A group of leading Irish and British academics and lawyers will today
debate the rights and wrongs of the Curragh mutiny which happened 100 years ago this week.
The mutiny, now something of a footnote in the turbulent events surrounding the quest for Irish home rule a century ago, convulsed the British political and military establishment of 1914, bringing into sharp relief questions relating to the supremacy of parliament over the military.
A day-long seminar, presentation of papers and debate is being hosted jointly by the Centre for Contemporary Irish History of Trinity College Dublin, and the Defence Forces. It will be held at the Curragh Camp in the officers’ mess of Ceannt Barracks.
In 1914, just as today, the Curragh was a military centre. Because the area is an elevated flat expanse of glacial fluvial outwash, its strategic military significance was long valued, from early medieval times and from the 17th century when it is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters , a chronicle of early Irish history.
Dissent in the ranks
By the early years of the 20th century, when the British government was attempting to respond to sustained Irish pressure for home rule, there was dissent in the ranks as to the suggestion that soldiers from the Curragh might be dispatched to the north of Ireland to suppress unionist opposition to home rule. At the same time, the Ulster Volunteers, a unionist militia founded by Dubliner Sir Edward Carson and Belfast-born Sir James Craig, subsequently the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, were attempting to import arms in pursuit of their cause.
Intelligence reports in the spring of 1914 warned that the Volunteers, by then 100,000 strong, were poised to seize arms dumps in the north, notably at Carrickfergus, if the British Liberal government of Herbert Asquith went ahead, as the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond wanted, and enacted the Home Rule Bill.
The military responded with a plan to defend Dublin by occupying government buildings and guarding armouries in Louth and Ulster counties. Carson, it was alleged, was poised to declare a provisional unionist government in Ulster.
In the Curragh it became clear, however, that if the government ordered officers and men to move against a unionist revolt they would not obey. This was the Curragh mutiny.
Telegram to London
Sir Arthur Paget, British commander-in-chief in Ireland sent a telegram to London on March 20th, 1914, stating that 57 officers would resign their commissions rather than move against the unionists. They came from the 5th and 16 Lancers.
In the event, London backed down, claiming a “misunderstanding” and that it had never been its intention to order military action against Ulster Unionist resistance to Home Rule.
However, “the event was a pivotal moment in Irish and British history, with the armed forces threatening to disobey the government of the day and the will of parliament”, according to the organisers of today’s gathering.
The crisis had wider ramifications, according to Prof Eunan O’Halpin of TCD.
“If generals could pick and choose which government decisions and laws passed by parliament the army should obey, then the entire fabric of the British constitution would be torn to shreds,” he said.
“The supine response of the Asquith government to the army’s challenge to its authority in March 1914 meant that these issues were never teased out, and that the mutiny was largely forgotten in the grand narrative of 20th century British history, where mutinies such as that of the Connaught Rangers in India in 1920, and of elements of the Royal Navy at Invergordon in 1931, were explained away in terms of discontent in the ranks rather than of higher political manipulation.”
But the question has always remained also as to whether what occurred was, in legal terms, a mutiny as such – since no order had been issued at the time of the men’s dissent to what was then only an impending, or presumed, order.
In the event, the mutiny was soon overwhelmed in memory by the first World War in Europe and all that happened in Ireland from 1916 on.