WWI Centennial: Irish Troubles

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 119th installment in the series.

May 25, 1914: Irish Troubles

In the tortuous history of Anglo-Irish relations, 100 years isn’t really that long a time—so it’s no surprise Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland are still dealing with the repercussions of decisions made a century ago.

English involvement in Ireland dates back to the 12th century, when the Norman invaders who conquered England in 1066 turned their attention to neighboring Ireland, eventually establishing the feudal “Lordship of Ireland” in 1171. But many Normans intermarried and “went native,” and English authority was patchy at best until the second English conquest of Ireland, begun by Henry VIII in the 1530s and brutally completed by his daughter Elizabeth I in the Nine Years’ War from 1594 to 1603.

By this time, the fight had become mixed up with religion, as most English were now Anglican, Puritan, or otherwise Protestant (loosely defined) while the Irish for the most part remained loyal Catholics. To stamp out Irish Catholic resistance in the island’s troublesome northern province of Ulster, Elizabeth’s successor James I created the Plantation of Ulster, a colony settled by Protestants from England and Scotland—the latter mostly Presbyterians who eventually became known as the “Ulster Scots” or “Scots-Irish.”

Across Ireland, brutal repression, religious discrimination, and rapacious English landlords provoked uprisings on numerous occasions, including 1641, 1798, 1803, and 1867. Meanwhile, the horrific Irish Potato Famine in the second half of the 1840s, when at least a million Irish peasants starved to death, stirred sympathy in England for the plight of poor Irish, and the rise of the British Liberal Party under William Gladstone laid the groundwork for reforms in Ireland.

Early reforms bolstered tenants’ rights and ended the requirement that Catholics pay tithes to the Anglican Church in Ireland—but in the decades that followed it became clear many Irish wanted greater autonomy or even independence. The issue of “Irish Home Rule,” or self-government for Ireland, split the Liberal Party in two in 1886, as the “Liberal Unionist Party” aligned with the Conservatives led by Lord Salisbury, who also opposed to self-government for Ireland.

However, the Liberal Unionists eventually ended up splitting (again) over free trade and tariffs, and the Liberals returned to power in 1906, setting the scene for a final showdown over Irish Home Rule. Now the scene moved to the House of Lords, the aristocratic upper house of Parliament, which still wielded veto power over the democratically elected House of Commons. This feudal holdover allowed the House of Lords to veto the Second Irish Home Rule Bill for Irish Home Rule, which the (mostly Conservative) Lords felt threatened the very fabric of the United Kingdom.

But the Lords overplayed their hand and were finally stripped of their veto following their rejection of a Liberal budget including welfare measures with broad popular support (the “People’s Budget”) in 1909. The Lords’ veto of the budget, which had passed the Commons by an overwhelming margin, was the final insult that provoked the Liberals in the House of Commons – with support from Irish nationalists—to ask the recently enthroned King George V to step in and bring the Conservative-dominated Lords to heel.

George V, bowing to the popular will, warned the Conservative members of the House of Lords that if they didn’t pass the Parliament Act, acknowledging the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons, he would use his royal prerogative to flood the House of Lords with hundreds of new Liberal peers—who would then pass the Parliament Act anyway. Presented with this fait accompli, in 1911 the House of Lords caved and yielded their right of veto. Under the new rules the Lords could reject any bill passed by the Commons twice, but if the Commons passed the bill a third time they could override the Lords and send it directly to the king.

That’s exactly what happened with the Third Irish Home Rule Bill: after the House of Commons passed the bill granting Ireland self-government in 1912, the House of Lords predictably rejected it in January 1913, forcing the Liberals to reintroduce the bill in 1913, whereupon the Lords rejected it yet again. Finally, on May 25, 1914, the House of Commons passed the bill for the third time and sent it to George V, sidestepping the House of Lords. At long last, it looked like Irish Home Rule was about to become a reality. 

But this was hardly the end of the matter. The Protestant population of Northern Ireland bitterly opposed Irish independence and feared that without British protection they would be persecuted by Ireland’s Catholic majority. Soon both sides began arming themselves in preparation for a civil war. The main Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (above), claimed to have 100,000 members, all prepared to fight Irish Home Rule and keep Ulster in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile the Irish nationalists organized a rival force, the Irish Volunteers, committed to defending Ireland’s hard-won self-government. 

Even worse, the British government was apparently powerless to restore order in Northern Ireland, because British officers—mostly Protestant and staunchly patriotic—refused to act against the pro-British Protestant “Unionists” in Ulster, some of whom were former colleagues from the British army. In fact in March 1914 a number of senior British officers threatened to resign if ordered to move against the Ulster Volunteers, in what became known as the Curragh Incident or Curragh Mutiny (after the main British army camp west of Dublin).  

For professional officers in a European army to threaten mutiny in peacetime was an astonishing—and deeply embarrassing—state of affairs, reflecting the depths of division in British society over Irish Home Rule. Thus in the final months of peace the British government, press, and public were wholly absorbed by the situation in Ireland, where it seemed civil war might break out at any moment, and Parliament scrambled to find some sort of compromise that would prevent bloodshed. Ultimately the solution they settled on—a partition of Ireland—simply deferred the problem, as Irish nationalists still considered Ulster part of Ireland, and Ulster Protestants still considered Ireland part of the United Kingdom. 

The situation remained tense and uncertain into the summer, culminating in the Buckingham Palace Conference of July 21-24, 1914, when George V called representatives from both sides to meet in an effort to hammer out an agreement that would allow Irish Home Rule while respecting the rights of the Protestants in Northern Ireland. But the conference proved fruitless and soon the Irish question seemed less pressing, as all eyes turned to Europe following the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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