In this series, I make it a point to prioritize military affairs when it comes to Irish history, but battles and armies and generals don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their cultural, social and political environments, and so any battle study or analysis of war must, by necessity, also look at the surrounding issues of the day, and the kind of world that creates, encourages, or is a cause of conflict. We are now rapidly approaching a section of Irish history dubbed the “Irish revolutionary period”, but that revolution did not spring into existence from nothing. That’s why we have to take a moment to look at a significant cultural event, that still had a serious, and oft underappreciated, military side, namely the Gaelic revival.
The Gaelic revival is generally characterized as a period, starting around the 1840s and continuing on into the 20th century, when a general interest in the older parts of Irish culture – the Irish language, Irish myth, Irish music and Irish sports – expanded greatly among the Irish population, in direct opposition to the Anglicization of the country that had been happening for centuries. It can be said to have begun with new translations of the “Ossianic Cycle” stories, that include the tales of the “Fianna” warrior band and their heroic leader, Fionn mac Cumhaill, myths that would now inspire whole new generations of Irish soldiery.
A Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was founded in 1877, then an off-shoot, the Gaelic Union, in 1880. The Gaelic Athletic Association, formed to promote and codify sports like hurling and gaelic football, at a time when the codification of other sports was rampant in Great Britain, was founded in 1884. It would soon explode in popularity. And in 1893, the Gaelic League was founded, with the express motivation of “de-anglicizing” Ireland.
The people behind the Gaelic League included future Irish President Douglas Hyde and future Irish Volunteers founder Eoin McNeill. It’s influence and popularity spread rapidly, with 400 branches recorded within a decade of its founding. The League encouraged discussions of matters relating to the Irish language and Irish culture, the performing of Irish music and published its own weekly newspaper, that by 1903 was being edited by a young Dublin-born barrister named Padraig Pearse. An Irish literary revival was occurring at the same time, but as it wrote and catered primarily for an English-speaking audience, it and its formal institutions were often on poor terms with the Gaelic League.
The GAA and the Gaelic League, as you would well expect, appealed especially, although not uniformly, to Irish nationalists, of many different political backgrounds. And that included those of the more hard-line militant variety, signified by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
There had been difficult years for the IRB since the debacle that was 1867 . Offshoots had grabbed the headlines and men in America had won some success, but then things went quiet: the American adventures turned to embarrassments and the political side of Irish nationalism grabbed the spotlight back home. But the IRB did continue, reduced in number and in effectiveness, but existent nonetheless, still organised in small cells based around “centres”. Organisations like the those popping up during the Gaelic revival provided ample opportunities for recruitment.
Look through the first-hand accounts of the period, most notably those collected by the Irish Bureau of Military History, and you will find, again and again, men and woman discuss how nationalistic fervour in them was first awaken by membership of organisations like the Gaelic League, before they were approached by members of the IRB. Sometimes the contact would be subtle, involving idle conversations about politics, the sharing of militant newsletters, the seeking of opinion on the same. Then the name of the targeted person would be brought up at an IRB meeting, to see if there were any objections to the person being offered the chance to be inducted. That part of the process navigated, the target was then offered the chance to become a sworn member of “the Organisation”, something carried out in secret if the person was agreeable.
The IRB needed the new blood. Many of those sworn in during the 1890’s and 1900’s make note of how shambolic individual cells had become, run by older men long past the point of actually carrying out any plans to kick the British out of Ireland. Things soon were changing, as the old guard were retired out, replaced by a newer generation of more fervently devout republicans. While there were many vital figures involved in the IRB at this time, four in particular stand out: Dennis McCullough, whose distaste for the status of the IRB stemmed from being sworn-in at the a pub side door by an inebriated Fenian; Tom Clarke, the former Dynamite Campaigner, who had spent time in British prison and then a quasi-exile in American before returning to Ireland in 1907; Sean Mac Diarmada, Clarke’s protégé and radical newspaper editor; and Bulmer Hobson, a Belfast-born Quaker, perhaps the most forgotten man in Irish military history. The four, among others, were at the heart of the efforts to make the IRB relevant again.
There were still challenges, not least continuing efforts to counter the IRB by the RIC and DMP, clerical opposition to the IRB’s existence and continuing factionalism: the Boer War had helped heal the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party, but not so much in the IRB. But despite this, the IRB endured, holding meetings in secret whenever it could, in pubs, at sporting events, at dances, anytime they could get away with doing so. By 1911, Hobson believed somewhere between 1’000 and 1’500 Irishmen were members of the IRB, a testament to the secrecy the organisation was able to maintain.
The general strategy of the IRB in this time is vague and difficult to pinpoint exactly, owing to its decentralisation and necessary lack of communication between units. In a general sense, the IRB focused on recruitment and expansion: the memories of the largely aborted rising in 1867, killed as much by lack of numbers as anything else, must still have resonated. Other than that, there was a clear effort to get members of the IRB into positions of power in other organisations, like the GAA and the Gaelic League, so these entities could be turned more fully to the cause of Irish freedom. Trade unions were also targeted in this semi-formal policy of “peaceful penetration”. The IRB also engaged in anti-enlistment campaigns against the British Army and land agitation efforts.
The IRB did not ignore the political side of things either. Under the cover of commemorating the Volunteers of the 18th century and their efforts to get Ireland’s own Parliament back in existence, Hobson and McCullough founded the Dungannon Clubs: in reality, they were fronts for the IRB. In 1907, the Dungannon Clubs were given the chance to merge with two other organisations, with Arthur Griffith at their core: Cumann na nGaedhael (not to be confused with the later political party) and the National Council. The first had been set up by Griffith as a means of attempting to unite nationalist organisations in Ireland, the second by Griffith and others to oppose Royal visits to Ireland. Griffith was becoming ever more controversial at the time: his The Resurrection of Hungary advocated the creation of a dual monarchy system between Britain and Ireland, somewhat in line with that undertaken by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an idea that never got major traction.
The merger between the three took their name from a phrase that had been used here and there since the 1880’s in relation to Irish nationalism, variously translated as “ourselves” or “ourselves alone”: Sinn Fein. While it would take some time for the party to become truly relevant nationally – in their first campaign (run by Mac Diarmada), a by-election in North Leitrim in 1908, their candidate was mauled by the IPP in a near 50 point defeat – it was a pivotal moment in Irish history.
But still, it was the IPP that were in the ascendency in a political sense. By 1910, they were in a position to deliver the Holy Grail of the more conciliatory side of Irish nationalism: Home Rule.
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