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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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The Curragh mutiny Hear audio clips Audio Clips
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The Sunday Independent describes the incident as a mutiny

The effectiveness of the Ulster unionist movement’s opposition (1912-14) to the granting of self-government to Ireland by Britain’s Liberal government was heightened by the support it received from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In 1912, the Conservative Party backed it even in its formation of a paramilitary force (the UVF) to defy Westminster legislation. Meanwhile, other vital and elevated elements in British public life also used their influence on unionism’s behalf. George V sought to persuade Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to make concessions to the Ulstermen and warned that otherwise he might dismiss him or refuse to give the Royal Assent to the Home Rule Bill. Not surprisingly, given its predominantly privileged background, the officer class in the British army also sympathised with the unionists. Their views were graphically exposed during the ‘Curragh Mutiny’ in 1914. This army barracks located just east of Kildare town, had become Britain’s premier military base in Ireland.

By March 1914, British government ministers appear to have been considering taking strong action to crush unionist resistance. Sir Arthur Paget, Commander-in-Chief of troops in Ireland, was summoned to London and instructed to move 800 men into the province to reinforce depots and arms stores there. Preparations for a possible rebellion in Ulster were also discussed. It was rumoured that unionist leaders would be arrested. On his return to the Curragh on 20th March, Paget summoned his brigadiers and informed them that active operations against Ulster were imminent. He indicated that officers with homes in Ulster would be permitted to be absent from duty without compromising their careers. Unwisely, he added that any others who were not prepared to carry out their duty were to say so and these would immediately be dismissed from the service. The brigadiers were to put these alternatives to their men and report back; 57 of the 70 officers consulted elected for dismissal. They were led by Brigadier General Herbert Gough who, like many of them, had Irish family connections.

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The Irish News captures the mood of the event

The 57 officers were not actually guilty of ‘mutiny’; they had not disobeyed direct orders of any kind. Nonetheless, news of their resignations caused government alarm. If orders had existed for the repression of the Ulster unionists and the arrest of their leaders, they were at once withdrawn. Asquith claimed publicly that no such action had been contemplated and that the whole episode had resulted from an ‘honest misunderstanding’. The War Office stated that ministers had no future intention of using the army to enforce submission to the Home Rule Bill. This assurance may have been given without cabinet authority, as those responsible for issuing it were subsequently obliged to resign.

Overall, the episode greatly increased the confidence of Ulster unionists; they firmly believed that the government had intended to crush them but its plan had failed for lack of military support. Certainly thereafter ministers were convinced that they could not trust the army to quell opposition to home rule in the province. For Irish nationalists, the events merely confirmed their increasing doubts about Asquith’s real commitment to granting Irish self-government and about his willingness ever to grapple with unionist militancy.

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Image of Professor Keith Jeffery Keith Jeffery, Professor of Modern History, University of Ulster at Jordanstown
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Image of Dr. Brian Barton Dr. Brian Barton, Historian, Open University
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