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'1918 was a year of monumental importance that had plenty in common with 2018 Ireland'

Here is a look back at that year, with some reflections on the similarities and differences with the Ireland of today, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

THE YEAR 2018 will mark the halfway point of Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries.

1918 was a year of monumental importance in Irish history. Here is a look back at that year, with some reflections on the similarities and differences with the Ireland of today.

The Great War

Obviously, the Great War, which finally concluded in November, dominated all aspects of society at the time. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the war, with around 35,000 being killed. The 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) were the two divisions that had the highest proportion of Irish-born troops. Both had fought bravely in significant battles between 1916 and 1918, but took atrocious casualties.

It is remarkable that in the course of a century, we have gone from full Irish participation in the British war effort in Europe to Ireland lining up alongside the rest of Europe in a political battle with the United Kingdom over Brexit. But even amidst the shared hardship of fighting on the front, by 1918 cracks in the British-Irish relationship were starting to show.

Some men fighting in Irish battalions said they were mockingly called “Sinn Féiners” while the British military began to take steps to spread Irish soldiers across the army, concerned that large concentrations of Irish troops could prove disloyal.

The war also provoked considerable political turmoil at home in the form of the “Conscription Crisis”. When conscription was introduced in the UK in January 1916, Ireland was excluded, but the desperate need for more troops meant Westminster voted to reverse this decision in 1918.

A political backlash

This reversal created a political backlash in Ireland, with all nationalist political parties combining to from the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee. Large rallies and strikes were held across the country in April and May in protest. As a result of these demonstrations of anger in Ireland, as well as an improving military outlook for the Allies on the western front, conscription was never actually implemented in Ireland.

But the crisis had long-lasting consequences in Ireland. In May, the British government announced that it had uncovered a “German Plot”, a plan between Sinn Féin and the German government to launch a rebellion against British rule.

This gave authorities the excuse to arrest 150 Sinn Féin leaders, but this created a leadership vacuum in radical Irish-nationalist circles that was filled by young hard-liners. In particular, it allowed Michael Collins to emerge as an important player in both Sinn Féin and the IRB, which enabled him to hold a dynamic and unique leadership role during the War of Independence.

Important political leaders departing the stage

2018 is set to have one thing in common with 1918 in witnessing an important political figure departing the stage. And there are some interesting parallels in the careers of John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party who died in 1918, and Gerry Adams, who will stand aside as president of Sinn Féin next year.

Both men rebuilt their parties from their political nadirs. Redmond managed to reunite the Irish Parliamentary Party following its bitter split over the Parnell divorce scandal, while under Adams leadership, Sinn Féin has gone from having no MPs or TDs to being Northern Ireland’s second largest and the Republic’s third largest political party respectively.

Both men ultimately fell short in their long-term political goals. Redmond was able to take advantage of a constitutional crisis in Britain to leverage the concession of Irish home rule in return for supporting the Liberals’ in limiting the power of the House of Lords. However, the Home Rule Act was suspended due to the outbreak of war in 1914, and the dramatic changes in Irish politics by 1918 meant it never was implemented.

As for Adams, while it might be said that his dream of a united Ireland is potentially closer than it was when he became Sinn Féin president, it has never been a likely outcome over the course of his career.

Both men will be remembered as controversial figures in their own right. Many people see Adams as bearing a great deal of responsibility for the slaughter and carnage witnessed during the Troubles. Some people also view Redmond as having blood on his hands for encouraging Irish Volunteers to join the British army to fight in what they view as a futile, unnecessary and savage war. In truth, this perception of Redmond would not have been widely held while he lived, whereas many have seen Adams as the villain of Irish politics throughout his career.

General elections

1918 and 2018 may also have the holding of a general election in common. It seems that most Irish people do not want a general election in 2018, but Paddy Power are offering odds of 1/10 that we will head to the polls over the course of the year. In contrast, a general election was badly overdue in 1918, as no vote had been held since 1910 due to the war. It turned out to be the most significant election in Irish history.

For the first time, all men over 21 and all women over 30 had a vote, more than doubling the Irish electorate since 1910. It was also the first time that a political party committed to Irish independence was a major political player.

In its election manifesto, Sinn Féin had promised not to send its elected MPs to Westminster. Rather, it proposed to create an assembly in Dublin to which all elected MPs would be invited to sit as a sovereign Irish parliament.

The results were historic. Sinn Féin won 73 seats, while the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had held 67, returning only 6 elected candidates. However, the difference between both parties was skewed by the first-past-the-post system used at the time.

The IPP won 22% of the popular vote to Sinn Féin’s 47%. Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the House of Commons. However, she, alongside the other Sinn Féin MPs, did not take their seats. Instead they formed the first Dáil in January 1919, setting Ireland on the road to independence.

The sporting year

The war meant that there were no soccer or rugby internationals involving Ireland in 1918. However, a full GAA season did take place (although the two finals were not played until early 1919). Limerick won the Liam McCarthy, defeating Wexford 9-5 to 1-3.

However, Wexford made up for this disappointment by winning their fourth consecutive Sam Maguire, beating Tipperary by five points to four. They had beaten Kerry, Mayo and Clare in the preceding finals. Calls for Wexford to be divided in two grew louder.

By the way, the odds of Limerick and Wexford winning the All Ireland hurling and football championships in 2018 is 3750/1, if you fancy history repeating itself.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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