The Irish Republican Brotherhood: Waterford and the 1916 Rising

Thomas Francis Meagher encapsulates the Fenian tradition of Waterford. On 7 March 1848 Meagher would fly an Irish tricolour for the first time from the Wolf Tone Confederate Club at 33 The Mall, a tricolour that would eventually become the national flag of Ireland. But while Meagher’s legacy in Waterford was secure, a succession of failed uprisings and the revival of constitutional nationalism in the early 20th Century saw Fenianism slowly fade across Ireland.

While dormant, ‘physical-force’ separatism was not dead, however. The return of Tom Clarke from America in 1907 would herald a change. He sought to revive the moribund Irish Republican Brotherhood and, as a result, the old leadership was mercilessly purged.

A new generation now emerged, with young activists such as Bulmer Hobson, Denis McCullough and Seán Mac Diarmada, injecting new life into a withering movement. This secretive cohort worked tirelessly to tighten their grip across Ireland and, by 1912, was perfectly placed to act upon Ulster’s continued intransigence to Home Rule.

Subsequently, with the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913, the makeup of Irish nationalist society was irreparably changed. As Ulster Unionist resistance to Home Rule had now become militant, all manner of nationalist opinion was firmly set on safeguarding the bill. Thus, in November 1913, a similar volunteer force soon emerged for nationalist Ireland. And while the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood did not publicly lead the newly formed Irish Volunteers, their members would infiltrate it at every level.

Finally the IRB had in their grasp something for which they had sought for many years: a public, popular mass movement, which was dedicated ‘to secure and maintain the rights common to all the people of Ireland’.

In Waterford, Willie Walsh led the IRB revival, having been sworn in at a hurling match in 1909. He was appointed Head Centre for Waterford and quickly swore in another 31 men during this early period. When the Waterford City branch of the Irish Volunteers was launched in January 1914, it would be IRB men such as Walsh, Patrick Brazil and Seán Matthews, who unofficially headed the movement.

By the summer of 1914, membership to the Irish Volunteers in Waterford stood at nearly 4,000 men and, as historian Pat McCarthy has detailed, the IRB contingent was content to ‘remain officers at company level’. Yet, as Matthews later recalled, ‘the key positions in the newly formed… force were held almost entirely’ by the IRB.

A group of Waterford Volunteers outside the Court House in 1914

A group of Waterford Volunteers outside the Court House in 1914

However, a national spilt in the Irish Volunteers in September 1914 saw nearly 160,000 men follow John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Only an estimated 9,000 men would side with their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill, retaining the title Irish Volunteers. This smaller cohort now came increasingly under the sphere of the more radical IRB.

In Waterford, the split at national level emulated that at local level. Michael Mansfield of the Dungarvan Volunteers recalled that only ‘about six or eight others broke away from the Redmondite Volunteer movement and affiliated with the Irish Volunteers’. Seán Matthews also remembered that when they severed connections with Redmond, only around thirty men formed an Irish Volunteer unit in the City.

This was the situation in the run up to the rebellion across Ireland. For the most part, after the split, Irish Volunteer companies outside of Dublin were quite small, but also very dedicated. While Redmond’s National Volunteers died as an active force, ‘the men of zeal’ remained with the Irish Volunteers. It was men of this ilk that would remain steadfast and rise on Easter Monday 1916.

On the question of a national strategy there are differing opinions. The Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood was a covert outfit that operated surreptitiously under the cloak of the Volunteers and, as a result, there is much conjecture surrounding their broader plans. Some in the IRB, such as veteran Liam Ó Briain, claimed a national rebellion was certainly envisioned, but this is impossible to verify. The original plans were lost or destroyed after the Rising.

According to the Wexford Volunteer leader W.J. Brennan-Whitmore, (interned in Frongoch after the Rising), ‘there were plans to disrupt communications and rail-lines in the south-east’, which was all to buy time for the distribution of 20,000 rifles and ten machine guns from the German ship, the Aud. But this is a moot point: the weapons never landed and Roger Casement’s expedition failed.

What must be recognised is that a national strategy needed to include provincial Volunteer units, but the Military Council was established in counterbalance to the defensive minded ‘hedge-fighting’ group on the Irish Volunteer Provisional Committee and the IRB Supreme Council. These men, who included the titular head of the movement, Eoin MacNeill, and IRB man, Bulmer Hobson, held a reactionary viewpoint. They did not see the Volunteers as a pre-emptive strike force, but a defensive unit. In their opinion, British suppression of the Irish Volunteers, or the introduction of conscription for Ireland, was the pre-requisite to incur a national rebellion. It was symptomatic of their belief that a ‘blood sacrifice’ would be another in a long line of failed rebellions.

In the end the IRB Military Council had to leave the provincial Volunteers, led by local rank and file IRB men, to their own devices. After the loss of the German weaponry, ‘the Rising that occurred at Easter 1916 was not the one that was planned’.

Yet a plan for Waterford was purportedly envisioned. Seán Matthews, who by now had taken over as IRB Head Centre for Waterford, allegedly received private orders from Patrick Pearse in November 1915 at a Manchester Martyrs’ commemoration in the City. When word came to rise his small Volunteer unit was to destroy all communications at the local GPO on the quay, and then join the Wexford Volunteers; as any action in Waterford would have been fruitless due to a lack of arms and ammunition.

Subsequently, on Holy Week 1916, couriers delivered despatches to Volunteer companies all over Ireland concerning the imminent rebellion. This pattern was repeated in Waterford. On Wednesday of Holy Week, two Irish Citizen Army couriers, Marie Perolz and Maeve Cavanagh-MacDowell, met Matthews to confirm the planned rebellion. Perolz recalled that Matthews ‘took the news indifferently’.

His attitude here is unsurprising. The Waterford Volunteers lacked weapons. Upon reading the despatch handed to him, Matthews is reported to have stated: ‘Tell [James] Connolly we have few rifles but we’ll do what we can’. He realised that a substantial amount of guns were the sine qua non for any successful action.

It was MacNeill’s faithful countermanding order on Easter Saturday that was the true death knell to any local attempt, however. Provincial units were left in total disarray, and when the cancellation was printed in the Sunday-morning papers, it posed a major dilemma for Matthews and his IRB colleagues: obey their Chief of Staff or follow the IRB Military Council?

Eoin MacNeill’s countermand cancelling the 1916 Rising, as printed in the Sunday-morning papers

Eoin MacNeill’s countermand cancelling the 1916 Rising, as printed in the Sunday-morning papers

It was left to Willie Walsh, who was attending the annual GAA Convention in Dublin on Easter Sunday, to assess the situation. Surprisingly, for an IRB man, he immediately went to MacNeill’s residence. Here he was bluntly told any action would be ‘a holocaust’. Walsh would later meet fellow IRB man Harry Boland, who was also not ‘sure as to what was going on’. He concluded that everything had in fact been cancelled and immediately wired Waterford with the message: ‘going to Fairytown races’. This was the code that the Rising was off.

However, when Maeve Cavanagh-MacDowell again arrived in Waterford on Easter Monday, this time detailing that the Military Council had decided to proceed in Dublin; regardless of the countermanding order, Matthews was left to contemplate what action to take. The order he had just received was short and to the point: ‘Carry out orders, Dublin strikes at noon, Signed P. H. Pearse’.

As a result, Matthews gathered a few trusted IRB men and decided to act. Armed with revolvers, they approached the local GPO, but found it occupied by British troops. Lacking sufficient weapons to mount an effective attack, they wisely concluded any action would be suicide.

Patrick C. O’Mahony, Captain of the Dungarvan Volunteers, has also detailed how he too made an attempt to disrupt the British. Working with the Survey Staff of the Post Office in Dungarvan; on Easter Monday he stated how he decoded a message detailing that ‘an ammunition train without lights would pass Dungarvan Station at 12:15 a.m. with a small military guard on way to Cork’. While no train of this description came through that night, another train was actually stopped and searched by O’Mahony’s men. Nothing was to come of this off-the-cuff attempt, however.

These isolated incidents reveal that ‘a well-defined national strategy’ may not have been truly envisioned. Cavanagh-MacDowell recalled that Matthews had wanted to contact the Kilkenny Volunteers on Easter Monday, to launch a joint action, but this fell through. This differs from the earlier plan of meeting up with the Wexford Volunteers.

While a strategy for the south-east would certainly have made sense; as John Gibney has described in a recent article for History Ireland, ‘New Ross and Rosslare were obvious venues for British landings should reinforcements be dispatched to Ireland’. The confusion surrounding MacNeill’s countermand, and the loss of the guns from the Aud, quashed any hopes of a coordinated national rebellion.

Waterford, like the majority of the country, would see no Rising in 1916.

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