Militarism and Separatism

Contributors: TOR.


This refers to the pursuit of political goals/independent Irish republic through the use of physical force. Ireland by end of the 18th century had a long constitutional tradition which had little to do with separatism or Republicanism. The Irish, the Old English, and the Patriots of the Grattanite period had pursued their aims through debate rather than by arms for centuries in a parliamentary tradition that stretched back to the 13th century. However, by the 1790s Catholic political organisations had been outlawed and the Irish parliament abolished. Constitutionalism in Ireland had already been under threat from the French Revolution. With the subsequent 1798 Rising, the United Irishmen’s nationalist aim of separating the two kingdoms by force became clear.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day 1858 by James Stephens with the ultimate aim of achieving an Irish Republic by physical force. Much needed funds were provided by John O’Mahony who at the same time founded the Fenians in New York. Although the American and Irish organisations were separate, the entire republican movement was popularly known as the Fenians. The Irish organisation was initially called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, but this was eventually changed to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Until such time as a Republic was achieved the Fenians were to recognise the Supreme Council of the IRB as the Provisional Government of Ireland. Among themselves the members referred to it as ‘The Society’, ‘The Organisation’ or ‘The Brotherhood’.

Stephens organised the IRB along the lines of a secret, oath-bound society, which perpetuated the ideals of the United Irishmen. He divided the organisation into Centres; under each Centre who was known as ‘A’ there were nine captains (Bs); each captain had nine sergeants (Cs) and under each sergeant nine privates or Ds. Each member of the IRB had to swear an oath, of which there were several versions, one of which went:

‘I (name) in the presence of Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic now virtually established; and that I will do my utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officer. So help me God. Amen’.

The IRB quickly incurred the hostility of the Catholic Church and was denounced by the hierarchy in 1863. Two years later it was condemned by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Paul Cullen, and after the rising of 1867, Pope Pius IX denounced it. Nonetheless, it gathered support among the lower orders of clergy. Its newspaper the Irish People appeared in 1863 until it was suppressed in 1865. Three years later it was replaced by the Flag of Ireland, which was suppressed in 1874. At the beginning of 1865 Stephens calculated that the movement was 85,000 men strong and when the American Civil War ended in April of that year he asserted that the Fenians would act before the end of the year. However the government had been keeping a close eye on American soldiers moving between the two countries since the beginning of the war and was well informed by spies such as Pierce Nagle. The offices of the Irish People were raided and leaders including O’Leary, Luby and Kickham were arrested. However what the authorities dud not know was that the secret military council of the Fenians, including Colonel Kelly and John Devoy was still at large and determined to strike before the end of the year. Kelly and Devoy organised the escape of Stephens from Richmond prison on the 25th of November. The leadership failed to convince Stephens of the merits of a rebellion and he remained in hiding in Dublin for nearly three months before he finally decided to depart for to America.

In January 1867 Colonel Kelly set up his headquarters not in Dublin but in London where habeas corpus [writ requiring the appearance in court of a detained person] had not been suspended. Initially the plan was to start guerrilla warfare in Ireland and the date was set for 11 February. The arms dump at Chester Castle was to be raided and these arms rushed from Holyhead to Ireland. An informer, John Corydon passed on this information to the police. As a result the raid and subsequent rising had to be called off. News of the postponement did not reach Kerry where minor skirmishes took place. A new rising date was set for 4 March . On this occasion the weather proved quite severe and there were heavy snowstorms. Although Corydon had kept the police well informed they were poorly prepared for any rising. The outbreaks in Dublin, Tipperary, Limerick, Clare and Waterford, were nevertheless, easily suppressed. The only American help came after the rising when a ship to become known as Erin’s Hope carrying 5000 rifles, 1½ million rounds of munitions and three cannons arrived in Sligo Bay in May 1867. There was nobody there to take the arms and though it scoured the Irish coast, it had in the end no option but to return to America. For their role in suppressing the Rising, the police force became known as the Royal Irish Constabulary.

In September 1867 Colonel Kelly was arrested in Manchester. Thirty Fenians attacked the unescorted prison van in an attempt to rescue Colonel Kelly. Police sergeant, Charles Brett, was killed during the raid. Kelly escaped but five men were put on trial and three men, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien, who became known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ were hanged on the 24 November 1867. This was the first time since the execution of Robert Emmet in 1803 that Irishmen were put to death for nationalist activity. 60,000 people attended the public funeral in Dublin. The executions alienated the Irish public and helped to increase recruitment into the IRB. In December of that year an attempt to rescue Richard O'Sullivan Burke and the prisoner Casey resulted in an explosion at Clerkenwell House of Detention, London.. A cask of gunpowder was fired close to the wall of the prison, at 3.45p.m on December 13, 1867. The prison authorities had, however, received some information, and the prisoners had been exercised in the morning instead of the afternoon. Nevertheless, the resulting explosion saw 12 people killed and 126 injured. The Fenian, Micahel Barrett, who had been in Glasgow at the time of the explosion, was later tried and executed on 26 May 1868. The rising and its aftermath caused widespread concern in England and drew Gladstone’s attention to Irish affairs.

The IRB survived the failure of the rising, despite internal division, which existed over whether it was best to hit at England in Ireland or in Canada. The dispute was only resolved after a succession of failed interventions in Canada in 1866, 1867 and 1871. On 20 June 1867 the Irish-Amecian republican organisation, Clan na Gael (sometimes called the United Brotherhood), was founded in New York by Jerome J. Collns. Recognising the Supreme Council of the IRB as the government of the Irish Republic 'virtually established' it too was a secret and oath-bound organisation. It attracted many of the important IRB men who were force to flee to America, including Jeremiah O'Donvan Rossa and John Devoy. The Clan financed a bombing campaign in England in the 1880s which served to alienate some British support for Irish reform.

In 1869 the Supreme Council of the IRB drafted a constitution for the Irish Republic. Irish political activity was directed steadily in the 1870s towards Home Rule and the resolution of the land question, and during this period reorganisation began within the IRB. Leaders such as O’Donovan Rossa and Devoy were released and the new constitution stated that all members had to swear an oath undertaking to do their utmost to establish an independent Ireland, to be faithful to the Supreme Council and to obey their superior officers and the constitution of the IRB. Soldiers of the IRB were termed the Irish Republican Army.

The IRB in 1873 gave tacit conditional support to Isaac Butt’s programme to achieve that end, but withdrew its support for constitutionalism in 1876. Fenians who remained members of the Irish Parliamentary Party were expelled from the Supreme Council. There was now a divergence within the IRB itself and the Fenian movement particularly in America, between those who would work with the constitutional approach and those who would not. Devoy was reluctant to abandon his arrangement with Parnell until it clearly proved fruitless, while Rossa was committed to physical force. With the prospects for revolutionary activity poor, many Fenians were attracted to the Land League of which Parnell was president from 1879. Such was the strength of the Parnellite movement at the time that the revolutionary movement was overshadowed. Many IRB memebrs were either expelled or had left the organisation. Official sources estimated that membership had fallen from 11,000 to around 8,000.

The IRB still had considerable influence as it adopted a policy of infiltrating nationalist organisations from the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884 onwards. During the 1890s it engaged in a bitter struggle with the Irish National Alliance, a splinter of Clann na Gael, that had a military wing, the Irish National Brotherhood. The battle between these two republican movements was fought out, for the most part in the columns of various republican newspapers from 1895 until the turn of the century when it ended in victory for the IRB, then led by Fred Allan.

The IRB recovered support in 1898 when it took a leading role in commemorating the centenary of the United Irishmen Rising of 1798. The nationalist political leader, John Redmond, shared a common platform with Allan, Arthur Griffith, Maud Gonne and James Connolly, and posing Dublin Castle with the challenge of deciding who and who was not a member of the IRB. Certainly the IRB was losing to open organisations such as Griffith’s Cumann na Gaedheal and the Dungannon Clubs, founded by Bulmer Hobson; these two organisations formed the basis for Sinn Féin. Like many young men of his generation, Arthur Griffith was an ardent admirer of Parnell. He considered Parnell’s fall to be a national humiliation, and sought ways of concentrating the force of public opinion on self-determination.

The revival of the IRB which occurred after 1904 was due to young men such as Hobson, Denis McCullough and Seán MacDiarmada, all three of them working in Belfast. They were inspired in 1907 with the arrival in Ireland of Thomas Clarke, a committed revolutionary who had spent 15 years in English jails, from New York as an envoy from John Devoy. By 1912 the RIC had assured Dublin Castle that there was a revival of the IRB but the Castle authorities did not take the warning too seriously. In fact, the numerical strength of the IRB was at this stage about 1,660 members in Ireland and 367 in Great Britain. Further momentum was given to the IRB in 1910 with the journal Irish Freedom.

November 1913 saw the South’s answer to the Ulster Volunteer Force in the form of the Irish Volunteers, ostensibly under the control of the respected academic, Eoin Mac Neill. In an article in An Claidheamh Soluis, Mac Neill suggested that southern nationalists should from a volunteer movement on the lines of the Ulster Volunteer Force. He was then approached by Bulmar Hobson of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who organised a public meeting at the Rotunda where the new force was established. It attracted followers of Sinn Féin, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League as well as members of the IRB who envisaged a future role for the new force. By August 1914 membership was around 80,000 and funds were collected through John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the USA and Sir Roger Casement and Alice Stopford Green in England. In July 1914 Darrell Figgis and Robert Erskine Childers arranged for the purchase of guns in Germany. The guns were taken to Howth by Childers in his yacht the Asgard, and arrived on 26 July 1914. Volunteers and members of Na Fianna Eireann collected the 900 rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition. The successful landing was in emulation of the Larne Gun Running of April 1914.

There were now two armed volunteer armies in the country. John Redmond in order to ensure control of the Volunteers lest they would prevent the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill demanded half of the seats on the Provisional Committee. As the alternative was to split the movement, the movement relented in June much to the anger of extremists in the IRB. In September when Home Rule was suspended with the outbreak of World War I, membership numbered 180,000. The British government rejected an offer by the Volunteers to defend Ireland as a military force. Redmond called on the Volunteers to support Britain in the war against Germany and his call was answered by a majority of the Volunteers known as the National Volunteers, leaving some 11,000 Irish Volunteers who opposed involvement in the war. This minority reorganised in October 1914. Mac Neill became Chief of Staff, Hobson, Quartermaster and the O’Rahilly Director of Arms. Three key posts were in the hands of the IRB: Pádraig Pearse was Director of Military Organisation, Joseph Plunkett was Director of Military organisation and Thomas MacDonagh was Director of Training. All three later became members of the secret IRB Military Council which organised under the influence of Thomas J. Clarke, the Easter Rising of 1916.

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Eoin Hartnett & Tomás O’Riordan