A Most Seditious Lot: The Militant-Separatist Press 1896-1916

In this, the second of a three-part series on the radical press in Ireland in the run-up to the 1916 revolution, the focus is on the militant-separatist, or advanced-nationalist press.

The Irish separatist movement was by no means an homogeneous one. It contained conservative and progressive wings, and different shades in between. The conservatives, Arthur Griffith being an example, were prepared for independence, but under a dual monarchy with the English King at the head, much like the position at the time of Grattan’s Parliament (pre-Act of Union) in 1782. They were not republicans calling for Enlightenment republican principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and they were disinclined to encourage militant action to achieve independence, whatever they might claim when standing on political platforms. The radical wing, on the other hand, drew their inspiration from a revolutionary lineage stretching back through the Fenians, and the Young Irelanders, to Wolfe Tone and the republican United Irish movement in the 1790s.

What drew these groups together were a disillusionment among the conservatives with the Home Rule policy of the Irish Parliamentary Party particularly after Parnell’s fall from grace and his death, and the opportunities which presented themselves in the 1890s and thereafter. Many among them were involved in the literary societies, the Gaelic League, and even the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), of which even Arthur Griffith was a member at one stage. It was, though, the commemorations of the centenary of the 1798 Rising which created the conditions for a coalition between the conservatives and the radicals. According to historian Kevin Whelan ‘It was the I.R.B. who organised the first structured Bodenstown commemoration in 1891, and by the middle of the decade crowds of up to 5,000 gathered there each June on the Sunday closest to Tone’s birthdate. In 1898 a bust of Tone was placed on the grave by John O’Leary, already an iconic figure.’

Various organisations and committees were set up in the years immediately prior to the centenary in 1898. Again, it was often at the instigation of the IRB, usually acting in the background. Local ‘98 Centennial Clubs were set up, including many in Dublin, which were used to educate their members in the history of the 1798 Rising, and also to illustrate the political linkages between that period and present circumstances. The clubs were named after the patriots of 1798, and would usually hold pilgrimages around the sites associated with their particular hero, often ending up at his grave. The membership of the clubs was mainly male and working class. The Dublin socialists, with James Connolly at the head, named their club the ‘Rank and File ‘98 Club’.

This effort at remembrance was not, though, the preserve of men. The Irishwomen’s Centenary Union organised the decoration of neglected graves, not just of the 1798 heroes, but of other patriots as well. They also created a cottage industry producing home-made goods around the theme of the 1798 Rising.

Throughout the country a rising tide of fervor saw the erection of monuments to the patriots of ‘98. Dedication ceremonies for monuments or foundation stones drew huge crowds. It was obvious that the centenary had caught the imagination of the people and there was a scramble for control of the Centenary Committee between the IRB and the constitutional politicians which eventually led to a compromise solution, but not without considerable acrimony. The proposal, put forward by Dublin socialist E.R.Stewart on behalf of the socialist-republican Rank and File ‘98 Club, that membership of the Committee should be restricted to those who accepted the political principles of the United Irishmen, was rejected. For a period, the Irish people were treated to the sight and sound of members of the conservative Irish Parliamentary Party posturing as physical force men! Addressing a gathering in his native Mayo, the arch-conservative constitutional politician John Dillon said – ‘We will, by every constitutional and physical means, follow in the footsteps of the gallant men of 1798, until Ireland shakes off the bonds of slavery, and her sons make her a Nation’. Pure humbug, of course.

The dedication of the foundation stone for a monument to Wolfe Tone at the Stephen’s Green end of Grafton Street, right in the Unionist heart of Dublin, was the high point of the Centennial. Quarried from Cave Hill outside Belfast where Tone and the United Irishmen had, in 1795, pledged themselves to their revolutionary cause, the huge stone was brought to Dublin by train, lay in state as would an eminent corpse for two days, before being transported in a ‘funeral’ procession around all of the places in the city connected with the Risings of 1798 and 1803 on its way to the prepared site. Dublin had shut down for the day, and the huge procession took three hours to cover the three-mile route. The crowd was estimated to number 100,000.

Arthur Griffith wrote that the ’98 commemoration was “the beginning of all modern efforts towards a return to ideals of independence”. A journalist of considerable ability, he launched his own newspaper, the United Irishman, in 1899. The paper became a vehicle for putting Griffith’s ideas on passive resistance and obstructionism into the public arena, and also his stance against recruitment by the British for the Boer War. He also pushed for the development of Irish manufacture, agriculture and commerce in general, ring-fenced by tariffs. This was the ‘Sinn Féin’, or ‘Ourselves’ policy. He founded Cumann na nGaedheal in 1900, which merged with the Dungannon Clubs, Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) and other organisations in 1908. The new entity was itself called ‘Sinn Féin’.

The IRB was relatively inactive for the ten years or so after the ‘98 Centennial but with the prospect looming of a war in Europe which would involve Britain, began to see that as an opportunity for militant action which might present itself. Militant separatists now began to organise. In 1910 they published a newspaper, Irish Freedom, which was instrumental in attracting new recruits to the cause, including Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and Eamonn Ceannt, who would each play a central role in the 1916 Rising. After the suppression of the newspaper in 1914, the Irish Volunteer took its place, reflecting the formation of the Irish Volunteers in that year. The war in Europe was by then underway, and the experience gained from the anti-enlistment drive of the Boer War period was now put to good effect. The project from here on would be to recruit Irishmen to the ranks of Ireland’s army, not Britain’s – and Irishwomen too, not into the Irish Volunteers, but into their own women’s group, Cumann na mBan ( Irishwomen’s Council).

Cover, L'Irlande Libre, 1900

L’Irlande Libre

Irish women had, of course, played a significant role in raising awareness through the press and through protests and campaigns, stretching back to the 1890s, and beyond. Maud Gonne, who had played a very active role in fighting the practice of evictions of tenants in Ireland, had to leave Ireland for Paris to escape prosecution. While in Paris, she edited L’Irlande Libre, a radical separatist journal that was engaged in disseminating ideas, and which gave James Connolly one of his early opportunities to reach an audience. His article, Socialism and Irish Nationalism, published in 1897, laid out his socialist-republican thinking and its links with and inspiration from the revolutionary United Irishmen.

Shan Van Vocht front page

Shan Van Vocht

Another early separatist newspaper was the relatively small but highly influential Shan Van Vocht, published monthly in Belfast by Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston who wrote her poetry under the pen-name ‘Eithne Carberry’ and was herself the great-granddaughter of a United Irishman and the daughter of a Fenian. The Shan Van Vocht, besides publishing James Connolly, also provided an outlet for the thoughts of Douglas Hyde, founder and president of the Gaelic League, and of Arthur Griffith who later launched the newspaper the United Irishman after the closure of the Shan Van Vocht and whose subscription list he was given by Alice Milligan. In its content, the Shan Van Vocht contained about one third literature and leisure writing, about one third historical writing to do with 1798 and later agitation, plus articles on decolonisation, Irish music and language, and reports and a diary of political and historical meetings and events. The Shan Van Vocht played a major part in publicising the 1898 Centenary commemorations and in educating and informing its readers in the relevance of ’98 to contemporary conditions and radical political movements. Although little known, and often under-rated, it was, quite simply, a crucial organ of the radical press.

The United Irishman masthead March 4th 1899

The United Irishman

Although Arthur Griffith’s newspaper, the United Irishman, was a separatist newspaper, it was by no means a republican paper. Griffith’s preferred solution was quasi-independence using the  model of the ‘Hungarian solution’ which took the form of a dual or shared monarchy – in other words, the old order would just be modified, not transformed. Although he later flirted with membership of the Irish Volunteers in 1914, he did not support the use of physical force to achieve Irish independence, and his actions around the Treaty negotiations and the creation of a counter-revolutionary government in 1922 showed his true colours. His newspaper ran until 1906, when it was suppressed by the government, and he launched the newspaper Sinn Féin.

Of far more importance in the lead-up to the revolution were the Shan Van Vocht, and two newspapers which would be published between 1910 and 1916, Irish Freedom, and The Irish Volunteer.

Irish Freedom - masthead

Irish Freedom

The launch of Irish Freedom in November 1910 precipitated a shift in the controlling body of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Supreme Council. Older and more conservative men like Jack O’Hanlon, Fred Allen and P. T. Daly, who had previously exercised considerable power within the organisation, found themselves edged out in favour of more militant and younger men. The issue was over what the older men saw as the premature launch of the new paper, but also because of its promoters’ more extreme and open militancy. So the new paper almost immediately turned the IRB into a more militant organisation. It was controlled by Tom Clarke and Sean McDiarmada, both of them later signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, and had as its controlling editor Bulmer Hobson. Among its contributors were Patrick Pearse – another signatory of the Proclamation, John Devoy, Ernest Blythe, and Terence McSwiney whose death on hunger-strike in 1920 was instrumental in hastening the end of the War of Independence and the signing of a truce.

In its content the paper was working to the usual formula of inspirational stories based on history and patriots, an Irish language section, anti-British articles, and so on. Its first issue contained articles on ‘Sweating in Ireland’ (poor working conditions), a guide to Irish fiction, recollections of the dedication in 1898 of the Wolfe Tone foundation stone, a review of James Connolly’s ‘Labour in Irish History’, a piece on ‘The GAA – its Value as a National Asset’, and a report of the first meeting of the Students’ National Literary Society.

Progressively signs can be seen in its pages of a developing understanding of, and some sympathy with the labour movement. Writing in 1966, historian Pádraig O’Snódaigh had this to say: ‘Among the papers of the extra-Parliamentary nationalists (“the mosquito press” as they were called), the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) organ, Irish Freedom, had a markedly more pro-Labour attitude from its inception than had, for example, Sinn Fein. In August, 1911, Irish Freedom saw an evolutionary relationship between Labour and Republican ideas: “Mr. Carpenter is a Socialist, but Socialism leads to Republicanism and Republicanism leads to Separatism”.

Mr. Carpenter was a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland. The idea that socialism leads to republicanism which leads to separatism was one that Connolly had stated years beforehand. As time moved on towards the 1913 lock-out, and support for the labour leadership among the working class became apparent, the IRB took more notice. In January 1913 in Irish Freedom, Desmond Ryan made a plea for cooperation between the two movements ‘Both are fighting two distinct phases of one huge oppression and the work of one requires the attainment of what the other seeks’.

Six months earlier, in June of 1912, the paper had offered a welcome to the launch of the radical feminist newspaper, The Irish Citizen. It did refer to the differences between the women’s franchise position and that of the separatists, but as it said, ‘…we want to see every movement in Ireland, those we like and those we don’t like, Irish in their point of view and in everything. We don’t want any tails to English parties here, and that is why we welcome the The Irish Citizen’. It may also have had something to do with the fact that many supporters of the women’s franchise movement were also actively engaged in the nationalist movement, with many who were supporters of militant separatism, and that it was time to lower the tensions and to start building alliances.

1913 was an eventful year, not just because of the lock-out and all that went with it, but also because of the founding of the Irish Volunteers on the 25th of November in response to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers two months earlier whose aim was to oppose, through armed action if necessary, the introduction of Home Rule, and to preserve the Union with Britain. The Irish Volunteers launched their own paper in February 1914. It was as well they did, for within a few months Irish Freedom was suppressed by government order.

Irish Volunteer - front page Dec 5 1914

The Irish Volunteer

There was no doubt what message the new paper, The Irish Volunteer, was selling, or what its advertisers were selling either. In the issue dated July 4 1914 on page 11, there is an advertisement addressed to ‘Comrades!’, in which are offered: Mauser automatic pistols, sighted 1,000 yards, 4 pounds ten shillings; a .22 German target rifle at twenty-five shillings; or a Bull Dog revolver at seven shillings and six pence. Bandoliers, belts and haversacks are also on offer. The July 18th issue sees Hearne and Co. of Waterford selling approved uniforms at twenty-five shillings, and L Deegan of 3 Inn’s Quay offering .22 rifles priced from twelve shillings to four pounds three and six each. The issue of 1st August carries the news stories on ‘Rifles Landed at Howth’; ‘Savage Soldiery’; ‘Women and Children Bayoneted’; ‘Unloading the Rifles: an Eye Witness’s Story’.

Various topics were covered under military training in the pages of the paper: Explosives, care and use of weapons, drilling, first-aid, bilingual military vocabulary, defending positions etc. An advertisement in the January 16th 1915 issue invites customers to ‘Shooting at the City Rifle Range, Talbot Street – an ideal place to practice’. In all of the issues of the paper extensive coverage was given of the many activities of the Volunteers; drilling, manoeuvres, training sessions, inter-company competitions, and so on. It is obvious from looking at the paper that things were moving towards a climax of some sort.

From December 1914 to the last issue in April 1916, Eoin MacNeill, who would achieve lasting notoriety by attempting to stymie the 1916 Revolution by issuing an order countermanding the previous order to mobilise the Volunteers for military action, served as the titular editor of the paper. During this period, the IRB had infiltrated the Volunteers at officer rank and in staff headquarters. Although MacNeill had not been privy to the plans for the revolution, it is beyond belief that he, or for that matter the authorities in Dublin Castle did not know by reading the Irish Volunteer that some action was imminent. On page three of the  paper dated the 22nd April 1916 an item titled  ‘Equipment Week’ states that the Dublin Brigade Commandant is having a cheap sale this week, offering to match a shilling for every shilling spent, and, further –‘This Easter is for the Irish Volunteers. We should make it impressive. And it is not only Easter: it is the anniversary of Clontarf, April 23rd.’ ‘Clontarf, April 23rd’ refers to the decisive battle in 1014 between Brian Boru, self-proclaimed King of Munster and Leinster, and the Viking Dubliners and their Leinster allies. Although Brian Boru was killed in the battle, the victory by his forces effectively ended the Viking threat to the native aristocracy in Ireland. The article was signed by Thomas McDonagh, who would be another of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Two days later, on April 24th 1916, the revolution started.

The final part of this series will deal with the advanced-feminist movement and its publications.

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

6 responses to “A Most Seditious Lot: The Militant-Separatist Press 1896-1916

  • anne

    Compliments on a great series of articles. A real pleasure to read
    I have learnt a lot and got lots to think over.
    Keep up the good work –

  • Fein

    Awesome artcles, where find Irlande libre?

    • Tom Stokes

      Hi, I accessed them 15 years ago in the National Library in Dublin. I think the collection was incomplete at the time. You will find references to it in biographies of Maud Gonne. James Connolly’s 1897 article ‘Erin’s Hope’, published in L’Irlande Libre, can be found in the archive of his writings at marxists.org – thanks for your comments.

  • Katherine

    Great article, may I know where you found the quote by Pádraig O’Snódaigh?

    • Tom Stokes

      Hi Katherine – you will find it in the first linked article on the right-hand menu “1916 – A Workingmen’s Revolution?” which is by Padraig O’Snodaigh (Oliver Snoddy)

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