Thursday, June 7, 2007

Athy and the conscription crisis of 1918

The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 15 December 1917 reported rumours of army conscription in Ireland about to be imposed by the British Government. Such a rumour, if it was true, was an acknowledgement of the failure of voluntary recruiting campaigns during the second half of the First World War.

Conscription had been first imposed on the British mainland in January 1916. Initially, only single men were affected but by May of the same year the attrition on the western front required that married men would also be subjected to the Military Services Act. On 9 May 1918, Lloyd George introduced a Military Services Bill in the House of Commons which, when passed, would impose conscription on Ireland. It became law on 18 April but its implementation was delayed in the face of opposition led by the Catholic bishops of Ireland.

The Nationalist of 20 April reported “opposition to conscription is rife in Athy”. On the following day, Sunday 21 April, an anti-conscription meeting was held in Emily Square, at which Canon Mackey, parish priest of Athy, was the principal speaker. He addressed the large crowd and administered the following pledge to those attending who assented by raising their hands. “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”. Included among the platform speakers were Martin Doyle, chairman of the urban district council, Denis Kilbride, MP, Peter P Doyle, urban district councillor and Sinn Féin club member, and JJ Bergin of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

On the following Tuesday, a national one-day strike was called as part of the continuing campaign of protest against conscription and in Athy the anti-conscription demonstration took place in the afternoon. All shops and workshops were closed and train services to and from the town were cancelled. Athy Pipers Club marched at the head of a parade of almost 400 women followed by the 500 strong newly-formed South Kildare Labour’s Union. Sinn Féin Club members from Ballyroe, Churchtown, Kilcruise, Ballyadams and Ballintubbert supported by a number of bands, including Athy Fife and Drum Band, also marched. In all, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 marching in the parade, which ended in Emily Square with an address by Peter P Doyle of the local Sinn Féin club. After the meeting, all those who had not previously done so signed the anti-conscription pledge and so ended “the most remarkable demonstration witnessed in Athy during living memory”.

The opposition was to compulsory conscription, not to the war nor to voluntary enlistment in the British army. By now, however, voluntary recruiting was at a virtual standstill.

The British military authorities were later to claim that “no propaganda of any character has been carried on in Ireland since the Rebellion of 1916 and public opinion was sullen or silent in respect of the war aims of the Allies”. Canon Mackey, for so long an avid supporter of recruitment for the British army, was one of the leaders of the anti-conscription campaign. Nevertheless, he would continue to address recruitment meetings in his parish right up to the end of the war. In opposing conscription, Canon Mackey was adopting the Irish hierarchy’s stand on the issue, the same issue which brought together for perhaps the first and only time the local Sinn Féin club and the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. However, in supporting recruiting in the British army, Canon Mackey differed from Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, within whose dioceses the Parish of St Michael’s, Athy was located.

Archbishop Walsh, who was noted for his strong nationalist sympathies, had supported the Plan of Campaign and later still Sinn Féin and was opposed to recruiting in Ireland. He refused to have anything to do with the war effort and banned the military from placing recruiting posters on the railings of Catholic churches in the Dublin dioceses. The active participation by Canon Mackey in recruiting in Athy appears to have been overlooked by Archbishop Walsh. In contrast, one of his curates in the pro-cathedral, who made a recruiting speech in Bray, was reprimanded before the Vicar Generals on 8 December 1915, just three days after he had publicly supported the recruiting campaign.

What affect the anti-conscription campaign had on recruiting in Athy during the last six months of the war is, in the absence of recruiting records, difficult to assess. However, it is reasonable to presume that the numbers recruited were considerably less than were hoped for.

The recruiting campaign recommenced in August 1918 and continued throughout October, when advertisements appeared in Irish provincial newspapers calling on Irishmen to enlist with the clear indication that if sufficient numbers did not come forward conscription would be enforced

Athy Urban District Council, which in the early years of the war fully supported the war effort, was now apparently divided on the issue. The Irish Recruiting Council sought the council’s support for its recruiting campaign and the October meeting of the council was addressed by Mr O’Brien of the Recruiting Council. The council chairman had to use his casting vote to allow him to speak, four members of the council having voted against the recruiting official being allowed to address the council. Mr O’Brien, as if to acknowledge the closeness of the vote, said: “I thought I would be among friends”, before proceeding to claim that “probably no town in Ireland or in the British Empire or in any part of the world were more volunteers recruited than in Athy in the early years of the war.”

The reference to Athy’s contribution to the early years of the war coming as it did from a member of the Irish Recruiting Council lends support to the thesis, even in the absence of official recruiting figures, that Athy men volunteered in numbers proportionately higher than most other towns in Ireland. Mr O’Brien subsequently addressed a public recruiting meeting in Athy on Tuesday 15 October and two weeks later another recruiting meeting was held in the town hall addressed by Sir Maurice Dockrell, one of the five members of the Irish Recruiting Council.

Dockrell claimed that Athy had done exceedingly well at the start of the war, “probably no town in the UK had done better”.

A local newspaper report of the meeting noted “a section of the audience became clamorous”, platform speakers were told to shut up and the meeting broke up when a verse of “Wrap the Green Flag” was sung by those opposed to recruiting. Even as the Leinster Leaderwas reporting on the recruiting meeting in Athy, its rival, the Nationalist and Leinster Times, on the same date referred to the “collapse of the German and Austrian powers”.

Possibly one of the last recruits from Athy was Reverend William Carroll, curate of St Michael’s Church of Ireland, who was commissioned as a chaplain to the armed forces in October 1918.

There was a huge response to the photographs which appeared in the Eye on the Past two weeks ago. The photograph of the two men sitting in the pub was not, as I indicated, taken in Doyle’s of Woodstock Street, but rather in Munsie Purcell’s of William Street. The photo-graph was taken by Maureen Poole and the two men have been identified by many of the callers as John Stynes and Mick Carroll.

The young boy in the milk cart photographed as it crossed the Crom a Boo bridge was identified as Harry Foley and he was driving a milk cart for Tom Harris of Rheban, Athy.

I am still awaiting the names of the various FCA men who were photographed in St John’s Lane at the back of what was the FCA Hall in the early 1960s.

If anybody can help to identify the young men in question, I would be delighted to hear from them.

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