Ireland’s Media War of 1914: the Bachelors Walk lessons

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Basil Fawlty was wrong: the message this year is Do Mention The War.  Just remember that there are two wars to mention: a century ago, the Great War broke out in Europe, but at the same time (to my mind) Ireland’s war of independence was temporarily postponed.

Irish media outlets – then as now – were a crucial political thermometer, and in the days before radio, television, and the internet, only newspapers had this power.  We can see this power in the newspapers of the time.

On Sunday 26 July 1914 in Dublin, British soldiers killed four people and injured 37 during a hostile but unarmed protest on Bachelors Walk.  Earlier, the soldiers had failed to disarm the Irish Volunteers who were landing rifles and ammunition at Howth. 

In April, the Ulster Volunteers had landed even more weapons at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee – with the authorities in no way stopping or impeding them, and the British Army stationed at the Curragh having threatened to mutiny if they were ordered to enforce Home Rule on Ulster.

In their headlines, the following day’s Belfast Evening Telegraph and Irish Times tellingly use the words “mob”, and “sequel to gun-running”, as if the killings were an inevitable conclusion to the Howth landing.  Thereafter, the Telegraph and Times part ways in their reportage.

With the official commission of inquiry into these events barely underway (it would ultimately censure the military’s actions), the Telegraph jumps the gun (pardon the pun) in justifying the soldiers’ action:

When the soldiers were returning through Dublin, they were so fiercely stoned by an infuriated crowd from the Nelson Pillar to Bachelors Walk, that they had to fire on the mob and charge with bayonets.’

The Times, while dismissing the protesters as ‘the sort of slum crowd which gave so much trouble during the Dublin strikes’ (a reference to the 1913 Lockout), also highlights the hypocrisy in law enforcement:

It is not for us to criticise the conduct of the Nationalist Volunteers in landing a cargo of rifles at Howth yesterday.  We cannot fairly blame their almost exact imitation of deeds which we have not condemned in Ulster.’

The nationalist-leaning Derry Journal agrees, but more sardonically:

See the contrast and – late though the day it be – learn the lesson: Ulster Volunteers in Belfast parade with rifles and bayonets and machine-guns, and the authorities quiescent, complacently looking on: In Dublin, the Castle rushes out its police and military… to challenge, hold up and suppress, and shoot down in agony and death Irish Volunteers who dare to land firearms at Howth!  And we in Ireland are under the blessed regime of a Liberal Government!!

Newspapers in 1914 were also capable of unintentional irony – or dubious taste: later that week, the Journal of Friday 31 July carries an advert for “Guns!  Guns!  Guns!” from a Waterside trader.

English newspapers’ coverage of events is also noteworthy.  Commenting on the collapse of the Buckingham Palace Conference, where the parties failed to agree on how best to satisfy both nationalists and Unionists in enacting Home Rule, the Daily Telegraph rather patronisingly asks why the nationalists cannot agree to some exclusion deal for Ulster:

For the sake of Ireland cannot a large number of Nationalists make that sacrifice, seeing how immeasurable would be the advantage of peace to their cause, and seeing that whatever is given to Protestant Ulster she is gaining absolutely nothing, while Nationalism is gaining almost everything.

The Morning Post concurs, melodramatically remarking ‘How sad it is that those who complain most of the tyranny of others use the first opportunity to become tyrants themselves.’  The Home Rule crisis certainly seemed to bring out the worst in some newspapers in terms of hypocrisy.  In his book “Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century was Reported”, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson notes:

‘Negotiation while pointing a loaded gun at your adversary is a tactic which, over the decades, the [Daily] Mail had deplored and would continue to deplore.  But not in the case of Ulster; that, the Mail believed, was an issue of principle… The Mail, echoing the tactic of the Ulster Unionists, hinted more and more crudely that if their demands were not met there would be violence and rebellion – though such words were never quite used.’

The victims on Bachelors Walk were hit by the first shots in Ireland’s war of independence.  Even those who would otherwise have had no time for Sinn Fein’s republicanism were shocked and angered over British soldiers killing unarmed Irish civilians – a spectacle that would be tragically revisited many times. 

They would have agreed with newspaper editorials noting how especially galling it was when contrasted with the authorities’ inaction over drilling and gun-running from Ulster Volunteers in Belfast.  Amid a cry of “Remember Bachelors Walk”, the Irish Volunteers swelled with new recruits over the following days and weeks. 

Among those Volunteers present on Bachelors Walk were two schoolteachers called Pádraic Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, and they would carry their anger and memories (and weapons) to Dublin’s General Post Office at Easter 1916. 

Passions throughout Ireland were sufficiently high, and political leadership failures sufficiently catastrophic, to fuel such a conflict at some point – with or without the Great War or the successful enactment of Home Rule: it was only a question of time.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Emperor Franz Josef’s plans for central Europe merely forced the belligerents in Ireland to hold things off for a bit. The Irish Times editorial of 27 July articulates the fears of those critical days:

The state of our country is desperately critical.  The Administration is helpless and discredited.  Everywhere men are taking the law into their own hands.  The nation is divided into two rival armies.  Passions run stern and high…

We hear much of the ideal of self-government.  For all intents and purposes Ireland is governing herself to-day.  Her peace and good name are in the hands of her own citizens.

Journalism, as the cliché goes, is the first draft of history, and the reportage and commentary of the Irish war’s first shots are especially vivid drafts, but the journalists working in Ireland in July 1914 offer more than just quality and tone: they also reveal interesting parallels with our own times. 

There is the reflex dismissal of radical protests, the patronising tone in English newspapers when covering political talks between nationalists and Unionists, and the double standards adopted in law enforcement.  There is a lot to keep in mind, and learn from, as we commemorate the outbreak of one war and the postponement of another.

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  • Michael Henry

    The English were the first to bring guns into Ireland on a army scale and they hated when the Irish locals tried to arm themselves to fight of the invaders- even when they failed to capture most of the weapons brought into Ireland for the Irish in 1914 the English took to shooting dead stone throwers on the streets of Dublin- what big hard men they were-

  • Nevin

    “On Sunday 26 July 1914 in Dublin”

    The Hansard account provides some additional information about shootings and injuries in Dublin.

  • fordprefect

    Yeah, the “war to end all wars” was fought in defence of small nations. Ireland was promised this, that and the other if the flower of her manhood went to fight. It was as usual a cynical ploy by “Perfidious Albion” , in that, after the war it was “up yours”! and your Irish Republic. Having said that, my Grandfather fought (for the British) in both WW1 and WW2. He obviously fought bravely because I saw his medals, but he never spoke about it, all he would ever say to us Grandchildren was: “I smell dead people on my hands”. Maybe the wars affected him more than he let on or maybe he was trying to get through to us kids that killing people was/is wrong, or both, but I’ll never know, he died aged 88 when I was barely 11. I’m still trying to find his name on the census’s from the Free State and what British Army unit he was in (he was born in what was to become the Free State) if anyone can help me with this, please do. Even though I am a socialist republican I’m still proud of my Granda, especially fighting against Nazis.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Ford

    With regards to your granda, do you know if he had any brothers or friends that served alongside him and were killed in WWI?
    If so, you might be able to go through the ‘Books of the Dead’ in St Anne’s Cathedral (ordered alphabetically) and that would show you the regiment the deceased was in, that could give you a head start..

    Failing that, perhaps contact a RBL branch. I imagine they’d be suitably clued up on such things.

    Now, with regards to the post-war ‘up yours’ from Britain, surely it stands to reason that ‘the empire’ could not afford in any shape of form to give the appearance of being ‘booted’ out of a country.

    And that would surely have been the case had they passed Home Rule after the Easter Rising?

    Dunno, just my view on the matter, we’ll never know for sure.

    But good luck with finding out about your Granda’s unit.

  • the rich get richer

    One law for one and another law for another does not produce good results long term.

    I advise “The Rich” of today to pay attention !

  • Nevin

    fp, I dabble in family history. You can contact me through NALIL blog.

  • fordprefect

    Many thanks Nevin, I have your site on my favourites and will get back shortly.

  • fordprefect

    Am Ghobsmacht, many thanks to you as well, I’ll try that in St. Anne’s. Do you know what would be the best RBL branch that I could go to in Belfast? I don’t think my Granda had any brothers in the wars, but he would have had many friends I’m sure. As regards the ’16 Rising, of course the Brits wouldn’t have left after it, but 3 years after WW1 they left most of Ireland with a boot up the hole! LOL. Also AG, have you ever done the Graveyard Tours? They are brilliant, in Milltown and the City Cemetery it’s not just Republican graves it’s also soldiers who were killed in both World Wars.

  • Red Lion

    Off topic I know, but..

    No Commonwealth Games thread on Slugger? Come on, be nice to follow the various Team NI competitors as the games progress. Not least as slugger’s very own contributor Gladys Ganiel did amazingly well in the woman’s marathon this morning, finishing 12th for Northern Ireland in a very strong field in a time of 2 hrs 40!!!

    Just shows that amateur club runners can compete at a higher level-inspirational!!

    Well done Gladys!!

  • Zeno

    I agree with you. The murder of innocent civilians is a despicable act no who does it or for what reason.

  • babyface finlayson

    ford
    When you are at St Anne’s you might try central library nearby. You can access ancestry.com through them and search military records etc.

  • fordprefect

    Babyface, many thanks to you as well, appreciated.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    To be honest I wouldn’t have a clue about which RBL would be the best one to approach.

    As for the graveyard tours, sounds right up my street, I’ll check it out when I’m next home.

  • Roy Walsh

    Ref above, if you try the British Legion in Waring St. Belfast they’ll probably have the necessary information, a lot of men who returned from France went on to fight for the Republican cause so try the BMH archives too.

  • fordprefect

    Roy Walsh, many thanks to you also. I know I might sound stupid here, but what does BMH mean?

  • MalikHills

    I remember digging through the cellar at my father’s house and finding the war-time records of my dad’s uncle. He had been a sergeant in the RIC and joined the Inniskillings. Wounded twice he was invalided out after the Battle of Arras in 1917. He went on to join the UK civil service (coming top in Ireland in the entrance exam) where he loyally served His Majesty, and later the Free State, in Dublin before dying early (maybe as a result of wartime injuries) in his respectable South Dublin suburb in the early 1930’s.

    So far so unremarkable I suppose, except that his three brothers (and sister, my Grannie was Cuman Na Ban) were in the IRA fighting with the legendary Peadar O’Donnail in Donegal. They chose the Republican side in the Civil War, and ended up spending a few years interned in miserable, filthy barracks in the Curragh, they carried their hatred of the Free State to their graves four decades later.

    I’ve never found out whether the siblings had much contact at that time, but they do provide a poignant example of the mixed loyalties that split Ireland at that time. It was far from the black-and-white picture that is often painted of the period.