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The scourge of conscription

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP describes the conscription crisis in Ireland in 1918, how the Irish hierarchy’s firm opposition helped to end the British government’s attempt to extend the draft to Ireland.

On February 3, 1916 a British Military Service Act came into force. It was a limited measure of conscription or compulsory military service. Later in the year another Act of Parliament made all males between the ages of eighteen to forty-one liable to be conscripted. There was some opposition to the idea of compulsory military service for free born British citizens. But the appalling carnage in what has come to be known as The Great War or The First World War seemed to leave governments with no other option than conscription. In 1918 an act to extend compulsory military service to Ireland was passed by the British parliament. This threat succeeded in uniting all shades of Irish nationalist opinion in opposition to the measure.

No conscription without consent
Rumours of the intention of the British government to impose conscription on Ireland began circulating in the spring of 1918. In response to these rumours, a statement was issued on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Ireland. It included the following resolutions: ‘To enforce conscription here without the consent of the people would be perfectly unwarrantable and would soon and inevitably end in defeating its own purposes.

‘Had the government in any reasonable time given Ireland the benefit of the principles, which are declared to be at stake in the war, by concession of a full measure of self-government, there would have been no occasion for contemplating forced levies for her now. What between mismanagement and mischief-making this country has already been deplorably upset, and it would be a fatal mistake, surpassing the worst blunders of the past four years, to furnish a plea now for desperate courses by an attempt to enforce conscription. With all the responsibility that attaches to our pastoral office, we feel bound to warn the government against entering on a policy so disastrous to the public interest, and to all order, public and private.’

Conscription extended to Ireland
Reality replaced rumour when on April 16, 1918 the British House of Commons passed the Military Service Act extending conscription to Ireland. As a protest the Irish Parliamentary Party withdrew from the House and its members returned to Ireland to organise opposition to its enforcement. That same evening and the following morning the newspapers published a letter from the Archbishop of Dublin, William J.Walsh.

He wrote: ‘Floods of vague declamations were deluging the country and obscuring two key points: 1. What political action are the people of this country to take in order to meet the crisis? 2. That the introduction of a home rule bill, even the most satisfactory home rule bill, would not in the present angry state of feeling in Ireland contribute in the slightest degree to the pacification of our country.’ He added that ‘the people collectively and individually need a definite lead as to what to do if conscription is enforced.’

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, who was friendly with and an admirer of Archbishop Walsh, summoned a representative gathering of all shades of nationalist opinion and of organised labour to a conference in the Mansion House to meet on April 16, 1918. The evening before this conference the Lord Mayor called on the archbishop who spoke to him about a meeting of the bishops which was to be held at Maynooth on the same day as the Mansion House conference. He suggested that the Lord Mayor should telephone Maynooth around lunch time on the day of the conference requesting that the bishops should receive a delegation from the conference. No mention was to be made of this pre-arrangement with the archbishop.

No authority to impose conscription
The Mansion House conference concluded with a declaration of ‘Ireland’s separate and distinct nationality’ and the principle ‘that the government of nations derive their just powers from the consent of the governed’. Therefore there was no authority for the British government ‘to impose compulsory service in Ireland against the expressed will of the Irish people’. The passing of the conscription bill must therefore ‘ be regarded as a declaration of war on the Irish Nation.’ The conference also agreed on an anti-conscription pledge drafted by Eamon de Valera: ‘Denying the right of the British government to enforce compulsory service in this country we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal’.

Eamon de Valera had been elected unopposed as president of Sinn Fein in July 1917. He had been proposed by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, who stood aside to make way for him. He was the last survivor of the signatories of the 1916 proclamation and had been released from Pentonville prison in June 1917.

Conference delegation and bishops meet
A delegation was chosen at the Mansion House conference to meet the bishops at their plenary session at Maynooth. It included Eamon de Valera and John Dillon, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Dillon had been chosen to lead the party after the death of John Redmond in January 1918.

The delegation was cheered by the students on arrival at the college and was welcomed to address the bishops. As a result of these deliberations the bishops issued a statement which described ‘the attempt to force conscription upon Ireland against the will of the Irish people and in defiance of the protests of its leaders’ as an oppressive and inhuman law which the Irish people have the right to resist by all the means consonant with the law of God.’

The bishops also sanctioned a novena in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes. They ordered that on the following Sunday there should be a public mass of intercession in every church ‘to avert the scourge of conscription’. At this mass a time and a place should be announced for a public meeting to take the anti-conscription pledge. Faced with this combined opposition of church and nation, the government did not attempt to enforce conscription. The armistice which brought the Great War to an end was signed on November 11, 1918.


This article first appeared in St Martin de Porres magazine, a publication of the Irish Dominicans.