Politics at the start of 1916 in Cork City and county was overshadowed by events in Europe and the Middle East.
By John O’Donovan, UCC School of History
Though the population was going through hardship brought on by food and fuel rationing, there were still enough diversions provided by conflicting factions of Irish nationalism.
In the decade preceding 1916, Cork had been a central battleground in a struggle which had split the organisation of the predominant Irish nationalist party, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
The IPP, which was made up of all Irish nationalist MPs at Westminster, had reunited in 1900 after the damaging split of 1891. John Redmond was the IPP chairman, and in June 1900 he was elected chairperson of the popular political organisation, the United Irish League (UIL), thus in effect amalgamating the two organisations.
The IPP drew on the UIL for support and organisation (and funding through annual collections); the UIL in turn selected candidates to fight elections for the IPP.
William O’Brien, the Mallow-born journalist and agitator, had founded the UIL in 1898 at Westport, Co Mayo, with the intention of subsuming the Irish nationalist factions under the UIL banner. In this he was partially successful, but his febrile imagination and temperament did not care for the strictures placed upon him by the IPP’s conservative Catholic nationalist outlook.
In 1902, O’Brien took a leading role in a conference aimed at settling the land ownership question, which consisted of representatives of nationalism and unionism.
The success of this conference, embodied for the most part in the Wyndham Land Act of 1903, convinced him that other conferences on matters of common concern between nationalism and unionism would smooth a path to self-government, or Home Rule, for Ireland.
Not all shared O’Brien’s vision, and when he attempted to champion the cause of so-called “conciliation” within IPP-UIL circles, he was met with strong opposition from people such as Michael Davitt and John Dillon.
O’Brien resigned from the IPP and UIL in November 1903, setting off a chain of events that led to violent scenes in the Mansion House in Dublin in February 1909, when O’Brien and his supporters (mostly from Cork) were assaulted by members of the Board of Erin faction of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a deeply Catholic tribal organisation likened by its detractors to the Orange Order.
O’Brien and his supporters founded the All-for-Ireland League (AFIL) in Cork in March 1910, and the following five years saw a battle between the AFIL and the alliance between the UIL and the AOH in Cork, which was frequently violent. The antipathy between the two factions was graphically displayed in the pages of their respective papers: O’Brien’s Cork Free Press, and the Crosbies’ Cork Examiner, which had had a tempestuous relationship with O’Brien for years.
By 1914, however, the UIL-AOH had gained the upper hand in local and municipal elections, and the AFIL’s support base was on the wane; the invective was not, however.
Unionism within the city and county was also on the wane. Elizabeth Bowen of Bowen’s Court near Kildorrery vividly portrayed the society which had regressed from political prominence in the late 19th century.
Nevertheless, the unionist community still wielded economic power through control of many of the leading companies in the city, and (in spite of the speed of land purchase) a chunk of landed estates in the county. In the turbulent atmosphere after 1910, the unionists supported O’Brien, not through any belief in the potential success of his sorties, but for the nuisance value he provided.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 provided some of the unionist community with a chance to reassert power and influence through command of local army regiments. Indeed the Irish Volunteers, founded in November 1913, had some unionist involvement at a command and training level.
Politics and culture were intertwined to a huge degree.
As well as the AFIL, which ran a club on Emmet Place providing lectures and talks on a frequent basis, the Gaelic League rooms in An Dún was another focal point for language classes, dances, and assorted entertainments.
For men such as Terence MacSwiney and the O’Hegarty brothers from Carrignavar, the Gaelic League provided the only outlet for the expression of their ideas about Irish nationality and culture. The League also organised trips to the Irish-speaking centres of Ballyvourney and Ballingeary, which provided opportunities for socialising as well as for debate.
Lively debate on topics concerning national identity, culture, literature, and of course the shoneen politics of the period was to be found in the pages of many small newspapers — called the “mosquito press”. One such prominent publication, which carried frequent articles from the well-known Cork coroner and politician John J Horgan, was The Leader edited by Waterford-born DP Moran.
A branch of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin movement also existed in Cork for a time — though this bore little or no relation to the movement which would come to prominence in the period following the Easter Rising.
Labour politics in Cork were in a state of rebuilding after the traumatic experience of the 1909 strike. Men such as coal merchant Abraham Sutton and his colleagues had succeeded in breaking the strike organised by Jim Larkin in a foreshadowing of the scenes in Dublin four years later.
By 1913 and the Dublin Lockout, support for Larkin and his organisations in Cork had waned. The chief labour organisation in the city, the Cork United Trades and Labour Council (CUTLC), had split along the lines of the O’Brien-versus-the-IPP-split, thus weakening the response to the scenes in Dublin.
Nevertheless, there was a tendency among the pro-IPP newspapers in the city and county to associate all their rivals in one grouping; the Skibbereen-based Southern Star, for instance, derided the work of “Mr William O’Brien and his Larkinite and Sinn Féin colleagues”.
Continuity rather than change, then, marked the opening of 1916 in Cork City and county. By this stage, attention was beginning to shift away from the map of Europe and back towards Ireland and how best to secure self-government in the event of the war ending quickly.
This was no different in Cork. Trust and confidence in the IPP and its organisations to deliver, while derided by a vocal minority, was still high.
John O’Donovan works part-time at University College Cork, where he will shortly commence a PhD in history.