The National Volunteers v The Irish Volunteers
The Years Leading To 1916
Fr Nevin's Evidence to Bureau of Military History
To his eternal honour and that of his historic name, Dr O’Donnell, Bishop of Raphoe, later Cardinal, though hitherto a supporter of the Party, wrote to the public press a letter strongly protesting that England’s war with Germany was no concern of ours. Pity the general body of the Clergy didn’t take their cue from his Lordship instead of becoming, as many of them did, active propagandists in favour of England. Meantime, as might well be expected, there was disaffection and indignation amongst a considerable body of the Volunteers that anyone purporting to speak with authority should thus abuse their name. “If” they said, “there is fighting to be done, well we have no quarrel with Germany but we have centuries old grievance against England who has robbed us of our liberty. Our fight will be for the rights that have been filched from us and until restoration is made there will be no peace in Ireland”.
There was a break-away, a new organising executive of a distinctive body and a new name ‘The Irish Volunteers’ under which title the battle of 1916 was fought. Prominent in this movement and to whom the members in general looked for leadership and guidance, were Professor John McNeill of the National University, Patrick H Pearse, Head Master of St Enda’s College, and Sir Roger Casement. It is a misnomer to speak of Sinn Féin Volunteers as many have done and some still continue to do. There were none. Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, joined the Volunteers early as an ordinary member and as such remained throughout. Though giving allegiance to the latest development his views were along constitutional lines with occasional strainings or pressure within the law. He was a great man for whom I had strong affection and had many talks with him in his “Nationality” office, No 6 Harcourt Street.
There were other organisations subsidiary to and auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers that played an important part in the memorable events that followed: the Citizens Army under the leadership of James Connelly, Fianna Eireann or Boy Scouts in whose training and instruction Countess Constance Markievicz took a lively interest: and the Cumann na mBan or Ladies’ Association.
The National Volunteers increased and multiplied rapidly boosted as they were by the Irish Parliamentary Party, their adherents in the country lay and clerical, and the monied class generally anxious to retain in perpetuity what they held by favour of the existing system. They were kindly regarded by the Government, their meeting places becoming fruitful centres of recruiting for the English Army: every inducement being held out to them to join up: quick promotion, commissions lavishly bestowed, with titles in the near future for those foolishly so ambitioned.
The progress of the Irish Volunteers though slow was steady, but what they lacked in numbers was compensated by enthusiasm in the Sacred cause for which they were prepared to give their lives. They were hampered in many ways. Propaganda on behalf of “The National” and against them was so strong on all sides that it was only by dint of strenuous effort on the part of the promoters that any headway could be made. The Press, with rare exceptions, were against them. And as an instance of the disheartening situation confronting them, I give the published account of what happened in Cork at that time. “The split which resulted in 1914 from the Parliamentary Party’s offer of the Volunteers for service under the British War Office had disastrous effects in Cork as elsewhere. Of the 2.000 men who were present in the Cornmarket when the issue was put for their decision, fewer than fifty elected to follow MacCurtain and MacSwiney. It was a heavy defeat, but they were not discouraged”.
They might well have been, dear good men, and have decided that an age become so degenerate was unworthy of further consideration, and they would have expressed the feelings of many a disgusted one then: but these good devoted young men were not working for an age or generation, but for all time.
The same thing happened in Dublin as in Cork. I have been told by one who was present; and was, I fear, repeated in many places all over the county.
At that time I was stationed in Belfast and in August 1915 came to live in Dublin when the first year of the war had run its course. Casualties from the Front were arriving and were being hailed as heroes.… What were my feelings then? They were strong and difficult to control, though I attempted to describe them on an occasion in the winter of 1916. It was this – A concert, or rather Patrick Pearse’s Iosagan, was being staged at the Mansion House by the boys of St Enda’s to which I was invited. There was a large and enthusiastic audience present and during an interval one of the promoters asked me to go on the platform and say a few words. And in the course of my remarks I contrasted the resurgent Ireland we then had, result of the sacrifices made in Easter Week, with the decadent Anglo-Ireland of 1914-1915, the Ireland forgetting its glorious, storied and Catholic past, waving Union Jacks and singing ‘God Save the King’. It was an odious situation that confronted one and many, in the disgust they felt, lost hope in the future of their country, I for one amongst them; so much so that in purchasing I preferred foreign to Irish manufacture. At this someone in the audience cried ‘Shame’! It was no shame I answered back but consistent with my feelings, for I concluded that an age become so degenerate, forgetful of its historic past, was undeserving of support: didn’t deserve to live even. There was applause then, and I finished by saying ‘But the soul of an almost lost Ireland was redeemed in Easter Week the fruits of which we and all future generations of Irishmen shall continue to enjoy.’
It may possibly appear from what I am writing that I am a hater of England. I am nothing of the kind. It would be unchristian to hate anyone, or any country, and I have had all along and still have many staunch English friends. Having lived and worked several years in widely separated parts of the country I came to know them intimately and appreciate the many sterling qualities they, as a people, possess, and felt I could live all my life happily amongst them. They used to confess openly they would much prefer Irish priests to their own English, and their sorrow at the departure of Irish priests called home had all the marks of being a genuine sorrow.