A CELTIC TWILIGHT – THE STORY OF NA FIANNA EIREANN

BY HUGH (HUGO) MACNEILL (1900-1963)

Na Fianna Eireann has been described as the ‘Senior Corps of the Old Army. To many readers that will not convey much. We have got to ask ourselves just what was this Fianna Éireann?

It was a Boy Scout organisation, but a Boy Scout organisation with a difference. In the first place it was the first open Irish military organisation in this century. For its strength it probably did more than any other organisation to make the Ireland of today and the army of today possible. That sounds like a tall story but a check back on the facts recorded in this article will, it is believed, prove it. Only facts, not fancies, are recorded.

It is necessary at the beginning that we get a true picture of the Ireland which saw the birth of the Fianna. It is very difficult for young soldiers, who were not born at the time to visualise the Ireland of 1909, the year in which the Fianna was formed. To begin with one lived in what was almost a British province, almost as alien in rule and to some extent in outlook as Lancashire or Yorkshire. There was, of course, no Irish government of any type. A foreign Viceroy ruled in the Phoenix Park, foreign officials governed from Dublin Castle, foreign soldiers occupied our garrisons, foreign controlled police patrolled our towns and villages. Our education, our money, everything of outward significance was foreign. That was just thirty five short years ago.

It is true that our people had never tamely accepted this foreign domination. They had struggled and protested and fought against it for a week of centuries. But there was not much fight left in them in the early part of this century or at least there did not seem to be. In the preceding hundred years no less than four attempts at armed revolt had gone down in disaster. The United Irishmen failed in 1798, Robert Emmet in 1803, the Young Irelanders in 1848, the Fenians in 1867. Ireland seemed tired and weary of fighting.

The people had turned instead to what were known as constitutional methods. The Irish Party, under the leadership of Mr John Redmond were by argument and persuasion, mainly in the British House of Commons, trying to win a limited amount of local government known as Home Rule.

The real national movements were mainly of a cultural, industrial, or sporting nature. Arthur Griffith was preaching his policy of Sinn Fein, but he and his handful of followers were looked on as insignificant cranks. The Gaelic League were struggling to revive interest in Irish, but few listened to them. The Irish Theatre (now the world-famous Abbey) were trying to get people to come to Irish plays, but few went. There was an attempt to revive Irish industry, but few bought home goods. The Gaelic Athletic Association was trying to develop hurling and Gaelic football, but it was a mere shadow of the powerful nationwide organisation we know today. It was not a very thrilling or inspiring country to live in, this island of 1909. It was, in fact a pretty good example of ‘The Celtic Twilight’, the poets used to sing of in another connection.

Birth of the Fianna

Then a little group of people hit on a new idea. They felt that their generation was worn out, nationally at least, and that all hope lay in the future. They realised that Ireland’s greatest trouble in all her struggles lay in her lack of trained leaders. They decided to train the boys of that generation as the leaders of the future. It seemed a mad dream then, but it was dream which was to come true within a few short years.

Who were these far-seeing patriots? Many of their names have since gone down to fame. Padraig Pearse for example, later leader of the Volunteers in 1916, teacher not alone of the boys of Ireland, but of their nation. Roger Casement who was to die seven years later on an English scaffold. Liam Mellows, who was later to die too, but in the tragedy of Civil War.

But strange to say the real inspiration behind the new movement was not a man at all, it was a woman. This was Constance, Countess de Markievicz, Madam’ as she was known and loved by thousands of Fianna boys. It was in her keen brain the idea was conceived, it was she translated the dream into reality. For eleven of the twelve years of its heyday, she led the Flanna as ard fheinnidh or chief scout. In 1918 the position was held by a young Volunteer officer, one Eamon de Valera.

Madam’s name must rank among the great daughters of our race. Born in County Sligo she was a member of the aristocratic Anglo-Irish family of Gore-Booth. Her early upbringing was, of necessity, anti-Irish or at least anti-national. In her youth she was one of the most beautiful girls in society, the belle of the British courts in Dublin and London, the toast of the British garrison Such was her background.

But as she often told her Feinnidhe she never felt happy in it The luxury of her father’s mansion meant less to her than the honest welcome of a countryman’s cabin. Her real childhood friends were the children of the hardy fishermen and farm labourers of the Sligo coast Later on she grew interested in Irish painting and drama, regarded as quite respectable hobbies for a young lady of fashion. It was in these circles she met her husband, Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz, a Pole, and an aristocrat like herself. Living in the fashionable Dublin of those days, she did not forget her poor friends in the west coast. So in addition to her artistic leanings it was natural she should take an interest in the lives of their opposite numbers in the slums of Dublin.

And along this path walked the beautiful young aristocrat to become the pioneer of a National Boys Movement – essentially a movement for poor boys. From this it was short step to the fires of Easter Week, the chill of a prison cell, and her great share in the proud challenge of a resurgent nation in the years that followed.

The Fenian Traditions

The decision, once made, to form the new body constitution was quickly published. The object was stated bluntly to be the re-establishment of the Independence of Ireland’. The means of achieving this were set as the training of the youth of Ireland, mentally and physically, by teaching them scouting and military exercises, Irish history and the Irish language. The real motive as stated was to get the boys of Ireland in their extreme youth and train them as patriot soldiers and prospective leaders of the next generation. The Fianna was, in effect, a cadet corps for a future revolutionary army. When the Flanna was formed that army did not exist. It was to come into existence far sooner than anyone then hoped. And the Flanna was to take its rightful place in its ranks.

The named Fianna Eireann was in itself a happy choice. It was the third great comradeship to bear the honoured name. There was the first Flanna, the Fianna of the second century, Ireland’s original regular army. Not alone a well-trained well disciplined army, but one of the world’s great orders of knighthood. No wonder that admission to the Fianna was regarded as the highest honour in ancient Ireland, that expulsion from its ranks was the greatest disgrace.

But the first Fianna passed away and Ireland entered upon her long period of suffering. The foreigner came in and stayed in. Generation after generation rose in arms in heroic but vain efforts to regain their country’s freedom. History tells how they fought and failed, and in failing handed on the torch of liberty to their sons, right down to our own times.

Then in the middle of the last century the honoured name of Fianna Eireann was resurrected. A handful of young men decided to strike again, to strike with a secret army this time. And they gave their new army the name of the Fenian Brotherhood to show that their movement was based on the age-old ideals of patriotism and valour and comradeship of the ancient Fianna.

Like so many other great movements this too failed, but as often happened before, proved more glorious in defeat than in victory Beaten in the field, thousands of the Fenians were flung into prisons or transported overseas. Many died in their living tombs, many others broke down in body and mind, but those who survived suffered proudly on. And outside, their remaining comrades proved their right to the proud name of the Fianna.

Facing the might of an empire they snatched their suffering comrades out of the prison van in the English city and died on the scaffold with the proud prayer God Save Ireland on their lips. They blew down the walls and burst open gates of English jails in daring efforts to free their fellow soldiers. They sailed across the world and carried their brother Fenians out of Australian convict settlements under the very guns of the guarding warships.

The world had sneered at these Fenians in defeat, now it thrilled to the daring of their exploits and these were the traditions handed down to the boys of the third Fianna back in 1909 when ‘Madam’ and her colleagues chose that ancient name for their young organisation.

Pádraig Pearse himself summed it up in these words:

The Fianna of today are the third heroic comradeship that has borne that name. The first Fianna, the Fianna of Fionn, have been dead for nearly 2,000 years. A few old grey-haired men, the veterans of the second Fianna, are with us still. The lads of the third Fianna, the familiar green-shirted, bare-kneed young soldiers who have prepared the way for our Irish Volunteers inherit the gallant name and tradition of the ancient Fianna and the mighty purpose of the modem Fenians. Were ever boys heirs to such a great inheritance?

Early Days of the Fianna

And it was in this spirit that the boy soldiers of the third Fianna settled down to work. What did this work consist of? In its own youthful way it was as extensive as the training of the modern soldier. The boys learned foot drill, arms drill, scouting, signalling, first aid, fieldcraft, campcraft and a host of other fascinating subjects for impressionable young warriors of twelve to twenty-four.

Mental training was stressed at least as hard as purely military training. The boys were taught to stand up for right at all costs, that lying was not alone dishonourable but downright stupid, that they were to be clean in body and mind, that they should be courteous to women and children, the old and infirm. The movement was strictly non-sectarian but the Fheinnidhe were taught to be reverent and faithful to their religion, to respect the convictions of others, but never to deny their own. It all sounds nearly priggish now, but there was nothing priggish about it to these boy soldiers.

The strong national background to all training probably helped in this. For the first time in their lives the boys really learned Irish history, real living history, not a dry collection of dates and names. To their amazement they found they belonged to an ancient nation with a culture and tradition of its own. They revelled in the stories and songs of the old Gaelic warriors, and in the great deeds of later days. These they never heard of in the schools of those days and so they were trained for their tasks in the Ireland of the future.

Judged by modern standards the training facilities were laughable. An old barn, the use once a week of a Gaelic League or parish hall, a back room in someone’s house, a shed in a yard, even a cellar in a tenement. Such were the ‘barracks’ of a Fianna unit. But youthful enthusiasm laughed at such handicaps.

Saturdays and Sundays the open country was their training ground if the weather was anyway possible. And in the summer the joys of the weekend or longer camps. Camp gear was as up-to-date as everything else. Battered old sewed bell tents, an odd homemade affair of the ‘bivvy’ variety, a bit of tarpaulin against a hedge. But it taught them to take care of themselves.

Organisation was equally simple. The smallest unit was the squad of about six boys commanded by a veteran of fourteen to sixteen, two squads made a section, two or more squads a troop or sluagh under a lieutenant or captain, generally a grey-beard of eighteen to twenty summers. In large centres the various sluaithe in an area were administered by a district council, and the entire movement was governed by a central council sitting in Dublin under the chairmanship of the chief scout. Later on companies and battalions and even brigades were formed, but in the beginning the Fianna was organised on the simple lines set out, and very well it worked.

Many an old soldier of today first learned what it meant to take pride in his uniform as an awkward Fianna boy. Quite a snappy outfit it was. A green double-breasted shirt with brass buttons, and the usual scout hat, also in green, fastened up on the right side. This was supposed to help them to shoot, rather an ironical touch in a force that first carried out arms drill with hurleys. But the guns too came along in time.

Like the modern army, the Fianna had its colours and its specialist and rank badges. Its flag was appropriately based on the old battle standard of the ancient Fianna – a gold sunburst on a blue ground. There were three classes of Fheinnidhe, each of which wore its own distinctive insignia in the shape of coloured whistle cords on the left shoulder. For example a 3rd class Fheinnidhe wore a green cord, 2nd class a white cord, and 1st class a green white and orange plaited cord. This was probably the first occasion the tricolour was used since Thomas Francis Meagher introduced it in 1848.

Rank badges were equally simple. A squad leader bore saffron epaulettes, a section leader red, a lieutenant blue and a captain blue with a white bar. In those early days Captain was the highest rank.

The Fianna had also its own motto, the proud centuries old slogan of the ancient Fianna: “With truth on our strength in out arms, and purity in our hearts we come safe out of every danger.” It sounds a bit high-flown in these cynical times, but it was taken very seriously in those brave young days.

Such was the Fianna in those early years from 1909 to 1913. There was no question of the new movement sweeping the country like the proverbial prairie fire, but it did make steady progress. Starting in the cities, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, the green-shirted young soldiers slowly but surely became a familiar sight throughout the country. But no one took the movement very seriously except possibly the boys themselves and their leaders.

Foundation of the Volunteers

Then things began to happen. It looked as if the long promised Home Rule Act was to pass the British House of Commons. The Ulster Orangemen began a strong agitation against it. They were supported by an influential element among British politicians, were lavishly financed, and had the active sympathy of a section at least of the British army. They planned to set up an Ulster Provisional Government and oppose Home Rule by force of arms. With this end in view the Ulster Volunteer Force was organised.

The nationalists all over Ireland promptly replied in kind, and in 1913 the Irish Volunteers were formed. Unlike the Fianna initially, the new force did literally sweep the country like a prairie fire. And now the wisdom of the founders of the Fianna was proved.

The main problem confronting the new Volunteer army was the provision of officers and instructors. A number of ex-British soldiers did come forward and did Trojan work. But naturally the bulk of such people would not look favourably upon such a movement. This applied particularly to the ex-officer class. But another source was available. By 1913 the early Fianna recruits had reached military age. Whenever a Fianna sluagh existed these older lads were transferred to the Volunteers as instructors, and many of them became officers. Three members of the Fianna central council were appointed to the Volunteer Executive. One of these was Liam Mellows, another Seán Heuston who was to die two years later before a British firing squad. The Fianna had met its first big test, the job for which it was formed, and was not found wanting. When the need arose it was ready and stepped into the gap. If this was its solitary achievement the Boy army had fully justified itself. But its record of service to Ireland was in reality only beginning.

The Howth gun-running

The Fianna closed up its ranks and went on with its work of training more soldiers for the future. The older boys stepped into the place of their comrades who had passed over to the Volunteers and carried on.

The Fianna very soon came into the limelight again. In July 1914, a big cargo of rifles and ammunition was run into Howth, County Dublin, on the late Erskine Childers’ yacht. The Dublin Brigade, Irish Volunteers marched out to received the arms. A picked Fianna detachment accompanied the Volunteers with a trek cart, a sort of oversize machine gun ‘pram’. They had the special task of transporting the ammunition.

The cargo collected, the march back to Dublin commenced. At Clontarf a couple of companies of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and some hundred police barred the way. The British officer in charge demanded the rifles, the Volunteers of course refused. An attempt to seize them was beaten off with rifle butts. The Volunteers clamoured for ammunition and some officers and issued strict orders that no ammunition was to be issued. The men were far too raw to tackle regular troops at this time. It is doubtful if many of them could even have loaded their rifles if they had ammunition.

The Fianna stood firm. Armed with heavy batons they refused to weaken. Not a round of ammunition was issued. Eventually the Volunteers slipped off across country with their riffles, and the precious ammunition was transported to safety by motor. If these lads had wavered for a moment the ball ammunition had got into the hands of the then half-disciplined and semi-trained Volunteers, the results would have been disaster. The bloodless victory of Clontarf would have been turned into a bloody massacre. It would almost certainly have meant the end of that great Volunteer force which was later to win independence for the greater part of our country. Again the Fianna had made good.

The Fianna in Easter Week

Events now moved rapidly. A few days after the gun-running the First World War broke out. In the clash of millions of armed men abroad, the troubles of Ireland were forgotten by the world for the time being. The long promised Home Rule Bill was shelved ‘for the duration’ for ever, as it turned out. Appeals were issued to young Irishmen to go off to fight for the freedom of small nations’. Thousands of Volunteers answered this call.

But those left behind closed up the ranks, they held their job was to win freedom for their own small nation. For two years more preparations continued apace, and the Fianna kept on transferring its older boys to the Volunteers and filling the gaps with their younger brothers.

History records how the Volunteers struck on Easter Monday, 1916, and proclaimed the Republic. The Fianna’s part in this great protest in arms was in keeping with its ideals and traditions. Every Republican post had its detachment of Fianna boys. They acted as scouts, orderlies, runners and despatch riders. Two of them were killed in action trying to get their despatches through – Seán Howard and Joe Healy. Two Fianna officers were shot by sentence of British courtmartial after the Rising, Captain Seán Heuston and Captain Con Colbert. Commandant Liam Mellows commanded the Volunteers in Galway and escaped to America after the Rising. The chief of the Fianna, Countess Markievicz, was second in command in the Stephen’s Green area and was sentenced to imprisonment for life. One of the more spectacular tasks of the entire Rising was carried out by the Fianna. A special detachment of them, under Captain (later Major General) Pádraig Ó Dálaigh, had the honour to be detailed to capture and destroy the magazine fort. They gained admission to the fort by a ruse, rushed and disarmed the guard, set fire to the ammunition stores, and retreated successfully and joined the Four Courts garrison.

The Fianna had faced its second great test, and once again it was not found wanting.

After the Rising

At the time the Easter Rising was regarded as a crushing military defeat. The great Volunteer organisation, built up so patiently, was apparently destroyed. Its leaders were dead or in prison, the bulk of its rank and file in internment camps. Perhaps it was due to their training that the Fianna seemed to be the first to recover from the stupor of despair for that is really what it was. It is a matter of historical fact that within one month of the collapsed Rising, all available Fianna officers who were alive or at liberty met in Dublin to consider the situation.

It was a black look-out. It seemed as if another generation had failed. So it was calmly decided to start all over again, to go back to the original object of the Fianna, to train the boys of Ireland to receive the fight in the next generation. But events moved quicker than that. By 1917 the Volunteers as well as the Fianna were re-organised, by 1918 the entire revolutionary movement – political as well as military – was stronger than ever. A resurgent nation was on the march.

Then arose another crisis, with a special interest for the Fianna, the conscription menace. In 1918 the British government decided to extend the conscription of Ireland. The result was amazing. In tens of thousands the young men of the country flocked into the Volunteers, clamouring to be trained to meet this new threat. Companies grew to battalions overnight, battalions to brigades. Again the call went out for instructors and again the Fianna stepped into the gap. Not alone officers and older lads, but any urchin with training, and these boys stood no nonsense, they knew their jobs and they did it. The threat to impose conscription was dropped, and Volunteers and Fianna settled down again to prepare for the next round’.

It was not long coming. In 1918 the Sinn Féin or Republican Party was returned to power by an overwhelming majority. It set up the Dáil in Dublin and established a Republican government. This government took over the Volunteers as the Irish Republican Army, and the Fianna became a recognised corps of this army, its official training corps. It did not mean much change for the Fianna but it did give it official recognition and financial backing.

The Resumption of Hostilities

In due course the Dáil was proclaimed, fruitless efforts were made to suppress it and all its institutions, including, of course, the IRA. The army was ordered to hit back, active fighting opened in 1919 and reached its peak in 1920-21.

In hundreds the Fianna kept pouring trained recruits into the ranks of the Volunteers. It also carried out much of the scouting and intelligence and communications work. The Republican communication service composed of whole-time despatch riders – the forerunner of the modern signal corps – was recruited almost exclusively from the Fianna. In some areas special Fianna active service units composed of Officers, NCOs were formed, in others the older Fheinnidhe fought with Volunteer columns.

In this manner the Fianna, in addition to providing the Volunteers with their trained recruits and carrying out all sorts of special duties, took more than their share in the active fighting. Many of them made the supreme sacrifice, in action, on the scaffold, before the firing squads. Many others were captured and thrown into prison or internment camps. But like their elder brothers in the Volunteers, they never faltered until the end came.

The Truce and After

And it came at last in 1921. In July that year a truce or armistice was agreed upon between the Irish and British armies. In the following December a treaty of peace was signed, which excluded temporarily it was hoped – six counties of Ulster. It looked at last as if the long struggle was over, that peace with honour had come to Ireland for few thought that partition could last for more than a year or so.

But it was not to be. The government and the Dáil disagreed on the peace terms, the split spread to the Republican army, and almost before anyone could realise what had happened Ireland was plunged into war again, into the horror of Civil War this time.

The Fianna suffered like all other organisations. Many of its officers and boys in disgust remained neutral, others joined the new regular army, others again the Republican forces. History was repeating itself with a vengeance. The ancient Fianna of Fionn MacCumhaill went down to disaster in the welter of civil strife. And in the bitter years of 1922-23 there died another great heroic comradeship.

So ends the story of the third Fianna. It is hoped that it will help the readers to realise what this corps of boy soldiers did to make Ireland of today possible. In this way it may serve as a small tribute to old comrades, living or dead, with whom so many of us first learned our soldiering.

by Hugh/Hugo McNeill (Aodh Mac Neill)

The article appeared in An Cosantoir in 1940.

The author Hugh MacNeill, a nephew of Eoin MacNeill, was a member of Na Fianna Eireann from 1913 until circa 1921. He was Captain (O/C) of the Ranelagh/Rathmines Fianna Sluagh following the Easter Rising, and later went on to become Battalion Adjutant of the newly formed South Dublin 1st Battalion in June 1917. He took part in the clash with the R.I.C. in Rathfarnham in 1918 and was subsequently arrested. He was incarcerated for 3 months in Mountjoy and Belfast prisons. He also joined the Irish Volunteers (‘B’ Coy, 2nd Battalion – Dublin) around this time and combined his new Volunteers role with his increasingly important Fianna duties. He became Commandant of the South Dublin 1st Fianna Battalion in 1919 until around March 1920, when he was transferred to Fianna G.H.Q and appointed National Fianna Director of Training 1920-21. He again spent time in prison in 1919 (approx 6 months), and was also interned in Ballykinlar in 1921. He joined the Irish Free State army in February 1922. He rose to the rank of Major General and Assistant Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces. He died in 1963.

Further reading on MacNeill: https://www.dib.ie/biography/mcneill-hugh-hyacinth-hugo-a5750

Hugh MacNeill


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