'Irrepressibly active in cultural and political causes': Bulmer Hobson, Easter's Forgotten Militant

Perhaps the least known major contributor to the revolutionary movement in early twentieth-century Ireland, John Bulmer Hobson (1883-1969) nevertheless deserves recognition for his part in building up the organizations that coalesced in the late-1910s. Undoubtedly his relative obscurity stemmed from his loss of face within the republican movement in the run-up to the Easter Rising of 1916, but prior to that point, this would-be artist, journalist, and political strategist and activist connected colleagues in his native Ulster with those based in Dublin. Born in Belfast to Quaker parents, Bulmer Hobson drew political inspiration from a variety of influences. His father Benjamin had supported Gladstonian Home Rule, while his mother Mary Ann was a suffragist whose friends included the republicans Anna Johnston and Alice Milligan, editors of the newspaper Shan Van Vocht. Milligan introduced the teenaged Bulmer to the works of Standish O’Grady and inspired him to participate in a variety of organizations associated with the emerging cultural nationalist movement. These bodies included both the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association, in whose ranks Hobson thrived and encountered other like-minded young people, including Dennis McCullough, with whom he struck up a vital working friendship. McCullough, whose father had been a leading member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Belfast, initiated Hobson into the IRB in 1904. Together, they recruited a young migrant from County Leitrim, Sean MacDiarmada, into the IRB as well. Along with Patrick McCartan, a Tyrone-born medical student, this group of young men played a major role in reinvigorating the largely moribund IRB alongside the veteran Fenian Tom Clarke, who returned to Ireland from the USA in 1907. 

Between 1900 and 1916, Hobson was irrepressibly active in cultural and political causes. Until 1908, his primary field of operation was Belfast, where he worked through debating clubs, athletics, and the theatre to, ideally, broaden the appeal of nationalism to northern Protestants. Believing that educating young people about Ireland was a critical foundation on which to build any future movement, he established youth branches of the GAA and an Irish scouting organization in Belfast as early as 1902. The latter body did not grow as he had hoped, but it served as the forerunner to the group he would found with Countess Constance Markievicz in 1909, Na Fianna Eireann, which attracted many thousands of members in subsequent years. Perhaps the longest-lived group he helped to launch in the early 1900s was the Ulster Literary Theatre. Hobson initially wanted to found an Ulster Branch of the Irish Literary Theatre; however, W. B. Yeats was unenthusiastic about a northern satellite beyond his direct control, and the ULT started as a distinct enterprise in 1904. It remained an important theatre into the 1930s. At about the same time took, he launched the Dungannon Clubs in communities around Ulster to encourage discussion of separatist and republican ideals and propagate the self-help ethos associated with the nascent Sinn Féin party and its founder, Arthur Griffith. Unlike Griffith, whose ‘Hungarian policy’ sought to create an Irish parliament still connected to the British Crown, Hobson spoke in favor of complete separation of Ireland from the United Kingdom and the establishment of a republican form of government.

By early 1907, some radical nationalists considered Hobson as a potential alternative spokesman to Griffith for their cause, and he even travelled to the USA in February at the invitation of Fenian leader John Devoy.  By then Hobson had corresponded with one of McCartan’s allies, the Philadelphia-based Clan na Gael officer Joseph McGarrity, and his letters in the McGarrity Papers housed at the National Library of Ireland testify to the younger man’s energy, inventiveness, and occasional overreach. That Hobson did not supplant Griffith, even after moving to Dublin in 1908, is perhaps testament to that very overreach. His many activities made it difficult for him to focus on any single one of them, especially because he found it difficult to maintain a steady paying job. He withdrew from the Sinn Féin executive in 1909 and returned to Belfast for a brief period during which time he considered living on a farm owned by McGarrity. Instead he returned to Dublin, where he devoted his energies more fully the republican and Irish-Ireland causes. His relationship with Clarke proved vital in these years. They had developed a friendship during Hobson’s earlier time in the city, and according to Hobson’s biographer Marnie Hay, Clarke viewed the younger man as a latter-day John Mitchel. As Clarke’s star rose on the IRB Supreme Council—he would become its treasurer and primary conduit for action in Dublin—so too did that of Hobson and his associates, especially McCullough and MacDiarmada, the latter of whom would ultimately supplant Hobson in Clarke’s affections. 

Hobson also joined the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League, which was also the main conduit through which the IRB recruited Dublin language enthusiasts. Hobson became head centre of the Teeling Circle and, eventually, the chairman of the Dublin centres board. He supported himself through journalism, working as Dublin correspondent for Devoy’s New York-based Gaelic American newspaper, and editing the monthly separatist newspaper Irish Freedom, while encouraging the growth of yet another republican organization, the Freedom Clubs. To be sure, the IRB remained a small and secretive body, with fewer than 2,000 active members, and what dominated most people’s attention in the period of 1912-1914 was passage of the third Home Rule bill—and the increasingly strident opposition to it from Ulster Unionists. What fatefully brought these two streams of action together was the crisis spawned by the formation of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913 and the subsequent formation of the Irish Volunteers in November, ostensibly to defend Home Rule should it become law. At the head of the Irish Volunteer executive was the historian and co-founder of the Gaelic League, Eoin MacNeill, but beside him in leadership positions were IRB men, including Hobson, who served as secretary. Only weeks later, in anticipation of a trip to the USA, Hobson administered the IRB oath to another member of the executive, the Gaelic revivalist and schoolmaster Patrick Pearse, whose own nationalism had become radicalized over the course of the Home Rule crisis. 

How was it, then, that Hobson’s star faded? Two primary factors separated him from the inner circle of those, like Clarke, Pearse and MacDiarmada, who were planning the Rising. The first was a strategic decision he made in May and June 1914. The Irish Volunteer ranks had grown throughout spring 1914, despite the indifference of the Home Rule parliamentary leader John Redmond. But by May Hobson was involved in conversations about whether to welcome closer contact with the Redmondites. Ultimately, when it looked as if Redmond might create his own separate organization, Hobson convinced a majority of executive members to expand the committee and allow more parliamentary party men into leadership positions, preventing temporarily a split in the paramilitary movement and facilitating the rapid growth of Volunteer numbers. Clarke and other IRB Supreme Council members, however, disagreed vehemently with this action, making Hobson’s position within republican ranks less tenable. He lost his positions with the Gaelic American and Irish Freedom, and although he remained on the Leinster executive of the IRB and as head centre of the Teeling Circle, he withdrew from the Supreme Council.

The second was a major philosophical difference between Hobson on the one hand and Clarke’s IRB compatriots on the other. As early as 1909, Hobson wrote a pamphlet titled Defensive Warfare: A Handbook for Irish Nationalists arguing that Irish self-reliance required preparation to fight in the nation’s defense, but that such fighting should occur only if one had to (such as if the government struck against the republican organization) and if the people supported that fight.  On the latter point, he was invoking the IRB constitution of 1873, drafted in the wake of the failed Fenian Rising of the 1867. While it was logically consistent, his position placed Hobson outside the IRB mainstream. Thus, according to the Bureau of Military History Witness Statement of Mortimer O’Connell, another member of the Teeling Circle who was close to MacDiarmada, ‘Hobson was absolutely genuine but he was not a physical force man. He was a Republican and Separatist, but beyond that, he didn’t quite see where he was going’. Indeed, after the Great War erupted in August, Clarke and other members of what came to be called the Military Council of the IRB invoked another Fenian dictum, i.e., that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity to strike for freedom, and they began planning the rebellion for spring 1916 without Hobson’s knowledge. He became suspicious in the weeks prior to its planned outbreak, and as secretary of the Volunteer executive and a local IRB leader, he remained in position to undermine it. in fact. His concerns about what might be afoot led him to prod MacNeill into asking questions of Pearse during Holy Week 1916, a process that ultimately led MacNeill to issue the famous countermanding order. It also resulted in the Military Council determining to sideline Hobson through kidnapping him on Good Friday and holding him over Easter Weekend. O’Connell was one of those charged with keeping him under wraps until the rebellion was under way. 

The contrast in career trajectories between Hobson and O’Connell underscores the importance of Easter Week in the subsequent revolution and foundation of the Irish state. O’Connell joined in the fighting at Jameson’s Distillery, served time in Frongoch internment camp, participated in the Volunteer Convention of 1917, and fought during the War of Independence. He would later serve as Clerk to Dáil Éireann. Hobson, meanwhile, went into hiding for the next year. By the time he re-emerged, his former colleagues viewed him with suspicion, and he never re-attained his former position at the center of affairs. After the foundation of the Irish Free State, he became a civil servant and author but lived out a life in relative obscurity. Among Ireland’s most important republicans prior to 1914, Bulmer Hobson had become Ireland’s forgotten militant.

About the author: Dr. Timothy G. McMahon is associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and currently serves as Vice President of the American Conference for Irish Studies. He is the author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910(Syracuse University Press, 2008), and the editor of Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer, (Cork University Press, 2000).

Click here to see a Vimeo of his talk at Inspiring Ireland 1916: 'Reflecting The Rising'

Visit his staff page at Marquette University here   

Further reading:

Sean Cronin, The McGarrity Papers: Revelations of the Irish Revolutionary Movement in Ireland and American, 1900-1940 (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1972)

Marnie Hay, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth-Century Ireland (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009)

Bulmer Hobson, Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1968)


1. David Rooney's lithographic interpretation of Bulmer Hobson's imprisonment in IRB member Martin Conlan's Phibsborough house where he was guarded by Mortimer O'Connell can by purchased here. It is one of 42 individual portraits that accompany the book1916 Portraits and Lives published by the Royal Irish Academy in association with the Office of Public Works. It is available for purchase here.

2. Studio portrait of Bulmer Hobson: part of the National Library of Ireland collection in Inspiring Ireland. View it and other objects here.

3. The photograph of Mortimer and Josie O'Connell was contributed by his grandchildren at the Inspiring Ireland 1916 Collection Day in the National Library of Ireland on December 9, 2015. Visit the Inspiring Ireland Collection Day pages to see this and other objects contributed by members of the public in Dublin, London and New York.

An exhibition about Bulmer Hobson, who subsequently worked for new Irish state's Revenue Commissioners overseeing the printing of stamps, passports, tax discs, pension books and other ‘secure’ documents, and Mortimer O'Connell, who was working for the Commissioners of Customs and Excise in 1916, is currently on view in the Revenue Commissioners Museum, Castle Yard, Dublin Castle.

Cite this blog post using the following format (MLA):

McMahon, Timothy G., “A Closer Look at Inspiring Ireland 1916: "Bulmer Hobson, Easter's Forgotten Militant.” Digital Repository of Ireland. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to Inspiring Ireland 1916].

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