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.”
To some extent, Na Fianna Éireann was certainly a response to the rise of the Baden Powell boy scout movement, established in England a year before the Fianna. In fact, in their earliest days, Na Fianna used their guidebook as they lacked their own. The Baden Powell boys were raised on a diet of imperial doctrine, and educated about Britain’s military past, and one historian has noted that they “presented a curious assortment of boyish fun, practical advice, and rampant British imperialism.”
Joseph Lawless, who joined the Fianna as a youngster, remembered that the growth of Baden Powell’s scout movement in Britain was a terrifying prospect for Irish nationalists, as “the English element in Dublin sought to establish it here.” The Fianna and the Baden Powell’s would clash from time to time. A young Fianna activist from Kerry remembered that:
On the anniversary of the deaths of the Manchester Martyrs in November, 1914, we had a parade in the village. Our strength had increased to 22. During the parade a scuffle took place between ourselves and the Baden Powell Scouts who had just been dismissed after a parade. We got the best of the scrap and warned the Powell scouts not to appear in uniform again. From then they ceased to exist as a scout unit.
Another Fianna activist remembered that “ one recollection I have of my association with the Fianna was that on returning from a boy scouts camp at Barnaculla on the evening war was declared Sunday, August 4th, 1914, we encountered a parade of boy scouts carrying a British flag. We captured the flag from this parade and dragged it to Grafton Street.” One historian reflected in the 1950s that “Baden Powell could never have dreamt that his basic idea for boys would have been taken by others and moulded as an instrument to destroy, rather than maintain, imperial power.”
When the Fianna was born in 1909, it took up its headquarters on Camden Street, which Hobson later remembered was paid for by Markievicz, as nobody else had the money! He remembered that “on my explaining that the chief difficulty was one of money, she said that she would rent a hall at her own expense. This she did, the hail chosen being in 34 Lower Camden Street, Dublin, formerly the home of the Irish National Theatre Society.” The building, sadly destroyed in mysterious circumstances by a fire a few short years ago, was in many ways historically important. The Irish National Theatre Society went on to become the Abbey Theatre, and between that and the Fianna connection it was surely a building deserving of greater protection. About a hundred boys attended the first meeting of the Fianna at this address, including Con Colbert, later executed for his role in 1916. They were from a mix of social backgrounds and classes, with many coming from the nearby working class Coombe. From this first meeting emerged a transnational body. As Marnie Hay, a leading authority on the youth organisation, has noted:
During the first seven years of its existence, this nationalist youth organisation developed branches in at least nineteen Irish counties – mainly in the cities and larger towns of Leinster, Munster and Ulster – as well as in Glasgow and Liverpool.
Michael Lonergan remembered that most of the first boys were “adventurers from the Coombe and neighbourhood”, while Seán Prendergast remembered just how unusual Markievicz seemed to all of these young lads, some meeting her for the first time. “Madame was in our minds a truly strange lady. Some of us might think she was forward- even her smoking in our presence often shocked some who themselves thought no lady should smoke, at least not in public….Yet she was a truly unique, distinctive personality, full of energy, talented, brimming over with enthusiasm for the Fianna ideal.”
This wasn’t merely the stuff of toy soldiering. John Gibney, in his excellent biography of Fianna member Seán Heuston, notes that while innumerable bodies like Na Fianna were emerging across Europe at this time:
…the Fianna was ground-breaking in one key regard: it was the most openly militaristic nationalist organisation to emerge in Ireland for decades and its emphasis on drilling, fieldcraft and the use of weapons provided a grounding in such activities for members of the IRB and later, the Irish Volunteers.
If Markievicz seemed unusual and exotic to a bunch of lads from the Coombe, Bulmer Hobson certainly did too. Born into a Co. Down Quaker family, Hobson had been a member of an organisation called the ‘Protestant National Society’ that tried to turn northern Protestants onto the ideals of republicanism. He was one of the central figures in the reorganising of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the early twentieth century, bringing fresh blood and new life to the secret oath-bound body. Hobson later became quite embittered with republicanism – he had been one of those opposed to the tactic of rebellion in 1916, and spent the first few days of the Rising as a kidnapped prisoner of the IRB in a house in Cabra, who were fearful he would try and stop it from going ahead! His bitterness was probably best captured in his remarks about P.H Pearse, claiming that “he was a sentimental egotist, full of curious Old Testament theories about being the scapegoat for the people, and he became convinced of the necessity for a periodic blood sacrifice to keep the National spirit alive.”
The boys of Na Fianna wore a beautiful uniform, although it is important to say for many participants in the revolutionary years, uniforms were always a distant dream. They were simply too expensive for unskilled labourers or working class children. The ICA, Irish Volunteers and others all had distinctive uniforms. Felix O’Doherty, a young Fianna member, remembered that”the uniform consisted of a green hat, with thin strap, bound with very thin brown leather and turned up at the left side; green tunic shirt and dark blue shorts.” In addition to their uniform, the lads adopted a flag, in the form of the Sunburst, a flag that was wrapped up in Irish mythology and folklore, as ancient Fianna warriors had been said to refer to themselves as Gal Gréine, meaning the Sunburst, and a variation of which had first been used by the Fenians of the 1850s.
Some in the nationalist movement, and broader society, certainly mocked these boys, believing that either a) they were imitating the British boyscouts or b) they would grow out of it. Irish Freedom, the newspaper of the IRB, defended the boys and praised their spirit, noting that “The interest taken in the Fianna by young and old is gradually, if slowly, increasing as they increase in numbers. There are those who think the organisation of little importance because it is made up of boys”, but the paper noted that boys were every bit as willing to fight and even more physically capable in many cases.
Boys have an enthusiasm that adults sometimes lose to the stress of life, and as Joseph Lawless remembered “small boys are natural radicals, and the boys, given a uniform and some semblance of organisation, needed no encouragement to declare themselves openly as revolutionaries who looked forward to the day when they might strike a blow in another fight for freedom.”
As political developments occurred in the country between 1913-1914, Na Fianna were ever-present. In 1913, during the trade union dispute we now know as the Lockout, the boys tried to use the skills they had learned together to the benefit of the Dublin working class, administering first aid for example. One Fianna Officer, Patsy O’Connor, died as a result of injuries sustained by a DMP baton striking him over the head. 1913 of course witnessed the establishment of the workers’ militia the Irish Citizen Army, and evidently this movement looked to Na Fianna for inspiration. Markievicz was actively involved within both. The ICA established its own scouts, a lesser-known part of the history of the organisation. Matthew Connolly, a member of Na Fianna from a family steeped in trade unionism, remembered that he and his siblings joined the new ICA boy scouts at the insistence of their father, a committed trade unionist.
A serious moment for Na Fianna came in 1914, with the Howth Gun Running, where they played no small role in the landing of the imported arms. The gun-running plan was largely instigated by Roger Casement, who Bulmer Hobson claimed “on his own initiative went to London in the early part of 1914 and got together a few friends who between them advanced £1,500.” It was a very public response to ongoing events in Ireland as in April the UVF had succeeded in landing over 20,000 rifles at Larne, Donaghdee and Bangor. The Howth gun running was a propaganda spectacular, though the weapons were outdated even then, dating from the Franco-Prussian War. They became known as ‘Howth Rifles’. Bulmer Hobson remembered that the movement expected to be confronted at Howth, and that:
I anticipated vigorous police opposition and as a precautionary measure got some 200 oak batons about two feet long made, with which to arm the Volunteers. These were made at night by carpenter members of the I.R.B some time beforehand…I felt that it would be too serious a risk to allow rifles and ammunition to get into the hands of untrained Volunteers.
The batons were brought to Howth in a trek-cart by the Fianna, of whom there were some 200 under the command of Pádraig Ó Riain, and distributed to the Volunteers at Howth. The rifles, when landed, were distributed to the Volunteers, but the ammunition, except for some 2,000 rounds, was sent separately to Dublin. These 2,000 rounds were brought back in the trek-cart by the Fianna, who were at that stage the only body with sufficient discipline to be entrusted with ammunition.
Members of Na Fianna played very important roles in Easter Week, mobilising in good numbers. It was Fianna members who were given the task of signifying the rebellion had begun through the destruction of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. Eamon Martin remembered that “we arrived at the outside of the Fort, pretending to be a Football Team, and by passing the ball from one to the other got near enough to the outside sentry to rush and disarm him.”
The youngest rebel to die in the Rising, Seán Healy, came from the ranks of Na Fianna. Healy was born in Dublin, the son of Christopher and Helena Healy of 188 Phibsborough Road. He attended Saint Peter’s School, Phibsborough. His father was a plumber and Healy was employed as an apprentice, but his dad was also a member of the Hibernian Rifles, a small nationalist body affiliated to the devoutly Catholic Ancient Order of Hibernians, and this nationalist spirit shaped the young Seán. He had spent some three years in the Fianna by the time of the Rising. Healy left his home on the morning of 25 April and made his way to Jacob’s Factory on Bishop’s Street. He was given a message to carry to the Volunteers at Phibsborough Bridge. According to the Republican Soldiers’ Casualty Committee, Healy was wounded in the head by shellfire at Phibsborough Corner and died two days later. A member of the nursing staff in the Mater described his horrific wounds, noting that he arrived in the hospital with “his brain hanging all over his forehead.”
James Fox, Gerard Keogh, James Kelly, Sean Howard and Frederick Ryan were other Fianna boys who gave their lives at 1916, while the fifteen-year-old Charles D’Arcy of the Irish Citizen Army boyscouts was also killed in the fighting. Limerick man Con Colbert and Dubliner Seán Heuston were Fianna veterans who lost their lives, though as a result of execution. Heuston was involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the week, occupying the Mendicity Institute, commanding an important position along the river Liffey. It was hoped it could be held for a few hours, though his small band succeeded in holding it for days. One Fianna member, Joseph Reynolds, remembered bitterly that “Seán Houston and Con Colbert were murdered by the defender of Small Nations on the 8th May, 1916.”
Owing to youth, many Fianna activists had escaped arrest and internment after the Rising, leaving them in a better position than most to reorganise. Reynolds recalled that:
Immediately after the Insurrection in May, 1916, a meeting of all officers who had participated in the Rising and who were at liberty was held in An Chead Sluagh Hall, Camden Street. The meeting was called in order to set up a Committee to control the organisation in Dublin until the senior officers would be released.
Raiding the home of Madame Markievicz:
Markievicz spent Easter Week with the Irish Citizen Army, serving under Michael Mallin at Stephen’s Green and later in the Royal College of Surgeons. The ICA endured a number of fatalities in the Green, unsurprising given the open nature of the space and the fact British forces wasted little time in seizing the high ground afforded by the Shelbourne Hotel, the United Services Club and other businesses along the Green. Frank Robbins recalled the demoralised ICA leaving the College of Surgeons following their surrender:
At the head of the column was Commdt. Michael Mallin and Madame Markievicz who looked very picturesque in that strange and rare scene by the fact of her attire. She was dressed in an Irish Citizen Army tunic, a pair of riding breeches and puttees and a lady’s hat with an ostrich feather around the band, part of which showed slightly over the top. Hundreds of people from around the vicinity were standing about, some out of curiosity, a small number sympathetic towards us, but the vast majority openly hostile.
The British press were fixated on the story of Markievicz in the days and weeks that followed. That a woman from such a remarkably privileged background would fight in the ranks of the Citizen Army baffled the established. The Daily Mirror, not a voice of moderation at the best of times, was adamant that she had “lured rebels to their folly.”
That Surrey House was raided in the aftermath of the Rising isn’t surprising, indeed the authorities had raided it on many occasions in the past. In January 1916 her home was raided by the DMP who seized a printing press and “a number of leaflets of an anti-British character.” The Workers’ Republic newspaper noted that “no one was in the house except the servants and a few of the boys of the Fianna who make the place their headquarters. While the search was going on these boys and girls kindly entertained the police with songs, music and comforting remarks. Unfortunately, the G-Men have no ear for music, and hence they did not appreciate such choice items as ‘The Peeler and the Goat’ and ‘Watch on the Rhine’, the ‘Saxon’s on the Run’ and ‘A Nation Once Again.'”
While Markievicz was awaiting court-martial after the Rising, her home was raided by members of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. Among the items taken was the flag that would find its way into the Imperial War Museum, where it is noted the item has been “Lent by Her Majesty The Queen”. A part of the Royal Collection, the flag includes the legend “Glaine ár gcroí, Neart ár ngéag, Agus beart de réir ár mbriathar”. In English, this translates roughly to “The purity of our hearts, the strength of our limbs, our commitment to our vow”. Anne Marreco, a biographer of Markievicz, has written about the raid on Surrey House that:
The soldiers had not only searched it, but wrecked it. Furniture was broken, books, ornaments and pictures strewn everywhere. Someone had even taken the trouble to smash every single one of a collection of lantern slides. The garden had been dug in a search for arms.
This flag was not captured in battle. At the time it was taken, Markievicz was a prisoner, and her home was unguarded. The inclusion of Irish artifacts in the Imperial War Museum and museums like it is something to be welcomed – it provides a fuller picture of the time, and Ireland is not seen merely as a footnote of history. That this flag has been temporarily loaned to Dublin in 2016 is a positive step forward – but surely it deserves to stay?
This blog post would not have been possible without the Fianna Éireann History blog. It is a fitting tribute to a remarkable organisation.