Countdown to 2016: The Curragh ‘mutiny’

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

by Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Paget, commander-in-chief of the British army in Ireland—‘. . . am of opinion that moving troops north would create excitement in Ulster and precipitate a crisis . . . for this reason . . . do not consider it justifiable to move troops . . . at present time’.

Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Paget, commander-in-chief of the British army in Ireland—‘. . . am of opinion that moving troops north would create excitement in Ulster and precipitate a crisis . . . for this reason . . . do not consider it justifiable to move troops . . . at present time’.

By the early twentieth century the Curragh army camp in County Kildare was Britain’s premier military base in Ireland. Ulster unionist opposition to the passage of Home Rule in 1912 was heightened by the support it received from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Not surprisingly, given its predominantly privileged background, the officer class in the British army also sympathised with the unionists. In March 1914, British ministers considered taking action to crush unionist resistance. Reports reached London suggesting that ‘evil-disposed persons’ were plotting to raid stores of arms and ammunition in Ireland. Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Paget, commander-in-chief in Ireland, was instructed to move 800 men into Ulster to reinforce depots and arms stores there. Paget, however, telegraphed the War Office: ‘. . . am of opinion that moving troops north would create excitement in Ulster and precipitate a crisis . . . for this reason . . . do not consider it justifiable to move troops . . . at present time’. Paget was summoned to London to explain his inaction. (No written notes were allowed to be kept of Paget’s meetings in London, and no notes were permitted of his subsequent meetings with his commanders in Ireland. Later, Paget, Brigadier Gough and Major General Sir Charles Ferguson [GOC 5th Infantry Division] ‘reconstructed’ notes. Ferguson’s were the most complete and form the basis of most histories of the orders given.)

Returning to the Curragh, Paget summoned his brigadiers and informed them that operations against Ulster were imminent. Officers whose homes were in the province of Ulster who wished to do so could apply for permission to be absent from duty during the operations, and would be allowed to ‘disappear’ from Ireland. Such officers would subsequently be reinstated and would suffer no loss in their career. The brigadiers were to put these alternatives to their men and report back; 57 of the 70 officers consulted elected for dismissal. Brigadier Gen. Herbert Gough led them in their objections.

English newspapers were uniformly critical. The Daily Chronicle reported: ‘For the first time in modern English history a military cabal seeks to dictate to government the bills it should carry or not carry into law . . . This move by a few aristocratic officers is the last throw in the game.’ The Daily News queried: ‘It is a question whether we govern ourselves or are governed by Gen. Gough. Speaking on the Irish Question . . . Mr Lloyd George [chancellor of the exchequer] said: “We are confronted with the greatest issue raised in this country since the days of the Stuarts . . . We are not fighting about Ulster. We are not fighting about Home Rule. We are fighting for all that is essential to civil liberty in this land”.’

The 57 officers technically were not guilty of ‘mutiny’; they had not disobeyed direct orders of any kind. Nonetheless, news of their resignations caused the British government alarm. If orders had existed for the repression of the Ulster unionists and the arrest of their leaders, they were at once withdrawn. Prime Minister Asquith claimed publicly that no such action had been contemplated and that the whole episode had resulted from an ‘honest misunderstanding’. The War Office stated that ministers had no future intention of using the army to enforce submission to the Home Rule bill.

Overall, the episode greatly increased the confidence of Ulster unionists; they firmly believed that the government had intended to crush them but that its plan had failed for lack of military support. For Irish nationalists, the events merely confirmed their increasing doubts about Asquith’s real commitment to granting Home Rule. As far as they were concerned, the die was cast. With all confidence now lost in parliamentary procedure, it followed that a resort to arms was unavoidable. HI

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of Dublin in rebellion: a directory, 1913–1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006).

Further reading
I.F.W. Beckett (ed.), The Army and the Curragh Incident, 1914 (London, 1986).
Sir J. Fergusson, The Curragh Incident (London, 1964).
A.P. Ryan, Mutiny at the Curragh (London, 1956).

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