6 THE STRUGGLE DEVELOPS
THE STRUGGLE DEVELOPS
When Collins and the other internees arrived home to Dublin on Christmas morning, 1916, they received a tumultuous welcome. Although the Rising had been a military failure, the executions had made them national heroes. Collins spent Christmas Day celebrating with his friends Gearoid O’Sullivan and Joe O’Reilly and, somewhat the worse for wear, was bundled on to a side car and brought to the Cork train. He had to walk home from Clonakilty station to Woodfield where he found that his grandmother had just died. He remained a few weeks at home and then returned to Dublin.
On 20th January, 1917 nationalists were enraged when the Royal Dublin Society, at a meeting specially summoned for the purpose, formally expelled Count Plunkett from the membership of the Society by 236 votes to 58. Count Plunkett was the father of Joseph Plunkett who had been executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising and his other two sons were serving sentences of penal servitude for taking part in the insurrection; the only reason for his expulsion was his supposed sympathy with the views of his sons.
The Royal Dublin Society was seen as an institution dominated by British Loyalists and its action seen as an insult to a patriotic family. An opportunity presented itself to test public opinion. A vacancy arose for the parliamentary seat of North Roscommon and Count Plunkett was nominated as a candidate in opposition to a Mr. Devine. the official candidate of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
All shades of opinion in the nationalist movement supported Plunkett’s candidature. No group were more active than Collins and the released men of Frongoch who threw all their energy into supporting Plunkett. The constituency was flooded with election literature and earnest young Plunkett supporters. Collins is credited with writing the following piece of election propaganda. …”Because he would not associate with the Irishmen who cheered when his son was shot against a wall for loving Ireland, will you insult him in North Roscommon, as the Royal Dublin Society did and tell the British Government that he is not the man you want? No. There are Irishmen in North Roscommon yet”….. The election result was a mortal blow to the Irish Parliamentary Party. Count Plunkett secured 3,022 votes as against Mr. Devine’s 1,708. Immediately after the election Count Plunkett announced that he would not be attending the British Parliament – the policy of Irish Parliamentary abstentionism was born. At the same time Arthur Griffith announced that Sinn Fein would adopt the same policy.
The election result was influenced by the distrust which the majority of Irish people had begun to feel in the good faith of the British Government in regard to granting Home Rule and by the formation of an English Coalition Government in which Sir Edward Carson, the chief organiser of the armed Orange resistance to Home Rule, was an influential member. The cruelties of General Maxwell, the executions of fifteen and the sentencing of one hundred and twenty-two men and one women to penal servitude in English prisons fuelled national sentiment.
Immediately after the executions, two national organisation came into being to provide for the dependants of those killed or imprisoned. The two organisations – the Irish National Aid Association and the Irish Volunteers Dependant’s Fund – were amalgamated into the National Aid Association. A post as paid-secretary of this Association became vacant on the resignation of Joe McGrath. Collins became a candidate, and, with the active support of his Frongoch colleagues, was appointed to the post, at the salary of two pounds fifty pence per week.
The aims of the association were “To make adequate provisions for the families and dependants of the men who were executed, of those who fell in action, and of those who were sentenced to penal-servitude in connection with the insurrection of Easter 1916 and in addition to provide for the necessities of those others who suffered by reason of participation or suspicion, in the insurrection”.
From the date of its establishment to its winding-up, the Association handled £138,000. The administration of the funds was dealt with in a business-like way. The position of Secretary was a very influential one, in that it brought Collins into contact with all those active in the Irish nationalist cause and it allowed him to devote much of his time and energy to the re-organisation of the I.R.B.
Collins was convinced of the absolute necessity of the I.R.B. organisation in the fight for Irish freedom. He and Harry Boland went to see Mrs. Kathleen Clarke, the widow of the 1916 executed leader, Tom Clarke, who realising that he would probably be executed after the Rising, had given the secrets and lists of the organisation’s membership to his wife. These aided Collins who with the help of Thomas Ashe reorganised the I.R.B., Ashe becoming President, and Collins Secretary and a new constitution was adopted.
At this time de Valera and Brugha resigned from the organisation and explained that they saw no further useful purpose in membership. Total I.R.B. membership in 1921 was about 2,000 of which 1,170 were in the counties Cork, Kerry and Waterford. The importance of the I.R.B. was that almost all of the senior officers in every Brigade were members and were the spearhead of Volunteer activity in every area.
In August, 1917 Thomas Ashe, Austin Stack and Fionan Lynch were arrested and tried by court-martial on charges of making speeches calculated to cause disaffection. Some Volunteers were also arrested on charges of illegal drilling. The three leaders and some forty others were imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail, Dublin where they at once demanded political treatment. On its refusal the prisoners went on hunger strike and the authorities tried to force-feed them. After five days on hunger strike, Thomas Ashe was removed to hospital in a dying condition, and he died a few hours later. Some thirty thousand people filed past his body as it lay in state.
Volunteers dressed in their uniforms marshalled the immense funeral procession. Three volleys were fired over the grave and the “Last Post” was sounded. Then his close friend, Michael Collins, standing at the head of the grave, in his Volunteer uniform stepped out and said:
“Nothing more remains to be said. That volley that we have just heard is the only speech which is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian”. The death of Ashe resulted in the victory of the hunger-strikers and, two days later, “political status” was conceded to the Mounjoy prisoners.
The Ard-Fheis of Sinn Fein was held in the Mansion House on 27th October, 1917. Members of Sinn Fein, the Volunteers, the I.R.B., the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Labour movement all joined together with the common aim of freeing Ireland from English rule. The Ard-Fheis passed a resolution “in the name of the sovereign Irish people” which satisfied all aspirations: “Sinn Fein aims at securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish Republic. Having achieved that status, the Irish people, may by referendum freely choose their own form of Government”. Eamonn de Valera, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising was elected President of Sinn Fein after Arthur Griffith had stood down in his favour. De Valera’ s closest supporter, Cathal Brugha, became chairman of the National Executive. Three I.R.B. men, including Collins, were elected to the National Executive.
Earlier, when England rushed to the defence of “little Belgium” in August 1914, many Irishmen had been convinced that England was fighting for the cause of small nations. Irishmen from North and South, in their thousands, joined the British forces. Carson’s Volunteers, who had been preparing to fight Britain in order to remain united with her, now went, as the Ulster Division, to France with their own officers and colours. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, while gladly accepting the thousands of Volunteers whom John Redmond encouraged to join the British Army, refused similar honours to recruits from the South.
He issued orders that, under no circumstances, would Irish Catholics be permitted to fight under officers of like background. There was considerable initial enthusiasm for the war but by 1915 this enthusiasm had died down – partly in reaction to the appalling slaughter on the western front and at Suvla Bay in modern Turkey. Nevertheless, in April 1916, there were in the British Army, some 150,000 southern Irishmen of whom two-thirds had joined up since August 1914. Compulsory military service for all men under the age of forty-six had been in force in Britain since 1915 and, the exemption of Irishmen from conscription caused much hostile comment in the British press. Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial Staff, did not see any problem in absorbing 100,000 young Irishmen against their will into the Imperial Forces.
On 16th April, 1918, the British House of Commons passed the Irish Conscription Bill. The people of Ireland united in opposition to the Bill. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, representatives of Sinn Fein, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Labour Party, and Independents assembled at the Mansion House on 18th April and adopted the following resolution:
“Denying the right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal”
The Irish Hierarchy from its meeting in Maynooth issued a manifesto which included the words:
“The Irish people have a right to resist by every means that are consonant with the law of God”
Thousands of new recruits joined the Volunteers. The Irish Trade Unions organised a one-day all-Ireland general strike. New companies of National Volunteers were established and had regular Sunday parades. Volunteer numbers, within a few months, exceeded 100,000 men in 1,200 companies. Many of the Volunteers were only in their late teens and in West Cork were affectionately named ‘the Boys’. The officers were slightly older and in many cases were members of the I.R.B.. Preparations were made to resist martial law if imposed.
On 3rd April, 1918, Michael Collins was arrested outside his offices in Bachelors Walk in the centre of Dublin by detectives of the political section – the “G” Division. He resisted arrest; a crowd came to his aid but the police succeeded in holding him. He was brought under escort to Granard, charged before a civil court with making a speech calculated to cause disaffection at Legga, near Granard and sentenced to a short term of imprisonment. In Granard, Collins and his friend Gearoid O’Sullivan became romantically attached to the sisters Kitty and Maud Kiernan. On 16th April the House of Commons passed a Military Service Bill which gave the government power to apply conscription in Ireland by Order of Council when the necessity arose. The British, expecting that the Bill would be strongly resisted, decided on a purge of officials at Dublin Castle. Lord French replaced the more moderate Lord Wimbourne and General Shaw became supreme military commander.
In mid-May, 1918 Collins received a warning from a sympathetic R.I.C. detective, Ned Ryan, of impending arrests and conveyed the information to the Sinn Fein Executive. The warning was either not taken seriously or the Executive decided to become martyrs. In consequence, when in the early morning of 18th May police and military raided the houses of prominent Sinn Feiners, they were able to arrest over eighty members including de Valera, Griffith, Count Plunkett and Mrs. Tom Clarke. The prisoners were deported to England and held in various prisons. Collins, Harry Boland and a few others succeeded in avoiding capture. To justify the arrests, the British Government announced the discovery of a “German plot”, the evidence for which it would “not be in the public interest” to disclose!
After the arrests the leadership of Sinn Fein passed to Fr. O’Flanagan and that of the Volunteers to the more militant Collins. The authorities proclaimed nationalistic organisations as illegal and prohibited all meetings of such bodies.
In the months after the “German Plot” raid, Harry Boland stepped into yet another vacant gap and, together with two honorary secretaries, directed the Sinn Fein organisation while Collins, the Director of Organisation, gave up his job with the National Aid Association to concentrate his energies on the organisation of the Volunteers. He started a new secret official publication An t-oglach, and contributed articles on the scheme of military organisation of the Volunteers. An extract from the second issue shows how his mind was working:
“Forget the company structure of the regular army. We are not establishing or attempting to establish a regular force on the lines of the standing armies of even the smallest independent countries of Europe. If we undertake any such thing we shall fail. Our object is to bring into existence, train and equip as riflemen scouts a body of men, and to secure that these are capable of acting as a self-contained unit supplied with all the services that would ordinarily be required in the event of martial action in this country”.
The British recognised that opposition to conscription was very strong but their need for replacement of casualties on the battle fronts was very pressing. Lloyd George admitted that, until Home Rule had been dealt with, there could not be any conscription. Walter Long, Secretary of State for the Colonies, thought that the varying factions in Ireland could be reconciled “if a beginning could be made with the establishment of a federal system for the U.K. and that it would be very difficult for Irishmen to oppose measures which it was intended to make applicable to each of the four parts of the United Kingdom.”.
The Cabinet could not agree on the issue and settled for an appeal for voluntary recruits . If the required quota of “voluntary recruits” could not be obtained by 1st October, conscription would be enforced. A campaign to secure voluntary enlistment was initiated with such posters as:
“Will you join as free men, able to choose your unit in the Army, Navy or Air Force, or will you wait until you have to join, and have no choice as to where you are sent? Will you give your quota, or must three times as many be taken under compulsion?”
The campaign did not succeed and arrangements were made for an Order to enforce conscription to be laid before the House of Commons on 15th October on the day of the reassembling of the British Parliament and Lloyd George announced that “The British Government were not going to surrender to the challenge of the Roman Catholic Church on the conscription issue”.
The unexpected arrival of the German peace note and the end of the war in Europe obviated the necessity for conscription. By this time Collins had organised a communications system for the smuggling of men and arms by sympathetic sailors and dockers into Ireland, and had got in touch with sympathetic postal officials all over the country so that every official message and dispatch that passed through the postal system was intercepted, decoded and passed on quickly to the Volunteers. A rapid national communication system using Volunteer cyclists for carrying dispatches safely and quickly was established.
In this period also, Collins developed his contacts with sympathetic political detectives of the “G” Division who subsequently became the foundation of his intelligence network which undermined the Government’s espionage system. The end of the Great War had brought to an end the conscription plan but the fight against it had united all shades of national opinion. The half-hearted attempts to bring in Home Rule had disgusted nationalists, including the adherents of Redmond ‘s Parliamentary Party. The presence of the Orangeman, Carson, in the British Cabinet confirmed that there was one law for Orange loyalists and another for Nationalist Irishmen.