The Imperial War Museum in London is one of my favourite museums to visit anywhere in the world, and I’ve been fortunate enough to pass through its doors on several occasions. Rather than being a jingoistic celebration of war and conflict – which such a museum could easily be – I’ve always found it does a great job in bringing the horrible realities of conflict home. There is an entire section of the museum given over to telling the story of the Holocaust through personal stories of those who suffered at the hands of fascist terror. It is the most moving exhibition of its kind I have ever encountered, and I’ve seen it reduce people to tears.
From India to the Boer War, and from the trenches of the Somme and to the Battle of Berlin, if an Englishman was there with a rifle you will find any conflict you care to learn more about represented in the museum through contemporary artefacts. On my first visit then, I wondered what mention events on the streets of Dublin at April 1916 would warrant.
In a small display cabinet, I stumbled upon republican propaganda from the revolutionary period, along with weaponry and a curious banner. Reading ‘Na Fianna Eireann’, and showing a sunburst background on green, this flag belonged to the republican boy scout organisation established in 1909 by Countess Markievicz, Bulmer Hobson and others. The flag will soon be on display in Dublin’s City Hall, on loan from London, but the question remains – how did it end up there in the first place?
In war, flags are captured. One of the most iconic images of the Easter Rising shows the ‘Irish Republic’ flag that flew over the GPO hanging upside down from the end of a rifle, as British forces pose under the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell. There is huge symbolic power in capturing the flags or other important symbols of your opponent – walk into any war museum from Hanoi to Edinburgh and this quickly becomes apparent. The ‘Irish Republic’ flag was returned to Dublin in the 1960s in a gesture of goodwill, and it is today in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, displayed at Collins Barracks.
Flags may be destroyed in the flames of war, or seized by an opponent during combat or after surrender. Yet, the flag that reads ‘Na Fianna Eireann’ was not captured on the streets of Dublin in 1916. Rather, it was taken after the insurrection from the home of Markievicz as a war trophy. Surrey House at Leinster Road in Rathmines was a well-known meeting places for Na Fianna. As Eamon Murphy (who maintains the excellent blog ‘Fianna Eireann History’) has noted:
It was at ‘Surrey House’ that the Countess built up a small ‘clique’ around her that consisted of her most loyal boys in the Fianna. Some of these had even taken to ‘moving in’. They took over part of the house and used it as a regular meeting place. Some of the older Fianna officers, particularly the IRB members, advised her not to encourage this new elite group and said it would bring unwanted attention to the organisation. However this did not deter the Countess and she used ‘Surrey House’ as a 2nd home for her close Fianna circle.
A brief history of Na Fianna:
Undoubtedly, the central figure behind the birth of the republican boyscouts was Bulmer Hobson. A northern Quaker, and later a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a member of the Supreme Council of the secret oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, he had operating a sporting and cultural club for young boys for a number of years previously under the title Na Fianna Eireann, but in 1909 he merged his efforts with Markievicz and others in Dublin. Bulmer Hobson was once regarded by British intelligence as “the most dangerous man in Ireland”, but his role in the revolutionary period has been largely overlooked until recent times.
The organisation listed its purpose at the time of its foundation as being “the training of the youth of Ireland, mentally and physically, to achieve this object by teaching scouting and military exercises, Irish history, and the Irish language.” It was implied from the beginning that while young, those within the organisation could have an important role to play, as “though one may be too young to be the possessor of that powerful weapon called a vote, nobody is too young to serve his country, and, if necessary, fight for his country.”