Na Fianna Éireann in the Irish Revolutionary Period 1909-1923

The following piece was submitted by a young rebel writer

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Na Fianna Éireann (The Warriors of Ireland) emerged as a Nationalist boy scout organisation in the early 20th Century. Its purpose was to be a Nationalist alternative to the British Baden-Powell scouts present in Ireland at the time. At this time, Ireland was undergoing a radical cultural revolution with interest in Irish history, the Irish language and Irish culture skyrocketing. This increase in nationalist feeling left a gap for a nationalist youth organisation to flourish. Na Fianna Éireann was to be that organisation. Subsequent organisation were formed such as Cumann na mBan (1914) and the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army in 1913.

Na Fianna Éireann was founded by Countess Markievicz and Bulmer Hobson on August 16th, 1909 at 43 Lower Camden Street, Dublin. The organisation was small and thus the most pressing task facing the new organisation was the recruitment of new members. Public meetings were held which focused on Irish partisan history in an effort to inculcate patriotism in those interested. Senior members,such as Con Colbert, visited schools which were seen to be sympathetic to Nationalism, such as Pádraig Pearse’s St.Enda’s. Na Fianna Éireann also recruited in Cork and in Waterford.Most members in Dublin came from the urban working class and some were involved with the ITGWU. The union even lent the boys its premises for meetings. Growth was slow but continuous and the organisation held its first Ard Fheis (annual congress) in 1910 where motions were passed and officers elected. One of those killed during the 1913 Lockout was a member of Na Fianna. In their early days, the Fianna frequently clashed with the Baden-Powell scouts and other unionist organisations. The Baden-Powell scouts carried the Union Jack and Fianna members would attempt to seize the flag, provoking scuffles.

1912 Fianna Convention

The organisation’s prime focus at this time was ostensily on education but in practice was the preperation for insurrection. The Fianna Handbook, printed in 1913, outlines the objective of the organisation as: ”The training of the youth of Ireland mentally and physically by teaching scouting and military exercises, Irish history and the Irish language.” Despite this supposed adherence to cultural education, a significant portion of the handbook is dedicated to rifle training and exercises. The organisation also had training in useful skills such as swimming and first aid which were not overtly militaristic in nature. These activities were in an effort to develop the Fianna physically and develop their soldierly qualities.

Camps were held regularly by Na Fianna Slua (branches). Their objective was to promote comraderie between the troops as well as to develop them physically. Members were encouraged to speak Irish as much as possible at these camps and history lessons as well as political discussion around the campfire were popular. Finding space for these camps proved difficult, with Countess Markievicz donating her land for camping activities. The early days of Na Fianna Éireann generally centred on these regular camps but marching and drilling practice as well as lectures and involvement in cultural activities were also prominent activities.

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The militaristic nature of Na Fianna naturally led to interest from revolutionary organisations such as the IRB. Indeed, prominent Fianna such as Liam Mellows and Seán Heuston were heavily involved with the IRB. Members were instructed to select trustworthy comrades in the Fianna and recruit them for the IRB. These members usually met in Na Fianna study circles which were given inoffensive cover-names. When the Irish Volunteers were founded in 1913, recruits also came from the Fianna. Applicants for the Irish Volunteers who were too young to enlist were pointed in the direction of the Fianna which helped with recruitment. Na Fianna Éireann played a significant role in the Howth Gun Running of 1914. Members loaded up weapons and ammunition for the Volunteers but also managed to secretly keep some for themselves and hid some rifles and ammunition in their homes. Members also signalled Erskine Childer’s boat, the Asgard, which brought over the weapons, into the harbour after it had gotten lost. When British forces murdered 3 people at Bachelors Walk later on that day, the Fianna were selected to provide the guard of honour at the funerals.

The organisation experienced a slight drop in membership after the outbreak of World War One. Some of the boys’ parents were caught up in the Unionist fervour that spread to some circles in Ireland and believed their sons’ activites to be unpatriotic. However, the Fianna did not suffer a split as the Irish Volunteers did and recovered quickly from this setback. Members were also involved in the anti-war movements at this time, putting up anti-recruitment posters and holding protests against British recruitment offices in Ireland.

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In early 1916, as Ireland was preparing for rebellion, so too were Na Fianna. On the 22nd February, a special Fianna Commando was formed to prepare for the upcoming insurrection. The Easter Rising began on the 24th April. Fianna members played a pivotal role with members carrying messaged between the various republican outposts and provided reconnaissance for the volunteers. Members also fought in the ranks of the Irish Volunteers, ICA and the Hibernian Rifles. In Cork City, Na Fianna members took up sentry positions outside city all armed with shotguns in preperation for a rising in the city. During the Rising, the Fianna fought with distinction. Fian Sean Heuston along with 30 other men, some of whom fellow Fianna, held at bay over 400 British soldiers at the Mendicity Institute. The military training of the Fianna proved to be invaluable to their service in the rebellion. A Fian by the name of Seán Healy was killed during the fighting, giving the organisation its first casualty.

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After the Rising, Fian Seán Heuston was executed along with 15 others. In a final tribute to his beloved Fianna, his last words were: ”Remember me to the boys of Na Fianna.” Na Fianna experienced a massive influx of recruits after the Rising and was the first republican organisation to re-organise in the years before the War of Independance. Na Fianna Éireann again proved to be an invaluable force in the years 1919-
1921. While some older members moved on to serve in other branches of the republican movement, the Fianna kept recruiting a new generation of boys and preparing them for revolutionary activity. Traning became increasingly militarised at this time and some scouting activities were scaled back in favour of rifle training. Members hid and transported weapons for IRA members and carried messages between IRA units. The Fianna suffered several casualties at the hands of the British forces during the war. Members were harassed and intimidated by the Black and Tans and Auxillaries and the boys’ parents would force them to leave the organisation.

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The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 shocked the Fianna. Unlike the IRA, the Fianna overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty. The Fianna’s Ard Fheis in 1922 expressed this opposition by a huge vote against acceptance of the Treaty. Fianna members carried out much the same roles during the Civil War as they did previously. They believed in their cause with the same youthful vigour and dedication as they always did. Two Fianna Members, Seán Cole and Alf Colley were murdered by Free State soldiers and their bodies dumped. Liam Mellows, a former Fian, was executed along with three others by the Free State – they are known in republican folklore as the Four Martyrs.

While imprisoned and awaiting execution, he wrote with affection about the Fianna, much like Sean Heuston did. This illustrates how the Fianna influenced and touched their lives. Despite this, Na Fianna Éireann has been overlooked and its contrbution to Irish history has been largely unacknowledged. Even so, it had a profound impact on Irish society. Perhaps Pádraig Pearse summed up the contribution of Na Fianna Éireann best when he said: ”If the Fianna had not been founded in 1909, the Volunteers of 1913 would never have arisen.”

Sunburst

Graham

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