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
Rifle range: National Volunteers practise in Dublin in 1914. Photograph: Central Press/Getty
In uniform: Éamon de Valera speaks in Ennis, where he was elected an MP and president of Sinn Féin, in 1917. Photograph: Hulton/Getty
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.