Fighting fire with fire

Fighting fire with fire An illustration of the sinking of the MV Leinster.
100 Years On…
The First World War induced a kind of intellectual schizophrenia in Irish Catholic thinking, writes Gabriel Doherty

The pages of The Irish Catholic for the week ended Saturday, October 19 1918, continued to make reference to, indeed were dominated by, the sinking nine days earlier of the MV Leinster by a German U-Boat, with an accompanying horrendous loss of life, a high proportion of the casualties being Irish.

More details of the scale of the tragedy, and identities of the victims, were available than had been the case with the previous week’s edition, and grim reading they made. Not surprisingly, the fact that an elderly Irish priest, Fr William Campbell, was listed among the fatalities was given particular emphasis, as was the fact that a large number of the casualties were civilians, including many women and children, and that many of the bodies, having gone down with the ship, would never be recovered.

The moral of the episode for the paper was clear, and in keeping with the general note it had struck throughout the war: the Allies were dealing with an enemy who would stop at nothing, not even the mass slaughter of civilians, to ensure victory.


In dealing with such barbarism it argued that nothing short of total military victory, and a post-war cleansing of the German body politic, would suffice. It expressed impatience with the mentality that verbal condemnations were sufficient to address the enormity of the crime, arguing instead that as the only language the German regime understood was that of brute force, that regime could only be ended by the same means.

Using unusually stark language, it argued that it was “for Irish manhood to take up the brutal challenge Germany has flung in its face”, for it was “only by killing enough Germans…that the lesson can be burned into their leaders that inexorable punishment will follow inhuman crimes”.

Rather confusingly, however, it repudiated entirely a demand coming from at least one English newspaper that the most appropriate response was to introduce conscription in Ireland. It was a case study in the type of intellectual schizophrenia within certain Catholic circles that the conflict had induced in Ireland.

The paper was very clear in other respects, however, and did not miss the opportunity to launch an explicit attack on the republican cause, whose supporters had publicly identified with Germany with the reference to their “gallant allies in Europe” contained in the 1916 Proclamation.

The paper had viewed the apparently inexorable rise of republican sentiment in the country over the intervening two-and-a-half years with a mixture of disdain, contempt and alarm, and one senses that in its treatment of the Leinster tragedy its main focus was as much on the paper’s domestic enemies as the country’s external ones.

The leader writer was conscious, however, that in light of the approaching end of the war, and the election promised immediately after its termination, it was not sufficient simply to damn Irish republicans by a process of guilt by association.

It also needed to champion a positive programme to which the Home Rule party could subscribe as a means of either winning back voters who had jumped ship to the republicans, or weaning the very large number of first-time voters away from their new affiliation.

The recent annual conference of the Catholic Truth Society (CTS) had had this topic as its central theme. Its proceedings, however, were marked by a nervousness about the future that denoted a lack of confidence within Catholic circles as to their ability to exercise a decisive influence on post-war developments.

Above all there was a fear of atheistic socialism, now getting the upper hand in the civil war in its new Russian homeland, and pledged, and seemingly set fair, to expand westwards. There were two solutions, as far as the paper was concerned.

In the labour sphere salvation lay in the development of Catholic trade unions of the type pioneered in France; more generally, hope for the future could only be found in the dissemination of Catholic ideals through such vehicles as the CTS itself.

As long as the war lasted, however, such plans had to remain in cold storage, and thus it was to events on the Western Front, and within the German government, that the following week’s number was dedicated.

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.