Rewind - Eoin MacNeill

By Sean Heffernan

For todays piece we will hop back on the 65 bus and alight at stop 1165 Terenure Road East-Brighton Road. We will then cross the road and hop on a 15B bus at stop 1081 Rathgar Road-Highfield Road and travel to stop 6325 Stocking Lane-Woodfield and then walk 5 minutes to Woodtown Park.

For it is here this week’s topic Eoin MacNeill resided for a lot of his life.


Eoin MacNeill

Eoin MacNeill was born in 1867 in Co Antrim and his father Archibald had numerous different jobs including that of a sailor and a baker.

He had a great grá for the outdoors and loved to go on long walks amongst the Antrim Glens.

Archibald was arrested in 1872, when his illustrious son was five years of age, for protesting against the first ever Orange Order parade to be held in the area.

Up until that point Protestant and Catholic neighbours lived side by side in harmony, and there was a noticeable number of Irish speakers who lived there too.

In what was a tad unusual for the time but all the MacNeill children went to school, with Eoin eventually securing a scholarship and gaining degrees in history and politics after attending Trinity and Kings Inns respectively.

It would have been quite the culture shock to have gone from the rural idyll of the North West Coast to the hustle and bustle of Dublin.

After finishing with college he got himself a job in the Accountant Generals Office in the Four Courts at Inns Quay on the North Quays.

He was the only Catholic working in the office, as the others were Church of Ireland members who mostly if not all got their jobs as a result of who they know not what they knew.

It is also around this time that he took up the study of the Irish language and began to look into the different variations of  the native tongue that originated in different parts of the Island of Ireland.

He became a noted scholar of the Irish language, which is astonishing given that he only took it up aged 20, and people of his ilk were usually born and reared speaking it.

As he began moving around more and more in Nationalist circles he was initially viewed with ire by some because he was working for the crown in the four Courts and he knew he would have to find alternative more palatable employment if he was to maintain his links with the ‘Gaelic Revival’ Movement.

In 1893 he was offered a role as a clerk within the New Ireland movement and he readily accepted it

This organisation tasked itself with travelling the country to showcase Irish traditions including the promotion of what we now call ‘Gaelic Games’.

By 1913 he had been elevated to the highly prestigious position as Professor of Early and Medieval History in University College Dublin, and he had been asked by the famous Fenian ‘The O’ Rahilly’ to write a column for the paper  ‘An Claidheamh Soluis’, the now infamous ‘The North Began’.

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had recently been set up in Northern Ireland as a physical force campaign against the proposed implementation of Home Rule (limited autonomy from London) on the island of Ireland.

In his article MacNeill wrote that he believed there needed to be a Nationalist response to the UVF so communities can defend themselves in case of aggression from Loyalists.

The article stirred up a great many people and got the chattering classes talking no end in a way that exceeded the newspapers hopes and expectations, and ‘The O’ Rahilly’ urged him to call a conference on the issue, which he did.

After the nuts and bolts had been agreed at a meeting in Wynns Hotel, the great and the good were invited to the official launch of the “Irish Volunteer” in the Rotunda.

From the get go MacNeill was at pains to stress that this new force was merely a defensive one and would not be taking offensive action like the Ulster Volunteer Force was threatening.

Little did he know that there were others on the leadership council of the group who had very different aspirations than he.

Not long after its formation – September 21st 1914 to be exact -   John Redmond made a speech in Woodenbridge near Arklow Co. Wicklow where he called on members of the Irish Volunteers to enlist in the British Army as he claimed this would ensure a favourable response in Westminster to the implementation of Home Rule.

His call was condemned by MacNeill an others such as Padraig Pearse, and it lead to a breakaway group being formed which became known as the ‘National Volunteers’.

All the while others in command structures were drawing up plans unbeknownst to him to undertake an insurrection against British rule in Ireland, which was to become known as the Easter Rising.

It was whilst residing in Woodtown Park House in Rathfarnham that a snitch informed him of the plans for the Rising, and he promptly worked steadfast to have the event called off.

So while the event did take place on Easter Monday, only a fraction of the Volunteers took part, with many branches taking heed of a covert notice that was published in the Sunday Independent officially calling the event off.

Eoin MacNeill was later to become an MP for Clare in the Free-State parliament, had supported the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War and was a strong advocate of the use of summary executions against leaders of the Anti-Treaty forces.

When he lost his Dáil seat he took up a Professorship with the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and he remained In that position until he took retirement in 1941.

He was to pass away four years later in 1945 as a result of contracting abdominal cancer.

I wonder as he sadly lay in the bed knowing he was close to passing away, did he think he would become such an integral part of Irish history?

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