This month’s ‘From the Archives’ document brings a provincial Irish perspective to a question of imperial importance. Through this most unusual anti-partition fete held on 12 July 1914, the most sacred of days in the Ulster unionist commemorative calendar, we get a glimpse of the strange ways in which regional Irish nationalists reacted to the rapidly shifting Ulster crisis as it approached its ultimately abortive climax in July of 1914.
On a European level, the words ‘July crisis’ are now synonymous with German Blank Cheques, Austrian notes and Russian troop movements which brought Europe from a political assassination in the Balkans to the outbreak of the First World War. However, in the west of the continent, the British cabinet were, as Churchill put it, bogged down in ‘the muddy byways of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ throughout July 1914.
What cannot be forgotten or eclipsed by subsequent events is that a significant proportion of contemporaries in Ulster, Dublin, and at Westminster were preparing both mentally and materially for the outbreak of a civil war which the majority at a high political level were working with great intensity to avoid.
When the Buckingham Palace Conference (21-24 July) broke up in contrived stalemate between nationalists and unionists, it appeared likely that Ireland was days away from tensions boiling over, the route of constitutional reconciliation appearing to have been firmly exhausted at that point. Two days later, on 26 July, when arms were landed at Howth and 4 unarmed civilians were killed by British troops on Bachelors Walk, all seemed lost. However, the ultimate irony of 1914 was that the crisis in the east put an end to Ireland’s very own July crisis as armed rival paramilitary factions overwhelmingly pledged their support to the crown and the defence of the empire in the first days of August 1914.
Returning to Castlebar, how does a local fete with boys’ and girls’ 100 yard races link in to this grim national situation?
One of the key questions about this document is how should a historian approach it? It is clearly a text of two halves. On the one hand, it provides vivid insight into recreational culture in provincial Ireland on the eve of the First World War.
However, on the verso of that same page is an unrepentantly inflammatory example of political propaganda from the deepest trough of the Ulster crisis. How should we interpret the light and the dark of this extraordinary piece of ephemera? In short, what have a pillow fight, a ‘Siamese Twins’ Race’, and a tug-of-war got to do with the partition of Ireland? Furthermore, why was the Inspector General of the Irish Volunteers, Maurice Moore, presiding over these events on this most divisive of Irish anniversaries? Finally, is this merely a frivolous source or can more serious conclusions be taken from the curiously close juxtaposition of the serious and the ridiculous?
The other way to approach this document would be to see it as a vignette into recreational culture and country life in Ireland on the eve of the First World War. The transformative effect of the ensuing conflict on culture can be seen through this document. After the First World War, it would be hard to associate the level of frivolity seen here with paramilitary organisations such as the IRA, the Freikorps, or Mussolini’s fascists. Rightly or wrongly, images of hyper-masculinity and intense seriousness spring to mind when considering these inter-war movements. By contrast, what we see here is the Irish Volunteers in a much less menacing guise, organising what is essentially a parish fête with political overtones. The mixed-gender, all-ages aspects of this event provide important evidence about the nature of community organisation at this point in time. It must be remembered that the Irish Volunteers were almost at the peak of their membership by this point, with recruitment figures in the summer of 1914 ranging from one to five thousand new volunteers per week. At roughly 180,000 strong, the Irish Volunteers enjoyed mass appeal in nationalist Ireland and their movement had grown to embrace a rarely united cross-section of classes, regions, and political philosophies in Irish nationalism.
A topic that has been discussed in a previous edition of ‘From the Archives’ is ‘two nations theory’: a powerful and divisive idea that sparked much debate during 1914. John Redmond was quick and resolute in his rejection of Ulster unionist claims that Ireland was home not merely to one, but to two distinct and irreconcilable national groups. This document flies in the face of Carsonism and takes the same line as Redmond was then promoting about the indivisibility of Ireland.
What this document does not reveal is that Redmond and his colleagues had already conceded to the exclusion of a four county Ulster (Fermanagh and Tyrone with slim nationalist majorities being still closely contested by both sides). At Buckingham Palace later that month, Redmond reportedly exclaimed to Carson ‘I must have the whole of Tyrone, or die; but I quite understand why you say the same’. However, his claims to Antrim, Armagh, Down, and Derry had been conceded as early as November 1913 when the Irish nationalist leaders met with Prime Minister Asquith and Lloyd George (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) at Downing Street. By February of 1914, even the nationalist MP for West Belfast, Joseph Devlin, had relented to time-limited exclusion for a yet-to-be-determined portion of Ulster.
The irony of this document is that, while the pillars of Mayo’s nationalist élite were making a spirited defence of Ireland as an indivisible island, their political leaders had long ago conceded in principle to Ulster’s partitioning and would soon be accepting it in fact.
The Suspensory Act (4 & 5 Geo. 5 c. 88) that accompanied the third Home Rule Bill onto the statute book on 18 September 1914 confirmed that, although Home Rule was now the law of the land, it would not become a reality until the cessation of hostilities in Europe and pending suitable accommodation for Ulster. Ultimately, it would not be until 1920 that Ulster got its own parliament; ironically winning for itself exactly what it had resisted on an island-wide basis in 1914. It was not until the end of 1921 that Dublin agreed upon concessions far in excess of those offered in 1914 with the British cabinet. The immediate genesis of the treaty debates lies in similar discussions held in the summer of 1914.
Back in Castlebar, the innocence of the moment captured in this month’s document attests to a feeling that was general in much of Ireland and Britain on the eve of war. The people whose names are preserved in this document presumably visualised many future outcomes during that summer of 1914 filled with expectation and tension. However, it is unlikely that any of them could have foreseen quite how different Ireland and the world would look a decade later. Next month’s ‘From the Archives’ will speak from a world changed utterly by the First World War, this month’s post is the last from that ante-bellum age of innocence.
School of History and Archives
University College Dublin
Programme of Grand Tournament and Military Fete, Castlebar, 12 July 1914