On 10th October 1918 the ‘M.V. Leinster’ was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat, causing a horrendous loss of life, a great proportion of whom were Irish men, women and children. The scale of this disaster became clearer over the days following the sinking. The identities of the victims were made available and much emphasis was placed on the fact that a large percentage of the casualties were civilians, and that many of the bodies had gone down with the ship and were never to be recovered. It became clear to the Irish people, through the British-controlled press, that the allies were struggling in their fight to the death with an enemy who would stop at nothing, not even the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, to ensure their victory.
The wartime British leadership consistently preached that the only means of overcoming German barbarity was total military victory over the Kaiser’s army and the complete cleansing of the German nation. British politicians made it clear that the only kind of language that the German nation understood was the language of brute force, and that only brute force could bring an end to such a murderous regime.
Using the large numbers of Irish lives that were lost aboard the ‘M.V. Leinster’ the British press suggested that it was up to the men of Ireland to brutally avenge those lost lives. The men of Ireland were told bluntly that it would only be by killing considerable numbers of Germans that the enemy would come to realise that terrible punishment would always be the price to be paid for the inhuman crimes they committed. At the same time, however, explicit attacks were launched against the republican cause in Ireland. They reminded the Irish people that the supporters of the republican cause had allied itself to Germany through those sentiments expressed in the 1916 Proclamation.
The British-controlled press had viewed the growing republican support in Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising of 1916’ with a mixture of alarm, contempt and disdain. In its reporting of the ‘M.V. Leinster’ tragedy the focus of the press was directed against the domestic enemy as much as the foreign enemy. The concern for the British administration at this time was that the end of the war was fast approaching, and they had promised Ireland would have its ‘Home Rule’ election agreed just prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914. In the background lay the growth of republican influence within Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916 and they had to devise some method to combat this influence. The key to success, they believed, was to devise a positive programme for Ireland that the Irish Home Rule Party could champion to regain the support they had lost to ‘Sinn Fein’. By delivering ‘Home Rule’ they believed they could encourage the large number of first time Irish voters to ignore the programme of the republican movement in the country.
Within Catholic circles, however, there was a growing level of doubt about the fulfilment of British promises. Among the Irish there was an inherent lack of trust concerning any initiative the British government might suggest, created through previous experience. Moreover, the rise in republican popularity had been strengthened following the success of the ‘Russian Revolution’ in the previous year. As far as the majority of the Irish people were concerned, by 1918 no British promises or guarantees could be trusted and, therefore, the ‘Irish War of Independence’ was inevitable if true freedom was to be gained.