In 1918 the British government decided to extend conscription to Ireland. Nationalist opinion was outraged at what it saw as a violation of the rights of small nations that Britain claimed to be upholding in the war with Germany. Senior military and police leaders who were aware of the Irish situation warned that conscription would be ‘bitterly opposed by the united Nationalists and Clergy’, but, as Charles Townsend writes, at ‘no point did the cabinet seem to worry about the advisability of training a vast number of potential dissidents’. Indeed, Field Marshal Lord French, Commander in Chief of the Home Forces was determined to implement conscription, despite recognising that ‘the country would be thoroughly roused by bitter animosity and resolution’.
Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces badly needed 100,000-150,000 reinforcements on the Western Front, and declared himself not afraid to take hundreds of thousands of ‘recalcitrant conscripted Irishmen’ into his army of 2.5 million. Although the Irish political leaders, the church and the media bluntly said that introducing conscription to Ireland was ‘an act of insanity’ (London Times, April 8th 1918), the Military Service Bill was passed by the House of Commons on April 15th, 1918. Nevertheless, the House of Commons passed all stages of the Military Service Bill on April 16th, when the Irish Parliamentary Party withdrew in a body from Parliament as a protest. The Bill received the Royal Assent and became law on April 18th.
However, the Ireland into which it would be introduced was not at all receptive to this new Bill. Public opinion, influenced by the ongoing propaganda of the republican organisations, the continuing arrests under DORA and the ongoing hunger strikes, as well as high profile deaths such as that of Thomas Ashe, had swung towards Sinn Féin.
Funeral procession of Thomas Ashe on the Quays, going towards Glasnevin
Sinn Féin was, despite internal wrangling for power and position, was by early 1918, in pole position to influence Irish opinion on this very real threat of conscription; and it wasn’t the only organisation which determined to oppose its introduction. On this single issue the IPP and Sinn Féin temporarily put aside their many differences and stood as one in opposition, while the Catholic Church was also opposed it, on the basis that the Irish had not given their consent to the war in the first place. Crucial to the anti-conscription campaigns, however, would be the trade union movement and the women’s organisations.
On April 18, the Mansion House Committee was formed by representatives of Sinn Féin, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Irish Volunteers, the All for Ireland League and the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILP&TUC). The Committee decided to call on ‘all Irishmen to resist by the most effective means at their disposal’ any attempt by the British government to introduce conscription.
On April 20, at a special conference of the ILP&TUC 1,500 delegates affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription. Held on April 23, the strike brought much of the country to a standstill and, despite a ban by the British government on demonstrations, almost every town and city outside of Ulster had marches. So successful was the strike that the Irish Times said April 23 would ‘be remembered as the day on which Irish Labour recognised its strength’. Women also organised against conscription. Within three days (April 18) a united campaign of all shades of trade unionism, feminism, nationalism and republicanism was coming together to campaign against it. As well as Sinn Féin, the IPP and the Catholic Church, those who actively opposed conscription included the Labour Party, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU), and the Irish Volunteers.
On April 18, agreed a Sinn Féin pledge which declared that conscription was ‘a declaration of war on the Irish people’ and all present swore to ‘resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal’.Two million people, men and women, signed the anti-conscription pledge over the coming weeks.
The National Pledge
Other ‘most effective’ methods of resistance were provided by the trade union movement, the Labour party and the women’s organisations. On 20 April, a special meeting of the Irish Trade Unions Congress (ITUC), attended at about 1,500 members, affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription. This general strike, which happened on 23 April in all parts of Ireland except north-east Ulster, brought practical effect to the resolutions passed by Sinn Féin, the IPP, the Irish Volunteers and the Catholic hierarchy. Outside of Ulster it was hugely successful; pubs, shops, railways, newspapers, factories closed and all transport ground to a halt.
Organised and lead by the unions and the Labour Party, much of the country was shut down while, despite a ban, almost every town and city had marches. At City Hall in Dublin, thousands converged to sign the anti-conscription pledges. Interestingly women, organised by the IWWU and Cumann na mBan, took their own pledge which included the promise not to ‘fill the places of men deprived of their work through enforced military service’. Irishwomen were not going to be the supportive ‘home front’ if their men went off to war! This was a very visible demonstration of their own opposition to the war and a warning to the British government that the economy would be crippled in the event of it pressing ahead with its’ plans.
While such resistance ended active attempts to impose conscription, it also led to more intensive repression by British authorities. But women kept up their anti-conscription activities. The IWWU, with its expertise to co-organise a huge event, had members on the Lá na mBan (Women’s Day) planning group, chaired by Alice Stopford Green, which represented the different women’s organisations.
On June 9, 1918, thousands of female activists, many working class women and trade unionists, took to the streets for Lá na mBan. They collected masses of pledges, the Freemans’s Journal reported that 40,000 signed the anti-conscription pledge in Dublin’s City Hall alone.
Report and image, Irish Independent, June 10, 1918
It also reported that the 2,400-plus IWWU women who marched from their great Denmark Street offices to City Hall along with about 400 uniformed Cumann na mBan women ‘made the biggest show’.
IWWU founder and trade union activist, Delia Larkin signing the anti-conscription pledge in City Hall. With thanks to NLI Ms 40,395, Patricia Lynch / R.M. Fox Collection
On the day and in the following weeks, an estimated two-thirds of Ireland’s women signed the campaign’s ‘solemn pledge’ because ‘the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny’.Women also swore not to ‘blackleg’, that is take the place of men in factories and industry if the men were conscripted.
Lá na mBan’ demonstrated the ability of women’s trade unions and women activists to bring large numbers onto the streets in acts of civil disobedience against imposition of repressive laws. While the threat of conscription was not finally lifted until after the Armistice in November 1918, it was effectively dead in the water by late April/early May of that year. More disastrously, however, from a British perspective was that the anti-conscription campaigns served to heighten nationalist fervour throughout the country, with popular opinion swinging behind republicanism.
Membership of the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, and Sinn Fein surged. The moderates, those who would have been expected to support constitutional nationalism, were, by now, swinging towards Sinn Féin. The beginning of the end of the IPP was in sight, especially as the Church swung its support to a greener shade of nationalism. For Labour, April and the general strike, would prove to be a high point. Lá na mBan demonstrated that women activists had the ability to organise countrywide acts of civil disobedience. From June 1918, new branches of Cumann na mBan were being formed all over the country and older one expanded. By December 1918 most were in a position to make a real impact on the campaigns for Sinn Fein in the General Election, 1918.
Lá na mBan Pledge text
‘A Solemn Pledge from the Women of Ireland – Inaugurated on St Colmcille’s Day’.
“Because the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny, we are resolved to resist the conscription of Irishmen. We will not fill the places of men deprived of their work through refusing enforced military service. We will do all in our power to help the families of men who suffer through refusing enforced military service”.
The Lá na mBan Women’s Pledge form (c. Adams & Sons)