Article about the foundation of Na Fianna Eireann – The Irish National Boy Scouts by the late Donnchadh Ó Shea
Writing in her twilight years Helena Molony prophesised “there is a certain section who want to prove that Madame Markievicz was only a tool, and that Bulmer Hobson and those started the Fianna. I would not be surprised to hear that the IRB say that they had decided to start the Fianna”. (WS391)
When the 1964 Handbook was being prepared for publication copies of the history section were sent, for checking, to various historians and to past members of the Fianna who had supplied information for it. Most of the veterans were very happy with the section. A small few, however, were rather unhappy with the version of Fianna History finally presented in the Handbook. This was especially so amongst some of the survivors of the 16th August 1909 meeting in 34Lr Camden Street who had later described themselves, in the festivities of 1959, as the real founders of the Irish National Boy Scouts. Another person who was unhappy with the account was FX Martin OSA, the then Professor of Medieval History at UCD. He was the author of some articles dealing with the pre 1916 period, who had used Bulmer Hobson as a major source in his writings.
FX Martin, who seems to have accepted Bulmer Hobson’s version of Fianna’s history, commented, “It is excellently produced and edited. But I have one criticism, a serious criticism of the section ‘The History and Tradition of Na Fianna Eireann’, pp24-26. Countess Markievicz is there described as the foundress of the Fianna. In fact it was Bulmer Hobson; he was at least as much a founder as the Countess. You’ll get the information you need in the newspapers of 1909, in ‘The Irish Volunteers 1913-1915′, (ed FX Martin, O.S.A. Dublin 1963, pp 18-23) and from some of the oldest members Eamon Martin and Gary Houlihan (sic) also the Hobson Papers in the National Library of Ireland”
Chief Scout Liam Mac Nulty, in reply, explained “when we went about compiling the book we worked from old Fianna literature and we were helped by Cumann na Sean -Fhianna in Cork and other people in different areas each of whom wrote about his own area”.
Eamon Martin had initially seemed quiet happy with the history. However after an approach from FX Martin he wrote complaining, “The idea for Fianna originated at a small gathering of friends in the home of Helena Molony- at which Madam was present”. “You make it appear that the organisation was already formed when Hobson “was invited to assist”. This is completely wrong. Hobson presided at the inaugural meeting and in fact was elected President. It was when he had to go to Belfast for a prolonged period that Madam was elected president”. “The approach to the headmaster was made after the meeting in Helena Molony/s house, and did not come before, as you term it, the “invitation to Hobson”.
Unhappy with the thought that an erroneous version of the history had been published the Fianna GHQ took FX Martin’s advice and consulted the newspapers of the time. They had already consulted Hobson’s version and FX Martin seemed to have used him as his main, or possibly only, source. It became very obvious the FX Martin, despite his excellent advice to consult the papers of the time, had ignored the accounts in Bean na hEireann. He also, surprisingly, appeared to have ignored the writings of the Countess and the other female founders, some of who were still living.
He appeared especially unwilling to accept the accounts of the ladies where they differed from those of Bulmer Hobson.
Two years later FX Martin, writing in the letter pages of the Irish Independent, took Madam Czira, a veteran of the time, to task for daring to suggest that the Countess had founded Fianna. (19 Mar 66 Irish Independent). He quoted from An Claidheamh Solus of autumn ‘09. He made the outrageous suggestion that the Countess’s attempt had failed and that Hobson’s experience brought about the rise of the new organisation. Fianna leaders wondered, rather unkindly, if he was in some way anti feminist, as he seemed to have ignored the fact that the original Red Branch section was still operational in late summer after the renaming of the organisation.
Detailed research and further consultation with veterans of the early days showed that the Hobson version was not accurate and that the description given in the Handbook was clinically correct. Eamon Martin had accompanied Hobson to the meeting in Molony’s house, but the National Boy Scouts had already held their first camp by then with the boys supplied by Mr O’Neill the schoolmaster in Brunswick Street. After the Camden Street meeting they had changed the name of the National Boy Scouts from the Red Branch Knights to Na Fianna Eireann. Unlike FX Martin, who seemed have relied completely on Bulmer Hobson, the Fianna researchers had consulted a variety of authorities. These included the most important source, the journal of Inighnidhe na hEireann, which reported the organisation some weeks before the Molony meeting at which Hobson was present, Countess Markievicz’s own writings, reports of the early Ard Fheiseanna, Madam Czira, Seamus Reader and others.
Obtaining the different accounts and examining the varied claims I checked them with the records of the time. Of these the most useful were those in Bean na hEireann. They showed conclusively, in terms of dates, that the accounts of Madame Markievicz were in line with the dates of meetings and events in 1909 and that Bulmer Hobson’s accounts were not. On the printed accounts of the time Madame Markievicz’s accounts are accurate while those of Bulmer Hobson, who always used the excuse of working from memory and not consulting records of the time, are not accurate. Some of the more relevant quotes follow.
“There were two distinct organisation, both for boys, which bore the name Na Fianna Eireann, both founded by me but on different dates, one in Belfast in 1902 and the other in Dublin seven years later”. (Irish Volunteers p17)“
“Early in August 1909, in Sherrard Street, Dublin, in the house of Frank Molony, brother of Miss Helena Molony, I told the Countess Constance Markievicz of the organization.” (Irish Volunteers p17/18)
“I told Constance Madame Markievicz, then a very new recruit into Sinn Fein, about my venture. A few days later she became the tenant of a small Hall at 34 Lower Camden Street”. (Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow p16).
(This latter statement suggests that, as described by the Countess, Hobson became involved only a few days before the Camden Street Hall was hired. As shown by Bean na hEireann at that time the organisation was already some weeks in existence. It is probably the most definite statement by Bulmer Hobson that his initial function was to rename an organisation at least two months in existence. D.O’S)
2 Eamon Martin.
“The idea for the Fianna originated at a small gathering of friends in the home of Helena Molony, at which Madame was present, after listening to Bulmer Hobson recount some of his experiences in Belfast and particularly his having started a Boy’s Club, in 1902, which he had named Na Fianna Eireann”. (Letter to GHQ Fianna Eireann 26.2.1964)
“You (handbook of 1964) make it appear that the organisation was already formed when Hobson was “invited to assist”. This is completely wrong. Hobson presided at the inaugural meeting and was in fact elected President”.
“No such committee as you mention was formed. Padraig Mac Gadhra was never attached to the Fianna”.
3 Countess Constance Markievicz.
“At this time Helena Molony, …Sean Mac Gadhra and Padraig Mac Artan were what you might call an informal committee, talking and planning and dreaming of our organisation that was to be. We called ourselves “The Red Branch Knights” and set to work to try and learn signalling, scouting, drill how to organise etc.
I had been told that Bulmer Hobson had run an organisation for boys in Belfast some years before and that he liked and understood boys; so I told him I was willing to take a hall, and asked him to come along and help. At his request we named the organisation Na Fianna Eireann and in memory of the organisation in Belfast.” (Published originally in Nodlaig na bhFiann 1914 and reprinted in Fianna Oct 1935)
This was written in 1914 for Nodlaig Na Fian. The article was accepted as a truthful history at that time.
The most precise detail and relevant evidence came from the pages the journal of Inighnidhe na hEireann. Bean na hEireann detailed the early history of the Irish National Boy Scouts. It was published each month on the first of the month so that any events described in an issue had to have happened previous to that month.
”Many of our readers will be glad to learn that a branch of National Boy Scouts has already been formed….they call themselves the Red Branch Knights. Bean Na hEireann Vol9 July 1909 page 8…(This indicates that the Irish National Boy Scouts were in existence in June 1909)
Report on the First Annual Conference of the Fianna…The secretary, (P O’Riain) in the opening of his report, referred to the great thanks due to the Countess for not only founding the organisation but the untiring way she insisted in every sphere. Bean Na hEireann Vol 19 Sept 1910
Joe Reynolds… “Fianna was founded by Madame Markievicz, Con Colbert, Eamon Martin and others in 1909″. Dublin’s Fighting Story p202.
It is obvious from all the above that Madame Markievicz founded the Irish National Boy Scouts before July 1909. She initially named her organisation The Red Branch Knights. They had a number of meetings including one weekend camp before August 1909 as described in the main text. The same section had another week long camp in August ’09. At the Lr Camden St meeting where Bulmer Hobson presided the Irish National Boy Scouts changed their name to Na Fianna Eireann. One of the researchers quipped rather unkindly that to say Bulmer Hobson founded Fianna was like claiming that a priest who christens a child is its biological father.
I was unable to account for Eamon Martin’s letter. He was at the meeting in Helena Molony’s house and must have known that the organisation existed before then. Surely he had contacts with some of the lads from Westland Row School? He was a past pupil of the school and knew Mr O’Neil the headmaster who introduced the first boys to the Countess. The scouts still met in Brunswick Street or Rathmines until the Countess got the Camden Street Hall when they transferred there. Eamon Martin had left St Andrews School in 1907 but still kept in touch with his old teacher Mr O’Neill who told him “ he had been approached by a Countess Markievicz, who asked him to recommend the organisation to his pupils and explaining that it was to be national I outlook and purpose. Accordingly I went to the meeting which was held in what I learned later was a small theatrical hall at 34 Lower Camden Street. I was accompanied by a comrade, Patrick Ward, who later became treasurer of the organisation”. (Eamon Martin WS591)