The men who began the revolution

The Irish Volunteers formed a century ago to support Home Rule in the face of UVF opposition. But what, precisely, they achieved before the disastrous treaty split that led to civil war is a contentious question

In their coverage of the launch of the Irish Volunteers organisation, in Dublin on November 25th, 1913, newspapers provided much detail about what transpired in the crowded Rotunda Rink, then the biggest hall in Dublin, in a temporary building in the grounds of the Rotunda Gardens.

Attendance was estimated at more than 5,000, and overflow meetings had to be held in the concert rooms and the gardens. The Freeman's Journal reported that the crowd was shepherded by "a big brigade of stewards . . . wearing green and orange badges", and "the St James's Brass and Reed Band discoursed a selection of national airs, the refrains of which were joined in by many in the assemblage. By far the greatest number of those in attendance were young men."

But when Laurence Kettle, a moderate nationalist who became joint secretary of the Volunteers’ Provisional Committee, rose to read the manifesto of the new organisation, a call of “Cheers for Larkin” was raised by a small section of the crowd, and “Mr Kettle’s voice was completely drowned”.

This was a reminder that the launch occurred in the midst of the long-drawn-out Dublin Lockout, after 400 employers had locked out more than 20,000 workers for belonging to, or supporting, the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin. Two weeks previously, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) had been formed as a militia to protect the workers.


The ICA was now part of a melting pot of organisations that was about to get bigger still. At the Rotunda gathering, moderate nationalists and trade unionists were joined by cultural and language activists, GAA stalwarts, representatives of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the secret, oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), as well as a large body of students from the National University of Ireland.

The meeting was chaired by the University College Dublin historian Eoin MacNeill, who had written an article three weeks earlier in An Claidheamh Soluis, the newspaper of the Gaelic League, calling for a nationalist force that would emulate the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), in January 1913. The UVF had threatened rebellion to oppose the introduction of Home Rule, and this gathering was the Irish nationalist response.

MacNeill began the proceedings “in the name of God” and claimed that “every section of Irish national opinion” was represented and what was now required to get the movement launched was “courage, vigilance and discipline”.

It was reported that 3,000 people were enrolled that inaugural night, and Bulmer Hobson, a member of the IRB who was one of those who had persuaded MacNeill to launch the Volunteers, recalled that those “equipped with pads of enrolment forms were mostly members of the IRB”. There was also the opening of a public subscription list and a promise that “there would be work for the women”. MacNeill also maintained, “We are commencing a united Ireland,” and, in relation to the cheers for Larkin, insisted that “we will recognise no sections”.

The manifesto declared that the ranks were open to all able-bodied Irish men without distinction of creed, politics or social grade. Both MacNeill and Pádraig Pearse, the educationalist and champion of the Gaelic League, who was moving in a more radical direction politically, maintained in their speeches that the new Volunteer force was not being founded in opposition to the UVF and that they would welcome the opportunity for the two forces to work together for the common good of Ireland.

The manifesto stated that the duties of the Volunteers “will be defensive and protective and they will not contemplate either aggression or domination”.

Various launches were held in other parts of the country, and by the middle of 1914, police reports estimated, membership of the organisation had reached 150,000. It was an extraordinary mobilisation, and much credit was given to the UVF for providing the inspiration.

MacNeill had said at the Rotunda, “We of the Irish Volunteers must admit candidly that it is the Ulster Volunteers who have opened the way for the Irish Volunteers.” According to the historian Michael Laffan, the example of the UVF “was contagious, and their parading of emotion, their posturing and their oratory all helped to eradicate the national fear of looking ridiculous”.

But there was more to it than that. At the time of the formation of the Volunteers, Europe was riven with conflict and labour unrest; civilian militarism was taking place in Germany, Britain and Poland; and independent military action by smaller nations was evident in the Balkan wars of 1911 and 1912 and the emerging nation states of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece – developments that did not go unrecorded in Ireland.

The formation of the Volunteers was an Irish manifestation of the rise of the “generation of 1914” whose rhetoric embraced the prospect of heroic conflict. It was a time of transition and dislocation, predictions of the end of empire, the promotion of the cult of manliness as the gateway to public virtue, and demands for suffrage and equality for women.

The ICA admitted women and spoke the language of equality, but the Volunteers were not as enlightened; Cumann na mBan was launched in 1914 as a female auxiliary force to the Volunteers, although its rhetoric and membership badge were militaristic.

A number of things were apparent from the early stages of the Volunteers’ existence: although the electric atmosphere enthralled many, the sheer variety of nationalist opinions and organisations involved meant the potential for internal dissension was strong.

A crucial question was whether the Irish Parliamentary Party would seek to control the Volunteers; its leader John Redmond was of high standing in Ireland but relatively weak in Westminster, given the unionist and Tory opposition to the implementation of Home Rule. MacNeill sought to resist any Redmondite takeover, but, fearing a split if there was no compromise, eventually accepted Redmond's nominees to the Volunteers' Provisional Committee.

There was an uneasy tolerance for a period, but growing distrust was inevitable, and the outbreak of the Great War complicated things further. Redmond’s call in September 1914 for the Volunteers to enlist in the British army as a moral imperative was met with accusations of treachery from MacNeill and his allies.

But Redmond’s standing was such that when the movement split that month, he took the vast majority of Volunteers – more than 90 per cent, now styled the National Volunteers – with him. Contemporary estimates of the number of Irish Volunteers who stayed with MacNeill were in the region of 9,000.

As shown by the mobilisation of Redmond’s National Volunteers to join the British army – by December 1914 Irish enlistments had exceeded 40,000, and by the end of the war Ireland’s total male contribution to the wartime forces was an estimated 210,000 – concepts of loyalty were multifaceted during this period.

For some, social and economic factors and traditions of military service were relevant, as were group and family loyalty and peer example and pressure. But for others British army service in the first World War was itself a declaration of Irish nationalism.

The Irish Times in April 1915, for example, reported on the enlistment of three brothers, all married and in employment. In response to the question of why they were joining the British army, they declared: "Because Mr Redmond said that this was as much Ireland's fight as England's and we want to fight for Ireland."

Even without the outbreak of the Great War, the actions of Redmond and the dispute over participation in the British war effort, there was little chance that the original defensive ethos of the Irish Volunteers would have survived because of the way in which IRB infiltrators were determined to skew its original purpose of existing to defend the introduction of Home Rule.

In his thoughts on what the Volunteers could become, Pádraig Pearse went much further than MacNeill; in the words of the historian Joe Lee, Pearse was increasingly “extolling bloodshed as a spiritual value in itself”. He wanted to see all nationalist and labour groups armed: “Bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.”

In making such declarations, Pearse was hardly representative. Even after the split in 1914, although their general rhetoric became more militant and threatening, most of the rank and file of the slimmed-down Irish Volunteers would not have shared Pearse’s flights of fancy. MacNeill was certainly in the pragmatists’ camp, and was described by a sympathetic contemporary, John J Horgan, as “that most tragic political phenomenon – an idealist enmeshed in reality”.

Like Pearse, other IRB members, including Seán Mac Diarmada and Tom Clarke, had been pleased about the formation of the Volunteers and the subsequent split in its ranks for their own reasons. Although it was the case that the longer the war endured the more dissatisfied nationalist Ireland became, the IRB was still a dedicated elite and the Irish Volunteer movement on the eve of the 1916 Rising was still only 15,000 strong.

Fearghal McGarry, one of the historians who have looked at many of the statements of the Bureau of Military History, which collected testimony in the 1940s and 1950s from those involved in the Irish revolution, has highlighted the diverse range of factors that influenced the political formation of the Volunteer generation.

They included “family background and childhood influences, local and communal influences, intergenerational tensions, education, popular traditions of Irish history, print culture and associational culture. But there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularize republicanism.”

They saw themselves as existing to counter the unionist threat to Home Rule, not to fight for Irish independence. The Volunteer movement had not built its base on the back of the ideology of the IRB, and even within the much smaller Irish Volunteers group after the split there was considerable opposition to the IRB.

The Easter Rising shocked most Irish Volunteers in 1916, which is hardy surprising given the clandestine way it was organised by the IRB, which used planned Volunteer mobilisations as a cover for its revolt.

Most of the Rising’s participants were Volunteers, and there was also a strong ICA contribution, but, overall, fewer than 1,500 mobilised in Dublin over the course of the week. After the post-Rising executions and deportations came a change in public opinion and, by the summer of 1917, the release of most prisoners.

The building of a new republican movement on the back of the now hardened separatist sentiment was largely driven by the Irish Volunteers, and after Éamon de Valera was elected Sinn Féin MP for East Clare in July 1917, he deliberately appeared in Volunteer uniform. He was subsequently elected president of the Volunteers in October 1917, the day after he had been elected president of Sinn Féin, which underlined the desire for unity of command.

The conscription crisis of 1918, when the British government was forced to abandon its plan to introduce conscription in Ireland because of united nationalist opposition, was also a factor in solidifying support for the now increasingly visible and assertive Volunteers, as was their involvement in the general election of December 1918 that witnessed the triumph of Sinn Féin.

The Volunteers' general headquarters was established in Dublin in March 1918, and most Volunteers took an oath to defend the Republic. The first edition of the Volunteer's journal, An tÓglách, appeared in August 1918, and what was striking was its insistence that it was "the agent of national will" and its excoriation of the notion of passive resistance.

The message was that, unlike in 1916, the Volunteers were poised for success and determined that it would be more profitable to kill than to die for Ireland. The British government banned the Volunteers in November 1919, and the increasing use of the initials IRA was apparent.

It subsequently organised throughout the country, and historians have done much in recent years to underline the degree to which it was affected by local nuances, feuds, resilience, triumphs and weaknesses.

Much of what sustained the revolution was youthful exuberance rather than military brilliance; before 1919 the average age of a rank-and-file Volunteer was 23 and of an officer 25; after that, the average age rose by about a year.

State of war
The relationship between the IRA and the underground Dáil government established in 1919 was never straightforward; not every Volunteer took an oath of loyalty, local leadership was highly variable and IRA GHQ was not always in control. But as the republicans moved towards a more focused and effective military strategy, Britain struggled in response, doing little to encourage moderate nationalists.

It was only in March 1921, however, that the Dáil agreed to an acceptance of a state of war with England and took responsibility for the military operations of the Volunteers. Around the same time Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief of staff, recognised that the IRA's room for manoeuvre was narrowing.

Later that year, with the truce between the IRA and British forces and the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Mulcahy sought to head off the anticipated republican rejection of the treaty by arguing that “any good Irishman, if assured that by dying he would secure for Ireland the benefits included in the treaty, would have died without hesitation”.

This was far fetched, if not delusional, but what was also instructive was that the republican view of public opinion was and remained dismissive; they did not define their fight in terms of democracy.

What had the Irish Volunteers achieved from 1913 to 1921 before the disastrous treaty split that led to civil war? Given that the organisation evolved into the IRA during the war of independence, and that about 7,500 people were killed or injured because of violence in Ireland from 1917 to 1923, and because of the more recent Troubles from 1969 and the continued existence of republican paramilitary groups that claim the Volunteers’ title and continuity with their war-of-independence mission, this is one of the more contentious questions of modern Irish history.

Wishful thinking
There is little doubt about the central role of the Volunteers in bringing down the quest for Home Rule that the constitutional nationalists had promoted since the 19th century, and in forcing Britain to negotiate, thus speeding up the process of a limited Irish independence.

Although there are those who claim that violence was unnecessary to create the Free State in 1922, this may be wishful thinking rather than objective analysis: the historian Ronan Fanning has insisted that “there is not a shred of evidence” that David Lloyd George’s Tory-dominated government would have moved from limited Home Rule “to the larger if imperfect generosity of the Treaty, if they had not been impelled to do so” by the IRA.

What the Volunteers could not do was prevent the partition of Ireland; indeed, they may have increased its likelihood, making the original 1913 aspiration towards unity with the UVF seem hollow, but unionist and British action and inaction were also relevant in that regard.

The rhetoric of 1913 needs to be viewed through the lenses of 1913, and it is the job of the historian not to romanticise or to bring a corrosive cynicism to what was, 100 years ago, a seminal moment at the beginning of the Irish revolution but to try to understand the complex layers, allegiances and notions of loyalty and disloyalty that propelled its instigators.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin