Revival of Nationalism

In 1900 the two opposing factions of the Irish Parliamentary Party agreed to unite under the leadership of John Redmond, MP for Waterford. An act, later passed by parliament, decreed that any Bill, even if rejected by the Lords, would become law after a two years delay if it passed the Commons a second time in the same parliament. A third Home Rule Bill then came before Parliament in 1912 and was again passed in the Commons only to be rejected once more by the House of Lords. As a result of the new Act, however, it would now become law in 1914. By that stage, however, other events ordained that attention would be switched away from Home Rule.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century also saw the emergence of a number of new movements aimed at reviving Irish Nationalism. These included organisations for sport, language, the arts, politics, culture and heritage. The 1898 centenary celebrations of the 1798 Rebellion also gave a tremendous impetus to this amazing new interest in Ireland and things Irish.

The first of these was the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) by Michael Cusack, Maurice Davin and some others at a meeting in Hayes Hotel, Thurles, Co Tipperary, on Saturday 1st November 1884. Davin was elected first President of the Association and Cusack its first secretary. Gaelic Games had been played regularly prior to that time all over Ireland but they were very disorganised, extremely rough, and practically without any semblance of rules applying. A complete new set of rules for hurling and gaelic football were drawn up and an All-Ireland championship commenced the following year. The GAA has gone from strength to strength ever since and very successful Centenary Year Celebrations were held throughout the country in 1984.

Connradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was founded by Dr. Douglas Hyde and Eoin McNeill in 1893 for the restoration of the Irish language which they realised was dying out completely at that stage. The Penal Laws, especially the laws against the education of Catholics, and the Great Famine which had decimated the Gaelic speaking population of the western sea-board, were the main reasons for the decline in the native tongue, and these two great Irish scholars knew that immediate steps would have to be taken if was not to die out altogether. Their efforts met with almost immediate success with branches of Connradh springing up in practically every parish in the country. ‘Feiseanna’ were organised on a county basis and many books were published teaching simple Irish words and phrases for those anxious to learn. Dr. Hyde (‘an Craoibhin Aoibhinn’) who was born at Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon in 1860, later became the first President of Ireland in 1938 under a new Constitution drawn up in 1937.

The Irish Literary Renaissance came as a result of the Irish Literary Theatre which was founded by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1898, and which then became the Irish National Theatre Society in 1903. In 1904 the Abbey Theatre was founded in Dublin for the staging of plays by Irish authors and it was managed jointly by Yeats and Gregory. Writers like playwright JM Synge and poet George Russell (AE) emerged from this literary revival and these were followed by a long line of highly successful Irish authors, poets and playwrights, all of whom became famous in literary circles world-wide.

Probably the most important of all these new organisations was Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone) which was founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. Disappointed with the slow progress of the old Irish Parliamentary Party, Griffith envisaged a much more independent national policy than that being purposed by the “Home Rulers”. Seeing that they were getting nowhere in Westminister, he conceived the idea of elected Irish representatives setting up their own parliament in Dublin, something which would later come to fruition in 1919. Within weeks there were branches of Sinn Fein set up in practically every corner of the country.

The Local Government Act of 1898 had also abolished the old Grand Juries and, with new County Councils democratically elected and taking office in 1899, control of local affairs now passed to authorities more representative of the people than were the Grand Juries, which had been made up mainly from the landlord classes. Along with this, agriculture was improving by leaps and bounds, mainly through the efforts of Horace Plunkett, who also organised co-operative movements on a hitherto unprecedented scale. All this gave more power and prosperity to the native Irish, who were quick to avail of Plunkett’s schemes and who were also taking full advantage of the series of Land Acts, that had given them the right to buy out their own farms for the first time in centuries.

However, the most influential of all the new movements was, unquestionably, the Irish Volunteers, founded by Eoin McNeill in the Rotunda, Dublin on 25th November 1913. There was a truly amazing response to McNeill’s call and thousands enrolled on the very first day. The Earl of Longford and Thomas P O’Neill, in their biography “Eamonn De Valera” (published 1970), stated (p.20) that this success “owed much to the stirring of national consciousness by Sinn Fein, the Gaelic League, the GAA, and it may be argued, the Irish Literary Revival.”

However, it also came as a counter-measure to the founding of the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) by Edward Carson in 1912. The movement towards Home Rule was vigorously opposed by the Unionists of Ulster who had suddenly found a new leader in the Dublin lawyer, Carson. Realising that Home Rule would be the probable outcome, following its second passing by the Commons in 1912, Carson now aimed at excluding Ulster from Home Rule and he found widespread support in the north-east where the fear of Home Rule becoming Rome Rule struck terror into the hearts of northern Protestants.

Carson campaigned vigorously throughout the North, addressing huge rallies of Orangemen right across the province and then getting them to sign a ‘Covenant’ by which they pledged to oppose Home Rule, even by force if necessary. The signing of the Ulster Covenant became a ritual and thousands flocked into the newly formed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to which the authorities turned a very blatant blind eye. Regular training became common and a ship-load of arms from Germany was landed at Larne on 24th-25th April 1914 to arm the UVF men.

It was in response to the formation of the UVF that McNeill had formed the Irish Volunteers. If the Orangemen could recruit an army to oppose Home Rule, then he felt it quite legitimate to raise an army to fight for Home Rule. Units of the Irish Volunteers sprang up all over the country with companies usually based on “church areas” and training in arms drill, usually with wooden rifles, became a regular occurrence and was done quite openly. The situation became tense with the outbreak of civil strife looking like becoming a reality and also when British army officers stationed at the Curragh camp in Co Kildare had refused in March 1914 to march against the Ulster Volunteers of Carson - an event that became known as the “Curragh Mutiny.”

The Irish Volunteers also tried to import arms, but when a yacht named “The Asgard” successfully discharged a cargo of rifles at Howth on Sunday 26th July 1914, the Volunteers were fired on by the British army as they marched back towards the city. It was patently obvious that a very different stance was being adopted towards the Irish Volunteers than was being shown towards the UVF.

Home Rule was now only a reality if provision could be made for the northern Protestants and Britain realised that the Partition of the country was inevitable. Carson pushed for the exclusion of all Ulster from the Home Rule Bill but eventually agreed to the exclusion of just six of the provinces’s counties. Shane Leslie, in his “Irish Tangle for English Readers”, wrote (p.158): “The Government gave Redmond his Home Rule on paper with the hopeless proviso that Ulster must not be coerced.” However, the outbreak of World War One gave the British a breather in the matter and they decided that the implementation of Home Rule would have to be postponed until that world conflict ended.

The Ulster Volunteers immediately enlisted in the British army for the conflict and Redmond urged the Irish Volunteers to do likewise. This resulted in a split in the movement, those Volunteers who followed Redmond’s call taking the name National Volunteers, but the majority, under McNeill, refusing to enlist with the British and retaining the name Irish Volunteers. Discrimination again showed its ugly head when Kitchener allowed the Ulster Volunteers to fight under their own banner and in their own regiment “The 36th Ulster” but a similar request was refused to the National Volunteers who were to be scattered among a plethora of British regiments. More than 50,000 Irishmen died in that World War, the majority of them Catholic Nationalists, most of whom were led to believe that they were “fighting for the freedom of small nations.”

The postponement of Home Rule was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the Irish Volunteers were concerned and preparations were now begun for an armed rebellion which would materialise in 1916.