Na Fianna Éireann: The Lost Boys of the Irish Revolution

 Sinéad Callanan, a student of Castletroy College in Limerick, was a prizewinner in the all-island Decade of Centenaries schools essay competition for this study of Na Fianna Éireann


When men come to write the history of the freeing of Ireland, they shall have to record that the boys of Na Fianna Éireann stood in the battle gap until the Volunteers armed …

So said Patrick Pearse in To the Boys of Ireland. Why, then, does it seem that he was mistaken?

Na Fianna, or the Irish National Boy Scouts, played a vital role in the events of 1912 to 1922, yet have been largely overlooked in most modern accounts of this time. Pearse goes further still, asserting that ‘if the Fianna had not been founded in 1909, the Volunteers of 1913 would never have arisen’.

He was speaking at the beginning of 1914, barely four years into the Fianna’s existence, and before many of the major events of the Irish Revolution. The Fianna was instrumental in the formation and success of the Irish Volunteers, and the arming of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), but they are rarely praised or even mentioned anymore.

Fianna Éireann scouts with Countess Markievicz. She asked Arthur Griffith to establish a Boys Corps of Sinn Féin.

The Fianna was founded in Dublin in 1909. Scouting as a pastime was a relatively new concept, having begun in England two years previously with the Baden Powell scouts.

In Ireland, Robert Baden-Powell’s strong association with the British side in the Boer war made the scouting movement suspect, so when he approached Patrick Pearse about forming scout troops in Ireland, Pearse would not get involved.

There was however, an admiration for the general scouting movement, and Na Fianna’s founders determined that, although they would take their inspiration from the Baden-Powell scouts, the Fianna would serve to counteract the British influence, being ‘national in outlook and purpose’, with an overall aim of gaining complete independence for Ireland.

This was very appealing to many young boys from nationalist backgrounds, and Seán Prendergast would later claim to have been drawn to the Fianna because it was ‘distinctly Irish, non-political and non-sectarian’. The Fianna was to be a non-denominational group, open to any boy whatever ‘class or creed or party they or their fathers belonged to’.

Although they did not follow any party lines, Garry Holohan, who was a member of the Fianna almost from the beginning, admitted that he was soon moving towards ‘everything that was Irish-Ireland’.

Bulmer Hobson, a young IRB man, and Countess Constance Markievicz, an influential nationalist from the Gore-Booth family, were the driving forces behind the organisation.

Countess Markievicz, or Madam, as she was called by all the Fianna boys, had for some time been petitioning Arthur Griffith to establish a Boys Corps of Sinn Féin.

Griffith however, was strongly opposed to the idea, so Markievicz decided, with Seán McGarry and Helena Molony, to start her own organisation called The Red Branch Knights, after the legendary warriors of Cúchulainn.

Markievicz and the others met with the knights, and even took them camping, several times in July and August of 1909, but ultimately Markievicz began looking to Hobson to become involved.

Hobson had, at the age of 19, set up a boys’ hurling club in Belfast called Na Fianna Éireann, in 1902. This Fianna, although flourishing for a few years under Hobson’s care, died down when Hobson moved to Dublin, and was completely extinct by the time the new Fianna — this one with a more military spirit reflecting Hobson’s rising position in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) — was founded.

Possibly he was motivated to set up this Fianna from his knowledge that a youth movement would attract much less attention than an adult organisation, meaning they could build up a trained military force (or at least the core of it) with very little opposition from British authorities.

Markievicz and Hobson first discussed working together to form a nationalist boy scout group in August 1909, and on the 16th of that month the first meeting of Na Fianna Éireann was held at 34, Lower Camden Street. The meeting was advertised in some nationalist newspapers, including An Claidheamh Soluis, and Markievicz asked William O’Neill, principal of St Andrew’s National School, to recommend it to his pupils.

A boy was stationed outside the front door of the meeting with a flag, answering questions and inviting boys in. Hobson chaired the meeting, attended by about 100 boys, and Markievicz spoke at it ‘in a patriotic strain’.

A prominent new figure was the young Pádraic Ó Riain who, at the age of about 17, was to become a leading force behind the Fianna. Con Colbert, Michael Lonergan, and Eamon Martin were also present.

The initial organisation of the Fianna was quite simple. The boys were organised into squads, which led to sections, which led to sluaghs. The first sluagh was known as An Céad Sluagh, and it was formed at the meeting in 34, Lower Camden Street.

Markievicz continued to rent the building for them, and it remained their base. Sluaghs were governed by district councils, and the whole Fianna was governed by the central council, and by its executive committee.

Na Fianna Éireann: The Lost Boys of the Irish Revolution
Countess Markievicz circa 1900 to 1910. The nationalist was one of the motivating forces behind the Irish equivalent of the Boy Scouts – Na Fianna. She was known as Madam to the boys.

Representatives from sluaghs, district councils and the central council attended the Árd Fheis every year, the overall governing body and effectively the AGM of the Fianna, usually held in the Mansion House.

The boys, aged eight to 18, were sworn in under the oath ‘I promise to work for independence of Ireland, never to join England’s armed forces, and to obey my superior officers’.

Before they could be fully fledged fiannaidhe, or fians, they had to get a uniform. The uniform differed from sluagh to sluagh, with some wearing kilts and jerseys, some wearing breeches and blouses, and all wearing different hats, haversacks, and accessories.

The boys would save for these, item by item. Moses Roche, a fian in Waterford, recalls how it was his ‘greatest ambition at the time’ to be able to buy the full uniform.

This ensured all the new members would be dedicated to the Fianna, as Seamus Prendergast attests to when he describes what a ‘labour of love’ it was to save for the uniform.

Between the formation of the Fianna in 1909 and the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, the Fianna mainly focussed on training the boys. The officers would learn skills such as drill, first-aid, map-reading, scouting, signalling, musketry, and field-sketching, and teach them to the boys.

They were also taught the Irish language (from 1911, all orders were given in Irish), and the history and legends of Ireland.

The Fianna itself was named after the legendary band of warriors of Fionn MacCumhaill, and emphasis was placed on important battles and rebellions in Irish history. “In this way”, says Eamon Martin “the boys were being given a reason for their own military training.”

This was the first (nationalist) organisation in Ireland to be teaching these skills, so the officers, for the most part, had to teach themselves skills such as scoutcraft and map-reading from the Baden-Powell Scout Handbook, while they learned drill and musketry from British Army manuals. They would learn Irish and history through lectures given by men like Pearse, and they brought in doctors to teach them first aid.

The Fianna grew steadily in these first years, due to a large extent to the work done by the Fianna officers Liam and Barney Mellows, who joined the Fianna as teenagers in 1911. They both became dedicated officers, and committed themselves to the nationalist cause, yet outside of Fianna circles, Barney is known as ‘Liam Mellows’s brother’.

Barney worked mainly within the Fianna, training the youth, while Liam distinguished himself in the more visible ‘adult’ movement, a clear example of the Fianna boys being overlooked in Irish history.

Barney is often mentioned in Bureau of Military History witness accounts, while Liam has had books written about him. Much of the work Liam did involved touring the country on his bicycle, going to ‘every city, town and village in Ireland’, encouraging the local boys to set up their own sluagh.

By the end of 1912, there were sluaighte in Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Belfast, Newry, Waterford, Tralee, Derry, Athlone, Dundalk, Tuam, Sligo and Maryborough (now Portlaoise).

According to some sources, while Mellows was on the road for the Fianna, he was also organising circles of the IRB around the country. While some sources will deny this vehemently, after the Volunteers were formed, Mellows took on the recruiting role for the new organisation.

The activities of the Fianna at this time were quite varied. While a cultural side was being developed under Countess Markievicz, Hobson led a more militaristic group under the guise of the ‘John Mitchell Literary and Debating Society’. This was the codename for the Fianna circle of the IRB, which Hobson had established in 1912, and it was mainly made up of members of An Céad Sluagh and Sluagh Emmet (all but An Céad Sluagh were named after nationalist heroes).

It included the Mellows brothers, the Holohans, Seán Heuston and Pádraic Ó Riain, with Con Colbert at the centre of the circle.

This group had an extreme influence over the Fianna, and it was into this circle that Hobson recruited members of the Fianna to the IRB. Éamon Martin estimates that, by 1913, ‘every senior officer throughout the country had become a member’.

Camping and route marches had by now become standard, and many sluagh had their own piper or bugle band. Céilís and feiseanna for Irish music, dance and drama were held annually, and many sluagh were involved in the distribution of nationalist newspapers and propaganda. For a time, they organised a postal system around Dublin in order to boycott the British postal service.

One regular activity of a sluagh in Cork was to send the boys around the city, asking for specific Irish products in shops, so as to create a demand for them. 

The Fianna were the first military organisation in Ireland of this time, and they acted as such. They first drilled and paraded with hurleys, but even before they were able to acquire arms, they were taught how to use various arms properly. There were regular marches (often twice a week) and exhibits of first aid skills, drill, and signalling.

When they did succeed in arming themselves, they would carry their weapons openly on the streets. Another popular sidearm for the boys early-on was a bayonet. Even the youngest of the Fianna was given instruction in arms, and this proved very useful to them in later years.

When the IRB decided to train its members for military action in July of 1913, it was natural that the instructors would come from the John Mitchell Circle. Four of the senior officers were selected for the job, namely Lonergan, Colbert, Ó Riain and Martin, who at this stage were captains of various sluaighte which had been formed in the city.

Lonergan had, from the start, been a natural instructor, and was described by a scout in Sluagh Emmet (of which Lonergan was captain) as being ‘so distinctive, so elegant, so truly military’, and was thought of as ‘the perfect officer’.

Although none of the officers had any military experience, on joining the Fianna they had, ‘by intense swotting’, become expert in these skills, and at this time were among the only people who could claim this.

‘The wisdom of the founders of the Fianna was proved’ again less than a year later when the Irish Volunteers were formed. Members of the Fianna’s executive committee had been present at the organisational meetings prior to the public meeting.

When the Provisional Committee of the Volunteers was established, there were five members of the executive council of the Fianna on it: Bulmer Hobson, Pádraic Ó Riain, Éamon Bulfin, Michael Lonergan and Liam Mellows (all of whom were in the John Mitchell Circle). Because of the Fianna training, there were now instructors and officers ready to train the thousands of new recruits.

Na Fianna Éireann: The Lost Boys of the Irish Revolution
Fianna Éireann and Irish Volunteers transporting guns landed at Howth on July 26, 1914. The Fianna played an important role in helping out handing out guns from the boat to the Volunteers.

A new rule was soon introduced to the Fianna which affected the transfer of boys from the Fianna to the Volunteers when they reached 18. This was very successful as it provided the Volunteers with well-trained, disciplined men, and allowed the older Fianna boys to move on.

When the women’s section of the Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, was formed, the Fianna also provided instructors to drill the recruits.

Soon after the Volunteers were formed, there was a strong feeling that there should be an effort made to arm them. The Ulster Volunteers had been armed and this put added pressure on the new nationalist Volunteers.

These feelings came to fruition on July 26, 1914, when Roger Casement and Erskine Childers landed guns at Howth. This was a joint endeavour between the Dublin Brigade of the Volunteers, and about 200 specially-selected Fianna boys.

The boys were told they were going on a route march with the Volunteers, an increasingly common practice. They brought their trek cart with them, which they usually used to transport camp equipment, but it was now filled with homemade batons for the defence of the guns.

The boys were told by Ó Riain and Heuston, the organisers on the Fianna side, that the cart was full of ‘minerals’. Fianna scouts were posted along the pier and blew their bugles when they saw the yacht carrying Childers coming in.

When the boat was close, Fianna boys handed the guns from the boat to the Volunteers, and filled the trek cart with boxes of ammunition.

As soon as they were finished, the Fianna and Volunteers were reformed, and started their march back to the city. The Fianna was given the ammunition as it was ‘at that time the only body with sufficient discipline to be entrusted with ammunition’.

On the return march, the column came directly up against some British soldiers, who would not let them pass. The Volunteers were anxious to fight the soldiers, and repeatedly tried to get ammunition from the trek cart. However, the Fianna, having received no orders to arm the men, defended the ammunition, and held back the Volunteers.

The Fianna were also involved in the Kilcoole gun-running, and a cycling corps of the Fianna helped to ensure its success.

The Fianna kept up its traditions during these years and continued to operate as a separate body to the Volunteers, although there was much co-operation and shared activities between them.

It was, however, around this time that the Fianna re-organised itself so that it took on the same structure as the Volunteers, having companies and battalions where before they had sluaghs and districts.

Some of the more note- worthy activities around this time included the Fianna’s attendance at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin on August 1, 1915, at which it provided a guard of honour. It was at the annual pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown on the anniversary of his birthday, and the Fianna had a minor involvement in the 1913 Strike and Lockout.

It would also intimidate and sometimes attack British scouts who came to Ireland, and raid British garrisons.

By Easter 1916 the Fianna was well established as the training corps of the Volunteers. It played a large part in the Rising, although there was no official Fianna post.

The officers were all given assignments, and many of the senior officers led Volunteer battalions or commanded outposts. The attack on the magazine fort in Phoenix Park (the first of the Rising, and a sign for the Rising to begin) was carried out by Fianna members, and led by the Fian Paddy Daly.

Younger members of the Fianna worked throughout the city, dispatching, scouting, sourcing food and ammunition, and acting as firstaiders and cooks. Two Fianna boys (Séan Howard and Seán Healy) were killed during the Rising while carrying messages between posts.

There was a camp organised for the youngest members of the Fianna (the boys aged 8-12) during Easter week, so that they would be out of the city and out of danger. Con Colbert and Seán Heuston, both officers of the Fianna, were executed by British authorities for their part in the Rising.

The Fianna were the first to re-organise after the Rising, having a meeting in Dublin just a month later with all available officers (those who were not dead or in prison). There was major re-organisation required, and Eamon Martin was elected chief.

There was from this time a huge surge in the numbers of the Fianna, as more people came to the nationalist cause. It went back to training the boys, and this set an example to the Volunteers and IRB to rally too.

The threat of conscription into the British army in 1918 brought it back to prominence as it supplied the Volunteers with officers and instructors to cope with the inundation of new nationalist recruits. This time, it wasn’t just the senior officers who drilled the Volunteers, but ‘any urchin with training’ from the Fianna.

When the newly established Dáil took over the Volunteers as the Irish Republican Army in 1918, the Fianna was officially recognised as its training corps. They have many times since then been referred to as the ‘Senior Corps of the Old Army’, as most Volunteers were trained by, or in, the Fianna.

When the War of Independence came, the Fianna played much the same part as in the Rising, supporting Volunteer (now IRA) battalions and carrying messages. This was especially important in the country as people were being monitored, and smaller boys could slip away with messages easier and quicker.

In Limerick, there were travel restrictions at times so that only people under the age of 16 could travel freely in and out of the city, which brought the importance of the younger Fianna boys into the forefront. The Fianna everywhere did many of the special duties such as scouting and intelligence work, and in some areas special Fianna service units fought with the Volunteers.

Officially, the Fianna took a strong anti-Treaty stance in the Civil War, distributing anti-Treaty propaganda and attending anti-Treaty rallies. It is likely that any pro-Treaty members left the Fianna quietly, and fought for the other side.

The Treaty certainly caused a split in the Fianna, and it was never as strong after it. Hugh MacNeill mournfully compares it to the fall of the Fianna of Fionn, which also met its end in the ‘welter of civil strife’. During the Civil War, Fianna boys were sometimes imprisoned for their activities, and in prison were treated as political prisoners.

Although forms of the Fianna have continued on over the years, the end of the Civil War was effectively the end for the Fianna, and perhaps this is one of the reasons the Fianna has been forgotten.

Through the years 1912 to 1922, however, they doubtless made a huge impact on the nationalist cause and on the outlook of many Irish people. They carried on the tradition of the Fenians, sometimes being referred to as the 3rd Fianna.

The first Fianna was of course the Fianna of Fionn, and the second Fianna were the Fenians of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Fianna scouts took on the motto of Fionn’s Fianna, ‘Truth on our lips, purity in our hearts and faith in our arms’.

The emblem of the Fianna was also rooted in Irish traditions. The sunburst is a traditional Irish symbol which was said to have been used by Fionn’s Fianna, and was also used by the Fenians.

The sunburst was used later by Eoin MacNeill for the design of the Volunteer badge, and at the centre of the badge there is an FF, for Fianna Fáil, or Warriors of Destiny.

When the political party Fianna Fáil was established in 1926, it chose this as its name to keep the tradition of the ancient Fianna going. The Fianna scouts undoubtedly had an influence on this, as they were integral to the revival of the Fenian traditions.

The Fianna impacted on the Volunteers in many other ways. For example, in 1911, the Fianna started giving orders through Irish and passed that practice on to the Volunteers. To this day, the Irish army and, to a lesser extent, the Garda Síochana and civil service give orders in Irish.

The Fianna was not just a military body, it had an effect on the cultural goings-on and outlook of the time. Through the events it organised, such as plays, ceilís and feiseanna, it promoted Irish culture to the general public.

It also made people more aware of the nationalist cause, as it distributed newspapers and propaganda. Its dedication to remembering past rebels helped to educate and revive people’s nationalist feelings.

The Fianna was also the first to parade with the tricolour, and promoted the speaking of Irish on a daily basis. Doubtless, the Fianna contributed greatly to Irish society at this time.

However, by far the greatest influence the Fianna had during these years was the training of the Fianna boys. Not only did it train them to be soldiers, it trained them to be soldiers for Ireland. The Fianna radicalised its boys for the nationalist cause and its members became the adult rebels who would lead, not only the rebellion, but the Irish Free State.

This is seen clearly in a passage from Garry Holohan’s Bureau of Military History witness statement, where he describes his feelings after having first read Ethna Carbery’s poems while staying with some other Fianna boys at Hobson’s cottage.

“…I can assure you they did much to fan the fires of patriotism to white heat. From now on my outlook on life was completely changed. The Fianna was no longer a mere pastime or social function. It became a sacred duty, and I began to bend my every effort towards the freeing of Ireland. No task was too great or time too long…”

The Fianna created dedicated soldiers which were devoted to the Irish cause. Those who were not executed or killed became politicians, judges, teachers, writers and activists who would become social changers and the leaders of society in the years that followed.

The Fianna influenced every aspect of Irish society at the time, but its real contribution to the years 1912-1922, and after, was the dedicated, trained, and passionate young men it gave to the nationalist cause.


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