The Irish Revolution of Easter Week, 1916, was the outcome of the efforts of the various National organizations that had striven to revive the spirit of Nationality which foreign government and its offspring, constitutionalism, had done so much to destroy. The Gaelic League, Sinn Fein, the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, and the Cumann na mBan have all received some attention for the efforts they made on behalf of the cause of Ireland. There is one organization, however, which has been accorded very little recognition; an organization which, though small and composed of boys, has played a very important part in the National life of Ireland, and particularly, in the events of Easter Week, 1916. This movement is known as Na Fianna Eireann―the Irish national Boy Scouts―and the following is a short sketch of its activities from its inception to the Revolution of 1916.
The Anglicising influence of the so-called National Schools on the minds of the youth of Ireland, was such that they grew up ignorant of anything regarding their country. Irish history―where it was taught at all―was presented in such a fashion that it inspired no noble sentiments of patriotism, but rather left the impression that it was to England that Ireland was indebted for such civilization and progress as was in the country. Of Ireland as it was, they knew very little. Of Ireland as it is, they and the reasons why, they knew less. From their parents they learned little as a rule, for Parliamentarianism and the corruption that follows closely in its wake had sapped their National spirit. A flood of lurid literature for boys, in which the glory of the vast British Empire, the freedom that all races enjoyed in it, the great work for justice, civilization―for all mankind―that England had done and was doing, the great traditions the Union Jack represented, the valiant deeds of the British army and navy the world over, and what a paragon the British boy was of virtue, manliness, frankness, honor and so forth, enveloped the country. And then the establishment of the Baden-Powell Boy Scout movement in Ireland, through the efforts of the garrison, aided by its tail, the seonini, completed the attempts made by England to make a ‘happy English child’ out of the Irish boy.
Some antidote was needed, if the Irish youth―the boys of Ireland―were not to be swallowed up in the tide of Angliciztion engulfing the land. Something were needed if they were not to become entirely West-British, if not indeed English altogether. And the remedy was found in Na Fianna Eireann.
To the Countess de Markievicz, and Bulmer Hobson, belongs the credit of conceiving the idea of an organization to train and educate boys to work for the Independence of Ireland. They were ably seconded by Dr. Patrick McCartan, Miss Helena Molony, Seán McGarry, and others, as well as a few young men―youths rather, who entered into the project enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, taking upon themselves the work of teaching the boys to know, love and work for Ireland. Among these latter two names stand out prominently Cornelius Colbert and Padraic O’Riain. The former’s whole life was devoted to Ireland. None loved Ireland more than he did, none worked harder. He was loved with an extraordinary affection by all who knew him. He lived only for his country and finally gave his life for it. He was one of those whose names will go down in posterity as the martyrs of 1916. Padraic O’Riain became Honorary General Secretary of the Fianna, an ardent worker in the Gaelic League and was prominent in the Volunteer movement, when it came to be established.
Those youths who helped to make the Fianna a success did not need to have National principles instilled into them. It was inherent in them, and by their faith, courage, example and teaching, inspired hundreds of boys to believe in and work for Ireland.
The Fianna was founded in September, 1909, in Dublin. Its principles were defined as follows: ‘To train the youth of Ireland, mentally and physically, to work for the Independence of Ireland.’ The methods through which this was proposed to be done was through the teaching of the Irish language, history and traditions; physical and military training; the inculcation of national principles and ideals; the fostering of love of country and hatred of oppression. The name of the movement was derived from Ireland’s heroic age; from the Fianna of Fionn MacCumhail, as being best likely to inspire chivalrous ideals and manly sentiments.
The movement had from the beginning a desperate fight for existence. It received no support or recognition financially or otherwise from the public except the then small body of real Nationalists who were striving to keep the spirit alive in Ireland; and they could do little, for their energy and resources were taxed to straining point working for the Gaelic League, the Sinn Fein, and other kindred movements through which their enthusiasm found outlet. Indeed, generally speaking, up to 1913, the National Ideal had a hard struggle to live and it was only by superhuman efforts on the part of ‘the few’ that it was not utterly swamped. Despite everything, however, thank God, it lived and waxed to its fruition in Easter Week, and as a result, Ireland is saved.
The Fianna was unlike other boys’ organizations. It was not a ‘boys’ brigade’. These latter, wherever they exist in Ireland and whether worked in conjunction with the Church or not fail miserably to turn out real live, earnest Irish―rebel―boys, because firstly they do not try to make such out of them, and secondly, they do not understand the psychology of the boy. The Fianna was trained, taught, officered, and worked by boys who were elected by their fellow members. The movement was built up and maintained to a great extent by the subscription of the boys themselves.
For quite a long while it consisted of scarcely more than a few dozen members. These met and tried to train themselves and forward the movement under the greatest difficulties. None of them had money; all were poor. Some were at school, while others, like Con Colbert, had to work hard for a living. A hall was secured in Camden Street, the rent of which, by the way, the Countess paid for several years. With the possession of a headquarters, the movement began slowly to grow. The corrupt and venal press, masquerading as National, gave it no support, while printing columns about the B.P.’s, as the English Boy Scouts were termed, and other boys’ brigades that were anything but National. The few small papers that still stood for Irish principles, gave, of course, what publicity they could. The following appeared in Bean na h-Eireann, a little paper that in the short term of its existence, did an amount of good. Like nearly everything written about the Fianna this little article was written by one of the boys:
‘With the formation of Na Fianna Eireann the boys of Ireland have got a National organization of their own. Some Nationalists think that the boys don’t count in the Nation, but the founders of Na Fianna Eireann rightly consider them of supreme importance. They are the recruits for the future armies of Ireland, and on them the future of Ireland must depend. All through our history, the boys of the country have played the part of heroes. In the old literature we have the boy deeds of Cuchullain and the youthful exploits of Fionn. In the Red Branch Cycle can we ever forget the story of how the boys of Emain Macha stayed the armies of Maeve and saved Ulster, and died fighting while their fathers slept.
‘In the days of Elizabeth the boy chieftain of Tirconnall came near to driving the English into the sea, and was poisoned by the English because they were afraid to meet his sword again. The lives of the boy heroes of ’98 have still to be written, and would fill a large volume. Willie Nelson was hanged outside his mother’s door in Ballycary when he was fifteen because he was a United Irishman and took the yeoman captain’s horse to warn the United men that they must march to Antrim on the 6th of June. And there were many others who helped Ireland and did men’s work for their country. In other countries it was the same. During the Boer War boys of twelve and some even of ten years of age were out on commando with their fathers and brothers, using their rifles with deadly effect on the English.
Now that Na Fianna Eireann has been started, the boys of Ireland will again come to the front working for Irish Independence. In their headquarters, 34 Lower Camden Street, they drill every Tuesday and Thursday. Every Irish boy is invited to join. Other centres will be opened shortly, as the hall is already crowded with the numbers who have joined. As time goes on it is hoped to have branches of Na Fianna in every part of Ireland, so that the next generation of Irishmen will know their country and love her, and be prepared to assert their independence.’
During 1910 great progress was made in organizing new branches and in promoting schemes for the government and training of the boys. Sluaghte―the Irish word used by the Fianna to designate a corps or branch, for Irish terms were used on all possible occasions―were formed in several centres in Dublin, and in Belfast. Each Sluagh was named after some Irish Patriot whose life and deeds would be a source of inspiration to the members of the Sluagh. Regular programmes of work were drawn up and carried out. The different branches met usually twice weekly at their halls or meeting places at night time. There they underwent a short course of military and physical drill, followed by a short discourse on events in Irish history by one of the officers who, in his own words and in a simple unaffected way, using language that the youngest could understand, told the boys of the glories of Ireland and the noble heritage that was theirs. And the boys listened eagerly to such talks, drinking in with avidity the story of the gallant deeds done for Ireland.
Every Sunday marches-out were held and these were made the occasion of still further fostering a rebel spirit. To city boys in particular it appealed, and the Dublin Mountains was the goal of the Dublin boys every Sunday. Rations were brought and cooked, some of the boys developing great skill in the culinary art, while considerable ingenuity was shown in the way fires and cooking places were built and arrangements made for hanging pots over them.
Camping out was also attempted during this summer but with little success. Want of funds and want of experience were not exactly a combination conducive to success. Nevertheless, a few, headed by Con. Colbert, heroically suffered all the discomforts attendant on camping in the most primitive manner, believing that it was fitting them to fight the good fight later on. But whether tired on the march or cold at night in camp, scorched by the sun or drenched by the rain, the boys always sung and laughed and joked. And the songs they sang―not the vulgar suggestive inanities from the music halls, vile importations from England that were perhaps the best proof of how far Anglicization had eaten into the national life of Ireland―were the songs of resurgent Ireland, ballads that breathed patriotism, love of country, rebellion and defiance. Ah! those merry hearts that sung as they trod the paths to freedom. Some are stilled in death by the bullets of the tyrant, some are being seared with the anguish of the captive in the penal cell, some are in exile and others are still in the land they love, still hoping, still working, still believing.
APRIL 14, 1917.