How revolutionary were the Irish Volunteers?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Home Rule, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Volume 21

Early days—still without uniforms or weapons, Irish Volunteers drill with hurleys (date and location unknown). But how revolutionary were they?

Early days—still without uniforms or weapons, Irish Volunteers drill with hurleys (date and location unknown). But how revolutionary were they?

The Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913 to protect the Home Rule bill then going through parliament from the threat posed by the unionist leader Edward Carson and his newly formed Ulster Volunteer Force. Alternatively, the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913 by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, using respected constitutionalists as an unwitting front, with the object of establishing an Irish republic by force of arms. These are the conflicting narratives of the seminal event that took place a century ago. But was the Volunteer organisation something different, in both its conception and the form in which it emerged, from either of these? Could it be that it envisioned something that was not an Irish republic, and not—or at least not necessarily—an armed rebellion, but something that was potentially just as transformative: the raising of a national army that would win true self-government for Ireland as the eighteenth-century Volunteers had done? Did those on the provisional committee who were not republicans work knowingly and willingly with the IRB element in pursuit of that common goal? In short, just how revolutionary were the Volunteers?

The meeting in Rathfarnham

Bulmer Hobson

Bulmer Hobson

In early November 1913, Michael O’Rahilly (‘The O’Rahilly’) and Bulmer Hobson visited Eoin MacNeill at his home in Rathfarnham to ask whether he would be willing to call a meeting of interested parties for the purposes of forming a volunteer body. By all accounts the three reached agreement very quickly. In his memoirs MacNeill recalled, ‘I had no doubt in my mind that both these men came to me from the old physical force party whose organisation was the IRB, and I also had little doubt of the part I was expected to play’. MacNeill said of himself, ‘Personally, I was no doctrinaire, whether on behalf of physical force or against it’.

Bulmer Hobson did indeed represent the IRB; he was a member of the supreme council and chairman of the Dublin centres’ board. The board, at his suggestion, had already begun drilling members in July of that year, in anticipation of the forming of a volunteer organisation. The instructors were young men of the ‘Fianna’ circle, created by Hobson the previous year. O’Rahilly, although not a member of the IRB, was certainly of the ‘physical force’ tradition. In 1912 he had written a series of articles for Irish Freedom, the IRB organ edited by Hobson, arguing that independence could only be achieved through arms. The 1798 Rebellion had failed, he said, not for want of leadership, of courage or of organisation but for want of arms. In January 1913, six months before the IRB made the decision to begin drilling, he and Éamonn Ceannt had proposed to the national council of Sinn Féin that ‘it is the duty of all Irishmen to possess knowledge of arms’. The motion was passed.

In early November 1913, Bulmer Hobson, along with Michael (‘The’) O’Rahilly, visited Eoin MacNeill (right) at his home in Rathfarnham to ask whether he would be willing to call a meeting of interested parties for the purposes of forming a volunteer body. By all accounts the three reached agreement very quickly. (Marnie Hay; UCD Archives)

In early November 1913, Bulmer Hobson, along with Michael (‘The’) O’Rahilly, visited Eoin MacNeill (right) at his home in Rathfarnham to ask whether he would be willing to call a meeting of interested parties for the purposes of forming a volunteer body. By all accounts the three reached agreement very quickly. (Marnie Hay; UCD Archives)

MacNeill has been described as ‘an avowed adherent of John Redmond’, but he was not a member of any political party and had never taken part in politics. He had shown no overt enthusiasm for parliamentarianism, writing in a letter to a priest in 1904, ‘In theory I suppose I am a separatist, in practice I would accept any settlement that would enable Irishmen to freely control their own affairs, and I would object to any theoretical upsetting of such a settlement’. MacNeill was on friendly terms with Home Rulers such as Maurice Moore and Stephen Gwynn, through their common involvement in the Gaelic League, but he was on friendly terms with some of the advanced men as well. In a 1914 letter to Roger Casement giving a first-hand account of the Howth gunrunning, he relates how he met ‘Tom Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada in a taxi’. He asked them to take him into town to see whether there was any sign of police or military on the road. When they saw no sign, ‘Tom and Seán went back in their car to report all clear’. It was rare for MacNeill—or any of his contemporaries—to refer to anybody by their first name, and the whole passage suggests an easy familiarity with ‘Tom and Seán’ that went beyond mere intra-organisational relationships, especially given that Clarke was not even a member of the Volunteer committee. There was no such easy familiarity in MacNeill’s correspondence with John Redmond around the same time, nor any of the deference that might have been expected of an ‘avowed adherent’. One might wonder, then, whether MacNeill was closer in sentiment to the two men who visited him that November evening in 1913 than is commonly supposed.

The formation of the provisional committee
The meeting to begin the formation of the Volunteers was held in Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street on 11 November 1913. Twelve people were invited, of whom eight remained on the provisional committee: MacNeill, Hobson, O’Rahilly, Patrick Pearse, Seán MacDermott, Éamonn Ceannt, Seán Fitzgibbon and Piaras Béaslaí. The latter five were all known to be advanced nationalists. This fact was not lost on Béaslaí, who wrote that he looked at the company and ‘could see what people would say: “Who are they? Sinn Féiners! Gaelic Leaguers! Cranks! Not one supporter of the Party! Not one follower of the Chief!”’ Clearly Béaslaí, a member of the IRB, did not look on MacNeill as a Redmondite. At a series of meetings over the following weeks, 21 more names were added to the provisional committee, including Joe Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh, Roger Casement and five members of the ‘Fianna’ circle of the IRB, but the task of finding parliamentarians willing to join was, in O’Rahilly’s words, ‘one of considerable difficulty, and refusals were the order of the day’. One of the refusals came from the lord mayor of Dublin, Lorcan Sherlock, who also refused the use of the Mansion House for the inaugural meeting. Seven months later, Sherlock would be one of the 25 men added to the committee by John Redmond. Eight Home Rulers were eventually co-opted. Two of them, Laurence Kettle and John Gore, were joint secretary and joint treasurer respectively.

With only days to go before the launch of the Volunteers in the Rotunda, the press remained unconvinced that the new movement was truly representative of all shades of nationalism, causing MacNeill and Larry Kettle, as secretaries, to write to the Freeman’s Journal on 24 November, the day before the Rotunda meeting, reiterating ‘that the Irish Volunteers are not being started or run by any existing organisation, whether political, sectarian, or social’. They enclosed a letter to show ‘how the movement is viewed by a veteran who is above suspicion who has been identified with every Irish fight for the last half-century’. Readers must have felt a certain sense of anticlimax when they say that the letter of support was signed by Larry Kettle’s father, the Land War veteran A.J. Kettle.

The Volunteer manifesto
38The Volunteer manifesto, drawn up by MacNeill and issued at the inaugural meeting in the Rotunda on 25 November 1913, is a masterpiece of constructive ambiguity. The tone is anti-English, laying the blame for the current crisis not on Carson or the UVF but on the Tory Party, which has made ‘the display of military force and the menace of armed violence the determining factor in the future relations between this country and Great Britain’. Failure to take active measures to defeat this policy would make Ireland ‘politically the most degraded population in Europe’. The effective message is that parliamentary politics have failed, and will fail. There is no point in hoping that British politicians will resolve the problem. ‘In a crisis of this kind, the duty of safeguarding our own rights is our duty first and foremost. They have rights who dare maintain them.’ At the same time, there is no overt criticism of Home Rule or Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) politicians. Those present who supported the party would have understood these words simply as a pledge that the Volunteers would defend those rights which the party had gained.

But the manifesto goes further. It says that the Volunteers, once enrolled, ‘… will form a prominent element in the national life under a National Government. The Nation will maintain its volunteer organisation as a guarantee of the liberties which the Irish people shall have secured.’ This is the reverse of parliamentary democracy. Rather than the people electing a government, which then decides how the national army will be constituted and what the relationship between government and army will be, the Volunteers, in the name of the people, constitutes itself as the national army and says what its relationship to the government will be. Not only that, but it is in contravention of the Home Rule bill itself, which stipulated that the Irish parliament would have no power in respect of ‘the navy, the army, the territorial force, or any other naval or military force’. Potential recruits were effectively being asked to act against the terms of the bill in order to safeguard the bill.

Constructive ambiguity is also apparent in the best-known passage of the manifesto: ‘The object proposed for the Irish Volunteers is to secure the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland. Their duties will be defensive and protective, and they will not contemplate either aggression or domination.’ As MacNeill said in a 1916 memorandum, it was ‘generally understood and accepted that the import of the phrase “rights and liberties” was self-government’. But it was not specified what form that should take, and ‘an Irish Volunteer might be anything in politics from moderate Home Ruler to republican or separatist’.

There is also ambiguity in the word ‘aggression’. Aggression is not the same thing as offensive action. A people might take offensive action to assert or safeguard its own liberty, whereas aggression implies an attack on the liberty of others. The words ‘aggression’ and ‘domination’, joined as they are in this phrase, may be seen as an assurance to their political opponents that the Volunteers would neither attack northern unionists nor oppress southern unionists—something that was repeatedly stressed by MacNeill and others of the Volunteers’ founders. On the particular question of a rising, the manifesto can be construed as standing mute. This led to some quite diverse interpretations. Maurice Moore, writing in the Irish Volunteer some months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, imagined a German invasion of Ireland and a valiant defence of the country by 100,000 Volunteers, which would give any future unionist government pause before they would repeal the Home Rule bill or introduce a coercion act. He later noted that the article ‘was not disapproved as far as I know by any member of the committee and was certainly approved by many’. As well it might be, since it illustrated the potential of an armed force to achieve and protect Irish self-government. On the other hand, Stephen Gwynn, writing to MacNeill in June 1914 urging cooperation with Redmond, said, ‘If this government falls, you will not be able to get arms at all, save so many as will furnish out another 1848. If one came I might be in it’; and J.J. (‘Ginger’) O’Connell, immediately after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, wrote an article for the Volunteers on the subject of supply trains that began, ‘Perhaps the most difficult task of all in connection with the management of an insurrectionary army . . .’. Neither Gwynn nor O’Connell was by any means an extreme republican, but neither seems to have seen a contradiction between the Volunteer manifesto and the idea of an ‘insurrectionary army’.

The split
In June 1914 the provisional committee voted, reluctantly, to admit 25 members nominated by John Redmond. When, after Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech in September, the original committee issued a statement expelling the nominees, only one of eight Redmondites on the original committee signed, but twenty of the remaining 21 signed. This remarkable solidarity gives the lie to any idea that a majority of them had in some way been duped by the IRB, or that the nature or ideals of the Volunteers had changed between November 1913 and September 1914.

The September statement announced that the following meeting of the provisional committee would ‘re-affirm without qualification the manifesto proposed and adopted at the inaugural meeting’, but would also ‘oppose any diminution of the measure of Irish self-government which now exists as a statute on paper, and which would not now have reached that stage but for the Irish Volunteers’. For the committee, in other words, the Volunteers did not exist to protect the Home Rule legislation achieved by the IPP but viewed it as little more than a stepping-stone, and one moreover that the Volunteers had done as much to achieve as the IPP. This clarification of the provisional committee’s position was undoubtedly a major factor in the decision of the majority of the rank and file to go with the Redmondites; this was not what they had thought they were signing up for. But it was probably also the reason that so many of them dropped out of the Redmondite National Volunteers so soon afterwards. If this was not what they had signed up for, what had they signed up for? If a volunteer body did not have a revolutionary purpose, did it have any purpose at all?

Those who remained with MacNeill had no doubt about what they stood for. They were to arm and train, and be ready to fight to secure and maintain a self-governing Irish nation completely free of interference from London. They may not have foreseen that within eighteen months they would be called upon to join in a national rising, but they must have thought, like Stephen Gwynn, ‘if one came I might be in it’. HI

Peter Brown is a retired clinical biochemist studying for a Ph.D in history at Trinity College, Dublin.

Read More: Home Rulers on the provisional committee
Changing places

Further reading
M. Bourke, The O’Rahilly (Tralee, 1967).
F.X. Martin (ed.), The Irish Volunteers, 1913–1915: recollections and documents (Dublin, 1963).
M. Tierney, Eoin MacNeill: scholar and man of action 1867–1945 (Oxford, 1980).


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