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.
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.