From 1700 to the end of World War One, it is estimated that two million Irishmen died fighting for King and country. The laws restricting Catholics from enlistment were relaxed in the 1700s, thus encouraging thousands of Irish men to join non-Irish regiments stationed in Ireland. While many men enlisted for different reasons, adventure, the chance to travel, the eligibility for promotion or to escape economic hardship, the reasons often outweighed the dangers of being killed in battle or taken by disease in places far from Ireland.
At the battle of Waterloo in 1815, it is estimated that half of those fighting for the British army were Irish born while thousands of soldiers were recruited locally through the many barracks in the country, and these soldiers became part of regiments whose identity and traditions originated in England, Scotland or Wales. While many regiments had a history of Irish recruits (Connaught Rangers), it was decided (circa 1881) to raise a number of local Irish regiments which would appeal to local Irishmen. Regiments such as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Munster Fusiliers, the North Irish Horse and the Irish Guards were formed. Irish soldiers served in garrisons in Canada, India, South Africa and various other outposts of the British Empire as increasing numbers of troops were required to maintain Britain’s distant colonies. When Queen Victoria visited Ireland in 1900, 40% of the British army were made up of Irish recruits.
However, towards the latter half of the 19th century, the proportion of Irishmen enlisting slowly dropped, as increasing emigration to America and the growth of national feeling made service in the British army less attractive.
Except for the occasional outburst of violence, Ireland during the first few decades after the famine enjoyed a relative period of tranquilly. The rise in Irish nationalism and the quest for Home Rule became the main political aim for many. After the implementation of the Act of Union in 1801, which abolished the Irish Parliament, Ireland was directly ruled from Westminster, London.
While some parties believed in peaceful political agitation, others believed in the use of violence to achieve an independent Irish republic.
The revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood (IRB) was formed with its prime objective being the establishment of an independent, democratic, Irish republic. Though a failed rising in 1867 and an unsuccessful bombing campaign in England failed to achieve any of its goals, the organisation gained popular support for a short period. However, public opinion gradually drifted away from Fenianism and turned to the Home Rule movement which was beginning to gain momentum.
The most powerful political group to emerge in Ireland at this time was the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell and later by John Redmond. It had the support of the majority of the Irish people who believed in constitutional nationalism. Dedicated to achieving Home Rule by peaceful means, the party succeeded in placing Irish issues before the British parliament. It was weakened by the split between Parnellites and anti-Parnellites in the 1890s and by the defeat of Home Rule bills in 1886 and 1893.
Early in the 19th century, European society witnessed nationalistic developments which gave rise to a deep sense of pride in country and nation. To oppressed nationalists, this trend encouraged an overwhelming desire for freedom, a desire to control one’s own affairs without the interference of foreign powers. While many Irishmen travelled abroad in the ranks of the British army to dissuade Britain’s colonies from seeking independence, Ireland soon became caught up in this nationalist fervour.
Nationalism permeated politics, sport, literature, language and education, as there was a desire to separate from the dominant influence of England and to develop an Irish Ireland. The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 to nurture the interest in Gaelic games and to develop a nationalistic outlook among its members.
After the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond took over the leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The party continued to lobby successive governments for Home Rule but to no avail. It was not until the general election of 1910 that Redmond capitalised on British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s dilemma of the Conservative dominance in the House of Lords. Redmond managed to extract a promise of another Home Rule bill in return for Irish support in the forthcoming election. Asquith had no choice but to agree to a new bill.
The bill passed and according to the terms of the Act, the House of Lords no longer had the absolute power to veto a bill, though, it could delay a bill for up to two years after which it could be brought back to the House of Commons for a third reading. Having passed its third reading, it could become law with or without the consent of the upper house. Ulster Unionists were outraged at the possibility of Home Rule for Ireland and immediately took action by forming a provisional government and raising a paramilitary force named the Ulster Volunteer Force to defend their link with Britain.
Gaelic Leaguer, Eoin MacNeill wrote that if a Volunteer force was allowed to exist in Ulster, there should be no reason why one should not be established in the south. The IRB was delighted with this statement and on November 25th 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed.
Asquith was concerned at the escalating situation in Ireland and tried to appease both factions but failed. Believing that arms depots in Ulster were in danger of being raided by the UVF, the government issued orders to send troops to secure the installations in the north of the country. Fifty-eight army officers at the Curragh camp in Kildare who were sympathetic to the Ulster Unionists threatened to resign rather than take up arms against the Unionists. This incident, known as the Curragh Mutiny, forced the cabinet to back down and the scheme was dropped.
The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 diffused the situation in Ireland. John Redmond, believing that Home Rule would be granted after the war, encouraged his followers to join the British army and fight for the rights of small nations. In a speech at Woodenbridge in County Wicklow on 20th September 1914, Redmond stated:
The war is undertaken in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right and it would be a disgrace forever to our country, a reproach to her manhood and a denial of the lessons of her history, if young Ireland confined their efforts to remaining at home… or should shrink from the duty of proving on the field of battle that gallantry and courage which have distinguished their race all through history…
The speech caused a split among the Volunteers, with Redmond’s followers being the majority, taking the title of National Volunteers and those remaining retaining the name of the Irish Volunteers.
While thousands of these young Irishmen would die on the battlefields of France and Flanders in the hope of being granted Home Rule, others regarded revolution as the only solution to Ireland’s political problems. A rising was imminent.