On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie were shot and killed in Sarajevo. Their assassination, against the backdrop of competing territorial ambitions and the stockpiling of munitions across Europe, was to have enormous and unimagined consequences for people across the world. The incident triggered a series of events which, over the course of just a few weeks, led to conflict on a global scale.
Across Europe, it was expected that the war would be over in a matter of months. Closer to home, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, thought that support from Ireland would speed up both the end of the war and the introduction of Home Rule. Believing this, he pledged the support of the Irish Volunteers – the nationalist military organisation founded in 1913 to protect the Home Rule bill from the threat of the newly-formed Ulster Volunteer Force – to defending Ireland from invasion by Germany.
On 18 September 1914, the Government of Ireland Act, which provided for Home Rule, was finally passed in Parliament, although it was suspended for the duration of the war. Two days later, John Redmond made an appeal to the 170,000 Irish Volunteers to join the war effort, not only in defending Ireland but ‘wherever the firing line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and religion’. His speech divided the Volunteers, the vast majority (about 158,000) siding with him and becoming the ‘National Volunteers’, the remainder staying with Eoin MacNeill’s ‘Irish Volunteers’.
In addition to over 50,000 Irishmen already serving in the army at the outbreak of war, a further 150,000 or so enlisted in Ireland between 1914 and 1918. Over 30,000 of these men were killed in the line of duty. This included at least 750 Galway men.
In 1914 Galway was a mostly rural, agricultural county, seemingly in decline. Despite a decrease in emigration, and in contrast with the growth experienced by the rest of the country, Galway’s population had fallen from 192,549 to 182,224 between the censuses of 1901 and 1911
In Galway City, the decline in population was linked to the decline of its industry. Persse’s Distillery, once the mainstay of local employment, had closed in 1908, dealing a major blow to the town. The county’s economy benefitted from tourism and, in rural areas, agriculture and fisheries. In the case of tourism, the Galway Races were already a firmly established event on the national social and sporting calendars.
Politically, Galway was a county divided. In September 1914, the vast majority of County Galway’s volunteers declared for Redmond’s National Volunteers, although pockets of republicanism remained, particularly in rural parts of the county. The two sides clashed frequently, and violently. In October 1914, the Irish Volunteers were beaten out of Galway City by pro-Redmond Nationalists.
Disputes over land and related social unrest, a feature of Galway life from the previous century, continued in the county well into the 1900s. In 1914, Galway was still considered by Government to be a volatile area and over 1,000 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were stationed in the county.
Aside from the absence of many of its men and the growth of new wartime industries, the war affected many aspects of day-to-day life in Galway.
As the conflict continued, it seemed likely that Ireland would face food shortages. Farmers were encouraged to cultivate more land and government schemes made extra seeds, manure and tilling equipment available. Galway Urban Council formed a ‘Land Cultivation Committee’ which created 300 garden allotments across the city allowing many townspeople to become almost self-sufficient.
To help them make ends meet, women whose husbands were away at the war were paid a weekly separation allowance by the army. Reports of Galway women spending their allowance on drink were rejected by charities who pointed out that ‘not one case of drunkenness of a soldier’s or sailor’s wife has been before the bench of magistrates in Galway’.
It would seem that wartime brought about a degree of solemnity. In January 1916 the Galway Express reported: The Christmas just past was voted one of the quietest ever spent in Galway, and the hallowed season of peace and good-will was celebrated in manner truly befitting the occasion. … The sombre influences of the war were of course felt in many a home in the city from which there was a loved one missing, and the natural inclination to hilarity and pleasure was very much tempered by anxious thoughts of those in the trenches or in the deep.
Although they were making do with less, the people of Galway were generous in sending aid to Irish soldiers abroad and helping wounded soldiers home on leave. Many Galway families took in injured men to help them recuperate in ‘peaceful surroundings’ and to take pressure off the local hospitals.
On Easter Monday 1916, a force of about 1,200 Irish Volunteers and members of the Irish Citizen Army, believing ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’, staged an uprising in Dublin. The aim of the Rising was to establish an independent Irish republic.
In Galway, local rebels cut telegraph lines and rumours of disorder in the county spread quickly. When British warships arrived in Galway Bay to fire warning shots along the coast, many villagers believed that they were under attack and began to stream into the town in search of refuge. A curfew was imposed from 5pm until 8am.
The following day Galway Urban Council formed a ‘Committee for Public Safety’ and appealed for volunteer ‘special constables’ to help the crown forces quash the rebellion. Further reinforcements came in the form of a company of the Royal Munster Fusiliers as well as 150 Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men from Belfast.
The success of this combined force in rounding up known rebels and cutting their supply lines convinced many Irish Volunteer officers that rebellion would be futile. Their leader, Liam Mellows (1892-1922), was determined to stand and fight. A founding member of the Irish Volunteers, Mellows led attacks on RIC stations at Oranmore and Clarinbridge and marched on Galway City, but was repelled. Over 400 rebels were arrested throughout the county, of whom 328 were later interned at Frongoch Camp in Wales. Mellows evaded arrest and escaped to America.
The Connaught Rangers heard about the Rising in their trenches. Writing later about their response to the news, Captain Stephen Gwynn remarked ‘I shall never forget the men’s indignation. They felt they had been stabbed in the back.’ However, as it did elsewhere in Ireland, Galway’s opinion about the rebellion changed following the execution of its leaders. In July 1916 a mass was celebrated in the Augustinian Church, Middle Street, for the souls of the dead rebels. In 1917, the anniversary of the Rising was marked by the hanging of tricolour flags – with some controversy – in parts of the county.
Due to its largely favourable response to Irish involvement in the war, the city and parts of the county proved to be fertile recruiting ground. By April 1915, enlistment from the Claddagh had risen to more than 250. Described as ‘some of the finest and hardiest men in the Kingdom’, this number was staggering for a small Gaelic-speaking fishing village.
In addition to national and regimental media and poster campaigns, recruitment drives were also organised locally. From June 1915, Galway Urban Council served as a provisional ‘Galway Recruiting Committee’; in the same year, the voluntary Galway Women’s Recruiting League was founded to encourage Galway women to persuade their menfolk to enlist.
Numerous recruitment events were held in Galway City. At a rally in Eyre Square in April 1915, the sacrifice of Col. George Morris of Spiddal, killed in battle the previous September, was used to inspire his countymen to join his regiment, the Irish Guards. Forty men enlisted immediately.
Other campaigns targeted towns across Galway county: local and visiting speakers showed ‘magic lantern’ slides of army life and encouraged men in rural areas to do their bit. Along with local councillors, Galway’s bishops and most of the local clergy gave their support to the war effort.
Support for the war in Galway was not unanimous. Sinn Féin opponents regularly interrupted recruitment meetings and as the war progressed, Galway’s enthusiasm for recruitment waned dramatically. However, by Armistice Day in 1918, Galway ranked third as the greatest source of recruits in Ireland.
Renmore Barracks, 2km east of Galway city, was built in 1881 as a depot for the Connaught Rangers. As the regiment spent most of its time overseas, Renmore served as an administrative base for the Rangers and was also where new recruits trained before being sent abroad. In addition to its military functions, in pre-war years the barracks also acted as a social hub for the city, hosting banquets and functions.
As Renmore was not intended to be a permanent home for the Connaught Rangers, accommodation at the barracks was limited and on rare occasions when both battalions were present many of the soldiers had to be housed outside in tents. This was also the case during the intense period of recruitment in the autumn of 1914. Between 10 August and 11 October 1914, 1,623 recruits passed through the barracks.
Following the disbandment of the Connaught Rangers in 1922, control of the barracks passed to the army of the new Irish Free State. Renamed Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa (Mellows Barracks), the barracks has since then been home to the 1st Infantry Battalion of the Irish Defence Forces.
As was the case elsewhere in Ireland and Britain, industry in Galway benefitted from the war. The biggest contributor to Galway’s wartime economy was the new Galway National Shell Factory, one of five national munitions factories to open in Ireland between 1916 and 1918. It produced its first shell in February of 1917 and, with a staff of 115, continued to turn out up to 1,000 ’18-pounder’ shells a week until the end of the war.
Meanwhile the Galway Woollen Mills, which had been in decline for years, was given a new lease of life with the award of a contract to provide the army with uniforms. New staff were taken on and new machinery bought and, by 1915, the mill was reporting record profits.
In 1916, a branch of the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot opened in the city and was charged with producing 100 yards of gauze every day.
With a reduced male workforce, much of this work was done by Galway women, reflecting a wider trend in Ireland and Britain. This was particularly the case in the Shell Factory, where government regulations capped male employment at five per cent. Female workers in Galway were represented by the National Federation of Women Workers, which advocated for better pay and working conditions for its members.
The armistice agreement ending the war was signed on 11 November 1918, with fighting on all fronts finishing at 11 am that day. News reached Galway in the afternoon. Crowds gathered in the streets, the bells of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church rang out in celebration and aeroplanes flew overhead. The Connaught Rangers lit bonfires in Eyre Square and Middle Street and their regimental band played at an impromptu ‘Peace Dance’ in the Town Hall, ending the evening with the tune ‘The Perfect Day’.
For many in the city and county, however, the celebrations were bittersweet. Over 750 Galway men had lost their lives in the war and still more of their countymen had been seriously wounded.
The end of the war also brought a sudden stop to the city’s wartime industries of munitions and uniform production and unemployment rose, as demobilised soldiers and sailors began to return home. Nowhere was the situation as stark as in the Claddagh, where the absence of nearly 400 men during wartime had sounded the death knell of the village’s traditional fishing industry. Charities such as the Discharged Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Society and government schemes sought to help those who had fallen upon hard times since their return from the war. Housing for ex-servicemen was eventually built in the Claddagh in the 1920s.
As Home Rule failed to materialise in the weeks and months after the armistice, many Irish ex-servicemen became disillusioned. In March 1919, 150 Irish officers wrote to King George V of England, reminding him of Ireland’s voluntary sacrifice and accusing his government of ‘treachery’ in its failure to deliver on its promises.
Ireland never achieved Home Rule – the legislation was superseded by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 following the War of Independence, which established the Irish Free State, and marked the start of a bloody Civil War.
In the years following the war, plaques and crosses in remembrance of the dead were erected across the county. Other acts of commemoration included the setting up of a local branch of the British Legion. Every 1 July – the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – the Legion would parade to Eyre Square and lay poppies in memory of their fallen comrades. This tradition continued in Galway into the 1930s.
The Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, Galway has a Great War memorial to its parishioners who lost their lives on the battle fields of Europe.