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27 November 2003 Edition

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90th anniversary of the Irish Volunteers

Ninety years ago this week, the Irish Volunteers were founded in the Rotunda Complex on Parnell Square, Dublin. Here, AENGUS Ó SNODAIGH looks at the circumstances that led to the formation of the Volunteers and writes about the historic first meeting that took place in the Rotunda on 25 November 1913.

While the Sinn Féin organisation caught the spirit of a generation in the Irish-Ireland era, it did not go far enough. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, (Fenians), which had remained active, though in the background, decided the time was right in 1913 to push the agenda further.

Watching Ulster unionists organise and bear arms openly in the Ulster Volunteer Force with the encouragement of Tory politicians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin began drilling in secret in the Irish National Foresters' Hall, 41 Parnell Square, instructed by Fianna Éireann officers.

While drilling continued, the IRB got Bulmer Hobson to approach the O'Rahilly, a prominent nationalist at the time, to ask him to visit the Professor of early and medieval Irish history in University College Dublin, Eoin Mac Néill, who had written an article which had caught the attention of Irish Ireland, The North Began, which also appeared in An Claidheamh Soluis, Conradh na Gaeilge's newspaper. In the course of the article, people believed he had called on nationalists to follow the example of the Ulstermen:

"It is evident that the only solution now possible is for the empire either to make terms with Ireland or to let Ireland go her own way."

It was the IRB's intention to use Mac Néill as the focus for national fervour and the figurehead of a new nationalist army.

O'Rahilly went to Mac Néill and asked him if he would preside at a committee meeting to discuss the formation of a volunteer body. Mac Néill agreed. The tone of these discussion times are set in a piece written by Pádraig Mac Piarais, just after Mac Néill was approached.

"A thing that stands demonstrable is that nationhood is not achieved otherwise than in arms: in one or two instances there may have been no actual bloodshed, but the arms were there and the ability to use them. Ireland unarmed will attain just as much freedom as it is convenient for England to give her: Ireland armed will attain ultimately just as much freedom as she wants."

A number of people came together in Wynn's Hotel, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, on 11 November to discuss the proposal. Bulmer Hobson, Eoin Mac Néill, Pádraig Mac Piarais, Séan Mac Diarmada, WJ Ryan, Eamonn Ceannt, The O'Rahilly, Joseph Campbell, James Deakin, Séan Fitzgibbon, Robert Page, Piaras Beaslaí, Séamus O'Connor, Eamonn Martin, Colm O'Loughlin, Micheal Judge and Colonel Maurice Moore were among those present. They agreed to hold a public recruiting meeting for a body called the Irish Volunteers, whose aim was "to secure and maintain the common rights and liberties of Irish men".

Within two hours of the first meeting, detectives operating out of Dublin Castle called at the hotel. They persuaded the staff to divulge the names of those present, saying that they were sporting men who had met to pull off an illegal sweep (betting scam). They cautioned the management not to rent the rooms to Hobson and company again.

The IRB paid for the rooms rented in Wynn's Hotel for the several meetings held before the public meeting.

A letter was circulated to national organisations requesting them to put the aims of the Volunteers before their members. Notice of the meetings appeared in the press.

The meeting was initially intended for the Mansion House on Dawson Street, but the then Lord Mayor, Lorcan Sherlock, refused to rent it to them. (Sherlock was later to become one of John Redmond's nominees forced onto the Volunteer's Executive in June 1914 to ensure that moderates, such as Redmond, could quell or dilute the anger of the Irish Volunteers at the delayed enactment of Home Rule.)

The meeting was switched to the small concert hall in the Rotunda complex, then to the large concert hall, which could hold 500, but with interest growing, the Rotunda Rink, a temporary building in the Rotunda Gardens capable of holding 4,000, was booked.

At the meeting, the stewards, all IRB men and members of Fianna Éireann, got 3,000 enrolment forms signed. In addition to the 4,000 people inside the hall, a crowd of about 3,000 was unable to gain admission. Traffic on Parnell Square was blocked by the crowd. Two overflow meetings were held, one in the large concert room and the other in the gardens. Sean T Ó Ceallaigh presided in the concert hall, and it was addressed by Séan Mac Diarmada, James MacMahon, MJ Judge and Councillor Richard Carroll. B O'Connor and Bulmer Hobson addressed the meeting in the grounds.

Trade unionists, a large group of students and members of the Gaelic Athletic Association were amongst the thousands who turned up. Though mainly a male audience, a special section set aside for women was full also.

Shortly after 8pm, when the doors opened for the meeting, over 200 members of the Irish Transport Workers' Union arrived. Later another group, many carrying hurleys, headed by a pipers' band, tried to gain entry, but finding it impossible, marched down to Liberty Hall, accompanied by a force of police. Later again, another band of transport workers, unable to gain entry, retired to Liberty Hall.

Eoin Mac Néíll, Pádraig Mac Piarais and Michael Davitt Junior addressed the main contingent. A long manifesto was read to the meeting, which said "the Volunteer organisation would, under National Government, form a prominent element in the national life. They will not contemplate either aggression or domination, their ranks are open to all able-bodied Irishmen, without distinction of creed, politics or social grade."

It declared that if the Irish people remained quiescent, they would show themselves unworthy of defence.

Eoin Mac Néill in his speech said:

"The more genuine and successful the local volunteer movement in Ulster becomes, the more completely does it establish the principle that Irishmen have the right to decide and govern their own national affairs. We have nothing to fear from the existing volunteers in Ulster nor they from us. We gladly acknowledge the evident truth that they have opened the way for a national volunteer movement, and we trust that the day is near when their own services to the cause of an Irish nation will become as memorable as the services of their forefathers."

Pearse said there were people in the hall who shared with him that for Ireland there would be no freedom within the British Empire. There were, doubtless, many more who believed that Ireland could achieve and enjoy substantial freedom within the empire. Ireland armed would, at any rate, make a better bargain within the empire, than Ireland unarmed.

Arrangements were made that night to rent eight halls in Dublin for drilling the 15 companies formed for the city. As a result of steps taken by the IRB earlier, those members of the Volunteers who were members of the IRB were mostly all well drilled and therefore came to prominence and were made officers in the new organisation.

This meant the IRB was able to steer the Irish Volunteers in their chosen direction.

It was not until after the British parliament realised that Irish nationalists would arm themselves again, that they banned the importation of arms, nine days after the founding of the Irish Volunteers. The mass importation of arms for the UVF did not elicit such a response, because the British Government understood that in the long run, the UVF did not represent any real threat to the empire.

Also on the night of the Irish Volunteers' formation, the wheels were set in motion for the formation of another organisation, which was to play an important role in the next decade and after. Cumann na mBán was founded in April 1914 following a series of meetings, the first of which was held on the same night the Irish Volunteers' was founded, in an upper room, in the Queen's Theatre in the Rotunda complex.

The Irish Volunteers were founded in the Rotunda complex on Parnell Square, 90 years ago this week.

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