In the summer of 1914 Ireland was a divided nation that was on the brink of civil war. There were tensions between the unionists and the nationalists over the nature of the Union with Great Britain. But with the outbreak of the First World War, Ireland became another country embroiled in the conflict, with a significant number of Irishmen under arms. The war served to defuse the domestic strife, but only temporarily.
Many Irishmen were already serving overseas having joined Lord Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ divisions raised in Ireland. Over the course of the war an estimated 200,000 Irish men served. The majority of them were volunteers. At the end of the war 30,000 of these men would be dead.
1914 saw an initial surge of recruitment in Ireland, with reasons for enlisting personal to the individual. The social and political climate in Ireland was forever changing through the First World War and there was no single motivation, no single reason for decisions to enlist or not, and they were not decisions that people took lightly. A decline in numbers volunteering started in the autumn of 1915, quite possibly after news of the devastating losses along the Western Front. The Irish Divisions suffered particularly heavy losses as they saw action at the Somme and at Gallipoli. Also many Irish soldiers were treated more harshly than their English comrades, with disproportionately severe punishments given for infractions. Irish soldiers constituted 2% of the overall force, yet made up 8% of all death sentences imposed by court martial.
Ireland was excluded when conscription was introduced in January 1916, though it had been discussed. Westminster considered it as a way of bolstering the decimated Irish divisions, plus there was increasing resentment in England about the lack of recruitment in Ireland. The Irish Parliamentary Party, however, opposed conscription and there were concerns from British politicians over the friction that already existed in Ireland. They were worried about how the country would respond to enforced conscription.
The Easter Rising of 1916 stopped any serious consideration of Irish conscription for another year.
By 1918 the number of troops in the British Army was dangerously low. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, introduced a new Military Act which would extend conscription to Ireland, further working groups in Britain, and older men. This decision alienated both the nationalists and the unionists in Ireland. The resistance to conscription was overwhelming.
On April 18th 1918 a conference was held at Mansion House in Dublin. It was attended by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Union leaders, the Irish Parliamentary Party, and Sinn Fein. At the conference the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee was formed with the goal of organising national resistance to conscription.
Less than a week later a national strike had been organised with hundreds of thousands of workers withdrawing their labour and industry came to an abrupt halt.
Conscription became the issue that united Sinn Fein, the Unionists and the Church together. The strong resistance against it meant that conscription was never enforced in Ireland