Review of Paul O’Brien’s book on the Curragh Mutiny of 1914

mutiny book coverIt becomes fairly clear from a reading of this carefully researched account of the “mutiny” that had the British Cabinet ever succeeded in crushing the veto power of the House of Lords and passing into the law a Bill, for full Home Rule in Ireland, North and South,  then they would not have been able to rely upon their Army to resist armed Unionist military opposition to such  law.   Such was the unprecedented effect of the “mutiny”.  Not even if they had taken out several senior Generals and had them shot.   And some of them richly deserved to be shot.  Indeed, had it been any other European Army then some of the generals most certainly would have faced the firing squad..

Of course, in the strict sense it was not a mutiny.   It may have looked like one.  It may have sounded like one, it may have smelt like one and it may well have been the precursor to an actual mutiny.  But in fact no one disobeyed a direct Order.  They merely indicated that should such a direct Order be given, to resist Unionist opposition to the rule of law, then they would be unlikely to obey it.

The entered, these leading generals, into an astonishing negotiation with their political masters and demanded and received a written assurance that they would not be asked to enforce Home Rule against the Unionists.   Their lead negotiator, there shop steward if you like, was Major General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough, GCB, GCMG, KCVO.  As the general’s shop steward,  he had more balls than he had medals.  When the cabinet’s feebly worded “assurances” were shown to him in response to his extraordinary demands he flatly rejected them and insisted they be re-written, by His Majesty’s cabinet,  to give the  explicit assurance that the Army required, that being that would not be asked to enforce Home Rule in the North of Ireland.   The Secretary of State for War, faced with such military obstinacy, such anti-democratic military intervention in the political world of Westminster, altered the cabinet document, without telling the cabinet and without cabinet authority, in order  to provide Gough with his written guarantee that the Army would not be so used.  On his return to the Curragh, Gough was cheered to the echo by his officers and men and given a full escort of mounted cavalry lancers from the train station to his Curragh headquarters.

Not since the English Civil war had the Army intervened with Government in such a naked political manner.   The cabinet was furious; The House of Commons was in uproar, even the King was shaken.   It is probable that had not the Great War turned energies away from Ireland that a great political revenge would have been directed at the army and officers involved.  As it was they went to France and fought, without question, and with all the discipline and valour of fine and loyal soldiers.  And the mutiny faded into the causality lists of Flanders.

A 100 years have now passed since the “mutiny”.  Paul O’Brien has turned his steady industrious pen to tell the story afresh.  And he does so with all his accustomed fairness and meticulous research, setting it in the Irish political and military context, which he knows so well.   I found his account completely absorbing and as I drive across the Curragh, as I often do, it causes me to reflect that those great wild Irish plains were very nearly the graveyard of British democracy and the rule of law.