From The Irish Volunteer, February 14, 1914.
For nearly a hundred years the Irish have been a disarmed people. The possession of arms without the authority of the British Government exposed the Irishman in Ireland to a possible sentence of seven years’ penal servitude. Drill was equally declared illegal. For the offence of calling to a body of young men walking homeward from a club meeting along a Dublin quay, ‘Right turn,’ one of their members was sent to prison for two years. None might drill, none might carry arms in Ireland except the English garrison.
The reason for this prohibition of arms and drill to the Irish in Ireland dates back to 1777. In that year, England was engaged in attempting to suppress the revolt of the colonists in what are now the United States. France intervened in aid of the North Americans, and England was compelled to call up her last man to the fight. Ireland lay crushed and quiescent at her feet—a Parliament existed in the country, but its independence had long before been taken away by England and it merely registered the wishes of the British Government. To preserve her dominion in America, England, confident that the Irish were incapable of troubling her further, withdrew nearly all her troops from Ireland and sent them to the seat of war across the Atlantic. All remained quiet in Ireland, but in a little while French privateers began to hover off the Northern coast of Ireland and strike alarm into the hearts of the merchants and traders—all, indeed, who had portable property that these sea-rovers might requisition. They appealed to the British Government to send soldiers to protect them, and the British Government, which cared nothing what might happen to Irish individual property just then, curtly told them that it had no soldiers to spare for their trifling protection. The dismayed Irishmen consulted amongst themselves and decided to form armed bodies of their own. They did. In the towns along the threatened coasts, all the male Protestant inhabitants procured such arms as were available, and under the instruction of such of their numbers as had served in the army trained and drilled. From the North the movement slowly spread at first into Leinster, and, then like wildfire it burned through Connacht and Munster. Within two years, nearly a hundred thousand Irish Protestants were banded together in volunteer associations to protect Ireland from the French.
The British Government had treated the movement in the beginning with indifference. When it realised that on the soil of Ireland there stood again an army not amenable to its dictation, it grew alarmed and considered the subject of demanding it to dissolve on pain of treating it as a rebel army. But it had no force then at its command to enable it to cope with certainty of success with the Volunteers, so it temporised and professed to regard the Volunteers with admiration.
In the meanwhile the objective of the Volunteers had altered. They looked on their country with its Parliament controlled by England, and its trade prohibited by that Power, and declared that not France, but England, was Ireland’s enemy. It offered its service to the little band of faithful Irishmen—Grattan, Flood, Charlemont—who had championed their country’s cause through gloom and ill. Lord Charlemont it elected its commander-in-chief, and Grattan and Flood among its generals. Two hundred thousand strong, these Irish Volunteers demanded that for which Ireland had pleaded so long—political and economic independence. On the 15th February, 1782, the Volunteers in convention resolved that none but the King, Lords and Commons of Ireland should presume to make laws to bind Irishmen, and that the Penal Laws, which denied the Irish Catholics a right to existence in their own country, were abhorrent to the Volunteers as ‘Men, as Irishmen, and as Christians.’ On the following 19th April, the Volunteer army assembled in Dublin and saluted with their cannon the renunciation by England ‘for ever’ of any title to govern Ireland and the adoption by the Irish Parliament of the declaration of Irish independence. ‘England,’ said the patriot, Hussey Burgh, exulting in the triumph of the nation, ‘sowed the dragon’s teeth—they sprang up armed men.’
Ireland had now an independent senate, an independent existence, an independent army. Unhappily, she trusted English faith once again and disbanded her independent army. The Volunteers, convinced they had for ever assured the independence of their country laid down their arms and returned to civil life. Stealthily and slowly England re-garrisoned Ireland until she had 135,000 British troops amassed. Then she tore up the Treaty of ’82 and closed the doors of the Irish Parliament.
To safeguard her future supremacy in Ireland, she made the possession of arms by a Nationalist Irishman felony, and by Act of Parliament volunteering in Ireland was declared treason. For the first time since the Union, the Arms Act ceased to be renewed a couple of years ago.
The Ulster Unionists were quick to seize the opportunity to provide themselves with arms and to drill. The Nationalists did not move until a month ago. Recently an enormous public meeting in Dublin demanded the establishment of Irish Volunteers.
The Volunteer Act is still in force, which makes it a punishable offence for an Irishman to be a Volunteer for Ireland, but it is no longer a crime punishable with penal servitude for an Irish civilian to have a rifle and to drill. The movement, is spreading like fire through the country from Dublin to Kerry. Night after night in the different wards of Dublin men of all ages, from 20 to 60, are drilling under the instruction chiefly of ex-non-commissioned officers of the British army. The difficulty is not to find the Volunteers, but to find sufficient instructors and halls to drill them in. Last night I went to one of the drill-halls and found four times as many men as the hall could accommodate assembled around it, awaiting their turn for drill exercise. Inside an ex-Sergeant-Major was putting the men through their first drill. His pupils comprised artisans, clerks, civil servants, shopkeepers and merchants. The rapidity with which one and all assimilated his instructions caused him to remark that it was the easiest thing on earth to make the average Irishman into a soldier.
So it stands. The promise of the movement could not be brighter. Sinn Féiners, Hibernians, and United Irish Leaguers, have all joined hands together as Irish Volunteers. The Government looks on displeased, but unable, legally, to interfere. It trusts to time to disrupt a movement which once again threatens it with Irish National Union.