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20 August 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Centenary of Fianna Éireann - republican

By Mícheál Mac Donncha

The month of August 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of an organisation that played a pivotal role in the struggle for Irish freedom. Fianna Éireann was for decades the main body of organised republican youth in Ireland, educating and training  young people who went on to fight – and many of whom laid down their lives – for the Irish Republic.
Between the death of Parnell in 1891 and the founding of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 a myriad of political, military, cultural, women’s and trade union organisations sprang up in Ireland. They all, to one degree or another, sought to assert the identity and independence of the Irish people and to halt the spread of Anglicisation which threatened to totally subsume Ireland in the British Empire.
One of the Anglicising elements in Irish society was the boy scout movement founded by British imperialist Baden Powell. These scouts were sponsored by the British establishment and regularly participated in public displays of loyalty to the English crown. Seeing this, Irish republicans were moved to act, both to counter the insult to Ireland and to use the scouting idea to promote republicanism among young people.
In Derry a youth group called Éire Óg was active while in Belfast, Irish Republican Brotherhood member Bulmer Hobson founded a group called Fianna Éireann in 1902. This was purely local and based on the Falls Road but it involved hundreds of boys in hurling, Irish language and history classes.
The real impetus for the founding of a national republican youth movement came from Constance Markievicz. She was determined to counter the Baden Powell scouts and to establish an Irish organisation.  
With encouragement from republican friends Markievicz called a meeting at a dimly lit, shabby hall at 34 Lower Camden Street, Dublin, on 16 August 1909. About 100 boys and a few adults attended and Fianna Éireann was inaugurated with its aim the complete independence of Ireland. While Hobson was elected its first president, it was Markievicz who provided most of the funds as well as being the chief motivator and organiser.
Markievicz proved a great inspiration to young people. She rented Belcamp House in the then rural area of Coolock in Dublin as a base for Fianna activities. Later her home at Surrey House in Rathmines became the main base.
Fianna members were active in support of the workers during the Great Lockout of 1913. Later that year when the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers were founded the discipline of their young Fianna comrades proved invaluable to the Volunteers in these new military organisations. This was proven in July 1914 when Fianna Éireann members played a key role in the Howth gun running, helping to land rifles and ammunition from the Asgard yacht and to take them safely to the city.
It was in 1916 that the results of seven years of preparation of Fianna Éireann was seen as members and former members were prominent among the leaders of the Easter Rising. Con Colbert was a national officer of the Fianna and Seán Heuston had also been a prominent member. Both were among the 16 leaders executed by the British.
One of the most successful and inspiring organisers of Fianna Éireann was Liam Mellows. Writing from Mountjoy Jail in 1922 during the Civil War Mellows said that the “Fianna ideal can save the future”, urging more support for youth and for young people to be educated into rather than simply absorbed into the Republican Movement. Soon after he wrote this Mellows was executed without charge or trial.
Already Fianna members had died at the hands of the Free State. In August 1922 Fianna officers Seán Cole and Alf Colley were abducted and shot dead by members of the Free State political police at Yellow Road, Whitehall, Dublin. The Fianna were staunchly opposed to the Treaty and in the years to come stood by their IRA, Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan comrades.
The Fianna continued as an integral part of the Republican Movement. At one point in the 1930s their organiser was Frank Ryan. Writer Brendan Behan was among those who joined in the that period. When the Movement was rebuilt in the 1950s, the Fianna was part of the reorganisation. At the 1957 Fianna Ard Fheis in Dublin 46 sluaite (branches) were represented.
It was nationalist youth that spearheaded resistance when the Orange state reacted with violence to the demands of the Civil Rights movement. This month also marks the 40th anniversary of the Belfast pogrom and the Battle of the Bogside. Fianna members were on the front line during these cataclysmic events.
These is a special poignancy, therefore, to this 100th anniversary as it coincides with the 40th anniversary of Gerald McAuley the first member of the Republican Movement to be killed in the phase of struggle which began in 1969. Gerald, aged 15, was shot dead while defending the Belfast community of Clonard against loyalist attacks on 15 August 1969. He was the first of 20 members of Fianna Éireann who died for Irish freedom between 1969 and 1981.
Fianna Éireann was banned in the Six Counties but members fully participated in the struggle. By the 1980s girls as well as boys were finally admitted to its ranks, an issue that had been a bone of contention for many years.
Membership grew after the 1981 hunger strikes and the organisation continued through the ‘80s. However, the political growth of Sinn Féin attracted increasing numbers of young people who demanded their place within the party. The result was the development of Sinn Féin Youth and later Ógra Shinn Féin. Fianna Éireann was disbanded and Ógra Shinn Féin organised in the proud tradition of republican youth which continues today.
Fianna Éireann was founded on 16 August 1909, 100 years ago this week.

 Fianna members helping to unload guns from the Asgard at Howth, July 1914 

 

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