The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 119th installment in the series.
May 25, 1914: Irish Troubles
In the tortuous history of Anglo-Irish relations, 100 years isn’t really that long a time—so it’s no surprise Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland are still dealing with the repercussions of decisions made a century ago.
English involvement in Ireland dates back to the 12th century, when the Norman invaders who conquered England in 1066 turned their attention to neighboring Ireland, eventually establishing the feudal “Lordship of Ireland” in 1171. But many Normans intermarried and “went native,” and English authority was patchy at best until the second English conquest of Ireland, begun by Henry VIII in the 1530s and brutally completed by his daughter Elizabeth I in the Nine Years’ War from 1594 to 1603.
By this time, the fight had become mixed up with religion, as most English were now Anglican, Puritan, or otherwise Protestant (loosely defined) while the Irish for the most part remained loyal Catholics. To stamp out Irish Catholic resistance in the island’s troublesome northern province of Ulster, Elizabeth’s successor James I created the Plantation of Ulster, a colony settled by Protestants from England and Scotland—the latter mostly Presbyterians who eventually became known as the “Ulster Scots” or “Scots-Irish.”
Across Ireland, brutal repression, religious discrimination, and rapacious English landlords provoked uprisings on numerous occasions, including 1641, 1798, 1803, and 1867. Meanwhile, the horrific Irish Potato Famine in the second half of the 1840s, when at least a million Irish peasants starved to death, stirred sympathy in England for the plight of poor Irish, and the rise of the British Liberal Party under William Gladstone laid the groundwork for reforms in Ireland.
Early reforms bolstered tenants’ rights and ended the requirement that Catholics pay tithes to the Anglican Church in Ireland—but in the decades that followed it became clear many Irish wanted greater autonomy or even independence. The issue of “Irish Home Rule,” or self-government for Ireland, split the Liberal Party in two in 1886, as the “Liberal Unionist Party” aligned with the Conservatives led by Lord Salisbury, who also opposed to self-government for Ireland.
However, the Liberal Unionists eventually ended up splitting (again) over free trade and tariffs, and the Liberals returned to power in 1906, setting the scene for a final showdown over Irish Home Rule. Now the scene moved to the House of Lords, the aristocratic upper house of Parliament, which still wielded veto power over the democratically elected House of Commons. This feudal holdover allowed the House of Lords to veto the Second Irish Home Rule Bill for Irish Home Rule, which the (mostly Conservative) Lords felt threatened the very fabric of the United Kingdom.
But the Lords overplayed their hand and were finally stripped of their veto following their rejection of a Liberal budget including welfare measures with broad popular support (the “People’s Budget”) in 1909. The Lords’ veto of the budget, which had passed the Commons by an overwhelming margin, was the final insult that provoked the Liberals in the House of Commons – with support from Irish nationalists—to ask the recently enthroned King George V to step in and bring the Conservative-dominated Lords to heel.
George V, bowing to the popular will, warned the Conservative members of the House of Lords that if they didn’t pass the Parliament Act, acknowledging the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons, he would use his royal prerogative to flood the House of Lords with hundreds of new Liberal peers—who would then pass the Parliament Act anyway. Presented with this fait accompli, in 1911 the House of Lords caved and yielded their right of veto. Under the new rules the Lords could reject any bill passed by the Commons twice, but if the Commons passed the bill a third time they could override the Lords and send it directly to the king.
That’s exactly what happened with the Third Irish Home Rule Bill: after the House of Commons passed the bill granting Ireland self-government in 1912, the House of Lords predictably rejected it in January 1913, forcing the Liberals to reintroduce the bill in 1913, whereupon the Lords rejected it yet again. Finally, on May 25, 1914, the House of Commons passed the bill for the third time and sent it to George V, sidestepping the House of Lords. At long last, it looked like Irish Home Rule was about to become a reality.
But this was hardly the end of the matter. The Protestant population of Northern Ireland bitterly opposed Irish independence and feared that without British protection they would be persecuted by Ireland’s Catholic majority. Soon both sides began arming themselves in preparation for a civil war. The main Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (above), claimed to have 100,000 members, all prepared to fight Irish Home Rule and keep Ulster in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the Irish nationalists organized a rival force, the Irish Volunteers, committed to defending Ireland’s hard-won self-government.
Even worse, the British government was apparently powerless to restore order in Northern Ireland, because British officers—mostly Protestant and staunchly patriotic—refused to act against the pro-British Protestant “Unionists” in Ulster, some of whom were former colleagues from the British army. In fact in March 1914 a number of senior British officers threatened to resign if ordered to move against the Ulster Volunteers, in what became known as the Curragh Incident or Curragh Mutiny (after the main British army camp west of Dublin).
For professional officers in a European army to threaten mutiny in peacetime was an astonishing—and deeply embarrassing—state of affairs, reflecting the depths of division in British society over Irish Home Rule. Thus in the final months of peace the British government, press, and public were wholly absorbed by the situation in Ireland, where it seemed civil war might break out at any moment, and Parliament scrambled to find some sort of compromise that would prevent bloodshed. Ultimately the solution they settled on—a partition of Ireland—simply deferred the problem, as Irish nationalists still considered Ulster part of Ireland, and Ulster Protestants still considered Ireland part of the United Kingdom.
The situation remained tense and uncertain into the summer, culminating in the Buckingham Palace Conference of July 21-24, 1914, when George V called representatives from both sides to meet in an effort to hammer out an agreement that would allow Irish Home Rule while respecting the rights of the Protestants in Northern Ireland. But the conference proved fruitless and soon the Irish question seemed less pressing, as all eyes turned to Europe following the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.