Brighid 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 celticthoughts.com.
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.
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.