London-Ireland and the 1916 Rising
By Dr. Darragh Gannon
The ‘Sinn Féin’ rebellion has been both contemporary and historiographical misnomer. The events of Easter Week were mistranslated by the Dublin Castle authorities, attributing Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin with exclusive political legitimacy and legacy in its early aftermath. ‘We ourselves’, in effect, became the first historiographical interpretation of the 1916 Rising. Irish historiography, in the late aftermath, has been similarly inflected. Studies of the period have been situated within an interpretative framework which Enda Delaney has termed ‘our island story’. The genesis of the 1916 Rising, from Home Rule crisis to Home Front crisis, has been richly documented in early 20th century Ireland context. But what of paths to the General Post Office beyond this Irish-island experience? 87 Irish rebels travelled from British cities to take part in the 1916 Rising, 32 of them from London. This article attempts to reconceptualise pre-revolutionary Ireland by exploring nationalist movements from capital perspective. London was the political centre of the United Kingdom. How was Irish nationalism calibrated in Edwardian London? When were London-Irish nationalists radicalised? Why did men and women transition from London to Dublin activist?
The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was the predominant representation of Irish nationalism in London. John Redmond, John Dillon, Joseph Devlin, et al, circulated from seats at Westminster to seats at local Nationalist events. The United Irish League of Great Britain (UILGB) spanned the capital across 40 branches. Here IPP MPs ‘shared the benches’ with priests, local councillors and female activists, such as Sophie Bryant and Alice Stopford Green. Members were exhorted to subscribe to the Irish Parliamentary Fund; propagate the virtues of Home Rule; and vote Liberal in municipal and general elections. Indeed within the UILGB Home Rule was framed as both an Irish and a British Question. Lecture topics ranged from Irish republican principles to British democracy; speakers included former Fenians and Liberal sympathisers; while members were mobilised on issues from Irish land reform to British legislative reform. Mass Home Rule rallies at Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and Westminster Central Hall imported Irish politics at the heart of Union.
‘Sinn Féin’ existed as London-Irish counterculture to Home Rule establishment. Cumann na nGaedheal and Dungannon Club were established in 1903 and 1905 respectively. Hampstead homes offered alternative meeting places. A core of relentless activists manned their committees: Mark Ryan, Robert Lynd, George Gavan Duffy and P.S. O’Hegarty. Writing from Ireland, Bulmer Hobson was to remark: ‘You have a crowd there in London that would be invaluable here at the present time.’ Hobson, C.J. Dolan and Arthur Griffith would make successive visits, between November 1906 and September 1907, to formally launch Sinn Féin London. Lectures at its Central Branch were delivered, not on dual monarchy, but on Ireland’s economic potential - the beetroot industry, taxation, the labour market - to audiences of between 20 and 80. One regular attendee, Michael Collins, would subsequently invest in Sinn Féin’s proto-banking venture, the Industrial Cooperative Society. The failure of the Irish Council Bill in 1907 coincided with what has been termed the ‘first Sinn Féin rebellion’. London Sinn Féiners correspondingly staged a number of debates with IPP MPs on the scope and limitations of parliamentarianism. However, the abstentionist temper soon receded. So too did its leading lights; by 1913 P.S. O’Hegarty was returned to Ireland.
The London Gaelic League provided an ‘adjacent forum’ for Sinn Féin ideas across a longer gestation. Established in 1896, it ran weekly courses at St. Andrews Hall on Oxford Street and analogous programmes at seven metropolitan schools. Nights out à la Irish-Ireland were a medley of language classes, history lectures, dances and dramas. Learning off O’Growney and O’Donovan Rossa impressed upon London Leaguers a separate Irish identity. The ‘de-Anglicisation’ of immigrant minds was deemed particularly necessary. Did those practices of theirs send out certain men? Roy Foster has directed scholarly attention to the cultural conditioning of the ‘generation of 1916’: learning, playing, writing, fighting. London Gaelic League publications such as Inis Fáil and An t-Éireannach platformed individual views on the Irish Brigade, 1798 and the Manchester Martyrs. Radical journals crossing the Irish Sea proffered a currency and collectivity to that reading of history. Irish Volunteer Joe Good would later characterise the London Gaelic League ‘as being a purely cultural organisation, with no pretence whatsoever to the application of physical force…An Claidheamh Soluis [however] espoused physical force, and was a source of light to me’.
Physical force, of ‘muscular Christian’ tradition, further, was valorised in the Gaelic Athletic Association. In 1896 the London GAA County Board was established. Liam MacCarthy (1898-1907; 1909-11) and Sam Maguire (1911-15) respectively presided over the Association while simultaneously sponsoring prizes and refereeing matches. London football and hurling clubs competed against other British-based teams for the right to face the Home Final winners and determine All-Ireland champions. A 1901 hurling victory over Cork marked their sole success. The London GAA scene was decidedly amateurish. Clubs were forced to play on public spaces such as Clapham Common and Wormwood Scrubs. Meanwhile, organisers criticised association football and rugby style performances on the field, noticeably during the period of the 1908 Olympic Games. Gaelic games remained on the sidelines of immigrant associational culture as the sun set on the Edwardian summer.
Home Rule was finally introduced in the House of Commons on 11 April 1912. Dating the onset of the Home Rule crisis has proven more difficult: Parliament Act, Ulster Covenant, Ulster Volunteer Force, Irish Volunteer Force? James McConnel and Michael Wheatley have encouraged an analysis of contemporary ‘projections and predictions’ when assessing Ireland’s tipping point. To this subject, London-Ireland offers perspective. UILGB members discussed Irish self-government as imminent politics, debating on electoral systems, party divisions and constitutions. Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw, meanwhile, emphasised the ecumenism of Home Rule from public platforms. Ulster’s resistance was portrayed as period drama. Extra-parliamentary activity was ritual politics in Britain during the ‘Edwardian Crisis’. Nationalists in London paralleled Unionist protest with suffragist and trade unionist ‘performance’. The North had not yet begun. Events in Dublin, however, did mobilise opinion. Between October 1913 and January 1914 representatives of the GAA, Gaelic League and UILGB met, as the United Irish Societies, with the view to coordinating relief for those impacted by the Lockout. Some £200 would be sent to Dublin.
On 20 March 1914 British Army officers at the Curragh refused, in principle, to move against the Ulster Volunteer Force. Two days later the London Volunteers were established. At Highgate thirty men formed the capital’s first Volunteer company. Within weeks a full 200 had joined the ranks, commuting across the city for weekly drilling in north London. A commensurate Volunteer effort was begun in south London on 4 June. Members of the GAA, Gaelic League and UILGB joined individually. The Volunteer movement, however, was controlled by the IRB from the outset. Through its alleged 100 members, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) penetrated every Irish society in London. The GAA formed a ‘neo-Fenian’ nucleus: Michael Collins successively became Geraldine, Brother and Volunteer. His contemporaries viewed him as ‘a leading light’ and counted him among the ‘most extreme Irishmen in London’. By the summer of 1914 he had engineered arms shipments for Ireland and a position for himself on the London Volunteers Committee.
Irish Parliamentary Party attempts to ‘vampirise’ the Volunteer movement have been well documented. The ‘takeover - takeoff’ process, however, lacked visibility in London. Redmond’s call for Nationalist supervision of the Irish Volunteers was issued in the English edition of the Weekly Freeman but was not publicly adhered to in the capital. IPP MPs, previously so prominent on the London Home Rule circuit, were noticeably withdrawn during the campaign for volunteers. Maintaining the ‘respectability’ of the Home Rule project had been an important consideration post-Parnell Commission. However, the silence of Nationalist MPs also spoke to a metropolitan Redmondism of wide consensus. Exceptional speeches proved the rule. At a London Volunteer meeting on Westminster Bridge Road, West Clare MP Col. Arthur Lynch made an impassioned plea for recruitment. Evoking Thomas Francis Meagher’s ‘Sword speech’, Lynch proclaimed the virtues of volunteering to cheering crowds: ‘a vote and a gun is the right of every free man’. IPP or IRB, by August 1914 the London Volunteers could claim 5,000 members.
Volunteering in London was part military manoeuvre part leisurely pursuit. Drilling took place weekly at the German Gymnasium, King’s Cross, and the Leagh Bridge GAA grounds. Evenings were spent practicing bayonet attacks, attending lectures and enjoying social events. Companies led by pipers, meanwhile, paraded through Shepherd’s Bush and Wimbledon. The Daily Express articulated concerns over Volunteers exercising ‘within a mile of Downing Street’. Acquiring arms, however, remained a problem. Subscriptions to the Equipment Fund were slow, despite the fundraising efforts of the newly formed Cumann na mBan, and most Volunteers were forced to march with wooden rifles. More proficiently, former British Army instructors were approached to train recruits. Two veterans, Louis Noble and Sergeant Scanlon, agreed to drill the north and south London Volunteers respectively.
On 4 August 1914 Great Britain went to war with Germany. The Irish in Great Britain, as a community, went with it. John Redmond’s invocation at Woodenbridge was but one speech in the rush to ‘rhetorical sacrifice’ pervading the British metropole. By the spring of 1916, 150,000 immigrants were serving in the British Armed Forces. The majority of the London Volunteers were among them. By December 1914 only 200 Irish Volunteers remained, drilling in south London. One year later this number had fallen to 60. The possibility of conscription, less the possibility of a Rising, forced Volunteer emigration to Ireland. The Derby Scheme in late 1915 prepared public opinion for compulsory military service. The Irish Volunteers in London, conversely, heard little but ‘rumours’ about the impending rebellion. Both Patrick Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada visited the capital during this period but could offer no concrete information to the city’s IRB Supreme Council representative. On 27 January 1916 the Military Service Bill was introduced in the House of Commons. In that same month 32 Irish Volunteer and Cumann na mBan members, Michael Collins included, made their way from London to Joseph Plunkett’s Kimmage estate in Dublin. The ‘refugees’ would, ultimately, take part in the 1916 Rising as the Kimmage Garrison.
Dr. Darragh Gannon is currently Curatorial Researcher at the National Museum of Ireland