Ireland’s Wars: On The Road To 1916

So. The Irish revolutionary period.

It is fair to say that the years between 1913 and 1923 are the most famous, well-written about and analysed portions of Irish history, most especially the iconic year of 1916. I cannot claim to have new information or even new insights that others have not expounded upon at length, and I cannot claim that I will be able to offer a completely comprehensive overview of the period. Rather than try and comment on every little firefight, ambush, plan, scheme, atrocity and instance of politicking I will, instead, take a larger view of this period. I will go into specifics at the appropriate times, but I hope I will be forgiven if, on occasion, I choose to forgo a relatively minor event or episode.

My “coverage” will, naturally enough, be split into three sections, that I expect are going to take a fair amount of time to get through. Eventually we will reach the Irish War of Independence and then the Civil War. But first, we need to talk about the Easter Rising.

When we last had eyes on Ireland the Irish and Ulster Volunteers were seemingly close to open warfare (though I still do not buy into many of the arguments surrounding that historical moment) before the outbreak of the First World War. As previously noted, the Ulster Volunteers signed up en masse, and after a period of prevarication, the more moderate leadership of the Irish Volunteers, exemplified by John Redmond, encouraged its membership to do so as well. We have covered, in detail, the resulting exploits of the Irish in various fronts of that conflict. But we must now turn back the clock and re-focus our attention on what was occurring within the Volunteer organisations that choose not to take the shilling.

In early September 1914 (the exact date differs from source to source), just over a month after the British declaration of war on Germany, the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) met in Dublin, at the headquarters of the Gaelic League, to discuss their next moves. It was not just IRB men there: aside from all future signatories of the Proclamation (including James Connolly) other notable names like Arthur Griffith and Sean T. O’Kelly also attended. Connolly has instigated the meeting himself, with a mind to forming an agreement and alliance with other groupings interested in an overthrow of the existing political system. With Home Rule suspended and the Volunteers split in a manner that left those more attached to the cause of Irish freedom as a distinct minority, the question was how to proceed.

At that meeting, the decision was taken for a committee to begin plans for a military rising before the conclusion of the war, with help from Imperial Germany if possible. Specific points were that a Rising should take place in the event that Germany invaded Ireland, if the British attempted to implement conscription and if the war seemed to be coming to a conclusion. Even then, the idea of Ireland declaring its independence for the purpose of having a say in a future peace conference was being bandied about.

Other committees were also put in place, some to arrange to secretly contact Germany, others to go about more public efforts to undermine the British position. An example of this occurred shortly after the meeting, when Volunteers planned to occupy the Mansion House ahead of a visit from Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The operation, that would have included a young Volunteer Lieutenant named Richard Mulcahy, was called off due to the Prime Minister’s security, but is evidence of how quickly things were progressing.

The Volunteer split initially left the more radical section a distinct minority, with the Redmondite “National Volunteers” comprising 130’000 of the near 150’000 overall membership. The minority, who retained the name “Irish Volunteers”, were led by Eoin O’Neill and a HQ staff that included a number of IRB men, whose stories I will go into in a bit more detail later. With the Redmonites gone, the IRB could now almost entirely control the direction of the remainder. Here, there was a split within a split, as the more militant faction of the Irish Volunteers planned for a Rising to take place no matter what, while more moderate elements, like O’Neill and Bulmar Hobson, firmly believed that such action should only take place if the Volunteers were pushed to it by the British. That militant faction would become ever more distant from O’Neill, whom they considered weak and untrustworthy.

The division between “National” and “Irish” would not have seemed like such a great state of affairs in the initial time after the split. The Irish Volunteers numbers had reduced so quickly that many units essentially ceased to exist, or operated in shambolic circumstances, like the Donnybrook company, commanded by 34-year old Volunteer Captain Eamon De Valera, which drilled with just seven men. Meetings where the split became obvious were often acrimonious, and in 1914 those who chose not to go in the Redmondite direction were often faced with an aggressive reaction from National Volunteers and the general public.

That reaction was especially motivated by the idea that the war with Germany would be finished relatively quickly. For a time, the Irish Volunteers struggled to hold on and remain politically and socially relevant. Entire counties ceased having any kind of Irish Volunteer presence. But as 1914 changed to ‘15 and the slaughter on the western front grew, this perception would change, and eventually the membership of the Irish Volunteers would start to grow again. The increasing unpopularity of the war, the fear of conscription, and the ever-enlarging profile of Sinn Fein all contributed to a dramatic reversal of fortune for the Irish Volunteers. At the same time, both the National Volunteers, and the Irish Parliamentary Party, began a stagnation they would never really recover from.

For the IRB, there were certain advantages to the situation that became ever more apparent. When the Volunteers split, the “Irish” minority were able to hold on to a disproportionate amount of guns, probably because of the due diligence of the IRB beforehand. A small group of hardcore types proved easier to control and direct than the larger organisation filled with hangers-on. And the chances of a successful rebellion, as the Irish Volunteers directors hoped, would be increased if they men they could call upon were all gung-ho nationalists, and not the sectarian militia that they feared John Redmond would turn the Volunteers into.

A famous incident just about a year on from the start of World War One is instructive for how things were poised at the time. In August 1915, the Irish Volunteers and the IRB found a great propaganda opportunity upon the death of noted Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, last mentioned in this series for his part in the Dynamite Campaign, wherein a younger Tom Clarke had been arrested and imprisoned for 15 years. He passed in New York at the age of 83, and his body was swiftly returned to Ireland for burial. The funeral was a massive affair, with the Volunteers at the centre of proceedings, and garnered a great deal of publicity. Padraig Pearse, by then the Volunteer Director of Military Organisation as well as a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council, was selected to give the funeral oration, and his words have become legendary.

He began by drawing attention to the “new generation” of would-be revolutionaries who had been inspired by men like O’Donovan-Rossa, and called upon them to renew their commitment to an independent Ireland, giving a swipe at Home Rule when he insisted there was only one definition of such a thing: “ it is Tone’s definition, it is Mitchel’s definition, it is Rossa’s definition”. He called upon the spirit of the 19th century Fenians to inspire an uprising against “evil”, “untruth” and “oppression”. And he closed with perhaps the most powerful words ever spoken on the topic of Irish revolutionary republicanism, a warning to the British that the spirit exhibited by he and like-minded followers would not be extinguished, and that their continued presence in Ireland would lead to an never-ending battle:

“Life springs from death: and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and, while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

In terms of forewarning, you could, perhaps, not have asked for something much more obvious. The backgrounds and motivations of Pearse and others like him will form the basis for the next entry, as well as a look at the plans that were now being drawn up.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: On The Road To 1916

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