An Account Of The Manner In Which Young Boys Are Made Into Soldiers: Na Fianna Éireann and the Making of Irish Masculinity

by Aidan Beatty

In 1911, the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Irish Freedom newspaper featured an article on the training practices for young recruits used in the Japanese army. The methods used by the Japanese military, Irish Freedom claimed, offered Irish nationalists a useful “Cúntas ar an mhódh ‘na ndéantar saighdiúirí de na buachaillibh óga” [Account of the manner in which young boys are made into soldiers].[1] The article was intended as a commentary on the recently founded Na Fianna Éireann [The Warriors of Ireland]. This militia-style organisation for Irish boys was one of the most important Irish political groupings in the turbulent years around 1916, though they have received far less attention from historians than their adult contemporaries in the Volunteers or Cumann na mBan. Na Fianna Éireann, in their own attempt to turn boys into manly soldiers, displayed a number of anxieties about Irish identity, masculinity and national decline.


Na Fianna was founded in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz. Hobson had already formed an organisation under this name in Belfast in 1902. This earlier Fianna Éireann, dedicated to the promotion of sports and the Irish language, was intended as an alternative to the Catholic Boys’ Brigades that had become a recruiting facility for the British Army.[2] In August 1909, having decamped to Dublin, Hobson chaired a public meeting “to form a national boys’ organisation to be managed by the boys themselves on national non-party lines.” The second Fianna Éireann was the result of this. Shortly afterwards Hobson returned to Belfast and Constance Markievicz assumed responsibility for the organisation. In the years after 1916 its numbers rose to 30,000, the high tide of Fianna membership.[3]


The Fianna were clearly influenced by the British Boy Scouts movement, founded by Robert Baden-Powell in 1908. The Scouts drew on contemporary anxieties about the impact of modern urban lifestyles, something Baden-Powell sought to reverse through healthy and correctly masculine pastimes. Na Fianna Éireann was a product of similar societal fears, and indeed the Fianna, for all their anti-English rhetoric, regularly emulated the Scouts.


Liam Mellows, who graduated from the Fianna to the Volunteers, looked back in 1917 at the arrival of the Boy Scout movement in Ireland and suggested that had they succeeded, Baden-Powell’s organisation would have “completed the attempts made by England” with the help of traitorous “seonini” to make a “happy English child out of the Irish boy.” Thus, Mellows felt, “Some antidote was needed” if the future men of Ireland “were not to be swallowed up in the tide of Anglicisation engulfing the land.”[4] The antidote to the Scouts, of course, was the Fianna, even if the differences between the two were often negligible. The internal structure of the Fianna was remarkably similar to that of the “Baden Powell’s”, their uniforms were also similar and there is evidence that the Fianna competed with the Irish branch of the Scouts for potential recruits.[5]


The Scouts in Britain had emerged during a panic over supposedly inferior military recruits during the Boer War and they sought to promote restorative “good citizenship” among British boys; the full title of Baden Powell’s 1908 handbook was, appropriately enough, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship. The Fianna similarly sought to make clean-living citizens out of Irish boys, whilst also preparing them for future military activities. The 1914 Fianna Handbook urged each member to “make himself strong in mind as well as in body…. [to] think for himself and be self-reliant and strong.” Fianna members were, on the one hand, “pledged to re-establish a free Irish nation, and their first work must be to train themselves to be fit citizens of a free nation”, whilst also learning lessons “of self-sacrifice and service… to obey and to be self-controlled.” They were urged to be good citizens and to never act in such a way that they would bring Ireland into disrepute. More prosaically, a Fianna boy would take regular baths, would always present himself with “clothes brushed and boots polished.” He would not take alcoholic drinks and, “Wishing to grow up strong in body and mind” he “smokes seldom, if at all.”[6] On a basic level, this was not all that different from the ideas of Baden-Powell.


Notwithstanding their obvious similarities, however, the Fianna did markedly differ from the Boy Scouts in the manner in which their activities served to imagine a liberated postcolonial Ireland. Writing from the perspective of 1959, their former chief of staff, Eamon Martin, spoke of how the Fianna was founded at time “when pride of nationhood was at its lowest ebb in Ireland”. Thus, the “new-born resurgence” of the Fianna stood out even more against this pathetic background.[7] Patrick Pearse similarly feared that “centuries of oppression” had erased Ireland’s military spirit and that the country was on the verge of becoming “a land of contented slaves.” It was in this context that he positioned his call for Irish boys to acquire, via the Fianna, military training and habits of clean living, both of which would be palliatives to national decay.[8] When Constance Markievicz spoke of the Fianna as “an educational organisation”, she went on to elaborate that it was “an organisation that teaches and trains Irish boys to work for Irish independence.” Arguing that the preservation of “national independence and strength and unity” were universal concerns, and that generations of Irishmen had sacrificed themselves for national sovereignty, Markievicz concluded that “it is fitting that Irish boys should be trained to take their place in the national struggle for freedom.”[9]


Indeed, the Fianna Handbook’s talk of re-establishing Ireland as a “free nation” and the task of making Irish boys into “fit citizens for a free nation” points to some deeper concerns not only of Irish degeneration under British rule, but also of the need for individual bodily reform as a precursor for national sovereignty. A “self-reliant and strong” nation of free citizens was the clearly desired goal of this. Mellows had argued that the Fianna was the only organisation in the country producing “real live earnest Irish rebel boys” and in its early years he felt that “A splendid spirit of camaraderie pervaded the movement, which was rapidly becoming a boy’s community, the embryo of the Republic. It was remarkable what a few years had done in forming the character of the members. No longer were they mere boys. They felt men, if not in years, then in strength of purpose.” More overtly, an editorial in an early issue of the Fianna’s self-titled newspaper spoke of Irish youth as being “like a green-stick, you can bend without breaking it. That is why this paper exists, to assist the Fianna in educating and bending, as it were, Ireland’s youth in the right direction.”[10]

Na Fianna were always an avenue for social reform as much as it was a military organisation. Much like the Volunteers, the G.A.A., and even the Gaelic League, they displayed marked anxieties about national decay, about Ireland’s lack of formal political sovereignty and about the effects of British colonialism on Irish men’s virility. When Na Fianna spoke of making men out of boys, they were tapping into deep veins of meaning within nationalist culture and thought.


[1] ‘Saighdiúrí na hÉireann’ [Irish Soldiers]. Irish Freedom, November 1911.
[2] Marnie Hay. Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth-Century Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009) 28.
[3] Marnie Hay, ‘The Propaganda of Na Fianna Éireann, 1909-26.’ Mary Shine Thompson, ed., Young Irelands: Studies in Children’s Literature (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011) 49.
[4] NLI 1A 2302, Donnchadh O Seaghdha, ed. Liam Mellows. The Irish Boy Scouts: A History of Na Fianna Eireann, 1909-1916 – Reprinted from the Gaelic American (1917).
[5] NLI 5A 3521, Na Fianna Eireann Historical Documents No. 1: Sean Healy O/C/ Cork, 1916 – Transcript of an interview with Sean Healy of 24thAugust 1974 by Donnchadh O’Seaghdha.
[6] Fianna Handbook (Dublin: The Central Council of Fianna Eireann, 1924). This is a reprint of the 1913 handbook, with some minor changes made to reflect the post-Civil War political context.
[7] A message from former Chief of Staff Eamon Martin’. In NLI IR 300 P49, Cathal O’Shannon, ed. Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of Fianna Éireann, 16 August 1959.
[8] ‘To the Boys of Ireland.’ Irish Freedom, February 1914. In the original Irish Freedom article, no author is listed. In the 1959 Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of Fianna Éireann, however, the author is listed as Pearse, and the content is certainly consistent with his work.
[9] ‘Fianna Handbook’ (1924).
[10] ‘From the Editors’. Fianna [Warriors], Vol. 1, No.5, June 1915.

Link to original article:

Markievicz oration at second anniversary of murder of Fianna members Sean Cole and Alfred Colley

“Comrades in the Republican Army and friends, fellow Republicans, we meet here today to do honour to two young lads who gave their lives for Ireland two years ago.

Standing by their graves today, where the green grass and flowers hold up their heads, I thought of that sad day two short years ago when I stood by the side of their two poor mutilated bodies lying in the mortuary of the Mater Hospital, and when we followed them – just a few of us – followed their bodies up to this graveyard and heard the sods falling, one by one, like drops of lead, on the bright hopes, courageous hearts, and noble characters of these two young lads.

Somehow it seemed so tragic as we stood there and the same prayer rose to the lips of all, the prayer to worthily carry on – carry on what these boys had died to accomplish.

At this anniversary we who honour them, who love them, who knew them, renew that prayer to God in our hearts; and we will be given the courage to dare if we must dare, to stand by if we must stand by, and the courage to undergo death and torture even as Cole and Colley underwent it.

May we be worthy to be followers of these noble boys.  May their deaths rally this generation as Emmet’s death rallied the generations that followed him.

Today we look back over the two blackest years Irish history has ever known.  Men of our own Republican Army deserted us, were bought, tricked and cajoled by England, took up the British fight, and carried on the treacherous part at the bidding of England.  It is the noble deaths of lads like these that have cleansed Ireland from this sin and given us hope for the future.  The green grass and flowers that spring from their graves shows us how hope springs even from death, tells us that all duty, love and courage, spring from the graves of dead heroes.

Today, just two years after their deaths, we see a grand rally of young lads in Ireland who are carrying on their work in the Fianna.  The courage of many of them has been tried in jail; many went out in the flying columns taking their lives in their hands.

So today let us carry from these graves a message of hope to Ireland.  We will carry no bitterness for their murderers.  We of the Fianna still stand by the old chivalrous ideals of the Gael.  We will say, as our two martyrs would say, in the words of Christ, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The men who murdered these boys did not know what they did it for.  We pity them, we despise them – we abhor the qualities that made them do such a deed, but we must not on an occasion like this think of them bitterly.

The honouring of the two martyrs that lie here has today marked another turning point, and we of the Fianna stand pledged to go out and work and devote our lives to the full ratification of the Irish Republic.  That pledge we renew here today, and we in the names of the dead heroes and martyrs, pray God to give us strength to act as they did, and if needs be to fight as they did, and to die as they died, in defence of the Republic of Ireland.” – Madame Markievicz, Glasnevin Cemetery, 31st August 1924

Sinn Fein, 13 September, 1924

The perils of adolescent activism during the Irish Revolution

In this podcast Dr Marnie Hay provides an introduction to uniformed youth groups during the Irish Revolution and highlights some examples of the potentially perilous activities undertaken by adolescents during the years 1916-23 and the serious consequences these teenage activists faced.

historyhub.ie

‘The perils of adolescent activism during the Irish Revolution’, a podcast by Dr Marnie Hay, DCU School of History and Geography.

During the Irish Revolution, the nationalist activism of adolescents was often channelled through the conduit of uniformed youth groups such as Na Fianna Éireann, the Clan na Gael Girl Scouts and the Scout Corps of the Irish Citizen Army. In this podcast Marnie Hay provides an introduction to these youth groups and highlights some examples of the potentially perilous activities undertaken by adolescents during the years 1916-23 and the serious consequences these teenage activists faced.

Marnie Hay’s most recent book, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909-23: Scouting for Rebels (Manchester UP), is now available in paperback.

Barney Mellows Portrait by Jimmy Wren

In 2016, to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, renowned author and artist Jimmy Wren published a book to commemorate the participants of the Easter Rising from the Four Courts Area.

The unique book was a limited edition publication and, as far as I know, sold out shortly after its launch. It includes short biographies of all the known participants who took part in activities within the Four Courts area, including the Magazine Fort and Mendicity Institution. The biographies include details of known activities, occupation, political allegiance, membership of the GAA or Gaelic League

Jimmy, well known as an accomplished artist throughout Ireland, and Dublin in particular, included hand drawn illustrations for the majority of the entries in the book.

Quite a number of the listed participants in the remarkable book are members of Na Fianna Eireann, who bravely fought alongside their Irish Volunteer, Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and Hibernian Rifles comrades during Easter week 1916.

I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of the book after it was released, and even more fortunate to kindly receive from Jimmy a number of the original hand drawn illustrations of prominent Fianna participants.

The featured image here is of Herbert ‘Barney’ Mellows, who was a crucial player during the events of that week, where he took part in activities at the Magazine Fort, Phoenix Park and afterwards reported to Captain Frank Fahy of C Coy, 1st Bn, who occupied the Four Courts. Fahy appointed Mellows his aide-de-camp, with responsibilities for issuing supplies and ammunition.

At that time Mellows was an important part of Fianna hierarchy and sat on the Fianna ard-choisde (central council); he was also national Fianna director of finance.

After the surrender, Mellows was arrested and sent to Stafford Prison, England, and eventually on to Frongoch, Wales.

The Four Courts Garrison and Mendicity Institution Easter Week 1916 – A Biographical Dictionary by Jimmy Wren

Published in Ireland by Jimmy Wren Publishing

Copyright (c) 2016 Jimmy Wren

ISBN 978-1-5272-0447-8

The book was published in association with Dublin County Board GAA and the Dublin City Council Area Committee.

In addition to this valuable book, Jimmy also published a similar volume of work on the GPO Garrison. Jimmy’s father, James Wren was a member of the GPO Garrison during Easter Week 1916.

He also authored several other books on the history of Dublin and the GAA.

Sean Cole and Alfred Colley Commemoration 1924

Commemoration held at Yellow Lane, Whitehall, 31st August, 1924


“Boys of the Dublin Brigade [Fianna Eireann], this is the first time I have had the opportunity of seeing you and speaking to you since I came back [from internment], and perhaps no better time than this could have been chosen. It is a very sorrowful time, yet it is for us joyous.

We are commemorating to day the deaths of two boys. Most of us knew them. The Fianna knew them very well, and I think it would be well for everybody’s benefit that I should go back a little over the circumstances that led to these two boys’ deaths. In August, 1922, these two boys who had not been captured by the Free State army, were trying as best they could and with great success to keep the Dublin Brigade of the Fianna together. I am glad to see that there are many here to-day who served under them then.

Having with difficulty secured premises in which to carry on classes, these two young officers were, on Saturday evening two years ago, arrested on the North Strand when going to them, and their dead bodies soon rested here. We learned of their deaths through the morning paper; nobody knew anything more. Those two boys were the bravest and best you could get. They might, like others, have said, “There is money on, the other side, go there and get it,” but they put principle first. It is principle that is now going to save this country, and we expect the boys here to give us a hand in the work.

To the boys here I just mention those things so that they may be certain of the facts. We are too much inclined to forget such details, saying “They died for Ireland,” and leaving it at that.

When we joined the Fianna some years ago we were told we would have to fight for Ireland, and perhaps to die for it. I hope those here gathered around will take a lesson from these two boys who stuck to their guns and carried on with us in the Hammam Hotel [in July 1922].

The message that the Chief has given us was that we must carry on, and let us carry on and be in earnest about it until we secure freedom. Let us get the boys and girls working together. Many have died, many are still willing to die. Till we reach the goal of complete independence there will be no peace in Ireland. Get the boys now to study the literature of their country, their country’s history, to make themselves proficient in everything that boys should know.

That is all I have to say to you. Go back to your sluaighte, and get as many as you can to join, boys whom you know and whom you think will persevere to the end. I don’t wish to hold you here very much longer. When going by here again, come along this lane and look at the gateway and pray that the spirit of the boys who died will help you in the fight.”

Freedom Fight Reunion – 1916-21 Club

Former Fianna Eireann Chief of Staff, and President of the 1916-1921 Club, Eamon Martin at the annual 1916-1921 Club dinner in Clerys restaurant in Dublin, April 26th 1951.

Also included in the photograph is Eileen Martin (Eamon’s daughter), Senator Margaret Pearse and M. W. O’Reilly.

Newspaper caption reads:

Freedom Fight Reunion.

At the 1916-21 Annual Commemoration Dinner in Clerys Restaurant, Dublin last night. (Left to right) Miss Eileen Martin, Mr. Eamon Martin (President), Senator Margaret Pearse, and Mr. M. W. O’Reilly (Chairman).” – Irish Press, 27 April 1951.

Old Fianna Veteran’s Dinner

“At the National Association of Old Fianna Veterans dinner in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, the Chief Chef, Michael McManus, presents the badge and colours to former Chief of Staff, Mr. Eamon Martin and Mr. Frank Sherwin, T.D., National President Old Fianna.” – Irish Press, December 3rd 1962