The National Volunteers in Historical Memory

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John Redmond presenting a flag to the National Volunteers (All images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

A striking aspect of the historiography of Ireland’s revolutionary decade is that John Redmond’s National Volunteers are still often overlooked. And while a definitive account of the Irish Volunteer movement also remains unaccomplished, there is still far more information concerning the radical and separatist element that would ultimately change the face of Irish history. Subsequently, historians often tend to encompass the narrative of the National Volunteers in conjunction with their post-split counterparts.

Having been formally established on 25 November 1913, recruitment to the Irish Volunteers grew dramatically. Their numbers exploded from about 20,000 members in March 1914, to nearly 150,000 members by the following July. Tom Kettle, the nationalist MP, would capture the mood effectively when he commented: ‘From time to time a great wave of emotion and action sweeps through the life of a people, stirring it all, shallows and depth. Such is volunteering’.

Yet Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge, County Wicklow, on 20 September 1914, would irrevocably change the dynamic. Here he offered up the services of the Irish Volunteers in ending the war, an act that catalysed the split in the organisation. Consequently, the majority of these men would follow the Irish Party leader. They were restyled the National Volunteers and retained some 93% of the organisation’s strength, which numbered nearly 160,000 men.


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A group of National Volunteer officers at the Court House in Waterford, 18 April 1915

Accordingly, what needs to be recognised and reflected upon are the enlistment figures for National Volunteer members who did indeed join the British army and fight in the First World War. Their association to John Redmond would lead many to suspect a vast majority of the movement followed Redmond’s call to arms. However, only very few of those men enlisted to fight overseas. If we consider that the nominal strength of the movement was nearly 160,000 by late October 1914 – after the loss of the army reservists and due to the loss of the separatist Irish Volunteers, who numbered an estimated 9,000 men – the numbers who joined the British Army are actually quite low. Enlistment still meant the trenches, gas, and German bayonets.

For it did not take long for many to see that the First World War was different. The intensity of the battles of the first month was a forerunner to how bloody this war would eventually become. When the Battle of Mons erupted at the end of August 1914, Irish troops would be heavily engaged. On 25 August the 2nd Connaught Rangers suffered more than 100 casualties, and at the Battle of Le Cateau; where the 2nd Irish Rifles were engaged, total British casualties amounted to nearly 7,800 men.

Unsurprisingly, considering that the ferocity of this war was already on show, fears amongst the rank and file of the Volunteers increased. A common rumour circulating that autumn was that they would be compelled to enlist ‘en masse’ and sent to the front, for Redmond had of course declared: ‘The proper place to guard Ireland is on the battlefields of Europe’. His stance on recruitment had exacerbated the situation, and the crisis in Europe had certainly not presented Redmond with a crisis of conscience.

With Ulster’s continued intransigence to Home Rule stymieing its proposed enactment, he threw his full support behind the war in an effort to secure a devolved form of government. As a result, confusion reigned amongst the rank and file, which was merely compounded by the coincidental raising of the 16th (Irish) Division in September 1914. As historian Thomas Dooley has noted, this ‘was inevitably interpreted by some as… an agreement with the government’ to send the Volunteers to the front.

The recruitment figures testify to this. The vast majority of the National Volunteer movement did not want to ‘risk their lives, and spill their blood’ on the battlefields of Europe. Paul Bew – a former biographer of Redmond – noted how ‘death at the front was non-sectarian and apolitical’ and, as such, asked whether Redmond’s hope of a common sacrifice could ‘have softened nationalist-unionist enmity?’

In fact, the creation of the 10th (Irish) Division epitomised this. As Redmond would later state: ‘Irishmen of all political opinions were united in the Division… The men who had differed in religion and politics and their whole outlook on life, became brothers in the 10th Division, Unionist and Nationalist, Catholic and Protestant’.

This variation on the blood sacrifice theme, often attributed to the leaders of the Easter Rising, is an oft forgotten legacy of Redmond’s too. His use of certain rhetoric attains a divine significance, as can be seen when he argued: ‘No people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it until they have demonstrated their military prowess: and though Irish blood has reddened the earth of every continent, never until now have we as a people set a national army in the field’. In his opinion, the united sacrifice of these men was for the ‘future liberty and honour of their own country’.

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Famous recruiting poster using a quote from John Redmond in a speech he made at Waterford, August 1915

Yet, with the advantage of hindsight, it can be argued this was a forlorn hope. The deaths of men like Tom Kettle, or more symbolically, Major William Redmond, John Redmond’s brother, did little to sway attitudes deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche. So while ‘William was comforted by an Ulster Protestant chaplain… as he lay dying’ and ‘his body was carried from the field by the men of the 36th Division’, no blood sacrifice on the Western Front was going to change such deep-seated and deep-rooted attitudes.

In Pauline Codd’s analysis of recruiting figures in County Wexford, the lack of a steady occupation ‘appeared to affect recruitment to a much greater degree than did loyalty’. In one stark comment an Irish recruit strikingly revealed the truth as to why some men decided to join. He explained how ‘not many fellas from the country joined up. It was mainly the poor… who had nothing much to lose’.

Historian Ben Novick felt pro-war propagandists had one clear advantage at the start of the war, which was ‘the British army’s traditional appeal to poor, urban Irishmen’. Codd’s work provides further analysis on this. Her conclusion was that ‘pull factors such as patriotism… provided far weaker incentives to enlist than did the push factor of poverty and insecurity’. As a consequence, when deciding to enlist, the words of Tom Kettle resonate even more; thousands died, ‘not for flag, nor king, nor emperor’, but simply because they were poor and had nothing else to lose.

There is also one more pertinent factor to note; approximately half of these National Volunteer recruits who did enlist, did so during the first six months of the war. This would have been before the 10th (Irish) Division suffered catastrophic losses at Gallipoli in the summer of 1915, after which ‘even staunch supporters of the war effort saw their faith crumbling’.

Therefore, tracing the progress of the National Volunteers throughout 1915, it can be seen that by the end of that year they were practically non-existent in Ireland as an active force. Contemporary sources highlight that the National Volunteers were in fact moribund by 1915. In searching for a root cause for this decline, historian Michael Wheatley identified another major aspect that warrants further attention. He noted that ‘the defining issue of the party’s autumn campaign, its advocacy of recruiting, must have increased… fears, greatly accelerating the decline of Volunteer activity. It may, indeed, have inflicted the coup de grâce to an already fading movement’.

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Officers of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Many of these men were killed or wounded at Gallipoli in April 1915

Hence, by 1915, the malaise in the National Volunteer ranks could not be dispelled, even by ‘the largest military display Dublin has ever seen’. The Easter Review in April 1915 at the Phoenix Park was the high-water mark for the movement, with some 27,000 men attending in companies from all the four Provinces. Nevertheless, despite the impressive numbers it still did not cover the cracks. Stephen Gwynn has highlighted the perpetual problem that faced the movement, noting that half the men who attended had ‘neither arms nor uniform’. In his biography of Redmond he stated that ‘the Volunteer organisation as it stood had exhausted its usefulness; its enthusiasm was gone – a natural result of having no purpose’.

Subsequently, while public opinion was at first against the rebellion of 1916, certain actions by National Volunteer companies on Easter Week further denigrated their standing in national memory. Companies in Bray, Dundalk, and Waterford, amongst other counties, voluntarily loaned their arms to the military authorities during the Rising. A letter by Colonel Moore to General Maxwell noted that ‘these rifles were lent in some cases for the protection of the unarmed police and soldiers during the Rising’. Thomas Treacy, Brigade Commandant of the Kilkenny Irish Volunteers in 1917, also recalled how ‘the Redmondite Volunteers in Kilkenny paraded in Easter Week 1916, apparently to show their loyalty to John Redmond who was opposed to the Rising’.

For the dye had been cast for the National Volunteers in the months preceding the 1916 Rising. Future events in Ireland would certainly supersede the movement. With a reinvigorated Sinn Féin emerging in 1917, it is of little wonder that their victory in the 1918 general elections culminated in the whitewashing of the National Volunteers, relegating the organisation to an historical limbo. As a result, the National Volunteers remain a non-entity in the revolutionary narrative to this day.

Figures from the National Library of Ireland indicate that 158,360 men of the National Volunteers remained in Ireland during the war, and while the endeavours of Colonel Moore would ultimately fail, (to mould the National Volunteers into a fully trained and fully equipped national army), a critical analysis of this intriguing outfit would be a welcome change.


The kidnapping of Bulmer Hobson

Kidnapped and ‘arrested’ on the eve of the Rising – for daring to advocate against it – Bulmer Hobson was written out of the revolutionary narrative as a result.

The kidnapping of Bulmer Hobson is an extraordinary but largely forgotten tale of the Easter Rising of 24 – 29 April 1916. Born in Belfast in 1883, Hobson was a rising star in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but with the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, his estrangement from the radical and separatist element within the movement widened; in particular his relationship with Seán Mac Diarmada and Thomas Clarke.

Hobson has been described an ‘unusual kind of “physical-force man”, but a dedicated revolutionary for all that’. In his 1909 pamphlet, Defensive Warfare: A Handbook For Irish Nationalists, he firmly asserted: ‘We must not fight to make a display of heroism, but fight to win’. This was symptomatic of the belief that a ‘blood sacrifice’ would be another in a long line of failed rebellions.

Thus, his disillusionment with the insurrection of Easter 1916 was not the repudiation of force, but ‘the futile use of arms’. And while he felt any conflict would inevitably incur loss, he firmly believed if it was distributed ‘over the whole… it will never be a serious loss to any individual’.

Hobson regarded the Irish Volunteers as a reactionary force, favouring a defensive strategy and guerrilla warfare, agreeing with J. J. (‘Ginger’) O’Connell’s analysis that hedge fighting was best suited to the Irish terrain.

In his view, a pre-emptive insurrection also went against the amended IRB constitution of 1873, whereby a mandate was needed from the majority of the Irish people before incurring an act of war against the British Empire. Yet the radical separatists were of a different ilk, believing the Volunteers should become ‘an instrument for insurrection’.

As a result, he was not privy to the final arrangements for the Rising.

Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson (seated), courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson (seated), courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

His biographer Marnie Hay has concluded that he was aware of IRB plans to mount a pre-emptive rising by January 1916.

He therefore vowed to take ‘every action possible, within the constraints of his IRB oath of secrecy’, to avert this. Subsequently, Denis McCullough, who along with Hobson had led the revival of republicanism in Belfast in the early twentieth century, would warn him to ‘adjust his attitude and actions accordingly’, as an insurrection was now inevitable.

He would ignore McCullough’s counsel, however. At a Cumann na mBan concert on 16 April 1916, he unabashedly warned ‘of the extreme danger of being drawn into precipitate action’, proclaiming that ‘no man had a right to risk the fortunes of a country in order to create for himself a niche in history’.

Desmond Fitzgerald, an organiser for the Irish Volunteers in Kerry, remembered that ‘there was a certain breathlessness in the hall… One could feel he was treading on dangerous ground’. For it was this speech that finally marked him down for ‘arrest’ by his IRB colleagues. Many in the concert hall considered it ‘black treachery and McCullough would later recall that inside there was ‘bedlam’. Running into Seán Mac Diarmada after the concert, he told him of Hobson’s speech, ‘and with a good round oath Seán said that he would “damn soon deal with that bloody fellow”‘.

His influence over Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, was also a major factor in his kidnapping. Éamonn Ceannt – discussing Hobson with Thomas MacDonagh – remarked how he was ‘the evil genius of the Volunteers’, and if MacNeill could be separated from his influence, ‘all would be well’.

Already sceptical of the authenticity of the famed ‘Castle document’, which made British plans to disarm the Volunteers appear imminent; by the evening of Holy Thursday 1916, with ‘definite information that an insurrection was to occur in the immediate future’, Hobson rushed to MacNeill’s residence in Woodtown Park to ensure that measures were put in place to prevent the Volunteers from taking offensive action.

With the Rising merely days away, Mac Diarmada decided to act. On Good Friday afternoon, while awaiting news from MacNeill, Hobson was approached by Sean Tobin at Volunteer Headquarters in Dawson Street. Tobin had succeeded Hobson as chair of the IRB Leinster Executive and persuaded him to attend a meeting at the home of fellow IRB man, Martin Conlon. While Hobson was immediately suspicious of this invitation, he relented, recalling how he was curious as to whether it was a ruse. He was therefore unsurprised when he was greeted with guns upon his arrival at Conlon’s home in Phibsborough.

Conlon’s wife remembered arriving home that evening to a hive of activity, with a number of Volunteers present; ‘two of which were sitting at the bottom of the stairs with rifles’. Con O’Donovan, who was surprised to be guarding Hobson, assumed the reason for his detention was because he was not trusted, but ‘possibly there was some mistake… which would soon be rectified’.

Unsurprisingly, Hobson ‘inclined to be obstreperous, protesting against his arrest’, but would later claim that his captors were very nice to him. Nevertheless, the situation may not have been as sanguine as he has made out. At one point over the weekend, his fiancé, Claire Gregan, arrived at Conlon’s home demanding to know his whereabouts. When he made an attempt to call out, a gun was quickly pointed at him.

Gregan would subsequently spend Easter Sunday frantically searching for Hobson. At Liberty Hall she met James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, both of whom assured her of his safety. Mac Diarmada asserted that he had been arrested due to his influence, but also confirmed he would come to no harm. Her later recollections of Mac Diarmada would have us believe she was wary of such platitudes. Hobson’s relationship with Mac Diarmada had been cooling since 1912 and she remembered Seán as ‘deadly sly’.

Chillingly, Martin Conlon would later recall that shooting Hobson had been an option. The job of guarding him was of little interest to IRB men who wanted to join the Rising; with some suggesting that he ‘should be executed and dumped on the railway line’ that ran at the back of Conlon’s home. If we are to take Conlon at his word, he countenanced ‘any unauthorised action’.

Subsequently, on the evening of Easter Monday 1916, Seán T. O’Kelly, under instructions from Mac Diarmada, arrived with orders stating that Hobson could be released. Maurice Collins – in charge of guarding him – received a cheerful and rather jubilant message from Mac Diarmada stating: ‘Report to Ned Daly at Richmond Hospital and release Hobson. Everything splendid’. He was no longer considered a threat as the Rising was now underway. Brian Feeney, Mac Diarmada’s biographer for the 16 Lives Series, has stated that it was The O’Rahilly and Piaras Béaslái who ‘prevailed on Mac Diarmada’ to release Hobson.

Damning accusations of treachery over his arrest would taint his standing, however. And when he walked from 76 Cabra Park that night, he walked from the pages of history. For Hobson’s one crucial mistake was not that he did not take part in the Rising after his release – as he would not be driven against his ‘judgement by being faced with a fait accompli’ – but that he failed to court arrest once the Rising was quashed. Eoin MacNeill expressed a keen sense for why such an act would be beneficial, warning him that they would have no political future if they were not arrested.

Instead he opted to go on the run, as he would not ask to be detained. Upon his re-emergence he now found that he was ostracised from his former colleagues and soon withdrew from public life. Marnie Hay has surmised: ‘He disappeared from public view as if he had been executed along with the insurrectionists of 1916, but without the benefit of their subsequent spin doctors’.

As historian Roy Foster would candidly detail, the ‘energetic IRB leader, founder of the Dungannon clubs, organiser of the Fianna, editor of Irish Freedom and author of Defensive Warfare’ – never mind one of the masterminds behind the infamous landing of rifles at Howth in July 1914 – ‘was not invited to the fortieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1956’, because he never took part in the fighting.

Bulmer Hobson’s name was ultimately excluded from the revolutionary narrative.

The Howth gun-running and the Waterford decoy

Erskine Childers (foreground) overseeing operations at Howth harbour (All images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

Erskine Childers, (foreground), overseeing operations at Howth harbour (All images courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

The famed Howth gun-running has an oft forgotten Waterford connection.

The audacious landing of 900 Mauser rifles at Howth harbour on 26 July 1914 reverberated throughout Ireland. While the exploit was not as large as the Ulster Volunteer Force’s gun-running operation (24 – 25 April) at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee, where the UVF illegally acquired nearly 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition; landing the ‘Howth rifles’ in broad daylight, in such a ‘sufficiently spectacular manner’, was a major propaganda coup for the Irish Volunteers.

The apathetic stance of the British authorities to the UVF’s operation had also reinforced nationalist opinion that there was a bias favouring one Volunteer force over the other. Therefore, to insure the safe landing of Erskine Childers’ yacht, the Asgard, an elaborate diversion was concocted to thwart any attempt by the British to scupper the operation.

On 24 July 1914, Seán Matthews – a prominent IRB man in Waterford – was handed a mysterious letter stating that a sailing boat, the Naraganses, was due to land a consignment of arms at ‘The Island’, today the site of Waterford Castle Hotel. A Mr Gerald Purcell Fitzgerald, who had only ‘recently identified himself with the Volunteer movement’, was in fact the owner of the property where the guns were proposed to land.

Matthews recalled that a fellow Volunteer officer, J. D. Walsh, was the one who gave him this mysterious letter, which was ‘postmarked British’. The heavily sealed letter ‘stated that ‘the schooner, “Naraganses”, would arrive at “The Island” with a cargo of arms and instructed that a body of men were to be there to take delivery of [them]’. Liam Walsh – another local IRB man – surmised that the British had probably opened this letter, hailing from the Irish American Society in Bristol, thus revealing the plot to unload the arms at Waterford.

With Matthews believing the contents to be true, he decided to procure a yacht from Gerald Purcell to meet the incoming Naraganses. In his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement he remembered how they ‘searched down the river and down to the sea as far as Craden, about ten miles south of the city on the coast, near Dunmore East, but failed to find any trace of the schooner’. The local Munster Express also reported that the coastguard in Tramore had recorded ‘sighting a small vessel off the coast, one of suspicious nature’, and communicated this with Queenstown and the Royal Irish Constabulary. The RIC was duly dispatched, ‘and a force of police was stationed near the city during the Friday night’. Over the weekend ‘police armed to the teeth with rifles, bayonets, and revolvers’, were also seen in the Newtown area, ‘all in consequence of a rumour that an attempt had been made to land rifles for the Irish Volunteers near Tramore on Friday 24 July’. Subsequently, a cruiser and three destroyers from the Queenstown squadron are said to have appeared off Tramore.

Yet no guns arrived, for the Naraganses was merely a decoy. So while a British gunboat, the Heather, fruitlessly patrolled Waterford Harbour on 26 July, Childers’ yacht sailed into Howth unimpeded. Matthews would later remember: ‘When news eventually came through of the landing of guns at Howth, it confirmed our suspicions that the letter from Bristol was a decoy to put the British off the track of the Howth landing… I never found out who sent the letter from Bristol’. Liam Walsh would also humorously remark that the Heather ‘was only wasting her time’.

Interestingly, Bulmer Hobson – who had masterminded this propaganda exercise at Howth; of flagrantly bringing in the guns in broad daylight, disregarding the British authorities – asserted that he purposefully went to see John Gore, an elderly solicitor and one of the Treasurers on the Volunteer Committee; and told him in ‘strict confidence’ of plans to land guns at Waterford. Gore was, in Hobson’s opinion, ‘a charming old man, but he was an inveterate gossip’. Whether Gore’s loose tongue let slip is hard to ascertain. However, in the weeks prior to the Howth landing, Hobson has stated that a British naval vessel was indeed ‘anchored in Dublin Bay’. As a result, two days after telling Gore of his plan to land guns in Waterford, the ship ‘steamed south’.

There is some conjecture here as to the name of the ship anchored off Dublin bay. Hobson recalls two different names in two separate accounts, the H. M. S. Panther and the H. M. S. Forward. Both statements were made after the fact, but what can be ascertained is that a British navy ship was certainly patrolling Dublin bay just prior to the Howth landings. Whether this ties in with the false letter and the Naraganses is difficult to know. Hobson may well have sussed that the British vessel was another obstacle in their way and, thus, tied this in with the decoy plan already under operation. Therefore, as a result of both these decoys, Childers’ famed yacht managed to unload 900 Mauser rifles and 19,000 rounds of ammunition, unopposed by any British navy vessel.

Mary Spring Rice & Molly Childers aboard the Asgard with the famous ‘Howth rifles’

Mary Spring Rice & Molly Childers aboard the Asgard with the famous ‘Howth rifles’

Subsequently, with the initial stage of the landing a success, the Irish Volunteers marched from Howth harbour to Dublin, assisted by the boys of Fianna Éireann. It was not all plain sailing, however, as members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police soon stopped them. In the words of the Commissioner of the DMP: ‘A body of more than 1,000 men armed with rifles marching on Dublin, the seat of the Irish Government, constituted an unlawful assembly of a peculiarly audacious character’. Unsurprisingly a small skirmish ensued, with the police capturing 19 rifles. Hobson has described how this haul – ‘all of which were broken in the struggle’ – was actually returned to them, after Colonel Maurice Moore, Inspector-General of the Irish Volunteers, nonchalantly went to Dublin Castle the following day asking for the remnants to be given back.

The day in question ended ominously, however, when troops from the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderer’s opened fire on a crowd as they marched along Bachelor’s Walk. The Scottish Borderer’s had been ordered to return to barracks – having been mobilised because of the disturbances at Howth – but were pelted with stones from a jeering mob as they marched. Turning to face down the mob they callously opened fire, killing three; with a fourth later dying of injuries sustained. Although a highly regrettable action, it was a propaganda coup for those of an advanced nationalist persuasion. Coupled with attempts to disarm the Volunteers at Howth, these actions were seen by many nationalists as confirmation that the authorities were biased towards the Ulster rebels; for whom ‘no attempt, however feeble, had been made to stop the Larne operation’.

Seán Matthews would later remember that only two or three of the famed ‘Howth rifles’ – many of which could be heard on the streets of Dublin on Easter Week 1916 – ever made their way into the hands of the Waterford battalion.

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.