark meeting with the Irish Catholic Hierarchy on 18 April, during which they agreed to denounce any attempts by the British Government to enforce conscription in Ireland. The Catholic prelates in Maynooth College issued a strong condemnation of forced conscription:
‘We consider that conscription forced in this way upon Ireland is an oppressive and inhumane law which the Irish people have a right to resist by every means that are consonant with the law of God.’
The participation of the Catholic Church in opposition to conscription was particularly significant by virtue of their previous inaction on nationalism and the differences within the Hierarchy concerning political involvement and the expression of political views. On 21 April the pledge against conscription was signed by nearly the whole of nationalist Ireland, Catholics signing at the chapel door. Protest meetings against conscription were held throughout the country and some of the large gatherings in Kildare were the biggest seen since the days of the Land League protests.
At a huge protest in Naas the Chairman of the Anti-Conscription Committee, Daniel J. Purcell, read the words of the anti-conscription pledge, which the crowd affirmed by standing bare-headed with their right hand upraised. In Athy a ‘monster meeting of the people’ were told that it was unconstitutional and tyrannical to attempt to enforce conscription without the consent of the Irish people.
The Irish Trade Union Congress organised a one-day general strike in protest against conscription on 23 April, resulting in the shutdown of many industries, shops and businesses throughout the country in a remarkable act of solidarity. The strike coincided with the first day of the Punchestown Races and many workers headed there to enjoy the day. However, the local newspapers reported that it was a bad day for bettors and many punters most likely wished they had stayed at home.
Workers protested at hundreds of meetings across the country. In Kildare Town 2,000 people assembled in the Market Square and headed by a band and a banner with the inscription ‘The voice of the Workers’ elected a defence committee by ballot with the local GP Dr. Laurence Rowan as chairman. A special meeting of Kildare Co. Council passed a resolution condemning conscription as ‘oppressive and an outrage on the national rights of the country. We therefore record our emphatic protest against its enactment and resolve to oppose it by every means in our power’. Matthew Minch, scion of the Athy grain merchant family, presided as chairman and despite the fact that his three sons had joined the British Army said he could not agree with conscription saying he was opposed to coercion in any shape or form.
Many people were prepared to go further than voicing their opposition and recruits flocked in their thousands to the Irish Volunteers, pledging to fight all attempts by Britain to introduce conscription. Michael O’Kelly, Officer Commanding Naas Company, Irish Volunteers, and editor of the Leinster Leader said,
‘It was considered that the anti-conscription committees set up could also be utilised to turn to advantage the conscription threat by acting as recruiting agencies for the Volunteers. All parties were, for the time being, united in the common purpose of defeating conscription.’
In the end, after continued protests and several initiatives by the government to quell the backlash, conscription was never actually implemented in Ireland, as the war swung back in Britain’s favour. However, the legacy of the conscription crisis remained and left a sense of deep bitterness. The strength of resistance – a united political and religious front – made it impossible to impose conscription and support for Britain and the war effort continued to decline. The conscription crisis spelled the end of home rule as a popular cause. From then on only self-determination would be acceptable.