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The Irish Volunteers (Óglaigh na hÉireann) were a paramilitary organization established by Irish Nationalists in 1913 "to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland", and to enforce the imminent Home Rule Act.
The Volunteers were formed in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force by Edward Carson and James Craig the same year. The Ulster Volunteers were founded by Protestant Unionists in the north in order to prevent enactment of Home Rule. It was seen that with armed men in Ulster threatening force to counter Home Rule, a similar force would be prudent to pressure Britain in the other direction. To this end Eoin MacNeill published an article The North Began, arguing for the necessity of such a force. His friend The O'Rahilly encouraged him to follow through with this idea, and on November 11, 1913, at Wynn's Hotel in Dublin, eleven prominent nationalists sat down to plan the formation of the Volunteers, among them were Patrick Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, and Sean MacDermott.
On November 25 the Volunteers had their first public meeting and call for enlistments at the Rotunda in Dublin. The turnout was beyond what anyone expected. The hall was filled to its 4,000 person capacity, with a further 3,000 spilling onto the grounds outside. Over the course of the following months the movement spread throughout the country with thousands more joining every week.
From its inception, the leadership of the Volunteers was heavily influenced by the radical Irish Republican Brotherhood (although MacNeill was not among them). This was the IRB's plan from the beginning, but it had a major drawback when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond demanded that the Volunteers accept his own personal appointments to the Provisional Committee, affectively placing the organization in his control. While the moderates didn't like the idea, they were prepared to go along with it in order to prevent the very popular Redmond from forming his own similar organization that would draw away most of their support. The IRB was completely opposed, as it would end their control of the Volunteers, but were unable to prevent the motion from being carried in Redmond's favor.
Arming the Volunteers
Shortly after the formation of the Volunteers, British Parliament banned the importation of weapons into Ireland. The Ulster Volunteers were able to get away with it nevertheless, and the Irish Volunteers realized they would have to as well if they were to be a serious force. Many commentators of the time found amusing the fact that "loyal" Ulstermen were arming themselves and threatening to defy the British government through force. Pearse famously replied that "the Orangeman with a gun is not as laughable as the nationalist without one." Thus O'Rahilly, Sir Roger Casement, and Bulmer Hobson worked together to coordinate a daylight gun running expedition to the port of Howth, just north of Dublin. The plan worked beautifully, and Erskine Childers brought nearly 1,000 rifles to the harbor and distributed them to the waiting Volunteers without interference from the authorities. As the Volunteers returned to Dublin, however, they were met by a large patrol of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the British Army. The Vounteers escaped largely unscathed, but when the army returned to Dublin they fired on a group of unarmed civilians who had been heckling them. This massacre caused enlistments in the Volunteers to soar.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 provoked a serious split in the organization. Redmond encouraged the Volunteers to join the British Army, an action vigorously opposed by the founding members. The majority supported the War and left to form the National Volunteers and fight in the British Army. The minority, retaining the name "Irish Volunteers" were led by MacNeill and called for Irish neutrality. The National Volunteers kept some 175,000 members, leaving the Irish Volunteers with a mere estimated 13,500. This split proved advantageous to the IRB, who were now back in control. The National Volunteers joined the British Army in large numbers, and ceased to play an active role in Irish politics.
Following the split, the remnants of the Irish Volunteers were often, and erroneously, referred to as the "Sinn Féin Volunteers", or "Shinners", after the political organization Sinn Féin. The term began as a derogatory one, but soon became ubiquitous among much of the Dublin citizenry. Although the two organizations had some overlapping memberships, there was no official connection between Sinn Féin and the Volunteers.
The Easter Rising
The official stance of the Irish Volunteers was that action would only be taken if the British authorities at Dublin Castle attempt to disarm the Volunteers, arrest their leaders, or introduce conscription to Ireland. The IRB, however, was determined to use the Volunteers for offensive action while Britain was tied up in the First World War. Their plan was to circumvent MacNeill's command, instigating a Rising, and hope to get MacNeill on board once the rising was a fait accompli. Pearse issued orders for three days of parades and manoeuvres, a thinly disguised order for a general insurrection. MacNeill soon discovered the real intent behind the orders and attempted to stop all actions by the Volunteers. He succeeded only in putting the Rising off for a day, and limiting it to about 1,000 active participants, virtually all within Dublin (The Irish Citizen Army supplied slightly over 200 more).
The Rising was a failure, and large numbers of the Irish Volunteers were arrested, even ones that did not participate in the Rising.
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