Another forgotten centenary of Britain’s Great War just passed by without comment. In August 1915 a Catholic Bishop, Edward O’Dwyer of Limerick, shattered the Redmondite propaganda about the Great War by stating that it was all about destroying Germany as a commercial rival and that anyone wishing to prolong it was guilty of a “crime against God and Humanity.” Redmond was unable to contest the statement.
There is much talk these days about “Crimes against Humanity”. It seems peculiar that the Great War is never associated with that phrase and lesser events – in terms of killing and destruction – are sought out to illustrate it.
Bishop O’Dwyer’s contest with Redmond was a significant event on the road to 1916 by all accounts. At the end of November 1915, just after a second round of the Redmond/O’Dwyer contest, the Volunteers mounted a large muster in Cork City and Terence MacSwiney noted “a big success” and the turning of the tide. The formation of the British Coalition in the Spring, the threat of Conscription and Bishop O’Dwyer’s challenge to Redmondism, on behalf of Pope Benedict’s Peace initiative, all had made their mark on the political situation in Ireland.
On 28th July 1915, around the anniversary of the start of the Great War, the Vatican took the initiative in attempting to end it, by issuing the Allorche Fummo Encyclical denouncing the War as futile and calling on Europe to make peace.
Earlier in the year Pope Benedict had attempted a secret deal between Germany, France and Belgium but had been rebuffed. He put the failure down to British intransigence in the background, acting on France.
Benedict announced, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the War, his “firm determination to devote every activity to the reconciliation of the peoples now engaged in this fratricidal struggle. He pledged himself to achieving “the cessation of the war” arguing that “It must not be said that this conflict cannot be settled without armed violence”. And: “we invite all the friends of peace to unite with us in our desire to terminate this war and… to solve differences not by the sword, but by equity and justice”. Pope Benedict also said that those wishing to continue the war should “reflect that nations do not die; if humiliated and oppressed, they prepare to retaliate by transmitting from generation to generation hatred and the desire for revenge.” (H.C. O’Neill, History of the War, p.441.)
The German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, announced his country’s readiness to discuss peace terms with the Entente within days of the Vatican initiative.
At this time, although the War had become a stalemate on the Western Front, Germany had the military ascendancy, showing it could defend and turn back the attacks of its opponents. The “Russian Steamroller” had been halted and Galicia liberated from the Tsarist forces with Warsaw being taken. The British and French were halted both in Western Europe and in their invasion of Ottoman Turkey at Gallipoli.
The Vatican initiative produced a conflict between Redmond and Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick over the Pope’s plea for a negotiated peace. Bishop O’Dwyer wrote to Redmond:
“Dear Mr Redmond – the appeal which Our Holy Father the Pope has addressed to the belligerents in this awful war, which is devastating the world, will be read with the sympathy and backed up by the moral support of millions of the best of the human race… But amongst them all, none will receive this solemn appeal with deeper gratitude and reverence than our own Irish people, and for that reason I venture to address you, whose responsibilities at this moment are so heavy, and beg of you to throw the weight of your influence strongly on the side of peace.
“It is not easy to see what objection any of the belligerents can take to the proposal of the Pope. He does not ask any of them to make any concession, to undergo any humiliation, or to alter one jot of what it considers to be its just claims. He simply asks them, with the experience of the woe of the year that has just closed, to confer, either directly with one another, or through some neutral, and see if it is possible to find terms, or even an approach to terms, on which they might put an end to this disastrous war.
“Unfortunately, one voice of passion has been raised already, without, we may hope due consideration, to make the shocking and unquestioned statement that to talk of peace at the present moment is immoral. There was never a more cruel and heartless untruth…
“Our Holy Father speaks words of sober truth and reason, and the impartial judgement of neutral nations, and much more of history, will utterly condemn those who refuse to hear him.
“At a crisis such as this where is the wisdom of repeating, like a parrot-cry, that no proposals for peace can be entertained until Germany is beaten to her knees? Delenda est Carthago is very fine, if you were sure of being able to do it. But is there a competent man in England at this moment who was confident to being able to crush Germany? Or to crush her at a cost that would be less ruinous than defeat? It may or may not be desirable to annihilate German power; but that is not the question now, but is it practicable? Proud and arrogant talk gives no help, and revolts the consciences of men; and people who set out to smash Germany should ask themselves whether the defeat of Russia, and the weakening of France, and the state of things at the Dardanelles, have not recently somewhat altered the conditions of the problem.
“A few months ago they counted with confidence on the triumphant pedigree of the Russian ‘steamroller’. That machine is not now quite so efficient. Then great hopes were placed in the accession of the Balkan States to the side of the Allies. The turn of events in Poland would probably show them the merits of the other side, and altogether he should be a sanguine man who still counts on an overwhelming victory for England.
“It is time to look facts in the face, whether we like them or not. There is no use in shutting one’s eyes, and, in blind conceit, rushing to one’s ruin…
“The prolongation of this war for one hour beyond what is absolutely necessary is a crime against God, and humanity, and the judgement of neutral nations, and still more of posterity, will be pronounced heavily against any government that now refuses to entertain the proposals which are made in the name of religion, by one who is perfectly impartial, and has no interest to serve but the well-being of all the nations. But over and above these general considerations of religion and humanity, the vital interests of our own country call clamorously for peace.
“Therefore, we may hope that you will use your influence to get a fair hearing for the noble and Christ-like proposal of the Pope. In England some people have been complaining of his silence. Now that he has spoken we may hope that they will show deference to his words.
“But, whatever they may say or do in England, we Irish Catholics have no excuse for disregarding the appeal of Our Holy Father. Our duty and our highest interests are on his side in this movement for peace, and, therefore, I should hope that you will bring your great influence to bear on the English Government and press it to give his proposal a fair and reasonable consideration.
“Assuredly you have a right to be heard. You have given them help beyond price. We may hope that when you speak on behalf of the Supreme Head of our Church, and for the vital interests of your country, they will give heed to your words.
“Before this disastrous war, by your wise and upright statesmanship, you deserved well of your country, and brought her to the very threshold of Home Rule. It may be in God’s providence that you, a Catholic Irishman, are destined to render her, and the whole world, a still greater service by leading the English Government to take the first step at the word of the Pope towards the re-establishment of peace on earth.” (Freeman’s Journal, 8, 1915.)
Redmond had the active support of the Catholic Hierarchy and the clergy at the outset for his war on Germany. Bishop McHugh had declared that “the sympathy of our people one and all is with the arms of England” and he described Germany as “a Power that would set at nought the very foundations upon which civilisation rests.” (Irish Catholic, 15 August 1914.)
In August 1914, Pastoral Letters were read out at masses across the country urging prayers for British military success. The Independent ran a story on the 29th September headlined, ‘The Loyalty of Ireland – Cardinal Logue and the War’ which attributed to the head of the Irish Church, on his return from the Papal Conclave held after the death of Pope Pius X, the view that “there was no more loyal country than Ireland.” The Independent also quoted the Cardinal as saying that “Irishmen throughout the world would stand by the Empire in the crisis, and were prepared to fight shoulder to shoulder, petty animosities being forgotten.” (David Miller, Church, State and Nation in Ireland, 1898-1921, p.310.)
Archbishop Walsh had maintained a diplomatic silence in the face of these statements and the clerical war mongering heard on Redmondite recruiting platforms – as did Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick. Bishop O’Dwyer, the Party’s strongest critic in the past, had held his tongue since the Home Rule Bill and had ceased his attacks on the Home Rule/Liberal alliance.
Archbishop Walsh, and particularly O’Dwyer, were the more Vatican orientated members of the Hierarchy. As such they took into account the international interests of Catholicism – particularly the threat to Catholic Austria – to a greater extent than the warmongering nationalist clergy in Ireland who threw in their lot with Redmond. I have not seen this fact commented upon by Irish historians. But it must have had important implications for Church/State relations after Redmondite Ireland had collapsed and been replaced by Free State and then Independent Ireland.
The Freeman’s Journal published a very short and dismissive reply to Bishop O’Dwyer from Redmond on 13 August, 1915. It consisted of a couple of sentences, avoiding discussion of the main points of the Bishop’s letter
With the fall of the Liberal Government in May 1915 and its replacement by a Coalition including anti-Home Rule Unionists, without the troubling of the electorate, British or Irish, O’Dwyer felt justified to publicly air his opposition to the Redmondites. The Bishop was prepared to face facts and say what Redmondite Ireland refused to acknowledge – that the Home Rule Act was a sham and Irishmen were being recruited to fight and die in an Imperialist war for a Great Fraud.
The Unionist coup put Conscription firmly on the agenda. The recently published and widely praised Charles Townsend book on 1916 says that: “By the autumn of 1915, the threat of Conscription was becoming an obsessional topic in rural Ireland. In this increasingly neurotic atmosphere, a damaging sequence of events set in train the unravelling of the Irish Party’s long-established political control.” (Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion)
It says much about the mind-set that has engulfed Irish academia that a desire not to be compelled to kill and die for the British Empire should be seen as a medical condition compared to mental illness!
But Townsend is correct in suggesting that it was the moral power of the Catholic Church, exercised by Pope Benedict through Bishop O’Dwyer in Ireland, that began to challenge the Redmondite propaganda which had sought to establish a virtual monopoly on Irish thought, assisted by British repressive legislation.
Redmond was demanding that the Irish populace supply 1100 men a week to replenish the Irish cannon-fodder used up by the British Army at its numerous fronts. The Redmondite Recruitment drive was launched to stave off the threatened Conscription which the Unionists were intent upon implementing on the “neurotic” Irish – who were being threatened (according to Stephen Gwynn, the Redmondite) at Recruiting platforms by it.
Some felt there was no escape from Conscription except emigration. So they headed for the boat. The British prevented escape from Ireland by preventing sailings from the island so those fleeing military Compulsion had to travel to Liverpool. After the Cunard and White Star Lines held back the Irish from escaping their duty at the fronts, an English mob attacked them.
The event produced outrage in Ireland, exposing the voluntary principle that the Redmondites trumpeted as a chimera and pointing at things to come.
Redmond declared that the people fleeing Conscription were ignorants from the West and compounded his mistake by saying they had “no excuse” and it was “very cowardly of them to try to emigrate.” (Irish Times 9.11.15) The Irish Times, which quoted Redmond, condemned the “Irish shirkers” who were “running away in the hour of their Empire’s need.”
This was the trigger for Bishop O’Dwyer’s most effective attack on Redmondism. He wrote to the Limerick Leader, defending the Irish emigrants attacked by the Liverpool mob:
“What wrong have they done to deserve insults and outrage at the hands of a brutal English mob? They do not want to be forced into the English Army and sent to fight battles in some part of the world. Is not that within their right? They are supposed to be freemen , but they are made to feel as they are prisoners, who may be compelled to lay down their lives for a cause that is not worth ‘three rows of pins’ to them. It is very probable that these poor Connaught peasants know little or nothing of the meaning of the war. Their blood is not stirred by memories of Kossova, and they have no burning desire to die for Serbia. They would much prefer to be allowed to till their own potato gardens in peace in Connemara… and it seems a cruel wrong to attack them because they cannot rise to the level of the disinterested Imperialism of Mr. T.P. O’Connor and the New Brigade.”
“Their crime is that they are not ready to die for England. Why should they? What have they or their forebears ever got from England that they should die for her? Mr. Redmond will say: ‘A Home Rule Act is on the Statute Book. But any intelligent Irishman will say: ‘A simulacrum of Home Rule with an express notice that it is never to come into operation.’ This war may be just or unjust, but any fair-minded man would admit that it is England’s war, not Ireland’s. When it is over, if England wins, she will hold a dominant power in the world, and her manufactures and her commerce will increase by leaps and bounds. Win or lose, Ireland will go on in her old round of misgovernment, intensified by grinding poverty which will make life intolerable. Yet the poor fellows who do not see the advantage of dying for such a cause are to be insulted as ‘shirkers’ and ‘cowards’ and the men whom they have raised to power and influence have not one word to say on their behalf.” (Limerick Leader, 11.11.1915)
Bishop O’Dwyer’s letter was suppressed by the Dublin papers (except the Irish Times). It was the only way it could have been handled by the Redmondites. O’Dwyer, or the papers printing the letter, could have been prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act. But such a prosecution, of a Catholic Bishop, would have proved disastrous. So the Bishop’s letter was suppressed.
In response to the suppression it was distributed in leaflet form around the country. The RIC found and seized copies in 17 Counties. The Irish Times reported (24.11.15) that copies appeared all over Donegal in the middle of the night. The Inniskilling Fusiliers spent their time ripping them down, even from the notice boards of Catholic chapels. Dublin Castle toyed with the idea of prosecuting those who quoted Bishop O’Dwyer’s words but thought better of it.
The Irish Party was placed in an uncomfortable position by the situation. John Dillon issued a statement via the AOH condemning the English mob for attacking the Irish, the Irish for attempting to escape Conscription and the Unionists for demanding Conscription. He argued that Conscription (or “Prussianism” as he called it) would not be attempted in Great Britain, let alone Ireland. The English Radicals and Irish Party would see to that. (Irish Times 15.11.15)
Dillon argued that the Unionist calls for Conscription were a Unionist device to undermine Irish recruitment. However, if this was a War for civilization, of good over evil etc. this seemed a peculiar stance – of resisting those who wished to fight it without compromise. And it was an unsustainable position that could only be continued through the supply of greater and greater numbers of Irish cannon-fodder to stave off Compulsion to fight and die.
What was happening in Ireland was the opening of a great political division.
The Redmondites, with their Home Rule Bill on the Statute Book, were attempting to sacrifice more and more Irishmen to keep it there. And they were being forced to get more and more to kill and die for the Empire with the threat of Conscription hanging over the country if it did not give up its sons voluntarily. That would spell doom for the Party and the Home Rule project.
On the other side were the Volunteers. They were determined to break out of the trap into which Redmond had been led in his pursuance of Home Rule with the English Liberals and into which he had led the country. That trap led to Irishmen having to volunteer to fight and die in various parts of the world or be labelled “shirkers” and “cowards” if they did not. And if they did not they could always be compelled.
Escaping from that trap ultimately involved fighting and dying on a smaller scale in order to prevent destruction and annihilation on a much larger one. That really was what 1916 was all about.