Terence MacSwiney’s skills key in building Cork brigade

1,000 Irish Volunteers answered the call and turned out across Co Cork on Easter Sunday.

By Niall Murray, Irish Examiner


The fact that more than 1,000 members of the Irish Volunteers turned out across Co Cork on Easter Sunday, 1916, is testament to the organisational skills of Terence MacSwiney.

From a movement that looked doomed to oblivion when most of the organisation’s members backed the breakaway National Volunteers after the outbreak of war, he helped build Cork’s to one of the country’s best-organised brigades.



Although there remained a small core of Irish Volunteers in the city who resisted John Redmond’s urgings to support the war effort, MacSwiney, inset, and fellow officers of the Irish Volunteers’ Cork Brigade faced a challenge establishing companies in rural Cork in the year before the Rising.

Spurred on by Irish Volunteers’ director of organisation Patrick Pearse, whose rousing speech at the Dublin graveside of Cork-born Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa had been reported widely, they took to the county’s byroads, rail lines and country lanes to breathe fresh life into the dwindling militia.

The remnants of the original Volunteers organisation in east, north and west Cork were National Volunteers companies that had begun to dwindle as pressure to sign up to the British Army mounted through early 1915.

The challenge was to try and convert those branches to the separatist beliefs of the Irish Volunteers, but also to establish themselves in other villages and towns.

In order to do this, the city-based organisers spent their Sundays travelling to remote parts of the county — often spending hours on rickety bikes along the rough-and-ready roads to reach their destination.

The message they spread as they gathered outside Masses or at sporting events was one of what MacSwiney describes in a journal of his organising work as the ‘impending crisis’ of conscription.

As farmers across the country reaped the benefits of war-fuelled demand for provisions, it was often a case of preaching to the converted as MacSwiney, Sean Nolan, Brigade commandant Tomás MacCurtain, Daithí Barry, Thomas Kent and many others expanded the Volunteers’ ranks.

The loss of his teaching job in July 1916 allowed MacSwiney take up a full-time organiser post with the Irish Volunteers, along with the likes of Ernest Blythe and others around the country, giving him more than the weekends to devote to the cause.


As new Irish Volunteers companies began cropping up around Co Cork through to the end of 1915, always watched by the local constabulary, the support grew stronger. This was only helped by rising uncertainty over whether Irish men might be subject to a looming conscription scheme being considered by the British government, although it was eventually ruled out in January 1916.

There were police efforts to prosecute the likes of MacSwiney, Nolan, and Kent in late 1915 and early 1916 under laws introduced to keep the population in check during the war.

But the evidence regarding their disloyal speeches, or their efforts to disrupt army recruitment events, was never enough to convince the normally-loyalist judicial benches that they should be jailed, or even convicted.

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