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

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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