Commenting on the fears raised by the spectre of Home Rule, Rory Fitzpatrick has written:
“There was a widespread assumption that Home Rule would mean the greatest eviction that Ireland had ever seen — the turning-out of the Scots-Irish from their lands, their factories and their homes. Ulster was filled with rumours of Protestant property being raffled at Catholic churches in anticipation. ‘Lots were drawn,’ says Frankfort Moore, ‘for certain houses, with the grounds, timber and livestock.’ In Belfast, people living in the more prosperous part of the city ‘were surprised to come suddenly upon strangers measuring their lawns and examining their fences’. One householder politely asked an intruder what he was doing: ‘The man replied with equal civility, that he had merely come to have a good look at the place, as he had been fortunate enough to win it in the raffle… by the Nationalist club.’
No doubt the impracticalities of an immediate wholesale expropriation of Protestant property — a reversal of the Plantation settlement — was realised at the higher levels of nationalist leadership, but within the Roman Catholic rank and file the expectation was there. Not since 1641 had so many spectres stalked the Ulster landscape. A British Prime Minister was preparing to sell the Ulster Protestants for a handful of parliamentary votes. They would be ruled by a Catholic administration in Dublin, with Catholic judges and a Catholic police; they would lose the industries which had made Belfast a great city (the chairman of the Belfast shipyard said he would move his firm to Scotland if Home Rule came about); and looming very close to them now was the menacing figure of the now infallible Pope whom they — and many Catholics — believed would be the real ruler of Ireland.”
In 1884 the Gaelic Athletic Association had been formed, which promoted hurling and Gaelic football and forbade the playing of “foreign games”. In 1893 the Anglican Douglas Hyde co-founded the Gaelic League, which had as its aim the ‘de-Anglicization’ of Ireland. From this sprang Gaelic nationalism: “Ireland not free only, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic only, but free as well.” Strangely enough, through the sentimentalist poets Yeats and Lady Gregory, a pseudo-Celtic Twilight Culture was created, which not only bowdlerised, but Anglicised the old Gaelic literature out of all recognition.
The political manifestation of the ‘Gaelic Revival’ was the foundation of ‘Sinn Fein’ (We Ourselves) in 1905. This movement soon attracted and was taken over by the veteran Fenians. At the same time there was a growth of Marxist philosophy, and an active socialist movement was led by James Connolly and James Larkin. Connolly, however, tried to use Gaelic nationalism to further his own ideals, thus compromising the Labour movement in both Ireland and Britain. The blending of Roman Catholic and ‘Celtic’ mysticism created in people as diverse as Patrick Pearse and James Connolly the myth of the blood sacrifice, which was to have lasting consequences.
Perceiving all these forces as threats the Northern Protestants formed an Ulster Unionist Council to resist Home Rule. Civil War now seemed inevitable. In 1912 almost half a million Ulster Protestants signed a ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ whereby they swore to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland.” 1913 saw the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force under Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig, the Irish Citizen Army under James Connolly and the Irish Volunteers under Eoin MacNeill of the Gaelic League. Irishmen were girding themselves for the approaching conflict.
When the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed, Eoin MacNeill, President of the Irish Volunteers and author of The Pretanic Background to Britain and Ireland, tried to paint an optimistic picture of this marshalling of Northern Protestant forces: “A wonderful state of things has come to pass in Ulster… The Ulster Volunteer movement is essentially and obviously a home rule movement. [It is] the most decisive move towards Irish autonomy since O’Connell invented constitution agitation. It claims, no doubt, to hold Ireland ‘for the Empire’; but what really matters is by whom Ireland is to be held.” However, few could have been so easily beguiled, even MacNeill himself, by the seriousness of the situation now developing. And yet, ironically, the conflict that would soon fall upon them would be of European, not of Irish, making, for on 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany.
To be continued