The legacy of Eoin MacNeill, the man who tried to call off the Rising
The actions of the Irish Volunteers founder must be seen in the context of his turbulent times
A split ensued, with Redmond supported by a majority of Volunteers, by a ratio
of 15 to one, now termed the National Volunteers, while MacNeill retained command of the minority, keeping the original title.
For all his anger and accusations at this time, and despite the postponement of the implementation of Home Rule due to the war, MacNeill, though not a pacifist, did not believe an Irish Volunteer uprising was feasible or justified, as it would lead to suppression of the organisation and abandonment of Home Rule. His logic,
as enunciated in February 1916, was
clear; the only justification for rebellion would be “deep and widespread popular discontent”, but “no such condition exists in Ireland”.
His opponents believed the defensive strategy left Britain in the driving seat, but MacNeill was reluctant to confront them for fear of more splits. The IRB operated surreptitiously under the cloak of the Volunteers, laying plans for a rebellion, and after discovering its deception, MacNeill issued a countermand to the order for Volunteers to mobilise on Easter Sunday 1916. For many, it was this decision that defined him and his legacy.
By the 1960s and 1970s, sympathisers sought to rehabilitate his reputation; historian FX Martin insisted he was not just a figurehead or “front” behind which the radicals plotted. But MacNeill had admitted to nationalist MP Stephen Gwynn in 1914 “my duty for the future lies in the line of study and teaching . . .”.
Regardless of the effectiveness of his leadership, MacNeill’s decisive role in the formation of the Volunteers is a significant legacy – and given that the Volunteers metamorphosed into the IRA that fought the War of Independence, his stance on violence is particularly worthy of assessment.
He insisted in February 1916 “what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction . . . it is our duty to get our country on side and not be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong”. That contention went to the heart of the controversies of nationalist Ireland a century ago and MacNeill’s 1913 initiative and what followed need to be seen in the context of different and evolving concepts of Irish nationalism; definitions of loyalty and legitimate violence were contested during this period of multiple allegiances and the outbreak of the Great War complicated them further.
In relation to his role in the Volunteers, these are the lenses through which
we should view MacNeill, his dilemmas and his legacy.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD