Irish Volunteers launch their own newspaper
Photo: National Folklore Collection, UCD

Irish Volunteers launch their own newspaper

Read the first edition of 'The Irish Volunteer' and learn about its historical importance with Dr. Conor Mulvagh, UCD

On 7 February 1914, the Irish Volunteer movement launched its official newspaper, the eponymously titled The Irish Volunteer. A PDF version of first edition, courtesy of the National Folklore Collection at UCD, can be read in full by clicking on the image below.

What was The Irish Volunteer and what function did it serve?
The Irish Volunteer was a weekly newspaper primarily aimed at the membership of its namesake, an organisation which had been founded by Eoin MacNeill in November 1913.

A single, four-page paper called the Volunteer Gazette had been issued in December 1913, but this was never intended to be continued as a periodical. On 7 February, the first issue of The Irish Volunteer was in print. Along with providing news and political commentary, it had an important official function in disseminating official orders and announcements, especially to the provincial units.

Who was behind The Irish Volunteer?
William Sears, editor and one of the directors of the Enniscorthy Echo, first proposed the idea of publishing a newspaper for the Irish Volunteers in January 1914.  The Enniscorthy Echo was an advanced nationalist paper with Sinn Féin links going back to 1907/8. The provisional committee of the Volunteers accepted Sears’ offer, and a member of the Echo’s staff, Laurence de Lacy, was appointed editor of the new publication. All proofs of the paper were approved by the provisional committee of the Irish Volunteers - namely: Eoin MacNeill, L.J. Kettle, John Gore, and The O’Rahilly. In the Bureau of Military History, Bulmer Hobson identified Laurence de Lacy as having been a member of the IRB in this period. As such, de Lacy’s editorship of The Irish Volunteer constitutes a further element of the IRB’s infiltration of the Irish Volunteer movement.

What challenges did The Irish Volunteer face in its early history?
When the volunteers split in September 1914 over the question of participation in the war effort, The Irish Volunteer sided with Eoin MacNeill. The relative unpopularity of MacNeill’s faction and the emergence of a rival Redmondite publication, the National Volunteer, in October, were two key factors in the Enniscorthy Echo’s decision to cease publication of The Irish Volunteer in October 1914. Wartime censorship also played its part in reducing the profitability of the paper. Titles such as the Enniscorthy Echo and The Irish Volunteer were explicitly identified as ‘extreme’ newspapers in Royal Irish Constabulary police reports.

What happened to The Irish Volunteer after the split?
Following its first closure, The Irish Volunteer was revived in a renewed format in December 1914 with MacNeill identified on the masthead as editor of the paper. However,  Hobson later claimed that the majority of the routine work fell to him and that MacNeill’s editorship was largely titular and consisted of writing the ‘notes’ on the front page of the paper; that is, admittedly, an important aspect of the publication. The final issue of the paper appeared on 22 April 1916, the day before Easter 1916. Given the confusion that abounded in Ireland by that point, this issue of the paper is an extremely valuable and significant historical source.

What happened to The Irish Volunteer after the 1916 Rising?
After the Rising, The Irish Volunteer, the Enniscorthy Echo, and even the Redmondite National Volunteer ceased publication for a time. Laurence de Lacy, still involved with The Irish Volunteer, went on the run. To give a sense of the government clampdown, the majority of the Enniscorthy Echo’s staff were arrested and interned after the Rising. A successor paper to The Irish Volunteer, under the Irish version of the title - An t-Óglách - appeared in August 1918. However, this paper was even more firmly under the command of the Irish Republican Army than the Irish Volunteer had been under the control of the Volunteer executive between 1914 and 1916.

Was there propaganda in The Irish Volunteer and what form did it take?
The importance of history - as opposed to myth - in the pages of The Irish Volunteer is an important theme of the paper. Unlike the Anglo-Irish Literary Theatre’s enthusiasm for the legends of ancient Ireland, The Irish Volunteer reflects a strong interest in Ireland’s factual - albeit sometimes distorted - military past. Figures such as Brian Boru, Owen Roe O’Neill, and Henry Grattan’s Volunteers from 1782 were constantly brought into the columns of the paper as examples of laudable Irish military leaders who had led Irish armies on Irish soil in the historical past. Eoin MacNeill’s professional training as a historian points to his probable involvement in these articles, but many others picked up these ideas and wrote extensively on the various historical precedents for, and antecedents to, the Irish Volunteers.

What can this paper tell us about the cultural history of the Irish Volunteers?
Volunteer anthems and poems in praise of the movement were being written continuously and many were published in the early issues of the paper. The volume of this material is at times surprising for a paper which ostensibly existed to aid volunteer training and transmit messages to and from headquarters in Dublin. This shows the clear desire to use the paper for propagandising and boosting morale within the movement. However, after some time, a notice appeared on the front (notes) page of the paper urging volunteers to refrain from sending in songs and poems - much of it of questionable quality - as the paper’s staff were inundated each week with this kind of material.

How did advertisers capitalise on the emergence of this new paper?
Newspaper advertising in the Ireland of 1914 was highly competitive and innovative. There is a real sense of how lucrative the emergent volunteer movement was for Irish industries. Playing on a host of clever marketing strategies, advertisers flocked to The Irish Volunteer to cash in on the latest wave of nationalism. One regular advertisement within the columns advised readers ‘Don’t Hesitate To Shoot … Straight to Gleeson & Co., For Your Tailoring And Outfitting’. Another company’s advert simply read: ‘WANTED! 10,000 Volunteers to buy Loughlin’s Irish trade mark outfitting’. Clearly textile vendors and manufacturers were quick to cash in on the new market for uniforms. Equally, outdoor equipment, razor blades, footballs, other nationalist and military periodicals and books, and even eye-tests for aspiring marksmen, were products and services that sought to profit from paramilitarism.

Is there any evidence in the paper that the Irish Volunteers looked out to the wider world?
Within The Irish Volunteer there is much evidence of the extension of the movement outside of Ireland. Units were formed in the United States and in Britain, and their formation and progress can be charted through a reading of The Irish Volunteer. Additionally, articles within The Irish Volunteer occasionally took on a distinctly international outlook. In the first issue, Roger Casement made a call for Volunteers to participate as Irishmen in the Olympic Games which were planned for Berlin in 1916 - an event which never happened. Similarly, the paper contained several anonymous articles by Indians living in Ireland which outlined the colonial policies of Britain in India and made comparisons between Indian and Irish efforts to gain greater national freedoms.

In summary, how important was The Irish Volunteer in the context of its time?
By virtue of being a specialist newspaper targeted at members of a private paramilitary organisation, The Irish Volunteer, its offshoots and successors, are a rare and particularly important subset of Irish political newspapers from the revolutionary decade. The function of The Irish Volunteer was not merely news or propaganda, as was the case with other publications. Rather, it had a role in training the force and delivering messages and orders from headquarters to the battalions and companies nationwide.

As a mobilising force in keeping Eoin MacNeill’s volunteers united and active after the vast majority of the movement sided with John Redmond’s policy of supporting the war effort in September 1914, The Irish Volunteer played a leading role in preserving the movement that was the backbone of the rebellion in April 1916.

Dr Conor Mulvagh lectures in the School of History & Archives, University College Dublin

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