The legacy of the Volunteers
It was inevitable that the putative descendants, genetic and political, of participants in the great events of the 1912-22 decade would seek to enlist the commemorations to legitimise their version of history. No better way to restore some lustre to one’s cause than drape it in the colours of the martyred dead ...
The narrative is complicated for such historical opportunists by the sensible decision that we should commemorate not just one event – the Easter Rising – but the decade, in its totality and its parts. In doing so we will be weaving many stories into one much more complex, multi-faceted national narrative.
But in doing that we will also certainly be undermining the privileging of specific simplistic versions of our history that have dominated by default previous commemorations. And, not least, the romantic Republican myths of seamless continuity from Wolfe Tone, through the men of 1916, to the Northern Troubles and peace process.
Today we mark the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Irish Volunteers, the gathering of some 5,000 in the Rotunda Rink to emulate the arming of the Ulster Volunteers and to defend promised Home Rule. Within less than a year the Volunteers would have rallied some 150,000 to their ranks. And yet where does this remarkable demonstration of the depths of nationalism stand in the divergent branches of Irish nationalism’s family tree ?
Modern republicanism can only have a deep ambivalence about the legacy of the Volunteers. Not least there is the historical ambivalence about the chair of that meeting, Eoin MacNeill, who would later be reviled for “calling off” the Rising. And about the organisation’s relationship to John Redomond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which watched the founding from the sidelines, but then successfully demanded 25 representaive on its provisional committee. When Redmond called on Volunteers to enlist in the British army he led over 90 per cent of them out of the organisation.
Even after the split there was a substantial resistance in what was left to the more militant Irish Republican Brotherhood – but as Diarmaid Ferriter wrote in this paper on Saturday, in the wake of the Rising, “the building of a new republican movement on the back of the now hardened separatist sentiment was largely driven by the Irish Volunteers” whose leadership became indistinguishable from Sinn Fein and which would evolve into the IRA.
But it was a far cry from that day in November 1913. MacNeill had characterised the Volunteers as a defensive force, and it was drawn from the mainstream of Irish nationalism not the physical force tradition of republicanism. “The Irish Volunteers,” he said, “if they are a military force, are not a militarist force, and their object is to secure Ireland’s rights and liberties and nothing else”.
And so, as we come again to rewrite our history, the defiant question remains “Whose Volunteers, then?” Ours. Part of the rich tapestry that is our proud history, a weave of different equally important traditions that makes Ireland what it is.