Year Zero - 1918 in Laois

Published in 2018 Laois Annual, and on Leinster Express Website - https://www.leinsterexpress.ie/news/home/354188/ch...

For four grim Christmas seasons the spectre of war had hung over Europe. Times of goodwill were a disheartening pretence. Songs of silent and holy nights, prayers for peace and hope – mocked by the backdrop of the worst war the world had ever seen, a cavalry march through the never-closing gates of Janus. On Christmas Eve 1918, the Freeman’s Journal, reflecting on the war Christmases, said ‘however tightly the windows might be shuttered, the cry of a world in torture penetrated through them, and instead of the cheerful pictures that one ought to find in a Christmas fire, the eye saw only muddy trenches where death rained incessantly and interminably from the skies on shivering men crouching behind their frail defences’.

And even if, to many people in Laois, the Great War seemed like an abstract event, far-removed from the realities of their lives, the hardships incurred during those years were very much real. There had been an initial wartime boon for farmers and small shop owners in the summer and winter of 1914. The expectation was that there would be a great need for agricultural output to accommodate a short explosive war on the continent. A Leinster Express editorial, mere weeks into the war, surmised that ‘the only saving clause of the gigantic war is the fact that its very magnitude must make the issue short, sharp, and decisive. It is not conceivable that armies of millions can be sustained in the fighting line for any considerable period’. But as the conflict raged on for almost four and a half years the poor of Laois were some of the hardest hit by wartime shortages.

The festive season 101 years ago was as grim as had ever been seen in Ireland for generations. The prospects for peace seemed as remote as ever. The Russian Revolutions and subsequent peace deal between the Bolsheviks and the Germans ended fighting on the Eastern Front, allowing for a fresh offensive against the Allies on the Western Front. The Leinster Express editorial told its readers that ‘the expected has happened in Russia with the mob in possession, proposals of peace, and a cessation of War on the Russian front. The proposal for armistice has of course been accepted by Germany, with an eye on the exploitation of the country and a bringing into practical slavery the men and women of the nation’.

Since the harsh winter of 1916/17, food shortages were becoming part and parcel of life in rural Ireland, but the situation grew more acute as 1918 dawned. By mid-April, sugar became all but unobtainable in the midlands. Imported tea also effectively ran out. For much of 1918, tea or sugar could not be procured for the Maryborough Asylum. The effect of shortages on the Asylum could be seen in the very clothes that staff wore; there was inadequate chemicals to dye uniforms, and by June, replacement buttons could not be obtained. By late summer, it was accepted that the larger urban areas across Ireland were going to be hit with an acute coal shortage. Some entrepreneurial people in Laois foresaw this and cut extra turf. On the Kildare border, around Vicarstown, turf was being sold for nearly 5 s a box, a highly inflated rate. The same was occurring around Portarlington too.

The food and fuel shortage were not the only hardships to make themselves known in Laois in the summer of 1918. In June, reports from Belfast indicated that returning soldiers, and their families, were being struck by a mysterious ‘malady’, resembling influenza. It quickly spread from Ulster down the east coast and began to leave a trail of death in its wake. The outbreak became known locally as the ‘black flu’ as some of its victims turned black as they battled the infection. Internationally, however, the pandemic was being referred to as the Spanish Flu. As Spain was neutral in the War, its press was free to report on the disease. Press restrictions in belligerent states precluded details of the deadly virus being published for fear of demoralising the war-effort. This led to the incorrect assumption that the flu had come from Spain when it had more likely originated in either China or the United States.

The epidemic came to Ireland in two waves in 1918. The first wave had little impact in Laois. However, the second wave had the effect of crippling large swathes of communities, claiming hundreds of lives in the midlands. The first area bordering Laois hit by the second wave was Carlow town. By October the situation in that district was said to be dire with over 500 people gravely ill. Postmen, doctors, shopkeepers, and any other profession that meant contact with various members of the community were hardest hit. In Kildare, people were advised to avoid Naas and Monasterevin altogether. By late October, the Leinster Leader newspaper was apologising for shortcomings in its production owing to the great numbers of staff that were ill.

The first cluster of cases in Laois occurred in Rathdowney. Most of the shops and schools in the town were forced to close. It was reported that people in the rural hinterland were running out of commodities as they would not come into the town to do their shopping. Portarlington, Ballybrittas, Ballinakill, and Mountmellick were also crippled by the outbreak with almost every home being afflicted to one degree or another.

In Abbeyleix, the notoriously rickety ambulance of the local workhouse was called upon to come to the aid of a young girl dying of the flu. She was brought, along with her sister to the workhouse for medical aid. But when they arrived, the sister, herself weak with the flu, was greeted by no one. Her sister died on the steps of the workhouse as her sister struggled to get help from an institution crippled by the outbreak.

Whilst not as badly struck as other smaller towns, one account from Maryborough illustrated the fear of infection that was pervasive. Gerald J. Burke was a very popular man in the community, heading several local organisations. He was also a talented singer and musician. When his lung’s succumbed to the flu in early November his family instructed mourners to pray for the repose of his soul in private. A funeral which would otherwise lined the streets of the town was attended by a handful of family members, themselves failing from the illness too.

However, November 1918 brought about change. Whilst the flu lingered on in certain urban areas for a few more months, the outbreak’s grip upon the locality began to ease. With it, came news of the outbreak of peace in Europe. Armistice was greeted with delight and relief in many households in Laois. The military stationed in Maryborough were given a holiday as they marched around the town playing popular airs. It is said that several of the townspeople joined them and that Union Jacks were ‘conspicuous throughout the day’. That evening there was a special celebration in the Courthouse which was packed with military and civilians. Festivities concluded with a rousing rendition of God Save the King.

Following the cessation of fighting, demobilised Irish soldiers began to trickle back form the continent. They quickly found that the Ireland they had left had fundamentally changed. The uniform that they had worn, was increasingly being reviled as representing a hostile occupying force. Of course, this had been a perspective held by many for generations up to 1918, but it was only a century ago that the demand for independence became the zeitgeist of the Irish people. Many of the returning soldiers slotted seamlessly into the narrative that was to unfold over the coming five years. Very few of them had not joined the army to defend King and country.Most of them were like Rathdowney man, Jack Moyney, who joined the army ‘for the heck of it and to see some of the world’. Despite the prevailing narrative today, for the most part, they were not ill-treated due to their service record in the Great War.

Despite being founded 13 years earlier, 1918 was the year Sinn Féin truly came to prominence. Interestingly, the catalyst for Sinn Féin’s rise to prominence was coming to power of Lenin in Russia and the collapse of the Russian Empire. The German offensive on the Western Front led to a crisis in Westminster. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, realised that he needed more men on the front to stave off their disastrous retreats. The single greatest tool open to him was the extension of conscription to Ireland.

The spectre of conscription hung over Ireland since its introduction in Britain in 1916, but it was not until April 1918 that the prospect of Irish men being forced to join the British army came to the fore. A manpower bill was passed in Westminster by a majority of 173 votes, allowing for the extension of conscription into Ireland, and also to older British men.

On 14th April over 10,000 people attended a rally in the Hay Market in Carlow to voice their opposition. Public bodies passed strong resolutions attacking Westminster, and several of them reflected a growing frustration with the dated policy of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Referring to the defeat of the Sinn Féin candidate in the Waterford by-election by Willie Redmond, himself a soldier in the Army, a member of the Mountmellick Guardian’s committee said ‘the English have no right to claim the young blood of Ireland to fight their battles. I was very sorry to see the people of Waterford returning a man in khaki, it is up to the people of Waterford to get into the khaki themselves, but the rest of Ireland is out to oppose conscription by every means in their power!

The following Sunday, protests were held all over Laois. 5,000 people took to the streets of Mountmellick. Several hundred attended the meeting in Rathdowney. Groups from Borris in Ossory, Raheen, Durrow, Castletown and Ballacolla all marched to the Mountrath meeting. A mass general strike was observed in Laois two days later. A thousand people were on the streets of Maryborough supporting those that were picketing their places of work. Women’s groups such as the Women’s Labour Group and Cumann na mBan were also prominent in their opposition.

Despite the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Labour movement being vocal on the matter, it was clear that that Sinn Féin were going to be the main beneficiaries of the Conscription Crisis. The mass-arrests of Sinn Féin leaders in mid-May following the German Plot conspiracy helped to boost their image further. It was clear that when Lloyd George called a General Election after Armistice, Sinn Féin would sweep the board.

P.J Meehan had been the MP for the Queen’s County constituency for five years. Shortly after Lloyd George called for an election, he ruled out Home Rule for the foreseeable future. This all but ended the relevance of the old Irish Party, and Meehan was urged to step aside and allow the Sinn Féin candidate, Kevin O’Higgins, run unopposed. Several neighbouring constituencies saw uncontested elections with WT Cosgrave (North Kilkenny), Partick McCartan (King’s County) and Joseph McDonagh (Tipperary North) all having no Irish Party opposition.

However, Meehan knew he had his supporters, and was aware that in some of the more rural areas in the south-west of the county, his localised focus was favoured over Sinn Féin’s national approach. When his nominations were formally lodged, the first proposers were the Parish Priests of Abbeyleix, Borris-in-Ossory, Rathdowney and Ballacolla.

For the first time, the franchise had been extended to all men over 21, and most women over 30. Along with the merger of the old Queen’s County Leix and Queen’s County Ossory constituencies into one, the number of potential voters rose to over 26,000.

The General Election was the only topic of conversation in the run up to Christmas 1918. The result, however, was never really in any doubt. The organisational structure of Sinn Féin in terms of election funds, posters, and the transport of voters complimented the general change of mood that had been apparent for months.

Polling took place on 14th December in 25 centres throughout Laois. Despite Sinn Féin’s clear lead, election day was not without its tensions, especially in areas of traditional Irish Party support where Sinn Féin supporters were still viewed with suspicion. There were scuffles in the Borris-in-Ossory polling centre when a Meehan supporter kicked over a Sinn Féin supporters’ desk. There was also an incident in Mountrath where a vehicle carrying Meehan voters almost collided with a Sinn Féin activist. One elderly man, who had shouted ‘up Higgins’ as he left the Wolfhill centre, was dragged from his home that night and beaten. A few days later two more Higgins supporters were attacked by a large group of people near Wolfhill.

Three days before New Years’, the result was announced. O’Higgins received 13,452 votes, and Meehan polled 6,490. Most of Meehan’s votes were said to have come from Abbeyleix, Ballacolla, Ballybrittas, Ballyroan, Borris-in-Ossory and Camross. Meehan supporters claimed to have received 12 times the votes of Higgins in Rathdowney.

However, Higgins had the overwhelming support of people in his own area in Stradbally and Timahoe, as well as Mountrath, Durrow and Clonaslee. Crucially, he polled two to one in Maryborough. After making a short address in Maryborough Courthouse, Higgins was hoisted on the shoulders of his supporters and was brought out into the streets where a torchlit procession took place.

Christmas 1918 may still have modest. Food prices were still very high, and restrictions on numerous commodities were still in place. However, there was a sense among the people that change was coming. For nearly forty years people had pinned their hopes upon some form of Home Rule being granted to Ireland. This ideal and faith in those who embodied it had died in the embers of Easter Rising and the Conscription Crisis. In voting for a Sinn Féin candidate the people of Laois had cast aside the status quo and looked forward to the possibilities 1919 could bring for Ireland. The die was cast, history beckoned.