Bulmer Hobson…‘the most dangerous man in Ireland’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), News, Volume 10

Bulmer Hobson...‘the most dangerous man in Ireland’ 1Remarkably, for a figure who has failed to attract the attention of a serious biographer, there is hardly a volume on any aspect of early twentieth-century history in which Bulmer Hobson’s name does not figure as a footnote. Hobson is, quite literally, a figure ‘in the margins’. He does merit an entry in Henry Boylan’s Dictionary of Irish Biography (1999) and a brass plaque in the bar of Wynn’s Hotel, Abbey Street, Dublin, which notes his presence at the establishment there in 1913 of the Irish Volunteers. Hobson combined within one remarkable personality the characteristics of activist, organiser, rhetorician and pacifist. He toured the United States with Patrick Pearse in 1912, mobilising support for the Irish national movement. Along with J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, he was second only to Eoin MacNeill in the hierarchy of the Irish Volunteers in Easter 1916. His position changed radically over the Easter weekend and by Easter Monday morning he had been taken prisoner by the ‘cabal of insurrectionists’ who were bent on rebellion. Holed up in Dorset Street over the ensuing period—probably the first prisoner of the rising—he saw his hopes for an Irish revolution dashed by temperaments which would only be assuaged by the expression of their own impetuous rebelliousness. In his later years he declined an invitation to visit Pearse’s cottage at Rosmuc, not far from his own Roundstone base, saying that ‘he did not want that man to darken his declining years’. Like The O’Rahilly, Hobson too had ‘helped to wind the clock’ but he did not feel any desire to rush to hear it strike. His published work in the period 1917-1920 offer a credible nationalist perspective but distinct from the orthodoxies of the day and which would bear out the claim that ‘revisionism’ can be dated to at least a day or so before the 1916 Rising.
In 1929 he wrote the preface to a monograph on historical personalities associated with the city of Dublin, published by Dublin Corporation. He contributed a series of articles to early issues of An Cosantóir, journal of the Irish defence forces, in the early 1930s and in the late ‘30s contributed to and assisted with the publication of Prosperity and Social Justice. He then involved himself in a group which researched and published a hugely detailed submission to the government-appointed Commission on Banking and Credit. The commission, which was, as Hobson wryly observed, ‘heavily loaded with partisans of the existing order’, did little more than note the submission—which ultimately became the substance of a minority report. The economic arguments and analyses put forward—and in Prosperity and Social Justice—were very much ‘of their time’ in terms of substance but in tone and attitude anticipated current environmental ‘green’ politics.
There is no doubt that Bulmer Hobson’s personal life-story is an engaging one. Even the timing of his death—at an advanced age in August 1969—resonates with historical significance. Neighbours in that late period of his life that he spent in Bruach na Mara, a house he had built for himself, near Roundstone, Connemara, including Joe Rafferty and the late novelist and public servant Mervyn Wall, describe a man of warmth and depth and personal charm who had ‘hooked up a table-top magnifier for himself’ so he could still read in spite of his failing eyesight. His grave nearby is marked by a simple horizontal piece of black marble giving his name and dates, no more. Anvil Books published an anthology of his writings, Ireland Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, in 1968. On the sleeve-notes is quoted a view from within the British military establishment of over fifty years previously, describing Hobson as ‘the most dangerous man in Ireland’. The bulk of the volume is devoted to the 1930s when Hobson was indeed prolific and perhaps uniquely creative in terms of his exposition of the economics of the time and the opportunities that even those bleak years offered to seeing eyes.
His economic commentary tails off however once he was offered—and graciously accepted—an appointment within the philatelic division of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs where the secretary was his old Dungannon Clubs and Fianna Éireann collaborator, P.S. O’Hegarty. His very extensive papers in the National Museum illuminate his falling out with de Valera in the late ‘teens and yet Joe Rafferty of Roundstone remembers how the two old survivors resumed contact in the 1960s. What conversations they must have had!

Des Gunning is an executive officer in Comhairle.

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