The Irish Volunteers founded
By Aengus O Snodaigh
While the Sinn Féin organisation caught the spirit of the
generation - the Irish-Ireland era - it did not go far enough.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians) which had remained
active, though in the background, decided the time was right in
1913 to push the agenda further.
Watching Ulster unionists organise and bear arms openly in the
Ulster Volunteer Force with the encouragement of Tory
politicians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin began
drilling in secret in the Irish National Foresters Hall, 41
Parnell Square, being instructed by Fianna Eireann officers.
While drilling continued the IRB got Bulmer Hobson to approach
The O'Rahilly, a prominent nationalist at the time, to ask him to
visit the Professor of Early and Medieval Irish History in
University College Dublin Eoin Mac NÈill, who had written an
article which had caught the attention of Irish-Ireland, ``The
North Began'', which appeared in An Claidheamh Soluis, Conradh na
Gaeilge's newspaper. In the course of the article people believed
he had called for nationalists to follow the example of the
``It is evident that the only solution now possible is for the
Empire either to make terms with Ireland or to let Ireland go her
It was the IRB's intention to use Mac NÈill as the focus for
nationalist fervour and a figurehead of a new nationalist army.
O'Rahilly went to Mac Neill and asked him if he would preside at
a committee meeting to discuss the formation of a volunteer body.
Mac NÈill agreed. The tone of these discussion times are set in a
piece written by P.draig Mac Piarais just after Mac NÈill was
``A thing that stands demonstrable is that nationhood is not
achieved otherwise than in arms: in one or two instances there
may have been no actual bloodshed, but the arms were there and
the ability to use them. Ireland unarmed will attain just as much
freedom as it is convenient for England to give her; Ireland
armed will attain ultimately just as much freedom as she wants.''
A number of people came together in Wynn's Hotel, Lower Abbey
Street on 11 November 1913 to discuss the proposal. Present were
Bulmer Hobson, Eoin Mac NÈill, P.draig Mac Piarais, Se.n Mac
Diarmada, W.J. Ryan, Eamonn Ceannt, The O'Rahilly, Joseph
Campbell, James Deakin, Se.n Fitzgibbon, Robert Page, Piaras
BeaslaÌ, Seamus O'Connor, Eamonn Martin, Colm O'Loughlin, Michael
Judge and Colonel Maurice Moore. It was agreed to hold a public
recruiting meeting for a body called the Irish Volunteers whose
aim was ``to secure and maintain the common rights and liberties
of Irish men''.
Within two hours of the first meeting the forerunners of today's
Special Branch, detectives operating out of Dublin Castle, called
at the hotel. They persuaded the hotel staff to divulge the names
of those present saying that they were sporting men who had met
to pull off an illegal sweep (betting scam). They cautioned the
management not to rent the rooms to Hobson and company again.
The IRB paid for the rooms rented in Wynn's Hotel for the several
meetings held before the public meeting.
A letter was circulated to national organisations requesting them
to put the aims of the Volunteers before their members. Notices
of the meeting appeared in the press.
The meeting was initially intended for the Mansion House in
Dublin's Dawson Street, but the then Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock,
refused to rent it to them. (Sherlock was later to become one of
John Redmond's nominees forced onto the Volunteer Executive in
June 1914 to ensure that moderates, such as Redmond, could quell
or dilute the anger of the Irish Volunteers at the delayed
enactment of Home Rule.)
The meeting was thus switched to the small concert hall in the
Rotunda complex, then to the large concert hall which could hold
500, but with interest growing, the Rotunda Rink, a temporary
building in the Rotunda gardens capable of holding 4,000, was
At the meeting, the stewards, all IRB men and members of Fianna
Eireann, got 3,000 enrolment forms signed. In addition to the
4,000 people inside the hall, a crowd of about 3,000 was unable
to gain admission. Traffic on Parnell Square was blocked by the
crowd. Two overflow meetings were held, one in the large concert
room and the other in the gardens. Seán T.O Ceallaigh presided in
the concert hall and it was addressed by Seán Mac Diarmada, James
McMahon, MJ Judge and Councillor Richard Carroll.
The meeting in the grounds was addressed by B. O'Connor and
Trade unionists, a large group of students, and members of the
Gaelic Athletic Association were in attendance amongst the
thousands who turned up. Though mainly a male audience, a special
section set aside for women was full also.
Shortly after 8pm when the doors opened for the meeting, over 200
members of the Irish Transport Workers' Union arrived, later
another group, many carrying hurleys, headed by a pipers' band,
tried to gain entry, but finding it impossible marched down to
Liberty Hall accompanied by a force of police. Later again
another band of the transport workers unable to gain entry
retired to Liberty Hall.
Eoin Mac Neill, Pádraig Mac Piaras and Michael Davitt Junior
addressed the main contingent.
A long manifesto was read to the meeting which said that ``the
Volunteer organisation would, under National Government, form a
prominent element in the national life''.
``They will not contemplate either aggression or domination. Their
ranks are open to all able-bodied Irishmen without distinction of
creed, politics or social grade.''
It declared that if the Irish people remained quiescent they
would show themselves unworthy of defence. ``From time immemorial
it has been held by every race of mankind to be the right and
duty of a freeman to defend his freedom with all his resources
and with his life itself.''
Eoin Mac Neill in his speech said:
``The more genuine and successful the local volunteer movement in
Ulster becomes, the more completely does it establish the
principle that Irishmen have the right to decide and govern their
own national affairs. We have nothing to fear from the existing
volunteers in Ulster nor they from us. We gladly acknowledge the
evident truth that they have opened the way for a national
volunteer movement, and we trust that the day is near when their
own services to the cause of an Irish nation will become as
memorable as the services of their forefathers.''
Pearse in his speech said there were people in the hall who
shared with him the belief that for Ireland there would be no
true freedom within the British empire. There were, doubtless,
many more who believed that Ireland could achieve and enjoy very
substantial freedom within the empire. Ireland armed would, at
any rate, make a better bargain with the empire than Ireland
Arrangements were made that night to rent eight halls in Dublin
for drilling the 15 companies formed for the city. As a result of
the steps taken by the IRB earlier those members of the
Volunteers who were members of the IRB were mostly all well
drilled and therefore came to prominence and were made officers
in the new organisation. This meant that the IRB was able to
steer the Irish Volunteers in their chosen direction.
It was not until after the British parliament realised that Irish
nationalists would arm themselves again that they banned the
importation of arms nine days after the founding of the Irish
Volunteers. The mass importation of arms for the UVF did not
elicit such a response, because the British government understood
that in the long run that they did not represent any real threat
to the empire.
Also on the night of the Irish Volunteers' formation the wheels
were set in motion for the formation of another republican
organisation which was to play an important role in the next
decade and after. Cumann na mBan was founded in April 1914
following a series of meetings, the first of which was held on
the same night the Irish Volunteers' was founded in an upper
room, in the Queen's Theatre in the Rotunda complex.
The Irish Volunteers were founded in the Rotunda complex on
Parnell Square, Dublin 85 years ago this week.