Bulmer Hobson and the nationalist movement in twentieth-century Ireland

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, General, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

Bulmer Hobson and the nationalist movement in twentieth-century Ireland
Marnie Hay
(Manchester University Press, £55)
ISBN 9780719079870


73_small_1252855872Marnie Hay begins her study of Bulmer Hobson (1883–1969) by claiming him to be one of ‘the losers of Irish history’. Despite Hobson’s tireless work as a republican propagandist and as a grassroots organiser for the IRB and Irish Volunteers, he has suffered from the distortions of the past, which render the writing of this period acutely treacherous and potentially disfiguring. Like other republican nationalists with Ulster roots, his name has been persistently deleted from the grand narrative of the revolutionary period. His story troubles the two-nations theory and inconveniently unites Ireland during an age of grotesque divisions.
In 1916 Hobson, like his mentor Roger Casement, opposed the rising and predicted that it would be a military folly. He was placed under house arrest during Easter week by his former comrades in the IRB and suffered thereafter the consequences of his inaction, being painted by some as a traitor and coward. Why it has taken so long to restore the narrative of Hobson’s immense intellectual and organisational contribution in the decade or so before the rising reveals much about the politics of ‘unremembering’ the Irish revolution. This study fills a critical gap within national historiography and will facilitate, in due course, the reappraisal of other key republican nationalists ideologically allied to Hobson, notably Alice Stopford Green, Alice Milligan, Francis Joseph Bigger and Denis (Dinny) McCullough.
Hobson’s Quaker background and schooling, with its emphasis on the personal search for truth, was instrumental in defining his early intellectual formation. As an adolescent he fell under the influence of Anna Johnston and Alice Milligan, editor of Shan Van Vocht and founder of the Henry Joy McCracken Literary Society. Milligan introduced him to the work of Standish O’Grady, and from the cosmos of Celtic mythology his imagination ventured into the parallel universe of Irish resistance to British rule, where the ideals of civic republicanism were revealed to him. At a precociously young age, he developed a philosophy for ‘moral insurrection’—rooted in the beliefs of Fintan Lalor—that blended passive resistance with the potential to use guerrilla warfare if necessary.
As the imagining of Ireland sprouted green shoots in different directions, Hobson instigated a strategy to re-educate, train and draw together what is now identifiable as a revolutionary network. His first initiatives were Belfast-based. Aged seventeen, he set up the Ulster Debating Club and went on to become organiser of the Antrim branches of the Gaelic League and GAA. In 1902 he initiated Na Fianna Éireann, the republican youth movement, first in Belfast and later in Dublin. Theatre and tableaux vivants (living pictures) were also integral to his preparations. He co-founded the Ulster Literary Theatre and scripted and acted in his own plays.
Besides such educational endeavours, he worked assiduously to advance political organisation through Cumann na nGaedheal, forerunner of the Sinn Féin self-reliance movement, and the Dungannon Clubs. In 1907 he introduced the ethos of Sinn Féin to sympathetic audiences in the US and consolidated his reputation as a fine orator. The heart of Hay’s analysis details the fascinating twists and turns of his influence upon the Countess Markiewicz. Sadly, their collaboration over Na Fianna Éireann broke down, as did their efforts to organise a Utopian farming community near Dublin. Other chapters examine his struggle with Arthur Griffith for control of Sinn Féin and his alliance with Tom Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada to reform the IRB. Hobson’s organisational skills triumphed in his masterminding of the unloading of guns from the Asgard at Howth in July 1914.
The comment attributed to Major Ivor Price, director of military intelligence in Dublin Castle, that Hobson was ‘the most dangerous man in Ireland’ was doubtless drawn from the protracted surveillance of his network and activities. Hobson’s decision not to participate in the rising may have saved his life, but the insurrection may well not have happened without him.
After 1923 Hobson found employment in the public sector and continued to write. His economic ideas demonstrated both intellectual originality and a resolve to work for the material and cultural well-being of the island. His plan for the reforestation of the country argued for the building up of a more sustainable and self-sufficient nation. Following partition, he rethought his aspirations for a united Ireland and encouraged strong regional autonomy north and south.
Towards the end of his life he devoted much energy to defending Roger Casement, a fellow warrior in his ‘moral insurrection’. But in the malicious and confusing media debate that raged over his reputation in the 1950s and ’60s, Hobson’s intimate, personal memories of Casement counted for little. He never doubted that the so-called Black Diaries were a dastardly dirty trick conjured up by British state agencies in their long war against advanced nationalist sympathisers.
In this thoroughly researched monograph Hay has prepared the ground for a more analytical interrogation of Hobson’s critique of Ireland’s political economy and the lost republican ideal. On another level, his life prompts troubling questions about the role of Ulster in galvanising the revolutionary turn. For those who are prepared to recognise the long trail of compromise and agreed lying that has been crucial to the sustainment of a divided Ireland, Hobson’s obscurity should also be examined for what it reveals about the power of history in helping us to forget.  HI

Angus Mitchell is currently writing a life of Alice Stopford Green.


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