Ireland’s Wars: The Volunteer Schism

Whatever semblance of a plan the military council had come up with was made, and Germany was sending arms, albeit not in the quantity the IRB wanted. As winter turned to Spring in 1916, the rebellion grew ever more likely to come, but there was still that schism between the more moderate elements and the more militant to confront and overcome.

The council itself appears to have decided that Easter 1916 was going to be the time, at least by late January/early February 1916. It is often thought that Easter was chosen purely for its religious associations with death and rebirth, and it is likely that Pearse certainly viewed it in such terms, but there was the practical advantage to the date in that the previous Easter had seen the Volunteers mobilise, manoeuvre and parade, and so any movement on Easter the following year might well be mistaken, at least initially, for the same. And if a rebellion was going to be carried out, time was of the essence: every day that passed increased the chances of British counter-moves, the suppression of the Irish Volunteers, or a more open conflict with the likes of Eoin MacNeill and Bulmer Hobson.

What was being planned could not be hidden indefinitely, as munitions were assembled, practise manoeuvres were held and, as they always did for Irish rebellions, people blabbed, with Thomas McDonagh telling companies of the Volunteers he addressed in the lead-up to have three days rations ready and to be able to respond to sudden orders. Amid the rank-and-file of the Volunteers, a sense, an intuition and outright knowledge that a rising would happen soon began to spread in the first few months of 1916, and reached a fever pitch in mid-April.

But in those last tension filled days ahead of the planned start – Easter Sunday, the 23rd of April – things began to unravel. We have already noted Casement’s leaving of Germany under a cloud of disillusionment, and his subsequent capture on the Irish west coast. In the next entry, we will look with greater detail on the ill-fated attempt by the German Navy to land arms in Ireland. But for now we must look at the moments when the actions of Pearse and company went from secretive to outright duplicitous

On Wednesday 19th April an extraordinary document was read out to the Dublin Corporation by Sinn Fein Alderman Tom Kelly. Purportedly from the British government in Dublin and sanctioned by military leadership in the country, it authorised the arrest of the leadership of Sinn Fein, the Irish Volunteers and even the Gaelic League, as well as the institution of martial law in Dublin. The document did not say why exactly such actions would be undertaken but reading between the lines it was clearly a measure to eliminate nationalist sedition. It was claimed the order was leaked from Dublin Castle by a sympathiser working within the British Government.

The so-called “Castle Document” caused a sensation, but its authenticity has been in doubt from the moment it was circulated. Some went to their graves insisting it was the genuine article, while others maintain it was a forgery cooked up by Joseph Plunkett. The government certainly claimed it was bogus.

The more likely outcome is somewhere in the middle: Plunkett probably did receive something to the effect that the government had plans for mass arrests of nationalist leaders, but he may then have re-written it for publication to insinuate the action was imminent, and to include additional figures and organisations not originally proscribed. The reasoning would have been simple: to create a united nationalist front out of a common enemy about to undertake a suppressive action.

When Eoin MacNeill was presented with the Castle Document, his reaction appears to have been a mixture of amazement and delight. We must remember that MacNeill was not opposed to violent action, he just felt it should only be taken if success was achievable, or in self-defence. The apparent plans of the authorities would certainly trigger the second justification, and MacNeill, on Wednesday the 19th April, sent orders to all Volunteer units to be in a position to defend themselves from attempts to arrest or disarm them, violently if necessary.

But MacNeill, despite some depictions of him later as a naive fool, was not completely ignorant of what was going on around him and had long suspected plans for a rising were being drafted without his input or approval. Earlier that month, MacNeill had directly asked Pearse about such matters, and had been promised that no plans were being made for an insurrection. Despite warnings from numerous figures, MacNeill chose to take Pearse at his word.

On the night of Thursday 20th April the long hidden divide within the Volunteers finally became manifest. Hobson and MacNeill were informed that orders were being given, without their knowledge, for Volunteer manoeuvres that Sunday, that could only have been the cover for an active rebellion. Sometime around midnight, they confronted Pearse in St Enda’s, and Pearse finally came clean, admitting that an insurrection was planned. O’Neill, opposed to such offensive plans and to the general shape of them as conventional warfare, insisted he would do all he could to scupper such plans, leading Pearse to claim the Volunteers were already entirely in the control of the IRB anyway (something that would turn out to be a bit of an exaggeration).

A furious O’Neill issued orders for Pearse’s commands to be ignored and moved for Bulmer Hobson to be given a more senior position, but the next morning the military council made a belated attempt to smooth the waters, informing O’Neill of the expected shipment of German arms. O’Neill changed his opinion when hearing this news – that undoubtedly was not entirely honest when it came to describing the actual shipment – and decided to back some form of rising, though it remains unclear if that was Pearse’s plan or something more akin to defensive guerrilla warfare, as others called for.

As the weekend began, that was how things stood in Dublin, with an uneasy truce between the Volunteer factions and some manner of rebellion due to begin. But that truce and that rebellion depended in large part on expected guns from Germany, guns that, as we, with the benefit of hindsight know, would never be landed. In the next entry we will look at this infamous voyage, from its beginnings to its unfortunate end.

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

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