Published in Éire, June 9 1923.
It was in 1909 that we started out to organise the Fianna. The inspiration to do so came from reading in the Dublin daily papers of how a number of Boy Scout organisations and Boys Brigades had been reviewed at Clontarf by an English viceroy and addressed by him. Reading this I realised vividly and suddenly that Ireland was being attacked at her most vital point, the minds of her children.
The early impressions that a young mind receives become part of his subconscious self. These impressions create the instincts that guide him and make him; the driving forces, that, quite unrealised by him, goad him into action, make him voice opinions. The grown person is moral or unmoral according to the emotions and principles that moved his youth. His class prejudices grow out of his childish experiences, his religion is usually much the same as that which he was taught almost before he could speak. The same love of country and the same respect for laws and rulers inspire him as those which inspired the people amongst whom he grew up and the teachers by whom his impressionable mind was first cultivated.
It is only the rare exceptions among human beings who, when they reach maturity, go through their mental equipment and discharge or change any of the ideas or beliefs that they find themselves voicing. It was therefore horrible to me to read of regiments of little Irish boys learning to salute and to respect the flag that has been for so long the emblem of foreign rule, misery and oppression in Ireland.
I could vision them listening to the hypocritical kindly speeches from the mouth of the representative of a foreign king, each little man’s eyes growing round with admiration at the sight of so much wealth and pride and military state all displayed for his own benefit and for the benefit of the cringing awestruck little lads marching beside him. Cringing and obsequious organisers herded them deftly, carried on the work of inspiring admiration for a tyrannical Empire, and forgetfulness of their country’s and class’s needs. I could see these children growing to manhood and gaily enlisting in the British army or police forces, and being used either to batten their own class into submission into a class war at home, or giving their lives in an Imperial war made to hold Ireland as a slave state within the British Empire, fighting always the battles of the international financier to hold in subjection India and Egypt and to fight other capitalist empires and states for the right to steal their valuable properties belonging to defenceless and undeveloped peoples.
Yet another thing was troubling my mind. Already I had sensed the coming war with Germany. War with Germany must bring troubles in its train for England. The words, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” kept beating in my brain, and the question ever arose, how are we going to profit by this opportunity: will it slip by as did the Boer War with no man ready to strike a blow for Ireland’s freedom.
The idea of fighting England with arms for Ireland’s freedom had been carefully eradicated from our national programme. Clergy, publicans and other men of property had all combined to vilify and belittle those who in a former generation had risked all and taken up arms. Excommunication and banishment was what the Fenians gained. Hunted by the enemy, sneered at as “tin pike men” by the men of position and property, excom-municated by the Hierarchy, yet these “tin pike men” were loved by the people and helped by the people while they lived, and on their deaths were taken to the very heart of the nation as the heroes and lights of valour to the generations who would come after them.
It was the people who forced their recognition on the Irish members of the British parliament, who were busy “fighting for Ireland”, “on the floor of the House” by swearing allegiance to the British king, and by endeavouring to make Ireland a happy West British Province. The people believed in the old fighting men, and so the names of the dead rebels were taken and used by the Party, and banners gay with the portraits of Tone, Emmet or the Manchester Martyrs, were carried round by them when-ever they wished to contest a local election or to keep together an organisation for job procuring. But although the names of the dead rebels had the strongest appeal to the people of Ireland, the fighting spirit of the Gael was gone. The reverence offered by the people to their dead was of that aloof and mystical quality which builds shrines to a Joan of Arc without any desire to emulate her. The people then had no thought of following the footsteps of those heroes, and of one day having to share their fate.
But I believed the fighting spirit of the Gael to be only dormant, for the love and reverence of the hero was with us. Love and reverence gave birth to thought; thought leads to hope, and hope once born can only find her full expression in action. I understood, too, that instinctive love for all that is great and brave and honourable, and the great spiritual courage and genius for self-sacrifice that lie deep in the hearts of our young people; the heritage of the Gael that has been passed to them from dead generation after dead generation who each in their turn served Ireland with loyalty and self-sacrifice.
Having thought all this out I made up my mind to start a Boy Scout organisation as quickly as possible, with the object of training the boys mentally and physically to achieve the independence of Ireland. Their minds were to be trained in the true principles of Nationality, and to understand the mistakes that has been made, and so to fortify themselves against falling into the same errors. As Pearse put it: to vision an Ireland “not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well.” They should be Irish in their knowledge of Ireland’s history; Irish in their use of her language; Irish in their adoption of the fine code of honour of the old Fianna; and Irish in their prowess in arms and attitude of honourable soldiers waiting faithfully for the hour to come when they too should serve Ireland with all the passion of their glorious youth.
I first brought my project for forming a rebel Boy Scout organisation to the Executive of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin at that time was almost entirely under Mr Griffith’s influence and control, but an agreement had been arrived at with the IRB, and a great many Republicans belonged to it. Mr Griffith’s ideal for Ireland was the status what she held in 1782, during the short period when Grattan’s parliament succeeded in bringing a certain amount of prosperity to the manufacturers and tradespeople of the Irish cities. Mr Griffith was not only monarchist and capitalist in his ideas, but he disliked Republicanism and did not want anyone to talk of fighting for Ireland’s freedom. In fact, the only difference between him-self and the “Party” were his disapproval of men going “hat in hand to Westminster”, his scorn of those who took an oath of allegiance to a foreign king, and his personal dislike and distrust of the individual members of the Parliamentary Party. It was only on our release from prison in 1918 that a great convention unanimously, and against Mr Griffith’s wishes – voiced on the Executive, but not put forward by him at the convention – changed the Constitution into a Republican one.
Under Mr Griffith’s regime the Sinn Féin organisation was a pacifist one. The Sinn Féin programme contained no provision for organising an army, every other activity through which a nation functions was to be built up inside the British constitution. The Irish MPs were to be withdrawn from Westminster, we were to set up our own government, courts etc, as we did later, after the general election of 1918. But to me the whole scheme was rendered impossible because it did not include provision for the building up of an Irish army.
Our policy with regard to military matters was entirely a negative one, and even that was not loved by Mr Griffith. It was “anti-recruiting”. By meetings, pamphlets and bills, we tried to prevail on Irishmen not to join the British army. This anti-recruiting programme was pushed forward vehemently by the Republican members of Sinn Féin, and was very effective, but Mr Griffith never advocated it in my time, and always met our propositions with arguments that it was not a judicious moment to push forward the campaign.
When I suggested that they should include in the Sinn Féin programme the formation of a rebel Boy Scout organisation with the openly avowed purpose of laying the foundation of an Irish army to fight for freedom, the idea was not met with the enthusiasm that I, in my innocence, had expected. The proposition was gently but firmly turned down. The organisation could not undertake this work, it would be most unwise for it to do so, but of course the members would all help me individually if I decided to start myself. I was very disappointed and upset at the time, but quite soon afterwards I realised what a lucky escape I had had, and how the only chance that the Fianna had of being successful was if the boys themselves built it up, bringing all the high ideals and inspiration of youth with them, and pushing on with youth’s indomitable self-confidence and tireless energy, that can laugh at mistakes, and begin again every other day.
We got amazingly little support from the young men, and the public for the most part laughed at us; but the few who counted turned up as they always do. Miss Helena Molony and two ardent young Fenians, Dr McCartan and Sean McGarry, were very much taken with the idea, and came along and helped. Miss Molony is staunch and true to the Republic, but, alas for human weakness and gullibility, both Mr McCartan and Sean McGarry have now taken an oath of allegiance to his Britannic Majesty and are now busily engaged in hunting down Republicans, and straining every nerve to make 26 counties a contented and slavish West British Province. They have taken the ideals and aims of the old Parliamentary Party as their aims and ideals, betrayed the Republic that they had helped to establish, and are now trying to force Ireland to accept the position and status of a British colony by making war on the Republic, in the course of which they encourage and support the most appalling acts of cruelty by their Free State soldiers; while their base treachery to their country and to the people who trusted them and their mean deception of the people of Ireland are unparalleled in history.
But enough of unpleasant memories. The Fianna was started; and good and bad idealists and materialists joined up. Colbert, Heuston, Liam Mellows, and many other noble boys who grew to noble manhood really made the Fianna what it is, and are responsible for the work it has done for Ireland.