‘The Catholic Church killed Conscription’
The fight against conscription was not confined to the one day strike and petitions and marches took place all over the country. In the spring of 1918 in response to the rumours that Britain was going to introduce conscription in Ireland, a statement was issued on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Ireland. It included the following resolutions:
‘Had the government in any reasonable time given Ireland the benefit of the principles, which are declared to be at stake in the war, by concession of a full measure of self-government, there would have been no occasion for contemplating forced levies for her now. What between mismanagement and mischief-making this country has already been deplorably upset, and it would be a fatal mistake, surpassing the worst blunders of the past four years, to furnish a plea now for desperate courses by an attempt to enforce conscription. With all the responsibility that attaches to our pastoral office, we feel bound to warn the government against entering on a policy so disastrous to the public interest, and to all order, public and private.’
When on 16 April 1918 the British House of Commons passed the Military Service Act extending conscription to Ireland the newspapers published a letter from the Archbishop of Dublin, William J. Walsh, who wrote:
‘Floods of vague declamations were deluging the country and obscuring two key points:
- What political action are the people of this country to take in order to meet the crisis?
- That the introduction of a home rule bill, even the most satisfactory home rule bill, would not in the present angry state of feeling in Ireland contribute in the slightest degree to the pacification of our country.’
Bishop Walsh added that ‘the people collectively and individually need a definite lead as to what to do if conscription is enforced.’ A delegation, which included Eamon de Valera and John Dillon, was chosen at the Mansion House anti-conscription conference to meet the bishops at their plenary session at Maynooth on 18 April. The bishops ordered that on the following Sunday there should be a public mass of intercession in every church ‘to avert the scourge of conscription’. At this mass a time and a place should be announced for a public meeting to take the anti-conscription pledge.
Practically the entire population of Castledermot parish assembled on Sunday in a field, kindly given by Mr. R. Lalor, outside the town and declared for the Covenant to resist conscription. Very Rev. Fr. William Duggan, P.P., addressing the assembly said,
‘I object to conscription as the first step on the way to militarism which I cordially detest, and the workings of which are so manifest at the present day. War is the negation of Christianity and that being so to compel a man to take part in operations which his conscience abhors is to do violence to his moral nature and hence I am opposed to conscription.’
Staff and students of Maynooth College joined with churchgoers around the country on 21 April in pledging their commitment to oppose enforced military service. A total of 279 men at Maynooth College pledged their resistance to conscription by signing a pledge to that effect. It was signed by the College President, Vice-President, Deans, Professors, Spiritual Directors and administrative staff, servants, kitchen staff and porters, and Third and Fourth Year Theology students.
Women were also prominently involved in the campaign against conscription. A ‘Women’s Day’ against conscription was organized for Sunday 9 June and in Dublin alone it was estimated 40,000 women signed the pledge. In a rainy Rathangan 300 women led by a banner bearing the words ‘Death before Conscription’ marched from the Convent Grounds through the principal streets and back to the Church where Rosary and Benediction were given. Afterwards the pledge against conscription was signed by 500 women.
The Nationalist and Leinster Times editorial of 15 June 1918 summed up the general feeling throughout the country:
‘The demonstration made by the women of Ireland on Sunday last was not less imposing or effective as that made by the manhood of the nation in April.’
Faced with this combined opposition of church and nation, the British government did not attempt to enforce conscription.
On the Western Front Germany made another attempt to win the war, launching the Third Battle of the Aisne on 27 May 1918. The Germans had some early success and got within 50km of Paris, closer than they had done in 1914, but once again the Allies counter-attacked and forced them back. Among the new ‘blood’ on the Western Front were Kildaremen serving in the American Expeditionary Force.
Maynooth University is hosting an exhibition at the Russell Library to commemorate the centenary of a landmark meeting at Maynooth College between members of the Mansion House Conference to oppose conscription and the Irish Catholic Hierarchy.
‘On Active Service: Maynooth College, Chaplains & the Anti-Conscription Crisis‘ will run from 18 April-end of May 2018 in the Russell Library, Maynooth University.