Ireland, Germany and the First World War

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Letters, Volume 23

Sir,—Michael Carragher’s undoubted courtesy is greater than his concern for accuracy (Letters, HI 23.1, Jan./Feb. 2015). It can be agreed that Germany’s diplomatic incompetence post-Bismarck contributed to its encirclement. Yet France, Russia and Britain were only too happy to take advantage of the situation. To say that ‘the Reich’s ambition was European hegemony’ before 1914 on the evidence of treaties extorted in 1918 is anachronistic. It might be said, just as well, that because the Versailles settlement dismembered Austria-Hungary and established an independent Poland those were the initial war plans of the Entente. Again, British responsibility for failing to improve its relations with Germany cannot be dismissed. In 1902, talks on the matter were scuppered by the British admiralty; as A.J.P. Taylor (no pro-German he) puts it, Britain ‘could not understand [German] reluctance to have her overseas trade and colonies dependent on British goodwill’. In 1912, similar talks were scuppered in part by the half-heartedness of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. Finally, though the occupation of Belgium was wrong (though the alleged rapes that are said to have accompanied it have been denied by another critic of Germany, John Horne), it must be noted that it came after war had begun and when the British government had agreed to enter in support of France, allowing it only to mobilise more unitedly than it would have done otherwise.

It remains true that a major motor of Irish nationalist support for the British war effort was the need to show that a home ruling Ireland would be as loyal to British imperial needs as were the unionists. Michael Carragher’s remarks on war as a ‘respectable policy’ and the expectation that that war would end before Christmas are true but irrelevant. Carson and Redmond vied to impress Britain with the amount of cannon fodder each could supply. Moreover, Redmond’s position was the weaker, being based on two lies. One was that Home Rule equalled Irish independence; in fact, the act as passed provided only for a provincial assembly with limited powers. The second was that Home Rule had been achieved; the operation of the act had been postponed until after the post-war general election. Had the war ended by Christmas 1914, Redmond might have escaped retribution, though the limits of Home Rule would probably have tripped him. As it was, he could only continue to recruit desperately as his lies were exposed. The Liberals coalesced with the Unionists, conscription was proposed for the whole kingdom and, though allowing subsequently exemption to Ireland, the fact of the original proposal was an obvious denial of Irish independence. Finally, Easter 1916 and its aftermath dealt a major blow to Redmond’s policy and may have deterred a few young Irishmen, perhaps more than would die for Ireland from 1916, from sacrificing themselves for British imperialism.—Yours etc.,

D.R. O’CONNOR LYSAGHT

PS: On another matter, Joe Connell (Countdown to 2016) is mistaken when he says that the daily Freeman’s Journal ended publication in 1914. Despite attacks from British and Republican forces, it continued to appear until December 1924. 

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