A hundred years ago this month, Mayo – in common with the rest of the country – was in turmoil. The spectre of conscription, the forcible draft of young men into the British army, hung like a cloud over the nation. It was a threat that struck terror into every home and village, but it also evoked a unity of purpose and a national cohesion of resistance that had never been seen before.
Rich and poor, farmers and labourers, the landed and the landless, doctors and teachers and lawyers, every shade of political opinion, came to be united in the anti-conscription cause. And leading the opposition were the bishops and clergy of the Catholic Church, effectively using their power and influence to mobilise their flock against enforced military call-up.
By the spring of 1918, the battle had been turning against the British army in the Great War. The German offensives had been spectacularly successful; German troops outnumbered their British foes by four to one. Conscription had already been in operation in Britain since 1916; now it was time to replenish troop levels by extending conscription to Ireland, and the enabling legislation was duly passed into law at Westminster.
As an inducement to acceptance of the measure, the British Government choose to link conscription with the renewed promise of Home Rule. But London had underestimated the sheer volume of resistance to the measure.
Under the aegis of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, political leaders of every hue met to form a consolidated opposition. Democratic nationalists, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and Independents – many up to then of opposing views – signed up to a national convention of resistance.
Bolstered by the support of the Catholic hierarchy, the anti-conscription movement swelled in size to become a massive bulwark against the implementation of the act. The power of the pulpit was utilised to mobilise the people, to organise demonstrations and pilgrimages, to encourage hundreds of thousands to sign an anti-conscription pledge at church doors.
On a May Day in Westport, over 2,000 parishioners made the journey to the summit of The Reek to attend Mass and to invoke the aid of St Patrick in saving the country from conscription. Three days later, 3,000 people from Castlebar set out at midnight to walk to Croagh Patrick to attend a dawn Mass on the summit, celebrated by their pastors.
Public body after public body, elected councils, magistrates and voluntary organisations publicly proclaimed their support for the campaign. The Mayo branch of the Irish Medical Association formally backed the cause; Mayo solicitors, acting as a body, gave their endorsement; trade unions brought the country to a standstill with national strikes. The women of Castlebar turned out in hundreds to march from the Mall to the church to publicly sign the pledge of opposition.
In the face of such resistance, the British Government flinched. Voluntary enlistment, it was decided, would be encouraged as the better option. By June, American entry into the war changed the whole scenario. The need to impose a military draft began to fade.
The stand-off was over, but the repercussions were telling. Now, separatism became the mainstream view; those who in the past had advocated self-government by democratic means were swept to one side. Sinn Féin, now came to be perceived as the true voice of nationalist Ireland, and within a few months, the election of 1918 saw the party and its new brand of self-determination emerge triumphant.