Before the Easter Rising of 1916, John Bulmer Hobson was one of the leading figures of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Together with Denis McCullough, from the Falls Road in Belfast who he met through the Gaelic League in 1901, he founded the Dungannon Clubs which promoted the ideas and policies of Sinn Féin. He had joined the IRB in 1904 and rose rapidly through the ranks becoming a member of the Supreme Council. He published his first paper To the whole people of Ireland, The Manifesto of the Dungannon Club in 1905. He followed that by founding The Republic a weekly newspaper in 1906 and later because of financial problems he merged with The Peasant in Dublin (Boylan). In 1908, Hobson moved to Dublin in order to try and secure employment. Here he was instrumental in founding the Nationalist Youth Organisation, Na Fíanna Eireann with Countess Markievicz in 1909 and the Irish Volunteers in the winter of 1913. He was a prolific speaker and such an enthusiastic nationalist that it was he and not Arthur Griffith who was invited to take part in a speaking tour of the US in 1907.
Bulmer Hobson it must be stated was, as Marnie Hay asserts in Kidnapped, Bulmer Hobson, the IRB and the 1916 Easter Rising “an unlikely Irish Republican nationalist.” He was born in Belfast to Benjamin Hobson, a commercial traveller with a strong political affiliation to Gladstone and home rule. His mother, Mary Ann Bulmer, a women’s rights activist who hailed from the north of England had a huge interest in archaeology and was involved in many cultural activities in Belfast. His family were Quakers and he was educated at the Friends Co-Educational School in Lisburn.
Through the many enlightened and lively discussions which were commonplace in his home, Bulmer became a committed nationalist. As well as being influenced by his father who was known to “resent injustice of every kind” (Hay) his ideas and opinions were also formed through his mother’s political activism in the suffragette movement. Along with his home environment, his neighbours Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston, who wrote environment, his neighbours Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston, who wrote under the pseudonym Ethna Carbery in their newspaper the Shan Van Vocht, instilled in him an appetite for Irish culture and writings such as those of Standish O’Grady. He developed a strong allegiance to his hero Theobald Wolfe Tone’s aim: “To break the connection with England and to assert the independence of my country.” Another Irishman, James Fintan Lalor’s policy “not to repeal the Union, but the Conquest” met with approval from Hobson. Indeed, he states clearly in Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Hobson 1968; Intro) “The Act of Union has gone its unlamented way but the Conquest is very much with us still.”
In 1912, the third Home Rule Bill was likely to be passed and not surprisingly, unionists in Britain and Ireland opposed it. This resulted in 1913, in the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force which was to “defend Ulster by force of arms if necessary” (Hay). Hobson immediately set about forming a Nationalist Volunteer movement and in the summer of 1913 he set in motion a military training program so that the IRB would have trained personnel within its ranks. “The Fenians, as the members of the IRB came to be called, rapidly became a very large organisation; but they had few arms and fewer men with any military experience.” (Hobson, 1968:31) He also enlisted the expertise of Eoin MacNeill, the founder of the Gaelic League and Professor of Medieval History at UCD to the Organisation. In 1914, with a membership of between 100,000 and 150,000 volunteers around the country, the time seemed right to have these volunteers armed. He had become friends with Roger Casement, who of his own volition took on the task of going to London to secure funds from his influential friends over there. Casement was given £1,500 from his associates on condition that they would be repaid and to their utter astonishment, they were! (Hobson, 1968). They managed to secure 1,500 rifles and 45,000 rounds of ammunition and after Casement had made the necessary arrangements to have these shipped to Ireland, he entrusted their safe landing to Hobson. This was achieved in a very cunning fashion. Hobson cycled every mile along the coast from Greystones to Balbriggan checking out the harbours along the way before eventually deciding on Howth Harbour. He had an ingenious plan of organising route marches along the coast which at first attracted a lot of police attention but by the date of the arrival of the arms, the police had lost interest and Hobson managed to have 900 volunteers ready and waiting to unload the cargo. He repeated this bold and brave move again about a month later at Kilcoole with a small number of men. These acts of courage and audacity attracted a lot of publicity and soon money was pouring in from America. (Craven Ireland’s Own: 23)
Over time, Hobson had formed a friendship with two “future insurrectionists,” Tom Clarke and Sean McDermott. However, as the years went on and their political and personal rivalries escalated, he became estranged from them. It appears that according to Hay, “a rivalry for Clarke’s affection, esteem and confidence appears to have sprung up between Hobson and MacDermott.” She further asserts that in 1912 “Clarke and the younger men finally had full control of the IRB’s destiny after a power struggle with the organisation’s old guard.” (Hay) Hobson himself believed that in order for the IRB to become a really meaningful organisation, it needed to link up with others around the country to further its cause. When Hobson agreed to vote in favour of the nominees of John Redmond, who was leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, against the wishes of the IRB, it became apparent that his days within the organisation became numbered. He had held a meeting with Eoin MacNeill and Roger Casement and they “talked all morning and in the end we agreed that the vitally important thing was to prevent the Volunteers being disrupted, and that the only way to prevent that was to accept Redmond’s dictation for the time being. I, for one, was confident that Redmond’s control would prove to be more apparent than real.” (Hobson 1968:50). Subsequently, following a meeting of the IRB executive in Tom Clarke’s house, he was so shocked by the accusations hurled at him that he decided rather than cause a bitter split within the organisation that he would resign his position.
Though Hobson remained as a member of the Volunteers and accepted a position on the Provisional Committee against the wishes of the Supreme Council of the IRB, he was not consulted nor had any knowledge that a Rising was being planned. He was, according to Hay, “one of the moderates within the Volunteer’s leadership. Although he was amenable to a rebellion with significant and decisive support from Germany, he refused to support an insurrection that had little chance of military success. Instead, he favoured a policy of guerrilla warfare should the British government attempt to disarm the Volunteers or pursue a policy of conscription in Ireland.” (Hay)
However, Padraig Pearse and a small group of IRB men had taken control of the Irish Volunteers and without the knowledge of Hobson and his compatriots, were organising a rebellion themselves. The first he heard of an insurrection being planned was on Holy Thursday 1916, when he was told by J.J.O’Connell and Eimar O’Duffy that a rising was going to take place on Easter Sunday. The three of them headed to Eoin MacNeill’s house to collect him and travelled on to Pearse’s house, leaving O’Duffy outside as he was not a member of the Executive Committee. According to Hobson, “Pearse then admitted what he had so often denied, that an insurrection was to take place and told us that nothing we could do would prevent it.” (Hobson 1968:76) As Chief of Staff, MacNeill upon returning to his home wrote an order cancelling Pearse’s planned rebellion and put Hobson in complete charge in Dublin. Mac Neill was later persuaded by Pearse that it was too late to prevent the inevitable but Pearse knew that Hobson would not be so easily convinced. On Good Friday, he was invited to attend a meeting of the Leinster Executive of the IRB at a house in Phibsboro. “I was reluctant to go and did not see any purpose to be served. At the same time I wondered if this was a ruse to get me out of the way. I yielded to the importunities of Sean Tobin to attend, and was not greatly surprised when, as I entered the house, a number of IRB men who were armed with revolvers, told me that I was a prisoner and could not leave the house. I felt that I had done all I could to keep the Volunteers on the course which I believed essential for their success, and there was nothing further I could do.” (Hobson 1968:76) Meantime, his fiancée Claire Gregan was searching all over Dublin for him, fearing for his safety. She did not know that the Military Council had no plans to harm him. “As Eamonn Ceannt explained to fellow IRB man Seamus O’Connor, ‘Hobson has been an obstacle in our path. He is opposed to an insurrection. He is perfectly honest, he is not a traitor, but it would be better if he were as then we could shoot him.’” (Hay) He was eventually released between 6 and 7pm on Easter Monday but by this time the Easter Rising of 1916 with Pearse at the helm was under way. Towards the end of that week of fighting the rebels were forced to surrender. MacNeill wrote a letter to General Sir John Maxwell, the officer in charge of supressing the Rising. In it he asked if he could have a meeting with him to discuss the prevention of further bloodshed. Hobson refused to sign the letter as he felt it would just give away their whereabouts to the authorities and result in their arrest. MacNeill believed that in order to survive now on the political stage they would have to be taken into custody. Hobson did not sign the letter as he stated “that while I probably would be arrested, I was not going to ask for it.” As predicted, MacNeill was arrested when he accepted an invitation to meet the General. Hobson’s view was steadfast that the Rising was against the Constitution of the IRB, instigated by “a small junta inside the IRB, acting without the knowledge of the President and most other members of the Supreme Council.”(Hobson 1968:78) He stayed in Dublin for some time evading the authorities and then travelled to Belfast. He was joined there by Claire Gregan, whom he had earlier married in a secret ceremony in June 1916, and they managed to survive in relative obscurity. However, rumours began to circulate in late 1916 that because of his disappearance after the failed insurrection and his complete and total opposition to it that he had to be a traitor and had betrayed the cause. Not all of the rebels held this view though and Pearse himself said, in an address to Volunteers at St Enda’s School “that although ‘I did not share Hobson’s view or approve his attitude, he was not lacking in physical courage but in the imagination and decision of a revolutionary leader’.”(Hay)
After the amnesty in June 1917, Hobson was supported by many of the former members of the IRB, including Ernest Blythe and P.S. O’Hegarty. Indeed, he was awarded a position in the Department of the Revenue Commissioners with their assistance. It is ironic to think that the type of guerrilla warfare subsequently waged against the British in Ireland by the IRA was exactly the policy which Hobson had sought to have implemented instead of the 1916 Rising.
He retired from his position in the Civil Service in 1948 and after spending some time in Roundstone, Co. Galway he moved to Castleconnell to reside with his daughter Camilla, son-in-law John and the Mitchell children in the Tontines. Here, in 1968 he wrote Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow in which he chronicled his extraordinary life story but also laid bare his policies for what he saw as a better Ireland, free from the tyranny and oppression of British rule.
“The way to a more just and prosperous society is not to drag down the standards of the rich but progressively to raise those of the poor, and this would be to the advantage of all.” (Hobson 1968: Intro)
Bulmer Hobson died in Castleconnell on 8th of August 1969 at the age of 86.
Boylan, Henry. “A Dictionary of Irish Biographies.” Roberts Rinehart. 1998.
Craven, Paul. “The Most Dangerous Man in Ireland’ Died Forty Years Ago.” Ireland’s Own. Aug 2009.
Hay, Marnie. “Kidnapped Bulmer Hobson, The IRB and the 1916 Rising.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol 35,No 1.
Hobson, John Bulmer. “Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow.” Anvil. 1968