Paul O'Brien. A Question of Duty: The Curragh Incident 1914. Dublin: New Island Publishing, 2014. 176 pp. $17.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84840-314-7.
Reviewed by Augustine Meaher (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The Mutiny That Wasn’t: The Curragh Incident
We are now almost at the midpoint of Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries, which has seen many books on the crucial decade (1912-22) in Irish history. It is safe to assume that there will not be another book on the 1914 Curragh mutiny, and certainly not one as valuable to historians and lay readers as Paul O’Brien’s A Question of Duty: The Curragh Incident 1914.
O’Brien’s microhistory explores the events of March 20-25, 1914, at the Curragh Camp, the largest British army base in Ireland, and their effect on the United Kingdom and the British Empire. The basic facts of what transpired are well known to historians thanks to the earlier works of Ian Beckett, James Ferguson, and A. P. Ryan. The use of armed forces in Ulster to ensure the effective implementation of home rule was being considered by London and the commander in chief, Ireland, Sir Arthur Paget. Paget informed his staff that officers domiciled in Ulster would be excused, but any other officer would be cashiered rather than be allowed to resign. Paget asked his officers what they would do and the vast majority replied that they would resign rather than march against Ulster. This declaration of the intent to resign is the so-called Curragh mutiny.
Less well known are the intimate details of the event and the wider significance of the Curragh incident in Ireland and the wider British world. O’Brien writes so well that one feels that one is actually witnessing the events as they occur. Through extensive quoting of letters from the participants, the reader understands how key participants viewed the challenges of home rule and their connection to Ulster Unionism. O’Brien demonstrates that the decision was not made solely out of loyalty to kith and kin in Ulster but also to brother officers, despite a belief that their resignations might seriously damage the army and the empire.
A Question of Duty corrects the common misconception that a mutiny occurred at Curragh in 1914. O’Brien conclusively shows that as no order was actually given, the officers did not refuse to carry out a lawful order and the incident was at most a preemptive mutiny. Legalities aside, O’Brien convincingly argues that the incident was not a minor event, as is often believed since the key participants escaped unscathed. The incident shook the British political establishment severely, including the king who was worried he had been or would be brought into the crisis. The secretary of state for war, J. E. B. Seely, resigned and the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, was compelled to deal with a failure of civil-military relations by personally reminding the army “it is the duty of every officer and soldier to obey all lawful commands” (p. 104). Such a reminder underscored the Liberal government’s lingering lack of faith in the British army. Commanders throughout the empire were told of the incident as a moral parable about the dangers of officers becoming involved in politics.
O’Brien convincingly shows that these lessons were learned by the British army, but in Ireland other lessons were learned, which continue to affect Ireland to this day. Ulster Unionists realized that the military would not take action against them to enforce home rule. Irish nationalists’ assumption that they could not rely on the British army to ensure the implementation of home rule was confirmed. Thus more Irishmen joined the Irish Volunteers and prepared to fight for Irish independence. The Curragh incident fundamentally damaged civil-military relations within Ireland and the legacies of this dysfunctional relationship affect Ireland today.
Only a gifted historian could tease out the significance of the Curragh incident in such a short monograph. This is not to say that O’Brien’s work is without its flaws. His introductory history to Anglo-Irish relations is too short to adequately place the events in context for a reader without a familiarity with the subject. Furthermore, there is too little background regarding the officer class and their prior involvement in politics. The lack of background is all too telling when the key figures are introduced without sufficient biographical detail. Nevertheless, A Question of Duty is a valuable addition to the historiography and is suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses, although in the case of the former there will be a risk that the students will assume a short book is a simple book.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Augustine Meaher. Review of O'Brien, Paul, A Question of Duty: The Curragh Incident 1914.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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