Saturday, 19 July 2014

Conscription into The Great War – an Irishman’s Story

This is the story of how Dubliner, Frank McGrane, narrowly avoided being conscripted into the British Army during the early years of the First World War. Frank was a nephew of Margaret (McGrane) Byrne, my maternal great-great-grandmother.

World War I recruitment posters, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons)

When the Great War broke out, as in the rest of the British Isles, it received the support of many Irish people, irrespective of their political persuasions.  More than 200,000 Irish men responded to the ‘call to arms’ and enlisted and over 30,000 of them died while serving in the British forces, with another 20,000 of them killed serving with other Allied forces. But, the Irish attitude to the war was complex and even before the Easter Rising in 1916, recruitment rates were falling. 

Prior to April 1916, the majority of Dubliners did not actively support the struggle for Irish Independence.  Mostly, they were too occupied with trying to etch out a half-decent living for themselves and their families and such quixotic endeavours just did not put bread on the table. However, the British response to the Easter Rising in Dublin was to change all that. The execution of fifteen of its leaders then caused widespread public revulsion and left a lasting bitterness in the hearts of Irish men and women.  The 1916 leaders were seen by many at the time as being idealistic young men, who did not deserve to die. For a large number of Dubliners, including members of my great-great-grandmother’s family, while they may have sided with the Allies during the Great War, joining the British Army was a step much too far and compulsory conscription would certainly have been abhorred.

Frank McGrane was a sawyer, employed by Brooks, Thomas and Co., Dublin. In March 1915, he had no work and the Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Machinists, of which he was a member, gave him nine shillings travelling expenses and sent him to do munitions work in Scotland.  Frank had no choice but to go, or lose his benefits. He worked in Glasgow for nine months and when he came home for Christmas in 1915, Brooks, Thomas and Co. reemployed him in Dublin. He sent for his clothes and did not return to Britain. 

Then, over nine month’s later, on Tuesday morning, 3 October 1916, Frank was arrested at his home in Jane Place, off Oriel Street in Dublin and charged with absenting himself from British military service. The 1916 Military Service Act, introduced in Britain, did not apply in Ireland, so conscription was not in force. You can therefore imagine the shock that Frank’s arrest must have caused in our family, as well as in the wider community! 

The resulting court case, in the Northern Division of the Dublin Police Court, was closely watched in Ireland, not only by Irish politicians like Alfred Byrne, but especially by the trade unions. The unions had sent 10,000 Irish munitions workers to Britain, on the understanding that such workers would not fall under the remit of the Military Service Act. This was a test case. 

The prosecution argued that Frank was ‘ordinarily resident’ in Britain, both on and after the specified date, 15 August 1915. They contended that he had gone there for the purpose of earning his livelihood and not for any ‘special purpose’. They added that a mere sawyer could not be said to be there for a special purpose and therefore the exemptions under the Act could not apply.  The defence argued that Frank McGrane was indeed in Britain for a special purpose - ‘everyone knew that munition work was special work brought about by the war’.  Luckily for Frank, and the 10,000 other Irish workers carrying out munitions work in Britain, the magistrate, Mr. Macinerney, K.C., agreed and the case was dismissed.

Sources: Freeman’s Journal, 4 October 1916, p. 3; The Irish Times, 6 October 1916, p. 3; Weekly Irish Times, 7 October 1916, p. 2.


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  1. Well, that must have been a heart-stopper when Frank was arrested and received charges such as that! I can imagine a whole lot of people had their eyes on his case. I bet he never dreamed he would find himself at the center of such a furor!

  2. I agree Jacqi, it must have been rather alarming, and especially given the prior undertaking that the Military Acts would not apply. The case seems to have arisen as a result of an over-zealous recruitment officer in Glasgow, although further attempts to introduce conscription to Ireland followed, but also failed.

  3. Why am I not surprised such a farce would be pulled? I'm glad he was freed. What a compelling story Dara, the eyes of the nation were on your relative! Thank you for sharing that.

  4. Thanks Ellie, conscription legislation for Ireland was passed in Westminster in 1918, however, it never took effect and the whole debacle merely increased support for our Independence.


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