The Irish National Foresters
A chara, – Frank McNally in his Irishman’s Diary of July 7th makes brief reference to the Irish National Foresters (INF). A fuller account is warranted for an organisation which was once such a central part of Irish life.
The “Ancient Order of Foresters” was founded in 1834 as a British benevolent society giving benefits, such as health insurance, with membership by subscription. In 1877, however, the breakaway Irish National Foresters was founded by members who were expelled by the British leadership for having become involved in the amnesty campaign. It expanded rapidly to have a total of 1,000 branches and 250,000 members worldwide by the 1910s, wherever Iris emigrants gathered in numbers. The Foresters in their ceremonial garb were a familiar sight to Irish people of the day at “national” events such as Bodenstown, Ivy Day (for Parnell’s memory) or the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa.
Former president Seán T Ó Ceallaigh provides a unique account of the INF in his Bureau of Military History statements. In particular, he mentions the importance of the Foresters’ premises at No. 41 Rutland (now Parnell) Square as the focal point for IRB and other revolutionary activities in Dublin.
While making the point that the INF had no formal link with such organisations, Ó Ceallaigh singles out a senior INF member, one James Stritch. Stritch, an inspector in Dublin Corporation, was a veteran member of the IRB who had been involved in the Fenians’ Manchester rescue in 1867, was there at the beginning of Na Fianna and was also treasurer of the Wolfe Tone Memorial Committee, the public cover of the Supreme Council (he would later be a founder member of the National Graves Association).
As manager of the Foresters’ Hall at No 41, he was responsible for the construction of a hall to the rear of that building which would in 1913 be used by the IRB to drill in anticipation of the creation of the Irish Volunteers. After the formal start of the Volunteers, it became a key building available to them and was briefly occupied under arms on Easter Monday. As the pieces were slowly picked up post-Rising, it again became an important venue for revolutionary purposes.
The development of public healthcare, credit unions and the welfare state over the 20th century eroded the original purpose of the Foresters and they have since severely declined. Their records seemingly lost, the society only holds on today via branches in a few Irish towns, though they did parade in Dublin in some strength last year (for what may prove to be the last time) in Reclaim 1916’s Easter Rising centenary procession to Glasnevin. Their building at No 41 Parnell Square now lies sadly derelict, the historically important IRB drill hall to the rear itself demolished within the past year or so. The Foresters deserve to be remembered better in the history of Ireland. – Is mise,
Drumcondra, Dublin 9.