Nationalists As Real Men

Why feminism and socialism have been systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement.


– This article originally appeared in The Village, April 2016



In 1909 Patrick Pearse wrote a short six verse Irish-language poem, A Mhic Bhig na gCleas, translated into English as Little Lad of the Tricks. A relatively disposable piece, it has since gone on to have an infamous status; proof for many that Pearse had dark sexual proclivities:

…Raise your comely head

Till I kiss your mouth:

If either of us is the better of that

I am the better of it

There is a fragrance in your kiss

That I have not found yet

In the kisses of women

Or in the honey of their bodies.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ 1979 revisionist biography, The Triumph of Failure makes much of this poem, presenting it as evidence of Pearse’s supressed tendencies.   And later works have echoed her, to the point that the trope of Pearse-as-Paedophile is now standard fare among Irish historians. Similar speculations have also been made about Eoin O’Duffy’s sexuality and even about Michael Collins.

Such tabloid innuendos, though, ignore a central truth about Irish nationalists in the early years of the twentieth century: masculinity mattered for them. Not in the sense of private peccadilloes, but as a key part of their public ideology. The trope of masculinity did much work for organisations like Sinn Féin or the Irish Volunteers, allowing them, as it did, to imagine what national sovereignty and the end of British colonial rule would look like. It allowed them to critique that British rule as an effeminizing influence on Irish men. And it allowed them to attack opponents, such as the Irish Parliamentary Party, as unmanly traitors. The heavy emphasis on masculinity also does much to explain how and why women and leftists were systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement; imagining the nation as a male fraternity was a convenient way to dismiss feminism or socialism as divisive ideologies that pitted brother against brother.

In another of Pearse’s most famous texts, The Murder Machine, the educator-nationalist railed against the British state schools in Ireland (the eponymous “machine”). And in a telling passage, Pearse denounced contemporary school system as being worse than “an edict for the general castration of Irish males.” Anglicized Irishmen, he said, are “not slaves merely, but very eunuchs.” For Pearse, Irish men had been emasculated by British colonialism and by the slow parallel process of Anglicisation.

These were common anxieties among almost all Irish nationalists.

A recurring theme in Gaelic League publications was that the Irish, by longer speaking their native language, had become deficient and deformed and no longer real men. As one turn-of-the-century Gaelic Leaguer said, if the Irish continued to speak only English, then “we can never be perfect men, full and strong men, able to do a true man’s part for God and Fatherland.” The movement to revive the Irish language was thus imagined as a process of reasserting a purified male power and was often associated with a recovery of sovereignty and strength.

When the Irish Volunteers were established in 1912, many of their founding members had already imbibed this thinking that saw national revival and masculine revival as two parts of a broader whole. Writing in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Irish Freedom newspaper in July 1912, Ernest Blythe, later to be a government minister in the 1920s, discussed the contribution that the Volunteers would make to healthy Irish masculinity.   While he criticised the weak “flabby men” that predominated in Ireland, he also spoke of a subterranean manliness still surviving, he said, thanks to both militant nationalists “but also those whose thoughts have gone no further than the running and leaping and hurling which they delighted in”. The future Irishmen, which physical-culture and physical-force enthusiasts such as these would birth, would be noticeable by their “mighty lungs and muscled frames”. The Volunteers were “the rebirth of manhood unto this Nation”. Their muscular masculinity would replace the flabby weakness of Ireland under British rule. Talk of masculine power continued to circulate in the years after the Rising. Indeed, Ernie O’Malley, a medical student turned IRA soldier, later remembered that one positive effect of the war was that the “familiar stage Irishman had disappeared”, replaced by the confident, armed men of the IRA.

The rhetoric of heroic men standing together for the national interest, also lent itself to suppressing the “wrong” kind of politics. A 1921 pamphlet on The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail presented socialism as an intrusion into the national fraternity of men: “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system… whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”. Feminism was denounced in almost the exact same terms.

The tourism-friendly version of Irish nationalism that has featured in the Decade of Commemorations has received a large dose of justified criticism. With the government promoting an image of romantic, if depoliticised Irish rebels, it is worth remembering, first, how much Irish nationalism was a product of the encounter with British colonialism. Second, the state that emerged from this national struggle was noticeably coercive, particularly when it came to female citizens or left-wing politics. Masculinity, and the nationalist desire to create a harmonious nation of muscular men, was central to all of that. Masculinity matters.


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

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]

Bulmer Hobson 1883 1969  Constance Markievicz 1868 1927

Bulmer Hobson (1883-1969) and Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

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 MellowsLiam Mellows (1892-1922)

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.

Scouting for BoysScouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (1909)

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]

Fianna Handbook 1

Fianna Handbook 2

Fianna Handbook (1913) – “Chivalry dies when Imperialism begins”

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.