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26 November 1998 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The Irish Volunteers founded

By Aengus O Snodaigh

While the Sinn Féin organisation caught the spirit of the generation - 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, being instructed by Fianna Eireann 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 NÈill, who had written an article which had caught the attention of Irish-Ireland, ``The North Began'', which appeared in An Claidheamh Soluis, Conradh na Gaeilge's newspaper. In the course of the article people believed he had called for 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 NÈill as the focus for nationalist fervour and a figurehead of a new nationalist army. O'Rahilly went to Mac Neill and asked him if he would preside at a committee meeting to discuss the formation of a volunteer body. Mac NÈill agreed. The tone of these discussion times are set in a piece written by P.draig Mac Piarais just after Mac NÈill 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 on 11 November 1913 to discuss the proposal. Present were Bulmer Hobson, Eoin Mac NÈill, P.draig Mac Piarais, Se.n Mac Diarmada, W.J. Ryan, Eamonn Ceannt, The O'Rahilly, Joseph Campbell, James Deakin, Se.n Fitzgibbon, Robert Page, Piaras BeaslaÌ, Seamus O'Connor, Eamonn Martin, Colm O'Loughlin, Michael Judge and Colonel Maurice Moore. It was 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 the forerunners of today's Special Branch, detectives operating out of Dublin Castle, called at the hotel. They persuaded the hotel 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. Notices of the meeting appeared in the press.

The meeting was initially intended for the Mansion House in Dublin's 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 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 thus 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 Eireann, 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. Seán T.O Ceallaigh presided in the concert hall and it was addressed by Seán Mac Diarmada, James McMahon, MJ Judge and Councillor Richard Carroll.

The meeting in the grounds was addressed by B. O'Connor and Bulmer Hobson.

Trade unionists, a large group of students, and members of the Gaelic Athletic Association were in attendance 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 the transport workers unable to gain entry retired to Liberty Hall.

Eoin Mac Neill, Pádraig Mac Piaras and Michael Davitt Junior addressed the main contingent.

A long manifesto was read to the meeting which said that ``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. ``From time immemorial it has been held by every race of mankind to be the right and duty of a freeman to defend his freedom with all his resources and with his life itself.''

Eoin Mac Neill 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 in his speech said there were people in the hall who shared with him the belief that for Ireland there would be no true freedom within the British empire. There were, doubtless, many more who believed that Ireland could achieve and enjoy very substantial freedom within the empire. Ireland armed would, at any rate, make a better bargain with 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 the 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 that 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 that they 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 republican organisation which was to play an important role in the next decade and after. Cumann na mBan 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, Dublin 85 years ago this week.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1