A sheep in wolf’s clothing no match for the wise serpent

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 26

Another look at the 23 April 1918 general strike against conscription.

By Padraig Yeates

As the Voice of Labour, the organ of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, put it at the time, ‘In numbers, in spirit, in determination, in resolve, in decision, Labour in Ireland has done nothing in its history to equal this’. It was reporting on the special conference called by the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party (ITUC&LP), held on Saturday 20 April 1918 in Dublin’s Mansion House, to approve a nationwide stoppage against conscription the following Tuesday.

The Voice described the Mansion House gathering as ‘The greatest and most important conference of representatives of Labour ever held in Ireland’. It sent out ‘a clarion call’ to workers not only around the country but also ‘throughout Great Britain, Europe and the World’. It had ‘no parallel outside Russia … If only Saturday’s had been a Congress of Soviets and not of Unions! But, as it is, the Unions have done the next best thing.’

Leaders or led?

The ITUC&LP leaders were proud of the stand that Irish workers were taking against conscription in a continent engulfed by war. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution, they hoped that their example would be taken up elsewhere. Unlike the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, however, members of many ITUC&LP affiliates marked the day of the general strike by marching in a body to hear Mass in the nearest church. It begs the question of how far was the ITUC&LP leading the campaign, and how far was it being led?

The British government introduced the Military Service Bill to the House of Commons on 9 April and it was passed on 16 April, when the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) withdrew in protest. As was so often the case, Lloyd George was too preoccupied with the political temperature in Britain to worry about Ireland. Even before the great German spring offensive in March 1918, recruitment in Ireland had fallen to 80 men a week, and a petition signed by over 100,000 people in Britain, including 46 MPs, had been submitted to parliament demanding that conscription be introduced on the neighbouring island. With the prospect of having to raise the upper call-up age for men from 42 to 48 and of sending teenagers to the front, Lloyd George’s coalition had to be seen to be doing something to find Irish replacements of prime military age. Conscription pitched the conflicting aims of nationalist Ireland and the British Empire against each other in the starkest terms imaginable. Who was going to pay the Butcher’s Bill?

Labour members of the cabinet such as George Barnes, a supporter of Dublin workers in the 1913 Lockout, called on Irish trade unions not to oppose conscription, assuring them that ‘Home Rule is right ahead’. The reaction of local union branches in Britain to calls from the ITUC&LP for support was often more hostile. The secretary of the Walsall branch of the local Leather Workers Union asked Bill O’Brien, ‘HAVE YOU IN IRELAND ALL GONE MAD’? ‘While England and her noble allies was [sic] fighting the greatest fight of all time for the liberties of the whole world, Ireland was trying to stab her in the back.’ The branch had sent 42 of its 123 members to the front; several had been severely wounded and three killed.

Above: May 1918—Éamon de Valera shares an anti-conscription platform with John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in the latter’s home town of Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon. Note the number of clergy on the platform and what looks like a holy picture above de Valera’s head. (NMI)

Writing from London, Jim Connell, the author of The red flag, told O’Brien that even Independent Labour Party (ILP) audiences were reacting badly. After an ILP meeting in Dulwich he told O’Brien, ‘If you hear one of these days that I have been lynched you must not feel surprised’. T.P. O’Connor, who often acted as a conduit between the IPP leadership and the British government, had a similar response from Lloyd George when he told him that the introduction of conscription could cost a hundred lives in Ireland. The prime minister said that ‘the English people who are sending their sons to the war would not care if it cost ten thousand’. John Dillon pleaded with Lloyd George’s predecessor, Herbert Henry Asquith, to support his call for Home Rule to be introduced before conscription. Asquith’s response was as blunt as Lloyd George’s: ‘Conscription first and then self-determination’.

The Irish Convention

For months constitutional nationalists had pinned their hopes on the Irish Convention endorsing Home Rule, but they knew that conscription could render them irrelevant overnight. As one confidant of Joe Devlin put it, ‘If Sinn Féin appears to occupy or arrogates to itself the position of expressing the united will, the political consequences will be bad … The idea that the alternative to resistance is death or mutilation under incompetent generalship in Flanders, for no result, is universal … and will stiffen the resistance of the slackest.’

William O’Brien, president of the ITUC&LP, had come to the same conclusion. He had already blocked an attempt by some trade unionists to secure an invitation to the Irish Convention for Congress. O’Brien enjoyed a prominence among militant nationalists unequalled within the labour movement. He was a veteran of the 1913 Lockout, a confidant of the 1916 martyr James Connolly and had been interned after the Rising. On his release he played a leading role in establishing the Prisoners’ Dependants’ Fund and, subsequently, in the North Roscommon and South Longford by-elections. He not only attended Count Plunkett’s conference to explore the possibility of building a pan-nationalist front in 1917 but his name also headed the list of signatories on the declaration issued afterwards, ahead of Arthur Griffith, Cathal Brugha, Fr Michael O’Flanagan and Count Plunkett himself. It sought ‘complete independence’ if Irish people so desired. O’Brien subsequently resigned from Count Plunkett’s committee because critics within the labour movement felt that he was too close to Sinn Féin. Nevertheless, he remained involved in the Prisoners’ Dependants’ Fund, keeping a foot in both the revolutionary nationalist and labour camps. The Convention would prove as divisive for labour as it was for nationalists. Some trade unionists in the North, from nationalist and unionist backgrounds alike, ignored the ITUC&LP boycott to attend.

Potential allies without, divisions within

Above: ‘The Bishops’ Pledge Against Conscription’—including (at the bottom) ‘amach leis an Sasanach’. (NLI)

These tensions were continuing to pose a problem when O’Brien, as president of the ITUC&LP, put out feelers to Sinn Féin about establishing a common front with the IPP against conscription. ‘We feared they mightn’t favour the idea of working with the Irish Party,’ he would later recall. ‘But still, if they did, they could get away with it.’ The implication was that the ITUC&LP couldn’t ‘get away with it’ on its own.

The problem was that once the ITUC&LP opted to follow Sinn Féin’s lead it could not claim to be adopting an independent class-based strategy to oppose conscription. Some northern trade unionists refused to endorse the anti-conscription circular, including D.R. Campbell, the ITUC&LP treasurer, who spoke at the first two anti-conscription demonstrations in Ireland, both of them held in Belfast. Some British-based ‘amalgamated’ unions were also unhappy about the united front between the ITUC&LP, Sinn Féin, the IPP and, it soon turned out, the Catholic hierarchy.

When Campbell and another ITUC&LP executive member, J.H. Bennett of the Seamen’s Union, were attacked at the annual conference in August 1918 for failing to support the general strike and anti-conscription campaign they were unapologetic. Campbell said that he refused to sign the declaration against conscription because ‘There is no fear of conscription. My opinion is that it is less likely to come now than ever’, and the circular issued by the executive was ‘unduly alarmist’.

Bennett said: ‘I did not refuse to sign the statement because I was for conscription. I am against conscription, and I am a Trade Unionist. I refused to sign because I thought the Executive were allowing themselves to be used for political purposes.’ As we’ve seen, some ‘amalgamateds’ supported the war and the issue rankled enough for the main debate on conscription to be held behind closed doors.

Ironically, Campbell was not only one of the first trade union leaders to organise protests against conscription in Ireland but was also a delegate, along with William O’Brien, to the abortive Stockholm conference called by Dutch, Swedish and Russian social democrats to create a united anti-war campaign across the continent. Another delegate, who actually made it to Sweden, unlike the Irish duo, was former British Labour Party leader Arthur Henderson, who resigned from the War Cabinet to support the peace initiative.

Like most British labour leaders, Henderson knew more Irish Party MPs than Irish trade unionists. He repeatedly told the ITUC&LP that they would get a hearing from the British labour leadership when they started winning seats at Westminster. The close working relationship of men such as Henderson with Irish Party MPs left them hopelessly out of touch with developments on the sister isle.

Not surprisingly, the issue of the Voice that appeared after the general strike had an ‘Open Letter to the English Labour Party’ on the front page bemoaning ‘the malign fate that links our nations’. It accused ‘the leaders of the English working class’ of ‘indifference … to Irish Labour, whose very existence you have ignored, for when have you sought to learn aught of Ireland, you have made enquiries of our governors and masters … Before the [Socialist] International we denounce you, traitors to our common class, false to your own people. Accomplices in oppression of the Irish race.’

Archbishop William Walsh

Above: A wise serpent? A painting by W. Lawrence of Archbishop William Walsh shortly after his elevation to the see of Dublin in 1885. (Dublin Diocesan Archives)

Such declarations added to the reservations that men such as Campbell had about the direction the anti-conscription campaign was taking. They would have been even more concerned if they had known of the key role that Dr William Walsh, archbishop of Dublin, had played in marshalling the Catholic nation’s forces against conscription. Dublin’s lord mayor, Laurence O’Neill, was well primed by Walsh when he addressed the opening session of the ITUC&LP conference in the Mansion House, telling delegates: ‘Ireland to-day stands united (cheers). Her priests are with her people and her people are with her priests (cheers).’

Priests spoke at far more rallies on the day of the strike than trade unionists and often presided over proceedings, as Fr Thomas OFSC did in Cork. In some places, such as Ballinasloe, the local bishop, Dr Gilmartin, was the main speaker, while letters were read out from members of the hierarchy elsewhere. Limerick and Athlone were the only large rallies where trade union leaders presided, and in the case of Athlone it was Harry Broderick, who was not only chairman of the Trades Council but also president of the local division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

To the vast majority of Irish workers, a more perfect union with their church was a natural and worthy aspiration. It made the strike so respectable that even William Martin Murphy’s Irish Independent supported it, although it insisted on calling it a ‘holiday’ against conscription. As expected, Belfast Trades Council did not support the stoppage, and in some of the city’s workplaces Catholic workers were told that they would lose their jobs if they went out. Yet the very fact that the strike took place at all was a revelation to many trade unionists of the potential power they possessed. Workers’ power was no longer something that only existed in the minds of a few revolutionary socialist orators.

As the Irish Times editorial put it next day, ‘The Roman Catholic Church and Nationalist leaders … have given organised Labour the chance it has been seeking since the time when James Larkin bequeathed his mantle to James Connolly’. It was concerned that ‘The success of its first great venture in peculiarly favourable circumstances has made it conscious of its strength. It may choose to employ that strength on another occasion … even, perhaps, at the expense of some of its present partners.’

Dr Walsh, as one of the principal architects of the Anti-Conscription Campaign, had similar thoughts. He convened a meeting of senior clergy on the day of the general strike, 23 April, to consider how best to combat ‘Bolshevism, anarchy and republicanism’. The strategy adopted was to ensure that the anti-conscription movement was based on parish structures and chaired by the parish priest, who looked after the funds. Only 10% of the money raised went to the National Defence Fund. When it was wound up there was £21,000 in hand, whereas most of the £164,000 not spent locally was ‘applied to ecclesiastic charities’. Shane Leslie would later say of Dr Walsh that ‘he had the cunning of the serpent recommended by Our Lord’ to those who would ‘lead His flock forth amongst the wolves’. If Dr Walsh was the wise serpent, the ITUC&LP had all the attributes of a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Padraig Yeates is the author of A city in civil war: Dublin 1921–4 (Gill and Macmillan, 2015).


  1. Morrissey, William J. Walsh: archbishop of Dublin, 1841–1921 (Dublin, 2000).
  2. Morrissey, William O’Brien, 1881–1968: socialist, republican, Dáil deputy, editor and trade union leader (Dublin, 2007).
  3. Yeates, A city in wartime: Dublin 1914–1918 (Dublin, 2011).

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