A Beginner’s Guide to the Irish Volunteers

“Aye, sor! Me, sor! Oi’ll do it, so I will!” What was that?

Irish volunteering That’s not funny.

Sorry. I’m paying attention now. Ask the standard questions then.

What? A paramilitary organisation formed by Irish nationalists.

When? November 1913.

Where? The first meeting was at the Rotunda in Dublin. After that recruiting was done all over the country.

Advertisement of first meeting to set up the Irish Volunteers.

Advertisement of first meeting to set up the Irish Volunteers. Picture credit: http://www.theeasterrising.eu/120Volunteers/NV.htm

How many? Around 200,000.

Why? The Irish Volunteers had been proposed as a counterweight to the Ulster Volunteer Force, formed earlier that year in—

Ulster? Exactly.

Didn’t any of them have jobs to do? I assume they did their volunteering in the evening and at the weekends.

Which involved what exactly? Drilling, marching, military exercises.

It sounds like the Boy Scouts. It wasn’t. It was a bit more serious than that.

And what was the point of it all? The UVF was set up to resist, with force if necessary, British government plans to create a devolved government for Ireland.

“Force”? They were armed.

I take back my joke about the Scouts. So, if the UVF were against devolution, then I suppose the Irish Volunteers were for it. Yes, indeed, though they called it “Home Rule” at the time.

And whose idea was it to set up the IVF? Now it gets murky. Ostensibly, the impetus came from Eoin MacNeill, Professor of Early and Medieval History at University College Dublin, who wrote an article for the Gaelic League’s newspaper, proposing such a force with a purely defensive purpose. The IVF would, he intended, uphold the law by helping the government to implement its Home Rule plans.

But in fact? In the background was the secret organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Sounds very cloak-and-dagger. What were they up to? They wanted to establish an Irish army but knew they couldn’t. Popular sentiment was not in favour of a violent uprising. Setting up the Irish Volunteers was a way of recruiting clandestinely for a possible future insurrection.

And did they get their way? Not quite. Eoin MacNeill retained his independence. And then John Redmond took an interest.

Who? Redmond was an MP, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had done so much to push Home Rule through the British parliament. A confirmed constitutionalist, Redmond realised that the Volunteers could become a threat to the IPP. So he demanded that the Volunteers be put under the IPP’s control.

Did he get his way? Mostly. But the Volunteers split soon after.

John Redmond inspecting the Irish Volunteers, 1914.

John Redmond inspecting the Irish Volunteers, 1914. Three weeks after this photograph was taken the movement split. Photo credit: http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Redmond_inspecting_the_Irish_Volunteers_1914

Why? The First World War broke out. Redmond called on the Volunteers to become part of the British war effort.

That seems a little — to use a posh word — counterintuitive. Weren’t the Irish always fighting the British? It wasn’t quite as illogical as you’d think. Redmond believed that if the Irish demonstrated that they were on Britain’s side, then they would be rewarded for it afterwards.

“Rewarded”? Be trusted with Home Rule.

And you mentioned a split? About 90% followed Redmond’s call. They were renamed the ‘National Volunteers’. While we can’t say that they all joined the army because Redmond told them too, it was certainly a contributory factor in many cases.

And how about the rest? They retained the name ‘Irish Volunteers’; its governing committee came to be dominated by members of the IRB.

And what happened to the two groups? As I said, many of the National Volunteers enlisted in the British army and fought in the First World War.

And presumably got slaughtered. A large number of them, yes.

And the ‘Irish Volunteers’? The IRB intended to use them in the rebellion planned for Easter 1916. The Volunteers were to mobilise under the cover of parading for training purposes. But when Eoin MacNeill, who was not an IRB member, learned of the deception, he countermanded the orders and most of the Volunteers returned home.

So was that the end for them, then? No – the Irish Volunteers continued to exist as part of the Irish republican movement, though by 1919 they were increasingly using the name Irish Republican Army instead.

Is that the same IRA as…? Kind of. Here‘s a diagram to help.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Irish Volunteers by