Aine Ceannt says MacNeill knew about Easter Rising plans

The common view has it that Eoin MacNeill, the head of the Irish Volunteers at the time of the Easter Rising, was not let in on the plans for a rebellion.  He only found out on its eve and put an advertisement in the Irish Independent on Easter Sunday, cancelling the manoeuvres under which rubric the rebel leaders had planned to launch the rebellion.  As the Irish Times website section on the Rising puts it, “The militants had to deceive their own official leader, Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill’s position was that the Volunteers should resist, by force if necessary, any attempt to disarm them, but that aggressive action could not be contemplated unless it had a real chance of success.”

For historians, political figures and commentators opposed to republicans, this all shows the lack of morality of the rebel leaders and becomes part of the indictment of the Rising and its leaders.  For those of us who are supportive of the Rising and its objectives, the cancellation of the manoeuvres indicates the weakness of MacNeill and for those of us who are socialist-republicans MacNeill’s actions reflect the weak and vacillating nature of the petty-bourgeois class.

However, the idea of what happened, and what MacNeill knew, is itself little challenged.

The first time I became aware that this shared view of the rebels conducting their plans behind MacNeill’s back might not be entirely accurate was a couple of years ago when I read Annie Ryan’s Witnesses: inside the Easter Rising, a 2005 book based on the witness testimonies collected by the Bureau of Military History from the late 1940s to the late 1950s and finally opened to the public in 2003.  I was very surprised indeed to find in her book a number of extracts that indicated that MacNeill knew rather more than had previously been identified by historians (or any other writers).

Last month I was finally able to visit the National Archives in Dublin and look up the witness statement by Aine Ceannt, wife of one of the executed leaders (Eamon Ceannt) and later vice-president of Cumann na mBan, a member of the standing committee of Sinn Fein, an opponent of the 1921 Treaty and a founder of White Cross.

She recalls Eamonn Ceannt telling her in January or Febriary 1916, “We can’t let the Citizen Army go out alone, if they go we must go with them” (Ceannt, witness statement 264, p14).  She indicates that MacNeill was part of the discussions about the Rising (Ceannt, pp20-21; 26-27).  According to her, MacDonagh called Bulmer Hobson “the evil genius of the Volunteers and if we could separate John MacNeill from his influence all would be well” (MacDonagh quoted by Ceannt, p20).  She then notes, “It was evident that the leaders were endeavouring to induce John MacNeill to agree to the coming fight, and it had taken some persuasion” (p21).

Moreover, she says in her statement, “I understood from Eamonn that at first John MacNeill was tardy about agreeing to the Rising.  He then agreed and orders were issued throughout the country.  He was inclined to wobble again. . .”

On the Thursday before the Rising, MacDonagh suggested to Eamonn Ceannt that MacNeill would be alright as long as he was kept away from a certain person whose name Aine Ceannt did not wish to disclose to the BMH, however it seems most likely given what is elsewhere in her statement and what others such as Markievicz stated following the Rising, that the person was Bulmer Hobson.

She also states, “We discussed the effect of the countermanding order, and Eamonn said that the Volunteers would have agreed to majority rule, but that the order had been issued to the Press without their knowledge and without their having been consulted, therefore they felt they should go ahead with their plans” (p27).

She then puts forward the view that MacNeill wobbled as a result of the capture of the Aud and that he had consulted some “sympathisers with the Movement” but not with the actual key activists, the “strong men”, as she calls them (p27).  Only after his after his countermanding order had gone out, did MacNeill consult any of the key IRB people and even then it was only one person, MacDonagh.  MacDonagh was appalled by the people whose counsel MacNeill had sought and taken.

So, it appears that far from being deceived by the IRB leaders of the Military Council about the Rising, and them organising it totally behind his back, the IRBers had not only consulted him about the plans for the Rising but had, momentarily at least, won him over.  MacNeill, however, lacked spine – Markievicz called him the “weakling” whose pen had obliterated a serious chance of success for the Rising – and he continuously wobbled.  Wobbling again after the capture of the Aud, and behind the backs of his colleagues on the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, he sought the advice of people outside the movement rather than his supposed comrades.  Then, once again without consultation with the other Volunteer leaders and behind their backs, he issued a countermanding order and had it published in the anti-republican and anti-working class Irish Independent, the paper of the notorious William Martin Murphy.

That, of course, wasn’t the end of MacNeill’s perfidy.  While a layer of militants, most especially republican women such as Markievicz, wanted him excluded from the reorganised republican movement in 1917, de Valera backed his rehabilitation.  MacNeill went on to vote for the Treaty, another piece of paper that was signed by leaders without any democratic consultation.  His final act of treachery was to concede to all the British and Unionist demands on the Boundary Commission, the commission that, according to Treatyites, was supposed to make “Northern Ireland” impossible as a state.  Having helped partition Ireland and then ensured the viability of the six-county area, MacNeill gave up politics and slinked back into the ivory tower from which he should never have slinked into Irish radical political life in the first place.

Nevertheless, however odious and despicable MacNeill the individual might have been, his real significance is that he was representative of an Irish nationalist middle class which simply could not offer principled leadership to the struggle for national liberation.  Even when this class itself split over the Treaty, one wing of it remained dominant on the anti-Treaty side and ensured the victory of the Free Staters.  The lesson here is that only the working class can lead the struggle for Irish freedom and, unless that struggle means also the emancipation of the class itself, it won’t lead the struggle.  Socialism and the Republic are inseparable.

Posted on December 14, 2011, in Civil War period, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, The road to the Easter Rising, War for Independence period, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. As someone with a Master’s Degree in 20th Century British-Irish Relations, I am absolutely astonished that this, the extent of MacNeill’s foreknowledge of the Rising, is not more well-known and more publicly articulated.

    The common myths of the Rising – MacNeill being kept in the dark about plans, Hobson being kept under house arrest during the rising purely because of his Protestant background – are repeated year on year as unchallenged fact. I commend you for providing evidence that MacNeill knew of the plans and, right up until the last minute, acquiesced to them.

    I would really like somebody to write a counterfactual theory on what might have been, had MacNeill not countermanded the maneuvres.

  2. What’s also weird is that someone like the novelist Iris Murdoch seemed a bit aware of this way back in the 1960s when she wrote ‘The Red and the Green’. I stuck up a post here which consists of an extract from that novel. I read it many years ago, way back in the late 70s or early 80s, and never particularly noticed that bit. Then I happened to read the novel again about a year ago and of course it leapt right out at me.

    But the real problem was that the strategy of the left-IRBers was using front people like MacNeill and locking themselves up in a common organisation with him. When the split with Redmond came, the IRBers should have broken with MacNeill as well, as Connolly and Markievicz wanted them to. The cloak-and-dagger stuff – well, the *unnecessary part* of the cloak-and-dagger stuff anyway – came back to cost Pearse and co their lives, along with the lives of Connolly and Mallin. The revolution was beheaded.


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