‘Joseph Robinson and Fianna Eireann’ by Eamon Murphy
Joseph ‘Joe’ Robinson was born in Belfast in 1887. His grandfather, a Fenian, had been forced to leave Ireland in 1848, for France. Joseph’s father was subsequently born in France but after a number of years in exile the family eventually made their way back to Ireland and set up home in Belfast.
In 1902, at the age of fifteen, Joseph, and his younger brother Seamus, joined a newly founded youth organization called Na Fianna Eireann. This pioneering group was set up by a young Belfast Quaker called Bulmer Hobson. Hobson had felt that there was a scarce supply of Irish cultural and sporting activities for young nationalist men in Belfast. With the help of some like-minded friends, he set up Na Fianna Eireann, which was to have a focus on Irish sports, culture and language. The Robinson boys were among the first recruits to this new organization. There was great excitement among the new recruits and Hobson said that “here was something we could mold into a strong force to help in the liberation of Ireland”.
One of the success stories of the new Fianna organisation was its very own hurling league. Each local area in Belfast was to have its own separate club; the Robinson brothers subsequently joined ‘Oscars’ club. Joseph became the Fianna hurling league’s organizer shortly after it was set up and he later recalled that there were about “150-200 members in the league at the beginning”. Unfortunately the initial period of popularity didn’t seem to last that long and within a year or two the Belfast Fianna ceased to exist.
Despite this set back, Joe had by this stage, developed a ‘spirit of nationality’ and an appetite for Irish culture and heritage; and would shortly join the Gaelic league. Not long after this, however, Joseph’s family left Ireland for a new life in Glasgow, Scotland. Joseph joined them for a short period but was soon back home in Ireland.
A few years after Joseph returned to Ireland, another attempt was being made to set up a Fianna group. Bulmer Hobson, now living in Dublin, was assisted by Countess Markievicz in setting up a new Fianna Eireann organization. It was to be somewhat different to the previous model, with more of an emphasis on scouting, drilling, camping and so on. However the cultural and language aspects would remain a strong element. This new organization also had the independence of Ireland as one of its stated objectives.
Joseph, who had remained close friends with Hobson since the days of the original Fianna in Belfast, was asked to help with establishing the new organization. Joe was at the inaugural meeting of ‘An Cead Sluagh’ in Lower Camden Street on August 16th 1909 and was elected to the first committee as treasurer. He was also elected as vice-president at a later date. Without a doubt, the success of the Fianna in the early months of its existence was due in part to the dedication and commitment of Joe Robinson.
Shortly after the establishment of the Fianna, Joe was asked to go to Belfast (in 1910) to set up and organize new branches/sluaite. This he achieved with great success. He also briefly went to Dundalk to set up a branch there, and then Glasgow, where his family were still residing, to promote and organize new units of the Fianna. He then based himself in Scotland and was appointed O/C of the Glasgow Fianna, however he was still on the National Fianna Executive Council (or Ard Choiste) as Belfast representative, where he maintained close links, and was frequently back and forth between the Belfast and Glasgow branches. He also continued as National vice-president until 1913.
Joseph’s younger brother Seamus was also a member of the newly formed Glasgow Fianna; other prominent early members included Eamonn Mooney and Seamus Reader.
While in Scotland, Joe was one of those responsible for establishing the Irish Volunteers and was captain of the original company. When the split with the Redmondite faction came in 1914, three out of the four local companies went with Redmond however Robinson’s dedicated company sided with MacNeill’s Volunteers. He immediately set about re-organizing and recruiting for the Irish Volunteers.
He was back and forth between Ireland and Scotland on a regular basis now. On his visits he would attend senior Fianna and Volunteer meetings. He would usually stay at the Markievicz home; Surrey House in Rathmines. He was in Dublin for the Howth gunrunning in 1914 and was a key participant in that event.
Joe was also prominent in the Glasgow Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret Fenian organization, which his grandfather had once been a member. Joe had been a member of the IRB since 1911, when he joined in Ireland. He now used this experience in the local Glasgow IRB circle. He would subsequently become ‘centre’ of that circle.
Robinson’s importance for the independence movement really took off from this point; and under orders from Dublin, he began to train Volunteers for the upcoming rebellion. In Glasgow, Robinson, and his faithful band of Fianna and Volunteers, started to raid for arms, ammunition, and explosives from surrounding munition factories and local mines. He later said of these activities that his men were “engaged in the highly dangerous and important task of obtaining and shipping munitions and explosives to Ireland for the purpose of the Rising”. These were sent to Dublin, often via Belfast. Margaret Skinnider was one of those who took part in a raid on a local shipyard.
In January 1916 he received orders to send twenty eight of his best men to Kimmage in Dublin for further training for the approaching rebellion. He, himself, was due to leave for Dublin shortly afterwards but was, along with Seamus Reader arrested by local police, who were acting on a tip off from Dublin detectives. He was sent to Duke Street prison in Glasgow on a charge of “burglary of explosives, raiding admiralty works and importing arms from Germany”, which were all destined for Ireland. He was then transferred to Edinburgh Castle and following the Dublin ‘Rising’ at Easter, he was sent to Reading jail in England. He was never sentenced for his initial charge and was released on Christmas Eve 1916.
Following Joe’s release from prison he resumed his Fianna and Volunteer activities. He immediately began to re-organise the local units and was again appointed as O/C of the Irish Volunteers in Scotland. In early 1918 he was arrested again on a similar charge of raiding for munitions. He was sentenced this time to ten years penal servitude. He was not released until March 1922.
During Joe’s time in prison his younger brother Seamus was moving up the ranks of the IRA. Seamus had already proved himself in the 1916 Rising as O/C of the ‘Hopkins and Hopkins’ post in the city. In the re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers/IRA in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Seamus was involved with the Tipperary IRA. He subsequently became O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade. He was the organizer of the IRA unit, which included Sean Treacy, Dan Breen and Sean Hogan, which carried out the Soloheadbeg Ambush on 21st January 1919. It was regarded as the first major action of the ‘War of Independence’. In 1920 Seamus was elected TD for East Tipperary and Waterford. From 1921 to 1923 Seamus Robinson was O/C of the 2nd Southern Division of the IRA.
In April 1922, Joe Robinson, having recently been released from his ‘penal servitude’, was appointed by Cathal Brugha and Rory O’Connor, as Divisional Commander of the Scottish IRA, which now covered two Brigade areas, no.1 Glasgow and no. 2 Dundee. He was also appointed as political organizer for Scotland by Eamon de Valera.
He was arrested by the Scottish authorities in early 1923 and deported to Ireland, where he spent eleven weeks in Mountjoy.
Following the Irish Civil War, he gave up all his revolutionary activities and settled in Ireland. He married and became a painter and decorator in Bray, Co. Wicklow. He died on 14th May, 1955 at the age of 68.
Joe Robinson was one of the pioneers of the Irish Independence movement; Bulmer Hobson later said that Joe was probably one of the most “active workers in the national movement since 1902”; in fact you could say his distinguishing and lengthy involvement was almost unique for that period. He was there right from the beginning and he was, apart from Bulmer Hobson, the only link between the original 1902 Na Fianna and the later 1909 version. He went on to play a vital and significant role in the growth of the Fianna organisation, in both Ireland and Scotland. He was particularly useful in his capacity as an Irish Volunteer organizer in Scotland; in providing valuable well trained men for the preparation of, and taking part in, the Easter Rising. He set the wheels in motion for so much of the revolutionary movement and he was an inspiration to so many of our revolutionaries in the 1909-23 period; people such as Con Colbert, Michael Lonergan, Countess Markievicz, Eamon Martin, Seamus Reader and above all, his brother Seamus, who worshipped him and always dedicated his achievements and later success to his big brother ‘Joe’.
May we never forget our Fianna and Irish patriot Joseph Robinson.
Photo and article by Eamon Murphy