Francis Sheehy-Skeffington: ‘Open Letter to Thomas MacDonagh’

In his letter ‘Against Militarism’, published in the ‘Irish Citizen’ in May 1915, the pacifist made a powerful case against the militarism of the Irish Volunteers

My dear MacDonagh,

Your speech at the women’s protest meeting last week was a very remarkable one. It has impressed me extraordinarily, as a vivid example of the tangle we have all got ourselves into under the existent militarist and dehumanising system.

You spoke vehemently and with unmistakable sincerity in advocacy of peace. You traced war, with perfect accuracy, to its roots in exploitation. You commended every effort made by the women to combat militarism and establish a permanent peace. And in the same speech you boasted of being one of the creators of a new militarism in Ireland: you described your "disgusting" duties as instructor of bayonet-fighting; you spoke of "hoping" to have "a better opportunity than voting" to show that the Irish Volunteers stood for the freedom of women as well as men. And then, again, you hoped that it would never be necessary to use the arms with which you had helped to provide thousands of Irishmen; and that we should never see war in this country.

You yourself said your position was somewhat anomalous at a peace meeting. I am not in any way reproaching you. I am too well aware of your sincerity for that. We are all in the same tangle.


As you know, I am personally in full sympathy with the fundamental objects of the Irish Volunteers. When you shook off the Redmondite incubus last September, I was on the point of joining you. Had your executive accepted my suggestion – to state definitely that it stood definitely for the liberties of Ireland “without distinction of sex, class or creed” – I would have done so at once. I am glad now I did not. For, as your infant movement grows towards the stature of a full-grown militarism, its essence – preparation to kill – grows more repellent to me.

I am not blind to the movement’s merits. It is a clean open-air movement, which gives the young men of Ireland something better to do than cheer at meetings and pass resolutions. It gives them self-respect and self-reliance. It is militarism at its best. But it is militarism. It is organised to kill.

High ideals undoubtedly animate you. But has not really every militarist system started with the same high ideals? You are not out to exploit or oppress; you are out merely to prevent exploitation and to defend. What militarism ever avowed other aims – in its beginnings? You justify no war except a war to end oppression, to establish the right. What warmonger ever spoke otherwise when it was necessary to enlist the people?

Moreover, though you yourself are sincere in your attitude, what of your colleagues? How many of them share your horror of war, your aspiration to for a permanent peace? In the Irish Volunteer last issued, I find mimic war extolled as “the greatest game on earth”, “the noblest game any Irishman can play”.

Are not the bulk of the Irish Volunteers animated by the old, bad tradition that war is a glorious thing, that there is something “manly” about going out prepared to kill your fellow man, something cowardly about a desire to see one’s end accomplished without bloodshed? Will not those who rejoice in warfare inevitably take the prominent place in the direction of your organisation? Will not you, and those who share your desire for peace, your reluctance for war, find yourselves, sooner or later, faced with the necessity of abandoning your ideals or a military system that cannot be run in conformity with those ideals?

But you will say Ireland is too small, too poor, ever to be a militarist nation in the European sense. True, Ireland's militarism can never be on so great a scale as that of Germany or England; but it may be equally fatal to the best interests of Ireland. European militarism has drenched Europe in blood; Irish militarism may only crimson the fields of Ireland. For us that would be disaster enough.

You fervently hope never to employ armed force against a fellow Irishman. But a few weeks ago I heard a friend, who is also a Volunteer, speaking from the same platform with me, win plaudits by saying that the hills of Ireland would be crimsoned with blood rather than the partition of Ireland should be allowed. That is the spirit that I dread. I am opposed to partition; but partition could be defeated at too dear a price.

I advocate no mere servile lazy acquiescence in injustice. I am, and always will be, a fighter. But I want to see the age-long fight against injustice clothe itself in new forms suited to a new age. I want to see the manhood of Ireland no longer blind to the horrors of organised murder.

You set out, in the programme of the Irish Volunteers, three fundamental objects. The first is: “To maintain and secure the right and liberties common to all the people of Ireland.” That is excellent; if you added the words, “without distinction of sex, class or creed”, it would be perfect. No nobler motive for organisation could be found.

Your second object is: “To train, discipline, arm, and and equip a body of Irish Volunteers for the above purpose”. Again, excellent. To achieve any purpose whatsoever, one must internally train and discipline oneself, one must secure the external arms and equipment necessary to the achievement of that purpose.

But – must the training be military training, and the discipline military discipline? Must the arms and equipment be the arms and equipment of war?

Your third object is: “To unite for this purpose Irishmen of every creed and of every party and class”. It is in the highest degree significant that women are left out. Why are they left out? Consider carefully why; and when you have found and clearly expressed why women cannot be asked to enrol in this movement, you will be close to the reactionary element in the movement itself.

We are on the threshold of a new era in human history.

After this war nothing can be as it was before. The foundation of all things must be re-examined. Things which we might have let pass, light-heartedly, as unimportant, now come to be charged with a tragic and intense significance.

Formerly, we could only imagine the chaos to which we were being led by the military spirit. Now we realise it. And we must never fall into that abyss again.

Can you not conceive an organisation, a body of men and women banded together to secure and maintain the rights and liberties of the people of Ireland, a body animated with a high purpose, united by a bond of comradeship, trained and disciplined in the ways of self-sacrifice and true patriotism, armed and equipped with the weapons of intellect and of will that are irresistible? An organisation of people prepared to dare all things for their object, prepared to suffer and die rather than abandon one jot of their principles – but an organisation that will not lay down as its fundamental principle: “We will prepare to kill our fellow men”?

Impracticable? Not if you have the vision to conceive it, the will to execute it. Whatsoever the mind of man can plan, that the executive brain of man can carry out.

At any rate, it is the only way out of the tangle. It is the only way in which we, the oppressed and the exploited, can reconcile our hatred of organised bloodshed.

Think it over, before the militarist current draws you too far from your humanitarian anchorage.


Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (1878-1916), atheist, socialist, feminist and anti-militarist, was also a fervent nationalist who longed to see the connection with Britain severed. A rationalist radical who ploughed his own furrow with great courage, he himself agreed that he was a crank –“a small instrument that makes revolutions”.

Although he had broken with John Redmond over the latter’s support for the first World War, Sheehy-Skeffington was not prepared to give uncritical support to the republican leadership that was planning violent insurrection.

Ironically, his murder during the Rising, on the orders of a deranged British officer, extinguished an important and distinctive voice for a different kind of non-violent resistance, a vision arguably made all the more vital, but impossible, by the executions of the other leaders.

In republishing his eloquent polemic Against Militarism, first printed in 1915 in the Irish Citizen in response to a speech by Thomas MacDonagh, we are honouring another strand in the rich, complex weave that made Ireland's revolution in 1916, a blend of traditions of constitutional and revolutionary nationalism, of militarism and pacifism, of misogyny and feminism, socialism and liberalism.