The Irish Volunteers (Óglaigh na hÉireann) was a military organisation established in 1913 by Irish nationalists. It was ostensibly formed in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, and its declared primary aim was “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland.” The Volunteers included members of the Gaelic League, Ancient Order of Hibernians and Sinn Féin, and, secretly, the IRB. The Volunteers fought for Irish independence in 1916’s Easter Rising, and were joined by the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann to form the Irish Republican Army.
Home Rule for Ireland dominated political debate between the two countries since Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, which was rejected by the House of Commons. The second Home Rule Bill, seven years later having passed the House of Commons, was vetoed by the House of Lords. It would be the third Home Rule Bill, introduced in 1912, which would lead to the crisis in Ireland between the majority Nationalist population and the Unionists in Ulster.
On 28 September 1912 at Belfast City Hall almost 250,000 Unionists signed the Solemn League and Covenant to resist the granting of Home Rule. This was followed in January 1913 with the formation of the Ulster Volunteers composed of adult male Unionists to oppose the passage and implementation of the bill by force of arms if necessary.
The initiative for a series of meetings leading up to the public inauguration of the Volunteers came from the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Bulmer Hobson, co-founder of the republican boy-scouts, Fianna Éireann, and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, believed the IRB should use the formation of the Ulster Volunteers as an “excuse to try to persuade the public to form an Irish volunteer force”. The IRB could not move in the direction of a Volunteer force themselves, as action by known physical force men would be stopped, despite the precedent established by the Ulster Volunteers. They therefore confined themselves to encouraging the view that Nationalists also ought to organize a Volunteer Force for the defence of Ireland. A small committee then began to meet regularly in Dublin from July, 1913, who watched the growth of this opinion. They refrained however from any action until the precedent of Ulster should have first been established while waiting for the lead to come from a “constitutional” quarter.
The IRB began the preparations for the open organisation of the Irish Volunteers in January 1913. James Stritch, an IRB member, had the Irish National Foresters build a hall at the back of 41 Parnell Square in Dublin, which was the headquarters of the Wolfe Tone Clubs. Anticipating the formation of the Volunteers they began to learn foot-drill and military movements. The drilling was conducted by Stritch together with members of Fianna Éireann. They began by drilling a small number of IRB associated with the Dublin Gaelic Athletic Association, led by Harry Boland.
Michael Collins along with several other IRB members claim that the formation of the Irish Volunteers was not merely a “knee-jerk reaction” to the Ulster Volunteers, which is often supposed, but was in fact the “old Irish Republican Brotherhood in fuller force.”
“The North Began”:
The IRB knew they would need a highly regarded figure as a public front that would conceal the reality of their control. The IRB found Eoin MacNeill the ideal candidate, Professor of Early and Medieval History at University College Dublin. McNeill’s academic credentials and reputation for integrity and political moderation had widespread appeal.
The O’Rahilly, assistant editor and circulation manager of the Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, encouraged MacNeill to write an article for the first issue of a new series of articles for the paper. The O’Rahilly suggested to MacNeill that it should be on some wider subject than mere Gaelic pursuits. It was this suggestion which gave rise to the article entitled The North Began, giving the Irish Volunteers its public origins. On 1 November, MacNeill’s article suggesting the formation of an Irish volunteer force was published. MacNeill wrote,
There is nothing to prevent the other twenty-eight counties from calling into existence citizen forces to hold Ireland “for the Empire”. It was precisely with this object that the Volunteers of 1782 were enrolled, and they became the instrument of establishing Irish self-government.
After the article was published, Hobson asked The O’Rahilly to see MacNeill, to suggest to him that a conference should be called in order to make arrangements for publicly starting the new movement. The article “threw down the gauntlet to nationalists to follow the lead given by Ulster unionists.” MacNeill was unaware of the detailed planning which was going on in the background, but was aware of Hobson’s political leanings. He knew the purpose as to why he was chosen, but he was determined not to be a puppet.
With MacNeill willing to take part, O’Rahilly and Hobson sent out invitations for the first meeting at Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street, Dublin, on November 11. Hobson himself did not attend this meeting, believing his standing as an “extreme nationalist” might prove problematical. The IRB, however, was well represented by, among others, Sean MacDermott and Eamonn Ceannt, who would prove to be substantially more extreme than Hobson. Several others meetings were soon to follow, as prominent nationalists planned the formation of the Volunteers, under the leadership of MacNeill. Meanwhile, labour leaders in Dublin began calling for the establishment of a citizens’ defence force in the aftermath of the lock out of 19 August 1913. Thus formed the Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, which, though it had similar aims, had no connection with the Irish Volunteers.
The Volunteer organisation was publicly launched on 25 November, with their first public meeting and enrollment rally at the Rotunda in Dublin. The IRB organised this meeting to which all parties were invited, and brought 5000 enlistment blanks for distribution and handed out in books of one hundred each to each ot the stewards. Every one of the ste-wards and officials wore on their lapel a small silken bow the center of which was white, while on one side was green and on the other side orange and had long been recognized as the colors which the Irish Republican Brotherhood had adopted as the Irish national banner. The hall was filled to its 4,000 person capacity, with a further 3,000 spilling onto the grounds outside. Speakers at the rally included MacNeill, Patrick Pearse, and Michael Davitt, son of the Land League founder of the same name. Over the course of the following months the movement spread throughout the country, with thousands more joining every week.
Organization and leadership:
The names of those who were members of the governing Committee of the Volunteers from November 1913 to October 1914, exclusive of Redmond’s 25 nominees who only functioned between mid-June to mid-September 1914 were:
Honourable Secretaries: Eoin Mac Néill (Gaelic League (GL)), Laurence J. Kettle (Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH));
Honourable Treasurers: The O’Rahilly (GL, Sinn Féin (SF)), John Gore (AOH, IPP);
Members: Piaras Béaslaí (Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)), Sir Roger Casement (GL), Eamonn Ceannt (IRB, GL, SF), John Fitzgibbon (GL, SF), Liam Gogan, Bulmer Hobson (IRB, Fianna Éireann (FÉ)), Michael J. Judge (AOH), Thomas Kettle (IPP, AOH), James Lenehan (AOH), Michael Lonergan (IRB, Fianna Éireann (FÉ)), Peter (Peadar) Macken (IRB, Labour leader, SF, GL), Seán Mac Diarmada (IRB, Irish Freedom), Thomas MacDonagh (IRB), Liam Mellows (IRB), Col. Maurice Moore (IPP, GL, Connaught Rangers), Séamus O’Connor (IRB), Colm O’Loughlin (IRB, St. Enda’s School (SES)), Peter O’Reilly (Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH)), Robert Page (IRB, Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)), Patrick Pearse (IRB, GL, SES), Joseph M. Plunkett (IRB, Irish Review), John Walsh (AOH), Peter White (Celtic Literary Society);
Fianna Éireann representatives: Con Colbert (IRB), Eamon Martin (IRB), Patrick O’Riain (IRB).
When the thirty member Provisional Committee was finalized, the addition of several new IRB members brought their total within the Committee to twelve. The IRB then specifically brought Liam Mellows to Dublin to strengthen the Fianna representation and they were eventually to recruit Pearse, Plunkett and MacDonagh, and thus hold over half the strength of the Committee. This brought the IRB representation to 16 with the rest of the committee being represented by both Redmondites and Sinn Feiners, among others.
The manifesto of the Volunteers, approved at the 25 November meeting, stated the organisation’s objectives were “to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland.” To train, arm, equip and discipline themselves for the above purpose while uniting Irishmen of every creed, party and class. Though the “rights and liberties” were never defined, nor the means by which they would be obtained, the IRB in the Fenian tradition construed the term to mean the maintenance of the rights of Ireland to national independence and to secure that right in arms.
The manifesto further stated that their duties were to be defensive, contemplating neither “aggression or domination”. MacNeill offered his opinion in the article The North Began that the Tory policy in Ulster, was deliberately adopted to make the display of military force with the threat of armed violence the decisive factor in relations between Ireland and Great Britain. If Irishmen accepted this new policy he said they would be surrendering their rights as men and citizens. If they did not attempt to defeat this policy “we become politically the most degraded population in Europe and no longer worthy of the name of Nation …” In this situation he said guarding our own rights is our first duty. They have rights who dare maintain them, but rights in the last resort, could only be maintained by arms.
MacNeill himself would approve of armed resistance only if the British launched a campaign of repression against Irish nationalist movements, or if they attempted to impose conscription on Ireland following the outbreak of the First World War, in such a case he believed that they would have mass support.
The IRB was unable to gain complete control of the organisation, especially after the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, demanded that the Volunteers accept his own personal appointments to its Provisional Committee, which would effectively place the organisation under his control. While the moderates did not like the idea, they were prepared to go along with it in order to prevent Redmond from forming a rival organisation, which would draw away most of their support. The IRB was completely opposed to Redmond’s demands, as this would end any chance they had of controlling the Volunteers, but were unable to prevent the motion from being carried in Redmond’s favour.
Arming the Volunteers:
Shortly after the formation of the Volunteers, the British Parliament banned the importation of weapons into Ireland. The “Curragh incident” in March 1914 indicated that the government could not rely on its army to ensure a smooth transition to Home Rule. Then in April 1914 the Ulster Volunteers successfully imported 24,000 rifles in the Larne Gun Running event. The Irish Volunteers realised that it too would have to follow suit if they were to be taken as a serious force. Indeed, many contemporary observers commented on the irony of “loyal” Ulstermen arming themselves and threatening to defy the British government by force. Patrick Pearse famously replied that “the Orangeman with a gun is not as laughable as the nationalist without one.” Thus O’Rahilly, Sir Roger Casement and Bulmer Hobson worked together to coordinate a daylight gun-running expedition to Howth, just north of Dublin.
The plan worked, and Erskine Childers brought nearly 1,000 rifles, purchased from Germany, to the harbour on the 26 July and distributed them to the waiting Volunteers, without interference from the authorities. The remainder of the guns smuggled from Germany for the Irish Volunteers were landed at Kilcoole a week later by Sir Thomas Myles.
As the Volunteers marched from Howth back to Dublin, however, they were met by a large patrol of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the British Army. The Volunteers escaped largely unscathed, but when the army returned to Dublin they clashed with a group of unarmed civilians who had been heckling them at Bachelors Walk. Though no order was given, the soldiers fired on the civilians, killing four and the wounding of a further 37. This enraged the populace, and during the outcry enlistments in the Volunteers soared.
The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 provoked a serious split in the organisation. Redmond, in the interest of ensuring the enactment of the Home Rule Act 1914 then on the statute books, encouraged the Volunteers to support the British and Allied war commitment and join Irish regiments of the British New Army divisions, an action unsuccessfully opposed by the founding members. Given the wide expectation that the war was going to be a short one, the majority however supported the war effort and the call to restore the “freedom of small nations” on the European continent. They left to form the National Volunteers, which fought in the 10th and 16th (Irish) Division, side-by-side with their volunteer counterparts from the 36th (Ulster) Division. Unlike the latter, the 16th Division had no trained military Irish officers of its own, and were commanded by British officers, with the exception of Irish General William Hickie. The National Volunteers ceased to exist after the Armistice in 1918 when their battalions were disbanded in 1922 under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
A minority believed that the principles used to justify the Allied war cause were best applied in restoring the freedom to one small country in particular. They retained the name “Irish Volunteers”, were led by MacNeill and called for Irish neutrality. The National Volunteers kept some 175,000 members, leaving the Irish Volunteers with an estimated 13,500. This split proved advantageous to the IRB, which was now back in a position to control the organisation.
Following the split, the remnants of the Irish Volunteers were often, and erroneously, referred to as the “Sinn Féin Volunteers”, or “Shinners”, after Arthur Griffith’s political organisation Sinn Féin. The term began as a derogatory one, but soon became ubiquitous in Ireland. Although the two organisations had some overlapping membership, there was no official connection between Griffith’s then moderate Sinn Féin and the Volunteers. The political stance of the remaining Volunteers was not always popular, and a 1,000-strong march led by Pearse through the garrison city of Limerick on Whit Sunday, 1915, was pelted with rubbish by a hostile crowd. Pearse explained the reason for the establishment of the new force when he said in May 1915:
What if conscription be enforced on Ireland? What if a Unionist or a Coalition British Ministry repudiates the Home Rule Act?
What if it be determined to dismember Ireland? The future is big with these and other possibilities.
After the departure of Redmond and his followers, the Volunteers adopted a constitution, which had been drawn up by the earlier provisional committee, and was ratified by a convention of 160 delegates on 25 October 1914. It called for general council of fifty members to meet monthly, as well as an executive of the president and eight elected members. In December a headquarters staff was appointed, consisting of Eoin MacNeill as chief of staff, The O’Rahilly as director of arms, Thomas MacDonagh as director of training, Patrick Pearse as director of military organization, Bulmer Hobson as quartermaster, and Joseph Plunkett as director of military operations. The following year they were joined by Eamonn Ceannt as director of communications and J.J. O’Connell as chief of inspection.
This reorganization put the IRB is a stronger position, as four important military positions (director of training, director of military organization, director of military operations, and director of communications) were held by men who were, or would soon be, members of the IRB, and who later become four of the seven signatories of the Easter Proclamation. (Hobson was also an IRB member, but had a falling out with the leadership after he supported Redmond’s appointees to the provisional council, and hence played little role in the IRB thereafter.)
The Easter Rising, 1916:
The official stance of the Irish Volunteers was that action would only be taken were the British authorities at Dublin Castle to attempt to disarm the Volunteers, arrest their leaders, or introduce conscription to Ireland. The IRB, however, was determined to use the Volunteers for offensive action while Britain was tied up in the First World War. Their plan was to circumvent MacNeill’s command, instigating a Rising, and to get MacNeill on board once the rising was a fait accompli.
Pearse issued orders for three days of parades and manoeuvres, a thinly disguised order for a general insurrection. MacNeill soon discovered the real intent behind the orders and attempted to stop all actions by the Volunteers. He succeeded only in putting the Rising off for a day, and limiting it to about 1,000 active participants within Dublin and a further 2,000-3,000 elsewhere. Almost all of the fighting was confined to Dublin. The Irish Citizen Army supplied slightly more than 200 personnel for the Dublin campaign.
The Rising was a failure in the short term, and large numbers of Irish Volunteers were arrested, even some who did not participate in the Rising. In 1919 the Irish Volunteers became the Irish Republican Army, swearing its obedience to the First Dáil during the course of August 1920.