Donegal and 1916

Letterkenny historian Liam Ó Duibhir looks at the county and its people during the revolutionary events of 1916 1916 centenary

Donegal and 1916

Historian and historical author Liam Ó Duibhir from Letterkenny has written extensively on Irish republican history of the 20th century and the role of Donegal people in that story.

As part of the continuing commemoration of the centenary year of the 1916 Easter Rising, Liam has written for the Donegal Democrat/Donegal People’s Press of the remarkable events of 1916 and the part that Donegal and Donegal people played in them.

“Donegal and 1916” will be serialised in the Donegal People’s Press over the next six weeks.

Donegal and 1916

Rising leaders call on Donegal

At the turn of the 20th century, Ireland witnessed the changing tide of political thinking, a thinking that had moved away from the bread crumb pledges of Home Rule from successive British governments to the aspirations of the separatist political and military movements.

The period saw the Dungannon Clubs, Sinn Féin, Inghinidhe na hÉireann and later, the Irish Volunteers. Sinn Féin had the objective of advocating for dual monarchy whereas the Dungannon Clubs promoted an independent Irish Republic.

Strategically infiltrating and directing the separatist movements was the Irish Republican Brotherhood. whose sole objective was to end British rule in Ireland through physical force resistance. The dual monarchy notion as devised by Arthur Griffith and part of the original Sinn Féin policy was that an independent Irish parliament might make it possible for the unionists of the north eastern counties to give their allegiance to a parliament in Dublin.

The IRB members throughout the country, and particularly in County Donegal, endeavoured to instil, firstly in the separatist movements and in the communities, their primary objective of launching an uprising against the British establishment in Ireland.

The formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, in response to the earlier formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force as an armed unionist force to resist the introduction of Home Rule, would serve as the military force in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s (IRB) plan to strike against the British.

The IRB’s connection with County Donegal and ultimately Donegal’s connection with the 1916 Rising can be traced to the organising tour of Padraig Pearse in early 1914. Pearse had been a regular visitor to the county for various reasons and he also had relatives living in the Fanad area. His last visit was part of the IRB’s campaign to organise the Irish Volunteers. He was invited to the county by John E. Boyle and John Sweeney to address a meeting as part of his organising tour.

At Dungloe on 1st of February 1914, while referring to the British declaration issued against the importation of arms, he said: “As far as I am concerned this was only waste paper. It was illegal, but whether legal or not it could not prevent the Volunteers getting arms when Volunteers were sufficiently drilled and ready to use them. The British government dare not stop them and if the Tories who had been backing up Carson were in power, did anyone mean to say that in face of Unionist actions now they would dare to prevent Irishmen securing arms? If they did, what would the answer be? It would be such an answer as would become Irishmen’s to give. A splendid opportunity was given to Irishmen now to realise themselves as men, and they could not call themselves men if they were not able, if need be, to fight in defence of their manhood, in defence of their homes, their women and children, in defence of their rights … it was their right as it was their duty, to arms in defence of their country.

“True, there was only four million of a population, but no power on earth could prevent them arming …. It would be for them to see that no section of Irishmen was oppressed in North East Ulster. They did not want to proscribe Protestants or Unionist in Ireland. We claim freedom and we will accord it to everyone. If the freedom of any one section was threatened by whomever, it would be for the rest of Ireland to rise in the defence of that section.”

McDonagh in Ballyliffin

Thomas McDonagh, another member of the IRB Military Council and a member of the Irish Volunteer leaders, visited Donegal in April 1914 and addressed a meeting on Cruckaughrim Hill, Ballyliffin in Inishowen.

A large crowd travelled from Derry for the meeting and the people of Inishowen were there in their thousands. Speaking on the subject of the Volunteer Movement he said: “‘….it meant that they could no longer go untrained in the use of arms and unable to defend their own territories in the case of necessity. It meant that they must have in Ireland a party trained, disciplined and efficient, necessary to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland … For the past hundred years the Irish people had not been trained to the use of arms.

“For a long time they had been submitting their case to the Imperial Parliament, but they felt that for certain very grave reasons it was time that the Irish people should now be able to enforce their claims if necessary by the use of arms …..when certain things had passed – as they would – they would have a strong citizen army, which would be able to fight on all occasions, not for one party or another, not for one country or another but always for Ireland. It was likely that conscription might become necessary for the British Empire in a very short time. Thousands left Austria every year to avoid conscription.

“How many young men would leave Ireland? If any did it would be the worst sort of emigration, but this organisation would prevent both these things happening. The Irish people would be able henceforth to hold their country for Irishmen. By becoming Volunteers they would not be joining the British army in any shape. The Irish Volunteers would be the army of Ireland and would receive commands only from Irishmen.”

He was not talking politics, he was not saying what their ultimate national destiny would be – that would be for the people of Ireland to choose. He called on them to insist henceforth on the Irish question being: “What is best for Ireland and what amount of interference we shall allow in our affairs? …. the Volunteers believed that with this weapon in their hands they would be able to do their duty to their country in the best way.” He concluded by giving details as to the formation of companies, drill practice, etc.

After Thomas McDonagh and Padraig Pearse’s visit to the county, the Volunteer organisation began to proceed with more enthusiasm.