Between the unreliability of the British military when it came to upholding the law, and the gun-running’s that had increased the armed potential of the Ulster and Irish Volunteers, things appeared to be disintegrating fast in Ireland in the summer of 1914. A side conflict between the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Parliamentary Party did not aid matters, and is illustrative of the continued divide between moderate and radical nationalists. In this short entry, we will briefly discuss in the ins and outs of the IPP’s takeover of the Irish Volunteers.
The Irish Volunteers, in terms of numbers anyway, had been going from strength to strength, with more units being founded all over the country, even in the nominally Unionist north. Cumann na Mban, a similar movement for female nationalists – albeit with serious societal restrictions still evident – had been founded in April by Irish language academic Agnes O’Farrelly, and had seen a similar explosion in membership. Though in most ways subordinate to the Volunteers, a status made semi-official by 1916, Cumann na mBan were arguably more militant and radical in their rhetoric, which espoused the pursuit of Irish liberty directly. The women of Cumann na mBan were largely seen as an auxiliary service by those in the Volunteers and the IRB, but some would receive rudimentary training in arms. Fianna Eireann, a boy’s youth organisation of nationalist ethos, a counterpart to the Boy Scouts, was also popular, having been founded in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz, a notable revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist.
But something was still seriously holding the Irish Volunteers back, and that was the support of the more moderate IPP elements, who in many cases still balked at combining their brand of conservative nationalism with the carrying of a gun and the wearing of a uniform.
John Redmond was wary when it came to the Volunteers, largely because it was a mass nationalist entity that he had little control of. Some members of the IPP did have Volunteer membership, and IPP members did sit on the executive of the Irish Volunteers, but were outnumbered by separate and radical elements, many of whom were part of the IRB. Unit leadership and financial control were also almost entirely in the hands of those who were not members of the IPP, as the IRB continued to shape the Volunteers as an entity that would better suit their agenda when the time came.
Redmond wanted to change this, thinking that a combination of the IPP and Volunteers would solidify the passing of Home Rule, provided that such an arrangement had the IPP in the most prominent position. Huge numbers of Volunteers were IPP supporters, and Redmond used this as a crutch. Throughout 1914 he was in touch with Eoin McNeill on this issue, wanting to increase IPP representation on the executive council, something MacNeill was reluctant to accede to, for obvious reasons.
But the danger of coming under IPP domination at the highest level had to be balanced against the danger of a split in the Volunteers themselves, if Redmond was to take a hard-line stance. If the IPP were to become more antagonistic to the Volunteers, it was likely that a large proportion of its membership would either leave or form their own separate militia under Redmond’s control, leaving the Volunteers with the more radical rump.
Even committed IRB members like Hobson thought the possibility of a split a horrifying outcome. The Volunteers were growing ever stronger, and for the IRB, being in control of such an organisation was a level of success – and potential – that they had not known in over a generation.
On the 9th June, Redmond outlined what was essentially an ultimatum to the Volunteers, demanding that 25 members of the IPP, to be chosen by himself, be immediately placed on the executive. The debate over whether to accept or oppose the ultimatum produced lasting divisions in the upper circles of the IRB, with Hobson coming out firmly in agreement with the proposal, if only to avoid a split, while others, like Tom Clarke, being outraged by the suggestion. Hobson’s gradually diminished status in the nationalist movement stems from this point, as Clarke and others become more enemies than comrades.
In the end, Redmond’s ultimatum was agreed to, by a vote of 18-9, and soon 25 hand-picked IPP members, including Redmond’s son William, were sitting on the Volunteers’ executive. However, while there was an element of control handed to the IPP, in reality much of the Irish Volunteers’ daily functions continued as normal. The smaller units saw no real change in their commands, allowing the IRB to maintain control of the Volunteers’ direction and leadership on a local level, exactly how they preferred to operate, and the Volunteer finances remained in the control of its treasurer, the O’Rahilly, and his deputy, a Dublin-born clerical officer named Eamonn Ceannt: Ceannt was a leading member of the IRB, and while the O’Rahilly was not, he was not a Redmonite either. Volunteer membership boomed in the aftermath of the subordination, as those previously on the fence suddenly flocked to the banner of an IPP-approved entity. By the time the Volunteer crisis would come to an end, almost one in five Irishmen could be counted as a member of the Volunteers, gigantic numbers for a voluntary militia with so few arms.
Hobson had himself predicted such an outcome – a du jure takeover being overwritten by a de facto status quo – but this was of little comfort to men like Tom Clarke, who saw the cause of complete Irish independence being eroded. For him and others, the subordination was proof that the IPP was potentially as much of an enemy to the higher cause as the British, one that would eventually have to be taken on politically in line with military campaigns. And those military campaigns would go forward, as Hobson was frozen out and others more deadest on violent uprising took over the direction of the IRB. Of the nine men who voted against Redmond’s ultimatum, four would be facing fire squads in 1916. But, for the time being, the Irish Volunteers remained a cohesive entity.
In the end, the Volunteer split was only delayed, not prevented completely, yet another consequence of the larger European conflict soon to break out. Before then though, the British government would keep trying to avoid a Civil War in Ireland.
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