One hundred years ago, in spring 1914, the idea of an imminent world war was far from the minds of Ulster people. The focus was much closer to home. Most of the northern province was effectively an armed camp on the verge of civil war by an insurrection against the British government; the aim, paradoxically enough, was to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Ulster’s widespread unionist and Protestant population, most densely found in Belfast and the neighbouring counties of Antrim and Down, was solemnly pledged and steadfastly organised to resist the government’s policy of home rule for Ireland. The fearful prospect united Protestant unionists across the social spectrum, from captains of industry and commerce to landowners and farmers, and from working class to upper class. Their strong sense of “Britishness” felt threatened by the rise of political and cultural nationalism, the power of the Catholic church in Ireland and the economic impact of home rule on manufacturing and trade.
Under the leadership of Sir James Craig – "the hatchet-faced heir to a distillery", as historian Richard Killeen describes him, and "the very epitome of the new Ulster plutocrat"– and Sir Edward Carson, the ferocious Dublin lawyer, notorious for his role in the Oscar Wilde case, unionist opposition found dramatic expression in the mass signing of the Solemn League and Covenant in September 1912 (some men even used their own blood), and in the organisation of huge rallies and demonstrations. These were theatrical affairs, with speeches of impassioned resistance invoking deeply-embedded fears of plots and betrayal.
As Carson said, “Ulster sees in Irish nationalism a dark conspiracy, buttressed upon crime and incitement to outrage, maintained by ignorance and pandering to superstition.”
A highly effective propaganda campaign was also initiated. Large numbers of colourful picture postcards were produced, showing unionist resistance to home rule and an embattled determination to remain British: in one example, a stout-legged bulldog, occupying the entire province of Ulster, squares up to a distinctly mangy-looking cur, representing “home rule territory”, with the slogan “Shall we from the Union sever, by the God that made us NEVER”.
Characteristically defiant and pugnacious, the cards were designed as pictorial propaganda to mobilise unionist sentiment in Ulster and gain support in Britain for the unionist cause. More to the point, a people's militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed in January 1913, to resist home rule by force of arms if necessary. Ironically, the militaristic organisation and activities of the UVF in 1913 also inspired the formation of the nationalist Irish Volunteers and the socialist Irish Citizen Army, both inaugurated in Dublin in November 1913.
By early 1914, the dreams and political ambitions of generations of Irish nationalists were soon to be realised as the Third Home Rule Bill neared the end of its stormy passage through the House of Commons. This heavily contested parliamentary legislation had been introduced by the prime minister Herbert Asquith two years earlier, on April 11th, 1912, coincidentally the day after Titanic sailed from Belfast.
It had been delivered because the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), led by John Redmond, held the balance of power in the Commons, and home rule was the price of Irish support for Asquith's Liberal government against the Conservative and Unionist opposition. With the proposed future Irish Parliament invested with modest devolved powers – not unlike today's Northern Ireland Assembly – Ireland would remain within the British Empire under the expected constitutional leadership of John Redmond as the Irish Prime Minister. In a major concession to Ulster unionists an exclusion opt-out for a period of six years was offered, but rejected by Carson who regarded it merely as "a stay of execution".
Meanwhile other important figures were watching. The German Kaiser was known to be interested in the Ulster crisis, and the unionists had already sent out exploratory feelers in that direction, with Craig even floating the notion that Germany would be favoured over "the rule of John Redmond, Patrick Ford and the Molly Maguires".
Historian ATQ Stewart notes that tongues were set wagging in August 1913 when Carson met the Kaiser at a lunch party in Homburg. Apparently the German emperor confided that he would have liked to go to Ireland, but his grandmother, Queen Victoria, had not let him. He added, with a smile: “perhaps she thought I wanted to take the little place”. “I think, sir, you are well out of it,” Carson replied, to laughter.
But when the Kaiser asked about Ulster, Carson changed the subject. Stewart adds that a month after the Kaiser's meeting with Carson, the German strategist General von Bernhardt wrote an article for the Berlin Post entitled "Ireland, England and Germany" in which he declared that "it is not without interest to know that if it ever comes to war with England, Germany will have allies in the enemy's camp, who in given circumstances are resolved to bargain, and at any rate will constitute a grave anxiety for England, and perhaps tie fast a portion of the English troops."
According to Stewart, the strangest episode of all was the visit, on the very eve of the war, which the Counsellor at the German Embassy in London, Richard von Kühlmann, was alleged to have made to Belfast, on July 12th, 1914. It was rumoured that he had visited Ulster incognito to see how things were for himself. After the war, Kühlmann denied ever having been in Ireland in his life.
The Ulster crisis intensified when the UVF was equipped with 25,000 German rifles after an unhindered gun-running operation to land weapons and ammunition at the Ulster ports of Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee on April 24th and 25th, 1914. “I am glad that the North has ‘begun’,” Patrick Pearse wrote. “I am glad that the Orangemen have armed, for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands . . . I should like to see any and everybody of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thoughts of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms.”
A month earlier, on March 20th, the “Curragh mutiny” had revealed the unwillingness of British army officers to move against Ulster. With the meeting of an Ulster Provisional Government in Belfast on July 10th, 1914, the armed defiance of a separatist Ulster was now the greatest political and constitutional crisis any British government had faced for more than 200 years. Ulster militarisation – with its drilling, public reviews and threats of violent resistance – was firmly in the driving seat of democratic politics, and it was seen to be working.
In desperation, a conference to address the whole Irish and Ulster problem was held at Buckingham Palace from July 21st to 24th, but failed to agree on the terms of Ulster’s exclusion from home rule.
By the very last days of July 1914, it seemed certain that war would break out in Ulster. Stewart says that the UVF was completely ready for the coup d’etat and waited only for Carson to telegraph “go ahead” or “hold back in the meantime”. On July 29th, Craig wrote to him: “you may take it that immediately you signify by the pre-arranged code that we are to go ahead, everything prepared will be carries out to the letter unless in the meantime you suggest any modification. All difficulties have been overcome and we are in a very strong position.”
Detailed arrangements had been made for women and children to be evacuated to England and Scotland before hostilities broke out, for anticipated casualties once the fighting did begin, and even for a new currency for the rebel government.
Yet unfolding events in Europe were at last eclipsing the internal domestic problems of Britain and Ireland. Foreign affairs and the threats posed by continental mobilisation took centre stage. Winston Churchill recalled that "the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe."
Following the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by pro-Serb nationalists in Sarajevo on June 28th, Austria-Hungary, with the backing of Germany, declared war on Serbia on July 28th. With frightening speed, the final countdown to the first World War began.
On August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia which supported Serbia. On August 2nd, Germany invaded Luxembourg and the next day invaded Belgium in order to mount an attack on France, simultaneously declaring war on France. It was the invasion of Belgium that triggered Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, following a disregarded ultimatum, on August 4th, 1914.
“On that sunny August bank holiday weekend when the world fell to pieces,” writes Stewart, “Carson and other members of the Opposition were the guests of Sir Edward Goulding at Wargrave, overlooking the Thames. There Captain Spender came to seek him . . . on the urging of his friends in the Committee of Imperial Defence, to get a decision on the future of the UVF. Carson at once stated that ‘a large body of Ulster Volunteers will be willing and ready to give their services for Home Defence and many will be willing and ready to serve anywhere they are required’.”
The next day, Redmond declared that “if it is allowed to us, in comradeship with our brethren of the north, we will ourselves defend the coasts of our country”.
A few days later, Kitchener, the new war minister, sent for Carson and Craig, asking them “surely you are not going to hold out for Tyrone and Fermanagh?” A needled Carson responded, “you’re a damned clever fellow telling me what I ought to be doing”. Yet the two unionist leaders, following another meeting with Kitchener, offered him 35,000 volunteers. Stewart relates that, on leaving the War Office, Craig – now a chief recruiting officer for the Ulster area – took a taxi to Moss Brothers, a firm which had previously supplied UVF equipment, and ordered 10,000 complete uniforms. By the time Carson announced in Belfast that an Ulster Division would be formed from the UVF, many young men, impatient with waiting, had already enlisted.
During the second week of the war, on September 18th, 1914, the Third Home Rule Bill was finally enacted in Parliament. But it was also suspended for the duration of the war, with the intractable opposition of Ulster still unresolved.
“It is impossible for us to recreate the midsummer of 1914 as contemporaries saw it,” writes Richard Killeen. “We know that they stood at the volcano’s edge. The war . . . transformed everything.” It certainly brought an unexpected unity, of sorts, to Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists, who threw in their lot with the British forces in defence of Belgium and other small nations. Redmond and Carson pledged support to the war effort. Thousands of volunteers, unionist and nationalist, north and south, joined the colours and served on land and sea and in the air.
In Ireland there had been a long tradition of British army service and now additional battalions of Irish infantry were formed into divisions of Kitchener’s New Army. In the north, UVF members formed the backbone of the 36th (Ulster) Division, while National Volunteers from across Ireland, including nationalists in Ulster, joined the 16th (Irish) Division. Both divisions were to serve with great distinction and sacrifice at the Somme and other Western Front battles, including Messines in 1917, where the 16th and 36th fought side by side with each other. By the war’s end, over 30,000 soldiers from Ireland had lost their lives.
Totally unforeseen in 1914, the Great War, of which the 1916 Rising was an integral part, led to political oblivion for John Redmond’s constitutional nationalist party and a revolutionary change in the whole course of Irish history. Ultimately, the first World War got Carson off a sharp political hook, and at the same time resulted in the skewering of Redmond’s home rule ambitions.