As empires died…

As empires died… Kaiser Wilhelm II was endangered, according to The Irish Catholic, by the revolutionary discontent sweeping Germany.

Gabriel Doherty

November 1918 is now, of course, best remembered for the signing of the Armistice that ended the fighting of the First World War. As the month broke, however, The Irish Catholic was more immediately concerned with the threat of death from another enemy, with whom no negotiated peace was possible.

Fatalities from the great influenza pandemic, the feared ‘Spanish flu’, were at their zenith at this point, and alarm bordering on panic was evident in the words and deeds of those in authority when it came to devising counter-measures.

One such figure was Archbishop Walsh of Dublin, who advised the clergy of his diocese (two of whom had already succumbed to the disease) that in light of the “present depressed condition of the public health” they should communicate to the faithful that they were freed from the obligation to fast on the occasion of the Feast of All Saints.


More seriously, in the absence of medical guarantees that the danger of infection had disappeared after any death arising from the epidemic, he directed that “the remains of the victims…should not be brought to the churches”, and that the minimum delay possible should occur between death and burial.

Understandably, however, the paper was primarily concerned with the war, and its consequences for church’s position after its conclusion, both domestically, and internationally. On the home front it continued to plough what was increasingly a lonely furrow against Sinn Féin, giving front-page coverage to a recent speech lambasting the party’s record by Canon Fortune, parish priest of Taghmon, Co. Wexford while addressing a meeting of the local branch of the UIL (United Irish League – the grass-roots organisation that supported the home rule party).

The canon was at pains to stress Sinn Féin’s links to what he described as “the bloody deeds of Easter Week” 1916 – a connection, ironically, that Sinn Féin was keen to claim, and which was one of the principal sources of its burgeoning popularity. Having attacked the party for its militaristic connections, which “appalled the peace-loving people of Ireland”, Canon Fortune then rather confusingly also criticised it for being responsible for the disarming of the National Volunteers in the aftermath of the Rising.

But his principal charge was that in its support for Germany during the war, the republican cause identified with Sinn Féin had discredited Ireland’s claim for sympathetic treatment by the United States and the other Allies.

While there was some merit to this criticism (the British Government was subsequently to use it as a means of undermining the demand for an Irish hearing at the Versailles peace conference), it overlooked the fact that the home rule cause that Canon Fortune endorsed, being an ‘internal’ settlement of the Irish Question, provided His Majesty’s Government with the perfect argument with which to ward off foreign ‘interference’ in ‘British’ affairs.

Allegations of pro-German sentiment also continued to be levelled at the Vatican, with the Conservative party-supporting London newspaper the Globe drawing attention to what it claimed was Pope Benedict’s XV’s silence on alleged German atrocities during the invasion of Belgium.

By way of its rebuttal The Irish Catholic cited a respected non-Catholic paper based in the US, the North American Review, which favourably contrasted the denunciation of “Hun barbarities” by the Pope at the time of their occurrence with the contemporary silence on the matter observed by other neutral states, including the US itself.

Viewed from another perspective, however, the mere fact that such allegations were being levelled against the Pope was a hopeful sign for The Irish Catholic, for it was one further sign that the war was rapidly drawing to a close, and attention could switch to the diplomatic reckoning that would follow. The British Government wished to exclude the Vatican from that process, although it was keen to avoid any public sign of doing so – fortunately for it, the other Allied Powers had their own histories of anti-Vatican prejudice, and their own reasons to marginalise the Holy See from the subsequent negotiations – a stance that was to enrage The Irish Catholic, as we shall see in subsequent columns.

For the moment the most important war news was the collapse of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, following the seizure of power in Prague by Czech nationalist politicians on October 28, a similar action by Slovaks two days later, by the withdrawal of Hungary from the union with Austria on October 31, and finally the armistice on the Italian front that followed three days later.

The paper welcomed such developments, while acknowledging that some might view “the dissolution of an ancient Empire… [with] a pang of sentimental regret”. It used the occasion to draw on a memory of anti-Papal actions by successive Austro-Hungarian emperors, most recently its interference in the conclave that followed the death of Leo XIII. It was uncharacteristically caustic in its conclusion: ‘the Empire which, confident in its strength, ventured so arrogantly to meddle with the Holy See, is now in ruins, humbled to the dust.’

The paper also cast an Irish light on these developments. It compared the creation of the “ramshackle empire” of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans to the extension of “English oppression in Ireland”, and drew what seemed to it the obvious moral: that any failure of London to swiftly extend self-government to the Irish would prove as fatal to its ambitions as the repeated denial by Vienna of the legitimate claims of its subject peoples.

The position of imperial Germany had become increasingly desperate over the preceding weeks, and the withdrawal from the war of its one remaining significant European ally rendered that position untenable. The paper noted that even Denmark was taking advantage of its paralysis, demanding that the province of Shleswig, annexed by Germany in 1864, should be granted the power of self-determination.

The writer correctly surmised that both the Kaiser and his entire dynasty were endangered by the revolutionary discontent then sweeping through the country. Even he, however, seems to have been taken by surprise by the speed of events, given that he was only prepared to predict the end of the war “by Christmas Day”. As it turned out he, and the world, had only to wait nine more days for this most welcome early Christmas gift.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.