How Ireland Escaped Conscription in WWI

Petticoat-Rebels-of-1916Brighid O’Sullivan guest posts today with a topic on Ireland and World War I. In addition to Petticoat Rebels of 1916: Extraordinary Women in Ireland’s Struggle for Freedom, Brighid is the author of 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Ireland and The Sun Palace, a novel set in 6th century Ireland. As you might have guessed, she’s passionate about Ireland and its history.

How Ireland Escaped Conscription in WWI by Brighid O’Sullivan

Poverty, poor working conditions, high infant mortality rates, and hopelessness were facts of life in the 20th century. Sadly, people had little control over any of these conditions. They did, however, have control over whether to be shot at or not, or did they?

Conscription is never a popular subject but no time in history has the compulsory requirement to join the British Army had more controversy than during WWI. Debated in Parliament as far back as 1914, it took affect with the passing of the Military Service Act in March of 1916.

At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, although at no time in history was this ever a peaceful marriage. While 200,000 Englishmen demonstrated against conscription in Trafalgar Square London, anti-recruitment campaigns were in full swing in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. By 1916, anti-enlistment campaigns included publications in small and large newspapers, satirical posters, plays such as ‘The Saxon Shilling’ written by Padraic Column, and outright destruction of British enlistment posters. This was not to say that thousands of Irishmen did not voluntarily join the British army, which they did, but the numbers had dropped significantly as the first world war progressed.

Because many Irishmen so strongly opposed conscription, England hesitated to enforce it in Ireland, yet no one had thought to ask about the Irishmen living in England at the time. Helen Ruth Gifford (Nellie), a young Irish woman who had memories of countless friends and relatives lost in the Boer War, was not convinced when England said she would not conscript Irishmen into the British army. Would her friends in England be safe, she worried. Would they fall through the loopholes and be conscripted the same as Englishmen?

The question needed an answer before it was too late. Nellie, along with Helen Molony engaged the help of an Irish MP, Alfie Byrne, to bring up the subject in Parliament.

On a Tuesday in the House of Commons, Byrne posed the question of whether Irishmen living in England were exempt from conscription. When told they were not and they could indeed be drafted, the response influenced a huge wave of Irishmen to travel back to their native country.

England was furious and many employers in Ireland refused to give the men jobs when they arrived from England. Men who had jobs but refused to enlist, were replaced with men who were older and not able to serve in the British army. Some employers went as far as printing flyers that read: your country needs you, we don’t.’ These flyers were plastered alongside recruitment posters all over Dublin.

Nellie Gifford, who had started it all, went one-step further in setting up what she called, the ‘Burra’. She obtained names of anyone sacked for not joining the British army and gave out her own address where they could find help. The room was too small, however to shelter so many dismissed men at once. Thomas MacDonagh offered his room instead. His was the Volunteer Headquarters on 2 Dawson Street. The apartment had a dual purpose but as far as the British were concerned, it was simply an Employment Bureau. Arriving from London, Michael Collins sought out a job, naturally ending up at Nellie’s Burra. She quickly recommended him as an assistant to Joseph Plunkett, one of the signatories and leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. Joseph Plunkett was executed later a few hours after marrying his bride, Grace Gifford in Kilmainham jail.

To read more about Irish history by Brighid O’Sullivan go to

If you are interested in Nellie Gifford and other women who were part of Irish and British history, you may enjoy Petticoat Rebels of 1916, Extraordinary Women Who Fought for Irish Freedom.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Brighid. 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

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16 Responses

  1. The centenary of the Easter Rising is bringing up all sorts of interesting Irish history – just in time for my visit to Ireland next month. Thanks, Brighid, for adding more depth to my understanding of this fascinating country.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. A lot of people don’t realize how women changed the course of history in Ireland. Irish women have a long lineage of strength and bravery all throughout Irish history. They had to be strong for what they dealt with. I take it you are Irish American or ?

      1. Irish Canadian but i live in the UK now (reversing my parents’ 1950s voyage!) My mom sent me an email to say she’d read the post and very much enjoyed. So thank you!

  2. Dear Brighid I had no idea that Irish women were so involved in the anti-conscription campaign so thank you for this post. I will follow now and learn more:)
    kind regards
    Olga Walker

    1. HI Olga, I firmly believe that without the women Ireland the country would never have become a Republic. They carried dispatches, ammunition, guns, food and provisions, provided first aid etc. All the while they were risking their lives. Many of these women lost jobs, status, and became destitute in the process. Well before any violence began, they fed the poor, taught Irish language and literature as well. Some acted in Pro-Irish plays. If anyone is interested in learning more about these extraordinary women, drop me a note and I”ll send you my ebook Petticoat Rebels of 1916 free.

      1. That would be wonderful and thank you. My grandmother was a nurse and I think I have found some evidence of her being in Dublin at the time of marital law (1921). The document I found is a report made when a house was searched. It also lists the damage done and the allegation that money was stolen…have to confirm it is her of course…so the trail is interesting and fascinating and utterly challenging as I live in Australia:):)

  3. I knew next to nothing about the 1916 Easter Rising until I started watching the Netflix Original mini-series “Rebellion” (5 episodes) two days ago: The show focuses on the female volunteers and I found it enjoyable and interesting, but several user reviews suggest that the series is not totally accurate from a historical point of view. I would be very interested to know Brighid O’Sullivan’s opinion.

  4. Thank you so much. I so wanted to watch that series but it was not being televised in Western NY where I live although now that you have pointed it out on Netflix I’ll see if I can get it that way. I’ll have to reserve my opinion of the show until I can watch the series (if I can that is). That being said, I know the movie, Michael Collins had some liberties taken to add to the drama but all in all it was pretty accurate. Do you remember where you saw the reviews so I can look them up? I’ve read a good deal about the women of the Rising and am still learning all the time. Its absolutely amazing to me how much they had a hand in it. Part of that was because some of them were convinced that a free Ireland meant women would have more freedom as well. Women’s Suffrage in England had been raging for quite some time and all this was during WWI. The world was in great turmoil everywhere it seemed.

    1. Thank you for your response! The reviews I was referring to are user reviews (not professional critics) on IMDB. I only read a few of them, so it may be that their perspective was not wholly representative…

      1. I looked into the series on netflix and its not available as of yet in western NY where I live. I did read the reviews you referred to as well as a Wall Street Journal piece on the series. I’ve also noticed a few reviews here and there that some of the Irish did not think the series was a good portrayal. That being said, I think people miss the point. IN order to engage the masses, screen writers feel they need to embellish specific aspects of historical dramas for television. I read in the Wall Street Journal they portray a woman skipping out on her wedding to a British officer and tending wounded in her wedding gown. I doubt that ever happened. Of all the books I’ve read, including newspaper accounts, I would have read about something so outrageous as a woman tending wounded in a gown. Of course I could be wrong but my guess is that it was a Hollywood type embellishment. Even so, I think movies have merit as they bring history to a population who would not otherwise pick up a book or know anything about the subject matter. It can only be a good thing to educate and as long as the most important facts are true, whats the harm?
        To learn more about some of the brave women of 1916 and their real life histories, I am extending a Free ebook of Petticoat Rebels of 1916 to the readers of A Writer of History. All that is needed is to send a request to my email

  5. It sounds like quite a mess, as Irish history was in that time. But just for that, I think it was also one of the most interesting times in the nation history.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

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