Remembering the Curragh Mutiny, March 1914
A commanding officer’s panic had far-reaching consequences for the army and for home rule
Threatened: John Redmond, leader of the Irish Nationalist Parliamentary Party. Photograph: Hulton/Getty
Drama, intrigue and urgency surrounded the events at the British army camp on the Curragh, in Co Kildare, 100 years ago this month. The events have gone down in history as the Curragh Mutiny, although this name is not strictly accurate, as British army officers did not mutiny by refusing to obey an actual order.
Arguably, however, what did occur was just as bad, as an unprecedented attempt was made to bring the army directly into politics. It raised questions about the ability of the British liberal government, led by HH Asquith, to rely on the army in Ireland to carry out policy.
The crisis underlined the extent to which disagreement about the enactment of the Home Rule Bill in 1914 in the face of unionist opposition could destabilise the British political establishment and increase the prospect of civil war in Ireland.
Hubert Gough was brigadier general commanding the 3rd Calvary Brigade of the British army stationed at the Curragh. He described himself in his memoirs as an “Englishman” but “Irish by blood and upbringing”. His command in Ireland coincided with militant Ulster unionist opposition to the proposed implementation of Home Rule.
Sir Arthur Paget, commander in chief of the British forces in Ireland, made an intemperate speech to officers at the Curragh on March 20th, 1914. He informed them that extensive operations in Ulster were imminent, that the country “would be in a blaze” within a day, and that although officers resident in Ulster would not be compelled to take any action against unionists, other officers who were unwilling to participate would be dismissed.
Infuriated, Gough tendered his resignation, as he was unwilling to initiate military action in Ulster. Fifty-nine of Gough’s 70 fellow officers insisted they too would resign if ordered north. All were summoned to London.
Gough wanted a written assurance that the army would not be compelled to force Ulster to accept Home Rule. This was provided on March 23rd by the secretary of state for war, JEB Seely, but his assurance was repudiated by the government, as the terms of the guarantee had exceeded those given by cabinet. Seely subsequently had to resign.
Paget’s own offer of resignation was not accepted, although his actions certainly prevented him obtaining a field command during the first World War.
Gough, it appeared, had won his battle, though he maintained in private that the issue was more to do with the attitude of the war office than with the Ulster question, and the hysteria and ineptitude of Paget, whom Gough labelled “a stupid man”.
It was a fair description. It is true the British government wanted to throw shapes about resisting Ulster defiance, but Paget misrepresented discussions about possible modest deployment of troops to prevent potential seizures of arms depots by the Ulster Volunteer Force by trumpeting the implications of possible contingency plans in the event of conflict with the UVF.
Subsequently, Paget unconvincingly insisted he had merely been seeking to ascertain which officers he could rely on, and that it was not an issue junior officers needed to concern themselves with. But the clear understanding from senior officers present was that Paget had spoken of an ultimatum to be placed before all officers in their commands. Paget’s grave error was to imply that army officers had options about whether they would carry out orders.
Although a temporary calm was apparent in the immediate aftermath of the Curragh crisis, it had exposed much that was to remain uncertain, most obviously an army divided on the question of its attitude to the UVF.
Inevitably, the anger Irish nationalists felt about the Curragh debacle increased the momentum behind the Irish Volunteers that had been established in November 1913.
Other questions the crisis raised included whether the unionist party leader Edward Carson had control over the militancy he had inspired – privately, he was nervous about this – and in what direction this militancy was taking the British Conservative Party led by Andrew Bonar Law.
It also led to renewed urgency about the need to exclude all or part of Ulster from the provisions of the Home Rule Bill. This had serious implications for the status of the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond, from whom Asquith became even more determined to wring concessions. The outbreak of the first World War later that year postponed these crucial questions, but they festered, and much damage had been done to the British government’s authority and the idea of the army as being above politics.
Diarmaid Ferriter is p rofessor of m odern Irish h istory at UCD