On 15th November 1917, as World War I entered its fourth year, the Nationalist and Leinster Times mentioned rumours which were then in circulation regarding the possibility of conscription in Ireland. Voluntary recruitment had failed to supply the numbers required to supplement the war weary troops in France and Flanders or even to replace the growing number who fell in battle.
Conscription had been first imposed on the British mainland in January 1916. Initially only single men were effected but by May of the said year the attrition on the Western Front required that married men would also be subjected to the Military Services Act. Following the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and more particularly the execution of its leaders, public opinion turned in favour of the Nationalist cause and those who promoted it. 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”. It has not been possible to assess the level of recruiting in Ireland after the first year or so of the war as the authorities did not publish recruitment figures. The Irish National Recruiting Committee which co-ordinated recruiting in Ireland after the autumn of 1915 operated from Maples Hotel in Kildare Street, Dublin. Chairman of the Committee was Sergeant A.M. Sullivan, K.C. who acted as Counsel for Roger Casement in his treason trial in 1916. The executive of the committee was headed up by Lieutenant A. Cox, R.G.A. while Lieutenant Colonel J. Reid Hyde was the representative of the Ministry of National Services on the Irish committee. Rather unfortunately Maples Hotel was destroyed by fire on 18th February 1919 and the registration and recruiting records relating to Ireland were destroyed.
On 9th May 1918 Lloyd George introduced a Military Services Bill in the House of Commons which when passed would apply conscription to Ireland. It became law on 18th April but its implementation was delayed in the face of an onslaught of opposition led by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland. The Nationalist of 20th April reported “opposition to conscription is rife in Athy”. On the following day, Sunday 21st April an anti conscription meeting was held in Emily Square, Athy at which Canon Mackey, Parish Priest of Athy was the principal speaker. He addressed the large crowd and administered the following pledge to which those attending 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 amongst the platform speakers were Martin Doyle, Chairman of the Urban District Council, Denis Kilbride, M.P., Peter P. Doyle, Urban District Council and Sinn Fein Club Member, and J.J. Bergin of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. On the following Tuesday a national one day strike was called in protest against conscription and in Athy an anti conscription demonstration took place in the afternoon. All shops and workshops were closed and train services to and from the town were stopped for the day. Athy Pipers Club marched at the head of almost 400 women followed by the 500 strong newly formed South Kildare Labour’s Union, Sinn Fein Club members from Ballyroe, Churchtown, Kilcruise, Ballyadams and Ballintubbert supported by a number of bands including Athy Fife and Drum Band. 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 Fein Club. After the meeting all those who had not previously done so signed the 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. Canon Mackey for so long an avid supporter of recruitment was one of the leaders of the Anti Conscription Campaign. Nevertheless he would continued to address recruiting meetings in his parish right up to the end of the war. In opposing conscription Canon Mackey was adopting the Irish hierarchy stand on the issue, the same issue which brought together for perhaps the first and only time the local Sinn Fein Club and the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. 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 lies. Archbishop Walsh who was noted for his strong Nationalist sympathies had supported the Plan of Campaign and later still Sinn Fein 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 gone uncorrected 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 8th December 1915 just three days after he had publicly supported the Recruiting Campaign.
What effect the Anti-Conscription Campaign had on recruiting in Ireland during the last six months of the war is in the absence of recruiting returns difficult say but relatively easy to imagine. The Irish Recruiting Committee acknowledge that “Sinn Fein was rampant and the National Party appears to have capitulated and thrown up its hand”. Nevertheless the Committee responded to General French’s call on 3rd June 1918 for 50,000 Irish recruits before October, with 3,000 or 4,000 recruits each month thereafter in order to forestall the implementation of the Conscription Act. A nationwide voluntary recruiting campaign was started in August 1918 with new posters designed by Captain Hinck and with the assistance of a sub-editor of the “Freeman” newspaper who was employed as a Director of Propaganda. The Recruiting Campaign was aimed at young townsmen for “it is not expected that rural population will be available for military service”. Ireland was divided into ten areas and County Kildare with a number of other adjoining counties was included with Dublin. Significantly there were five recruiting offices in the Dublin area located outside the capital, one of which was to be found in Athy.
A memo to the Minister in London suggested allowing “boys of 17/18 years to join” on the basis that “it appears from reports in every recruiting area in Ireland that hundreds of boys under 18 years offered themselves for serving with the approval of their parents and are refused of course”. At the same time the committee was claiming that “money is plentiful in Ireland at the moment. Men who in pre-war days were in poverty can now spend demonstratively large sums of money”. Irish men were apparently no longer induced to enlist because of poverty or unemployment. By 28th October 1918 Sergeant O’Sullivan, Chairman of the Irish Recruiting Committee claimed “voluntary recruitment was dead”.