Easter 1915

One hundred years ago this week, in Dublin, a very significant event occurred – or an event that was supposed to be of the utmost significance. It was an assembly of the embryonic Irish Home Rule army past the Irish Home Rule government-in-waiting that the British Government had promised would come into operation at the end of the Great War.

And yet that army never formed and the government of Home Rule Ireland never materialised. They both went home and the year after, in the same city, something else entirely took their place.

The development of Redmondite Imperial Ireland culminated in a gigantic parade of Redmond’s National Volunteers in the Phoenix Park on the first Sunday in April 1915. The London Times Special Correspondent described it as “the largest military display Dublin had ever seen.” The Northern nationalist paper, The Irish News of 5 April, under the headlines ‘Ireland’s Army Reviewed In Dublin.’ ‘Belfast Regiment Leads The March’ noted: “Since the historic April of 1782, when the great Irish tribune moved the declaration of Right, and Ireland with a patriot Parliament and a citizen army stood free before the world, the streets of Dublin have witnessed no such inspiring sight as that which marched this memorable Easter Sunday, when almost 30,000 men took part in the general review of the national volunteers of Ireland.”

Here is how the editorial of the Freeman saw it:

“In magnitude, order, and effectiveness the review and march past of National Volunteers yesterday surpassed all anticipation. There was reason to expect, as we pointed out on Saturday, a great demonstration of quite exceptional, indeed practically unprecedented, character; but this display was overwhelming in the success with which it accomplished its purpose. Roughly stated, the purpose was to furnish proof of the strength of the National Volunteer movement, and, by the rapid mobilisation and ordering of thousands of men brought up from all parts of the country, to exhibit its present efficiency and suggest the vast possibilities of which it is capable…

“The review in the Phoenix Park and the march past in the city constitute an historic and memorable event. In its long history the capital has never witnessed anything like it, nor has any other centre in Ireland. Grattan’s Volunteers make a glorious memory, but yesterday saw the people of Ireland, without distinction of creed or class, openly and freely, without let or hindrance, making demonstration of armed power. This event cannot be forgot. It stands apart from every previous manifestation by the nationalist manhood of Ireland. There have been many enormous assemblages in Dublin during the past century, some gathered to pay tribute to the memory of the patriot dead, others to assert the nation’s right to have restored to her that which was stolen. They were all significant of the popular feeling, and the story of them must always have a place in the record of the national struggle. But in spirit and physical character the event of yesterday stands alone. There never has been in this country a demonstration so brave, so inspiring, so fully charged, not with the promise, but with the assurance of brighter and better days for Ireland. We think the chroniclers will set it down as epochal.” (Freeman’s Journal, 5 April, 1915.)

Under the main headline, ‘Historic Review Of National Volunteers,’ and a sub-headline, ‘Magnificent Display In Phoenix Park, Witnessed By 100,000 People’ the Freeman described the scene:

“From all parts of Ireland, from the remote villages of the west and south, as well as from the bigger centres of population, representative contingents of Ireland’s National Army assembled in the city to take part in a demonstration as historic and perhaps no less significant than that of 1782.

“Fully twenty-seven thousand National Volunteers assembled in the Phoenix Park yesterday, and subsequently marched through the streets of Dublin, amid the enthusiastic cheers of crowds estimated to number some 200,000 people.

“Though the ranks of the National Volunteers have been greatly thinned since the beginning of the war, and some twenty-five thousand of their enrolled members, and at the same time the best disciplined and best trained of them had joined the army, yesterday’s great gathering demonstrated the strength and spirit of the forces of nationalist Ireland and the fitness for defence of the country and its free institutions against all enemies.

“In the words of Mr Redmond, it is inconceivable that after the spectacle in the Phoenix Park and in the streets of Dublin that the Government will no longer hesitate to use this splendid force for the defence of Ireland.

“There is, no doubt critics, to serve a political purpose unworthy of the time, who will not hesitate to argue that yesterday’s demonstration is in the nature of evidence that nationalist Ireland has great material which it has refused to give to the service of the British Empire in crushing Prussian militarism in Europe. But if the truth of the situation is sought it will be easily realised that only a very small proportion of those who paraded yesterday feel themselves at liberty to join the colours for service abroad. The majority of them are breadwinners, artisans, town labourers, and the sons of farmers whose services at home are absolutely necessary. While willing to sacrifice a good deal in the common cause, they do not feel themselves – and really are not – at liberty to give over their whole service to active soldering in the regular army. Long years of continuous emigration has left Ireland a country of old folk and a limited number of young people on whom the welfare of the trade and industrial welfare of the country must rely. These latter form the large majority who took part in yesterday’s great demonstration…

“In all over fifty special trains arrived in the city from various centres on the country… A large proportion of men were armed with modern rifles and wore the complete volunteer uniform and equipment. In all cases a cap, belt, water bottle and haversacks were carried. Bands accompanied the majority of the contingents.”

Redmond permitted no speeches during the review and told the Freeman: “It was arranged at my wish that the review and march past through the streets of Dublin today should be purely a military function, and that there should be no speech making.” And the press was barred from the “business part” of the Volunteer Convention, arranged for the following day, in a fashion similar to the closed sessions of a latter-day Sinn Fein Ard Fheis.

The Freeman devoted three pages to describing the progress of the Volunteers along the quays of Dublin to the Phoenix Park and noted: “Belfast furnished the most imposing corps in the review. Fully armed and in uniform, they swung along with splendid entrain. The efficiency they displayed could not well be surpassed by regular troops. Having reached their station they deployed in line of company with absolute precision and rhythm of movement, and the display drew once again the admiration of all who saw them.”

The “inspiring spectacle” at the “Saluting Base” was described thus: “The salute was taken by Mr Redmond, from a commodious position close to the Parnell Statue and the Rotunda, in which the famous Volunteer Convention of 1782 was held… The platform was reserved for members of the Irish Party, Mayors of cities, chairmen of County Councils, Urban Councils and Rural Councils, and members of the Executive Committee of the Volunteers.” At least thirty of the Party’s M.P.s graced the platform including Redmond, Dillon, Devlin, and Tom Kettle.

The following day the Volunteer Convention took place. The Irish News gave an account of the speeches under the headlines, ‘Volunteers Ready For All Comers’. ‘Force Will Not Be Allowed To Rob Us Of Victory’. ‘Redmond’s Great Speech’. ‘Ireland’s Army Convention.’  The Freeman, in its editorial, ‘The National Volunteers, said:

“Yesterday, like Sunday, was a day of note in the history of the National Volunteer movement. The first Convention of the members of the organisation was held. A new governing body replaces the Provisional Committee who have had charge of the movement for several months past – ever since it was freed from the mischievous influence of a little group of obscure persons with ridiculous pretensions… The Committee will have in its charge a gigantic movement which has spread into the remotest corners of the land, and is assured of still further expansion. Since the irresponsibles who were throttling it, and at the same time lecturing Irish nationalists who have grown grey in the country’s service, were cast off the number of companies has increased from three hundred to nine hundred. For the drilling and arming of this vast army provision must be made. Mr Redmond indicates this as an immediate duty of the Committee… In the more distant future the mission of the force, as Mr Redmond told the Convention, is fixed. It will be an Irish military force. Mr Asquith has promised that; and there is an inspiriting reminder of the distance we have marched in the Irish Leader’s forecast of a volunteer force at the disposal of the Irish Government and Parliament.” (Freeman’s Journal, 6 April 1915.)

Here is what the Irish Prime Minister-in-waiting said to his embryonic Irish Army at its Convention in the future Home Rule capital. As such, it is worth republishing as a “what might have happened if…” The Irish Leader’s recognition that force had become an essential factor in politics in relation to England and Ulster may surprise the reader, who might have had a very different understanding of ‘Redmondism,’ from reading the old standard histories – or indeed the new revisionist ones:

“I think it is desirable, in declaring the Convention at an end, that I should say a few brief words as to the origins of this movement, its policy, strength, and its constitution and government. I can describe the origins of the movement quite easily without touching on controversial politics further than to say that it was not until the threat of physical force was being used to prevent the final success of the peaceful constitutional movement that the volunteers were brought into existence. That threat was made in various places – it was made in various arenas, and when it became manifest to the people of Ireland that it was a serious threat, and that there was danger of thirty years of peaceful constitutional agitation being snatched from them by an exercise of brutal force, it was not until that moment that the Volunteer movement sprang into existence. The moment that became apparent the people themselves in Ireland formed the Volunteer movement (cheers). My colleagues and I did not call for the movement; we did not initiate it: it sprang from the people themselves and it is a movement for defence, not attack (cheers).

“It is not our desire, and it is not our intention, to attack brother Irishmen or anybody (hear, hear). The question is whether we will defend ourselves if necessary or not. This movement is an answer to that question (cheers). The question arose very early in the movement as to who were to be the leaders and guides of that movement. Were they to be the men who had led through unparalleled difficulties the constitutional movement of a generation to success; or were they to be the men who, however worthy in every other respects, were new, untried, unknown, and largely irresponsible men? That question inevitably arose, and when it arose I felt it to be my duty to submit that question to the country (cheers). The country has given its answer (cheers)…

“The policy of the Volunteers will be to uphold the national rights of Ireland – (cheers) – to hold fast what we have won, and to make certain that force will not be allowed to rob us of victory.

 “The object of the Convention was to decide on a permanent governing body. The new body will meet at once and see to arming and drilling. One of the first and most immediate effects of the war was to deprive the National Volunteers of almost all their drill instructors. We have not been able to as yet fill their places. We must however do the best we can, and it is evident from what we saw yesterday that, notwithstanding those difficulties the work of drilling has gone on in this country, and in some places has been carried to great perfection indeed (hear, hear). It is impossible for us to meet together on occasions such as this, and shut our eyes to the fact of the world crisis in which we are now living. The world war threatens Ireland as well as it threatens every other civilised country, and Irishmen would be quite unworthy of their history and their past if they attempted to fold their arms and say: ‘This war does not concern us. Belgium may be drenched in blood and ruined, and every small nation, Poland and Alsace-Lorraine and other small nations may have disappeared, but we Irishmen, who are cut off from the world, are so happy and prosperous that we can afford to sit down and say: this war does not concern us. We are protected. We are protected by the seas and our shores, and need not care about the rest the world! When the Boer War took place, Ireland thought differently, and she took a bold and manly course, and she took it at great risk, and she took it with her eyes open, and knew the cost she would have to pay. She did that because she knew the Boers were in the right in that war, and because she knew that the fate of small nations was at stake, and Ireland, notwitholding all the difficulties of her own, did not seek refuge in selfishness – she did interfere, and today she is justified before the world (cheers). Now, when this war is over, I say that if we refused to interfere on the side of right and justice and liberty and nationality in the present war, we would cover ourselves with dishonour and contempt (cheers). Further than that, I promised – you commissioned me to promise (cheers) – that if we are given a free constitution in Ireland, we are willing to enter on equal terms with the British Empire, and to bear our share of the burden (cheers).

“In answer to my plea we have been given the first free constitution Ireland ever had. Do you know that in all the six hundred years of Ireland’s Parliaments in the past there never was an Executive Government responsible to Parliament? In Grattan’s time nothing of the sort existed. If it had the Union could not be carried, because with the Union defeated in Grattan’s Parliament, the Executive would instantly resign or dissolve Parliament. In any case the Union would be defeated. We had a Parliament that covered itself with glory, and also patriotism; but it was only a Parliament in name, and never had the power of a free Parliament. We now have on the Statute Book a measure giving a freely elected Parliament, with an Executive Government responsible to it (cheers). We have that for the first time, and I say if Ireland gave any other answer than she gave when faced with the present danger she would have covered herself with contempt. Well, Ireland has given a magnificent answer (cheers). I could not help being deeply moved yesterday when we had twenty or twenty-five thousand young Irishmen marching in the ranks of the Volunteers, and especially when I remembered that every man had a colleague or comrade serving with the colours (cheers). I have official figures here, and 25,000 National Volunteers are today with the colours… I am told that there are about the same number of Ulster volunteers… I know from figures supplied by the Government, that Ireland herself has over one hundred thousand Irishmen with the colours. And I know further, that, taking into account the Irish race – and we have a right to speak for the Irish race as well as for the Volunteers – I say that, taking the nation as a whole, Ireland has a quarter of a million men vindicating the principle of right, justice, and nationality (cheers)… But there is heroism at home as well as patriotism, and the Volunteers and Irishmen generally who cannot go to the front for various reasons which we all understand, and which, mark you, operate just as much in Great Britain as in Ireland – Irishmen who are not volunteers or cannot go to the front, can do great and heroic service at home (cheers).

“You all remember how on 3 August, in the House of Commons, I took upon myself a great and weighty responsibility: I took it upon myself to say that the armed sons of Ireland – I drew no distinction, I said North and South – would be willing to defend the shores of Ireland without the assistance of regular troops of the Government. That offer was understood in every part of Ireland (cheers). I want to ask today what fatal infatuation prevents the war authorities from accepting that offer. Enlistment for purely home defence is going on all over Great Britain. It is going on in England, Scotland and Wales. It is not illegal there. It is not allowed here. I want to know why, but I say, whatever happens in the immediate future, the Volunteers are now, at this moment, a strong and united force. The Prime Minister, in his speech in the Mansion House at the beginning of the war, declared that when the war was over the Irish Volunteers should remain as an Irish military body (cheers). How they will be organised no one can tell at this moment. Under the Irish Parliament they will be under different control, but I have no doubt – not a shadow of doubt in my mind that, if the Irish Volunteers pursue their duty steadily and soberly and bravely… they will be turned into a permanent military body for all time at the disposal of the Irish government and Parliament. They will defend Ireland at home and abroad, they will enforce Irish rights, and I trust and I think – I may say I believe – that the next great parade of the Irish National Volunteers, in Dublin, will be when they march down with me and my colleagues to open the gates of the Irish Parliament (cheers) and then after that they will protect its Parliament for all time, and they will remain as a guarantee for the order, good government, and liberty of the reborn Irish nation (prolonged applause).” (Freeman’s Journal, 6 April, 1915.)

John Dillon, who was under similar historical delusions as Redmond, in his speech to the Irish Army Convention recalled the previous day’s Volunteer review, which he thought would live in Irish history forever:

“The deep significance of that review it would be difficult to find language adequately to characterise (cheers). For the first time for 120 years a great body of armed and drilled men, under nationalist leadership, was marched through the capital of Ireland. For 120 years such a thing would have been a weighty criminal offence, and any man engaged in organising such a demonstration would have been promptly committed to prison for a long period… I saw with peculiar gratification the place occupied in the review, and the form displayed by the Belfast Volunteers (cheers)… I recognise in that regiment, depleted as it was by the fact that 1,500 of the National Volunteers of Belfast have gone to join the colours, and that there should have been not to 1,000 men, but 2,500, if the full strength of the regiment were present – I recognise in that fact the absolute proof that the division of Ireland and exclusion of Ulster from the future nationality of this country is an unthinkable thing (cheers). I look forward to the day when another appeal may be made to the National Volunteers.

“Some day or other this war will be over… then we will have to return to the great questions which were interrupted by the war. We learnt the lesson last year – even the oldest of us Irish politicians – at some times eloquence and speech making, organisation and civil demonstrations are not the last word in an argument such as we have been engaged in, and demonstrations of force were brought forward and we had the formula, ‘We won’t argue; we won’t have Home Rule’.

“When the hour comes to make the supreme appeal to the National Volunteers – I do not believe and I hope and pray it will not be necessary to resort to force – but we look forward to the day when we have to resume these arguments, and when the National Volunteers may be again be summoned to this capital, and shall march, not 20,000, but 50,000 or 100,000, All armed and disciplined, and drilled, through the streets of Dublin; and then I think it will become manifest to every politician, be he English or Irish, that Ireland free and indivisible must be conceded, or we will want to know the reason why (loud cheers). That is my view of the role of the National Volunteers. That is why I longed to see this review…

“I take it that from this day forth, in every parish in Ireland, the young men will gather together and set to work and organise and prepare for the day when they will be called upon… The Committee here will do everything that is possible… to arm them and to assist them to get arms; and, above all things, they will devote all their energies to maintaining unity in the country, so that when the hour strikes all our opponents – if we have opponents left when this war is over – will be face to face with the unity of nationalist Ireland (applause).”

Dillon and Redmond complained that the British War Office would not make provision for an Irish military force based on Irish soil – whilst at the same time telling them that it would be used at the conclusion of the war to enforce Home Rule whether the British Government wanted it or not. The Unionists controlled the War Office and they were not in the least bit inclined to go along with Redmond’s scheme. In early April, with the Liberal Government in power, it was still possible for Redmond and Dillon to flamboyantly indulge their fantasies with their Home Rule army. But a month later, when the Unionists joined the Government, a completely different situation came about.

Easter 1916 is the pivotal and most well known event in modern Irish history. But Easter 1915 was, in fact, meant to be the great historic and memorable event for the Irish nation, and was believed to be the pivot in its history. The “Chroniclers” were meant to have seen it as “epochal.” It was, however, a great event that turned out to be a non-event because of the subsequent turn of events in England and Ireland in the course of the Great War. The “Chroniclers” have not chronicled it and very few people are aware that it took place at all today.

The great Irish National Army that Redmond and the other leaders of the Parliamentary Party reviewed at Easter 1915 never became what it was meant to become. A lot of it never came back from France and the Dardanelles/Gallipoli. The national army of Ireland, instead, was formed by the “little group of obscure persons with ridiculous pretensions” which make good these “ridiculous pretensions” between 1916 and 1921 in doing what Redmond’s national army was supposed to do – asserting the democratic will in Ireland when England tried to subvert it after the war, through military force.

Easter 1915 was forgotten and Easter 1916 went into history and the making of a nation.

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