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Continental conflict halts home hostilities

Ireland stood on the precipice of civil war in 1914. The contentious issue of Home Rule was a divisive matter that saw Nationalist and Unionist militias arm themselves in preparation for seemingly imminent bloodshed.

However, the conflict that would become known as the First World War lasted four years and may have prevented civil war in Ireland but it did not signal the end of bloodshed on the island both during and after the 'Great War'.


From one conflict to another

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Ireland’s relationship with Britain was the root cause of the tension between Nationalists and Unionists.

In the run-up to World War One hundreds of thousands of Irish men had volunteered for Unionist and Nationalist militias. Civil war appeared to be inevitable. But as conflict erupted in Europe, differences were put aside and men of every political persuasion rallied to the flag. The huge loss of life on the continent may have prevented more widespread bloodshed in Ireland.

8th June 1886

Home Rule takes root

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In December 1910 a hung parliament in Westminster gave the Liberals an extremely precarious majority in the House of Commons.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, offered his support to the Liberals in Westminster in return for the introduction of a third Home Rule Bill (the previous two Home Rule Bills failed to pass through Parliament in 1886 and 1893) which would have granted Ireland parliamentary powers. The Liberals acquiesced to this and Home Rule was introduced in 1912 and was placed on the statute book in September 1914 but was suspended for the duration of WW1.

The goodwill of the Irish race is worth having.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party

28 September 1912

The Ulster Covenant

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The main opposition to Home Rule came from the northern province of Ulster, which had a higher Protestant population than the rest of the country.

The introduction of Home Rule was vehemently opposed by the northern Unionists, most notably Edward Carson and James Craig. Craig commissioned a firm statement of Unionist identity which became known as the Ulster Covenant. A mass signing of the Covenant was organised on 28 September 1912 at Belfast City Hall. Almost 500,000 signed the Covenant, meaning the weight of opposition to Home Rule in Ulster was very apparent to the British government.

Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland.

The Ulster Convenant


Tensions mount, militias form

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Ulster Volunteer Force prior to World War One

The Ulster Volunteer Force with a mobile machine during the Home Rule crisis.

By 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force had been formed, a militia comprised of 100,000 men who had signed the Ulster Covenant.

The Irish Volunteer Force was formed in Dublin as a response on the 25th November 1913. By June 1914 its membership exceeded 130,000. The race to arm these militias proved to be problematic but the intent to fight for opposing ideals was strong within both camps. However, as late as July 1914 the 100,000 strong UVF had only 37,048 rifles of a wide variety of makes. This, according to the historian Charles Townshend, would have created a ‘logistical nightmare’ in any battle situation.

I think the Orangeman with a rifle a much less ridiculous figure than the Nationalist without a rifle.

Patrick Pearse, Irish Nationalist

March 1914

Mutiny at the Curragh

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The Suffolk Regiment on parade near Dublin, during the Curragh Mutiny.

The Suffolk Regiment on parade near Dublin, during the Curragh Mutiny.

Opposition to Home Rule gained momentum in Ulster and the British government began to take action to quash any potential uprising by Unionists.

Sir Arthur Paget, the Commander-in-Chief of troops in Ireland, was ordered to deploy 800 troops to the northern Province. But 57 of the 70 brigadiers at the Curragh Army Barracks in county Kildare opted for dismissal rather than taking imminent action in Ulster. Although technically not mutinous, the widespread dissent within the ranks prompted the War Office to state that they had no future intentions to use the army to enforce the Home Rule Bill.

The employment of troops against Ulster is a contingency which the Government hopes may never arise.

Herbert Asquith, British Prime Minister

July 1914

Back from the brink

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With Home Rule having received Royal assent in September 1914, tensions in Ireland were sated by events on the continent.

The Larne and Howth gun-runnings were Unionist and Nationalist attempts to arm militias in preparation for, what seemed like, inevitable hostilities. Historian and author Turtle Bunbury explains just how the outbreak of World War One avoided the seemingly 'imminent' Civil War and why those with opposing ideologies in Ireland put their differences aside to fight for the same cause in Europe.

The numbers killed were, relatively speaking, quite small, certainly in comparison to what would have happened if the bloodletting had begun in 1914.

Turtle Bunbury, historian and author

28 July 1914

Uniting against a common enemy

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The imminent prospect of civil war in Ireland was put on hiatus as both Nationalists and Unionists fought alongside each other.

Nationalists and Unionists did not merely take up arms as a means of advancing their own domestic political ideals. There were many reasons that Irishmen chose to go to war on the continent rather than waging it on each other at home. Many signed up out of economic necessity, while others signed up out of a perceived romanticism connected with war.

The armed Catholics in the south will only be too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen.

John Redmond , MP


Ireland during the war

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Soldiers fighting in the Irish civil war in 1922

Army snipers take aim from a window in Sackville Street, Dublin, during the Irish Civil War.

Civil war may have been averted in Ireland during World War One but civil unrest was not.

Despite thousands of Irish men signing up to fight on behalf of Britain during World War One, an alliance of Nationalists and militant labour as well as members of women's movement saw an opportunity to establish a republic within Ireland. This led to an insurgency known as the Easter Rising in 1916, the consequences of which would lay the foundations of the war of independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War in the decade after World War One.