The outbreak of war had an immense effect on the country. The objects for which England had declared hostilities on Germany were carefully concealed under a tide of hypocritical but high sounding self-righteous shibboleths. Suffering Catholic Belgium―particularly the ‘Catholic’ part of it―was held up to the gaze of suffering Ireland as an example of the horrors of German militarism and the Irish were informed that such would also be their fate if England’s enemy landed in Ireland. The war had only been in progress for a couple of weeks when stories of German atrocities, horrible to read, were advertised, free gratis and for nothing. The press, subsidized by the British Government, printed horror after horror, culminating with the outrages and sacrileges perpetrated on the Catholic Church in Belgium by the terrible Huns. And these atrocities were for the most part conjured up in the fertile imaginations of the scribes of Fleet Street, London. The Irish, credulous, ill-informed and sympathetic towards any tale of human suffering, for the most part, believed for a while these fabrications which England knew so well would stir the Celtic mind.
This was particularly so when Redmond, after dilating on the woes of Belgium and re-echoing parrot-like the platitudes of British Premier that England was fighting for the small nations, announced that Ireland was heart and soul with England in the war and that the duty of Irishmen was to avenge the wrongs of Belgium. This was followed up when, at a review of Volunteers at Woodenbridge in the County of Wicklow, he stated specifically that they, the Volunteers, had a twofold duty to perform. One was to defend the shores of Ireland at home and the other was to defend it abroad in Flanders. The people were unable for a long time to grasp the issue and the bulk of them followed Redmond blindly until their eyes were opened to the precipice to which he was leading them.
Coincident with the war the infamous Defence of the Realm Act was passed. This Act purported to be for the protection of the people of Great Britain and Ireland against the machinations of Germany, particularly in the matter of espionage. As such it was administered in Great Britain, but in Ireland, it was used, not for the purpose ostensibly intended, but for the suppression of the last sparks of national feeling. In other words, under the cover of war, while the eyes of the world were turned on Europe, England was continuing her age-long war on the Irish Nation. In the face of this how hollow her claim is that she was fighting for the rights of small nations, and how shameless her hypocrisy in proclaiming herself the champion of civilization.
All the Irish people did not forsake Ireland. A minority, composed for the greater part of those who had held the gap all along still stood true. This minority was found only in the ranks of the remnant of the Volunteers, the Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and, last but not least, the Fianna. It is to these, who in the first instance, considering neither their size not their influence, nor shrinking from the terrible outlook that confronted them, stood out for principle first as against ‘safety first’, that Ireland is indebted for her salvation as a Nation. Had they, acting along the line of least resistance, adopted an attitude of expediency, no matter with what ulterior motive, all would have been lost and the final object of England’s Irish policy accomplished.
Under the Defence of the Realm Act, a veritable reign of terror governed Ireland. The corrupt press was in the power of the Government and daily poured forth the vile calumnies and horrid blasphemies that their employers dictated. The few newspapers that still retained some spark of national sympathy, were quickly brought to book or suppressed. Free speech became a thing of the past. The jails were filled with men and women who were sent there, not for pro-German expressions, but for voicing Ireland’s aspirations as one of those small nations whom England was supposed to be fighting for. Even the Gaelic language was attacked and people were imprisoned for speaking Irish.
A vast recruiting campaign for the British army was launched. The reasons and pleas put forward as to why Irishmen should enlist were specious and ridiculous in the extreme. The walls and billboards of the cities and towns were decorated with invitations to join in the grand international war game. Such soul stirring appeals as ‘Kitchener Wants you;’ ‘Your King and country need You;’ ‘What John Redmond says about the war’ met the eye at every turn.
From press and platform, aye and even from the pulpit that one would think would be safe from the unholy influence of England, a vast cry resounded through the land calling on Irishmen to join the British army―to give their bodies to England and their souls to the Devil. And all this on the plea that war against Germany was Ireland’s war as well as England’s, whereas, on the contrary, it is an established precedent in Irish history, that whoever is England’s enemy, must of necessity be Ireland’s friend. It was wonderful how suddenly England discovered what a splendid fighting race the Irish were. The pains they took to prove it, too! It was recalled how the Irish Brigade won the battles of France, particular attention being devoted to Fontenoy. England suddenly remembered Ireland had a history and proceeded to make use of the passages that suited her purpose, but she did not recall the reason why the Irish Brigade fought on the side of France, nor whom they defeated at Fontenoy. It would be very inconvenient to recall that when Ireland helped France and France helped Ireland, it was at a time when France was England’s enemy and not her friend.
But the recruiting campaign did not get everything its own way. It was attacked right, left and centre with every means short of open hostilities. The Fianna were active in combating this and other forms of British propaganda. Anti-recruiting leaflets and posters were distributed by the thousand. Many of these were written by the Countess Markievicz, others by some of the boys. Many of the latter worked night after night printing these leaflets, giving their spare time to the work, which was done with the greatest secrecy, as it was risky in the extreme. The work of distributing and posting them up had to be done with great caution, too, the boys in different parts of the country were frequently apprehended for it and fined or sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. Recruiting posters were torn down at every opportunity or tarred over. For tearing down a poster, Eddie Murray, mentioned before in connection with several events, got a month in jail. He didn’t mind, taking it all as part of the day’s work. Tearing down Union Jacks was a great sport of the boys. Day after day this was done, the automobiles of the seoinin element, who sported this emblem of their enslavement, receiving particular attention.
Speakers at recruitment meetings were interrupted with apt illusions and witticisms. At one of these meetings one of the speakers―a British non-commissioned officer―using one of the inane Jingo slogans common in England, ‘Are we down’earted?’ ‘No,’ shouted the crowd, composed for the greater part of Fianna and Sinn Feiners. Encouraged by this he bawled, ‘Are we going to win this wah,’ and was nearly staggered by the roar of ‘No’ that came from the crowd. Eventually, as a result of the persistent efforts of real Nationalists, the recruiting campaign became a failure and enlistment stopped. England, with the help of Redmond, and the Parliamentary Party, had played her game in Ireland and lost.
With the advent of Conscription in England and the imminence of it in Ireland the Irish Volunteers began to grow in numbers and influence and wherever they got a foothold the Fianna were quickly established. The two movements went hand in hand, the Executive of the Volunteers recognizing the Fianna as the official ‘scout’ organization and commending them time after time in their manifestoes. At length the Government, getting seriously alarmed over the growing strength of National feeling, determined to limit the activities of the Volunteers, and so, in July, 1915, they order four men, Herbert Pim, Denis MacCollough, Liam Mellows and Ernest Blythe, to leave Ireland and intern themselves in England. This they refused to do. They were arrested and after a farcical trial, got short sentences of imprisonment. Of these four the latter two, who were the chief organizers of the Volunteers, had been prominently identified with the Fianna previous to the starting of the former movement. Later on, in March, 1916, these two were again arrested and, without any charge whatever brought against them, were deported from their country to England. So that the Fianna had the honor of having two of its members subjected to treatment such as England had not attempted since the days of Cromwell.
The work of the Fianna in the anti-recruiting campaign evoked many questions and was the subject of debate in the British Parliament. Members described it as a most seditious organization and attention was called to the Declaration each boy took: ‘I promise to work for the Independence of Ireland, never to join England’s armed forces and to obey my superior officers.’ Even before the war, rule after rule of the Constitution of the Fianna was discussed in the House, Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, said: ‘The Irish National Boy Scouts organization was a bee-hive of rebels and a menace in the country. There was nothing ambiguous about the Constitution of the Fianna. Its object and means were plainly stated and could be read with but one meaning; the straight issue for an Independent Ireland.’
The Fianna now boasted a paper of their own, called after themselves Fianna. It was a venture on the part of two of the Dublin boys, Pierce Reynolds and Patsy O’Connor, aided by the Countess. It came out first as a special Christmas number in 1914, but began to appear regularly monthly from the Spring of the next year right up until the Revolution. It contained articles, poems and stories and written for the most by the boys themselves. A splendid serial story ran in it, written by Padraig Pearse, dealing with the Fenian days and centering round a group of boys in a Saint Enda setting. It is to be earnestly hoped someday this story will be published in book form, as it is one of the best things in lighter vein written by the first President of the Irish Republic.
Poor Patsy O’Connor died very suddenly toward the end of 1915. During the great Dublin strike in 1913, Patsy received a severe blow on the head from a police baton while trying to administer first aid to an old man who had been badly hurt during one of the baton charges. After superficial treatment at a hospital Patsy thought he was all right as the wound healed up rapidly. But two years later he arrived home one evening complaining of a pain in his head and after drinking a cup of tea suddenly collapsed and died almost immediately. A clot of blood had congealed on the brain and two years after the blow had burst.
His comrades felt Patsy’s death badly. He was a most promising boy and had been in the Fianna since he was twelve years old. Full of fun and laughter, but brave as a lion and true as steel, his whole heart was bound up in the cause of Ireland and his death robbed it of one whose only thought was of The Day he never lived to see. His comrades gave him the first Fianna military funeral and marched with sorrowing hearts behind his coffin draped with the Irish Republican colors to Glasnevin.
JULY 7, 1917.