Another very important centenary date just passed us by, and it was another that went little noticed by the state or the media.
I can forgive them this time though. After all, the Redmonite takeover of the Irish Volunteers in June 1914 seems like such a minor event in contrast to some of the other things that were happening that year. It was bookended by gun runnings in the north and south, and the road to the European conflagration was just beginning to take shape in the immediate preceding time before Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. Balkan Wars and diplomatic sabre rattling are all a bit more interesting than the petty infighting of a ragtag civilian militia with delusions of grandeur.
But I certainly think that it is a moment worth looking at in greater detail, for two main reasons.
Firstly, it shines a light on a certain aspect of the Irish nationalist movement. That movement was decisively split apart in 1922 by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a split between hardliners and moderates. It was not the first time. It was split in 1917 during elections, it was split in the lead-up to the Easter Rising, and it was split at the beginning of the First World War
And a lot of that calls back to this earlier split, a quasi-one that did not appear so obvious on the surface. John Redmond insisted that his home-rule orientated party be given effective control of the Irish Volunteers, and the leadership of that organisation granted it to him. But it was far from a unanimous decision, the “request” only being passed on a 18-9 vote.
Those nine included people like Pearse, McDiarmada and Colbert, men who would be facing firing squads within a few years. They continued to operate within the framework of the Irish Volunteers, but before the more decisive breaking in the aftermath of the First World War’s origins, this IRB-faction was already starting to forge its own plans, separate to their more moderate cousins. The domination of John Redmond was something to be temporarily endured in the name of a larger idea of unity, but his rule would never be endorsed. It increased their distaste for that conciliatory faction of the Irish political scene and drove them even further in the opposite direction.
Because that’s what it always comes down to, isn’t it? In this revolution or others, there’s frequently, and repeatedly, that divide between the hardliners who see compromise as a dirty word and the moderates who are willing to sacrifice dearly held aims and beliefs in order to gain advantages. Whether they were seeking home rule, tacitly endorsing the British hegemony by fighting in World War One or settling for Dominion status, the moderates would always be anathema to the hardliners, who sought separation, launched a rising during the First World War and took up arms against former comrades in defence of “the Republic”. That’s something worth exploring and tracing to its origins in the Irish context. We should be discussing those days of June 1914, when the Irish Volunteers took their first stumbling steps on the road to division and rebellion. It reminds us that the “movement” was rarely homogenous just as it reminds us in the same moment that the hardliners were once willing to live under a moderate control – as long as it suited their purposes.
The second point is in regards Bulmer Hobson, the much maligned figure of the early revolutionary period, whose hard work and organisational skills not only helped make the Irish Volunteers the organisation that it was in 1914, but laid the foundations for the arming of the organisation to a larger degree with the Howth gun running – guns that would later be used in the Easter Rising. Hobson is largely lost to the popular Irish consciousness of this period, reduced to the role of a minor figure who was pushed to the side long before anything of great importance happened. This is unfair. Here was an IRB man who foresaw the potential need for violent action and prepared for it. Here was a man who, several years before people like Michael Collins would have the same realisation, advocated the pursuit of a guerrilla warfare strategy over any conventional operations. Here was the man who brought Pearse into the IRB fold, who co-founded Fianna Eireann and was at the heart of nearly everything the nationalist movement was doing outside of Redmonite circles.
And yet, just like Michael Collins after him, Hobson’s reputation was forever damaged by his ability to compromise and seek what he felt to be the lesser evil. His acquiescence and support for the Redmonite takeover of the Volunteers, done out of desire to keep the nationalist movement united and to maintain the Irish Volunteers as a viable organisation (fears that Redmond could destroy the Volunteers if kept out of the leadership were not unfounded), at the cost of sacrificing the IRB’s powerful interest in it, essentially ended his involvement in the affairs of the day. The IRB, and men like Tom Clarke, turned on him. He was marginalised for the rest of the pre-1916 days, and suffered the indignity of being detained as that rebellion began, for fears he would, like Eoin McNeill, do everything in his power to stop it. He took no active role during the War of Independence or the Civil War, and faded into relative obscurity afterward.
Hobson deserves a bit more attention, though he is unlikely to get it for the rest of the centenary decade. This was a fascinating man, who bravely made a decision which left him incredibly unpopular with his immediate peers, in pursuit of what he saw as a greater good. This decision kept a man of immense talents out of subsequent events. We should analyse why, and if this was a mistake by the IRB. We should discuss whether the Irish Volunteers would ever have been the organisation that it was in 1914 if it had not been for Hobson. We should ponder whether Hobson is a political cautionary tale, since his actions merely removed him from the equation, or someone to be admired for making such a sacrifice.
And most importantly, we should be moving towards a more effective commemoration for this man, who sacrificed his popularity and potential political future in the name of compromise – not the last to do so in this period of conflict, but perhaps the first of consequence.