1914 – The great ‘What if?’

Posted on: 4th June, 2014

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Samuel Kingston

Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.

ABOVE: (left) Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist changed the course of Irish history by killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; (right) John Redmond was the most important Irish politician of his time but today he is barely remembered. 

This month is the 100th anniversary since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The shooting is the defining event of modern European history leading as it did to the Great War, the consequences of which, both short term and long term, affected many countries including Ireland.

Ireland in 1914 was on the cusp of great change. The events that were to occur in the following ten years radically changed the island but what if those events never occurred? In this article, I play devil’s advocate and examine how different Ireland might be if the Archduke was never killed.

In many ways the Ireland of 1914 was quite British. This era saw the rise of the comfortable classes, the civil servant type — the type who lived in the suburbs and commuted by tram into his job in Dublin Castle. He is a middle class gentleman who enjoys rugby, association football and cricket. His wife is a suffragette and a member of the Literary Revival and the Gaelic Revival. In the summer time they enjoy picnics and trips to the seaside in Kingstown. Yet, contrasting with that there is also strong nationalistic feelings growing throughout the country.

1914 is a key year in Irish history. In 1914, the politics of the day was Home Rule. It was easily the dominant politic movement on the island and 1914 was to see the introduction of Home Rule for Ireland. The majority of people were excited by the idea of self-governance and Home Rule was widely celebrated. It was a glorious time for the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond. Redmond was the most important Irish politician of this time but today he is barely remembered overshadowed by the leaders of the Rising and the war of independence. Up north though, unionists were committed to preventing Home Rule out of fear that they would not have a voice. They created the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 to defend themselves. In response, nationalists set up the Irish Volunteers in 1913. Originally the IRB controlled the Volunteers but they eventually came under the influence on Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Then on June 28, 1914 everything changed. Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist changed the course of Irish history by killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The shooting escalated into war, the start of WWI meant that Home Rule had to be put on the back burner for the time being, most people at the time assumed the war would be over by Christmas, so it would only be a temporary delay. It also created a split in the Volunteers that had major consequences for Irish history. The majority of the Volunteers became the National Volunteers with a smaller group forming the Irish Volunteers. The National Volunteers kept some 175,000 members with most going to fight in the Great War, leaving the Irish Volunteers with an estimated 13,500. This split proved advantageous to the IRB, which was now back in a position to control the organisation.

What would have happened in Ireland if Gavrilo Princip had not stumbled upon the carriage of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

The first obvious answer is that thousands of Irish men wouldn’t have died in the Great War although some historians argue that a European wide war was inevitable and would have happened regardless.

Would Home Rule have actually been introduced? If it was, would we as a people have been happy with our lot? Thus, effectively ending the struggle for independence before it really got started. Would some Ulster counties have remained outside of Home Rule, which was a real possibility before the outbreak of the war? If forced into Home Rule would the unionists rebel and start a civil war? If there was a civil war in 1914, would this war have escalated in to a war of independence on the part of the nationalists? Would the island be divided? What about the Volunteers, would they have split anyway or remain united? It is quite possible that the more radical Volunteers would have broken off regardless. Who would have been the heroes? Would John Redmond be an iconic figure in Irish politics today? Or perhaps would people such as Eoin McNeill, Bulmer Hobson and Tom Clarke be idolised today? Would Germany have helped which in turn may have started a European wide war anyway? What about the United States, would they have remained isolated?

Furthermore, without the Great War there is a strong possibility that the Easter Rising would not have occurred. The Rising occurred because of the old adage ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. Without the war, republicans may not have thought the time was right to attack. The knock on effects would be striking. After 1916, events snowballed with radical nationalism evolving into mainstream nationalism. Without the sympathy created by the Easter Rising, Sinn Fein would not have become prominent and the campaign for independence culminating in the war of independence would not have occurred. If Princip did not kill the Archduke, is it fair to say the Rising would never have occurred or was there enough momentum in Ireland anyway to lead to an Easter Rising type event? Would figures such as Padraig Pearse, Michael Collins and Eamonn DeValera be revered today? Would we have a Proclamation of the Republic? On the positive side, there might not have been a civil war with brother fighting brother. There are wider consequences as well. With no war of independence other British colonies would have no inspiration for their own struggle. Is it possible that the British Empire would still exist?

Thanks to Princip, these alternative timelines are just flights of fancy. Of course nobody can claim to know exactly what would have happened. All the same it’s a thought provoking subject and interesting how the act of one man in Sarajevo proved such an important event in Irish history.


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