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Marnie Hay, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909-1923: Scouting for Rebels

Sylvie Kleinman
p. 165-167
Référence(s) :

Marnie Hay, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909-1923: Scouting for Rebels, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019, 288 p.

Texte intégral

1By the late 19th century, the Gaelic Cultural Revival had popularised early Irish myths and the heroic tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the boy hero and his band of young warriors, the Fianna. “Fenians”, an anglicised version, had become an umbrella term for an international network of Irish militant separatists, but they evidently live on (in both guises?) in Ireland’s national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann. When Constance Markievicz and Bulmer Hobson founded a nationalist uniformed youth group in Dublin in 1909, firmly intended to counteract the pro-British Baden Powell Boy Scouts, they logically named it Na Fianna Éireann. It was to be the nucleus of a future Irish army. Training in military drill commenced immediately, and Con Colbert (one of the sixteen executed in 1916, aged twenty-eight) was their first instructor in elementary formations. Classes instructed recruits on Irish history and languages; to be fit citizens of a free nation, it was essential to train body and mind, and learn of historic role models to emulate, and one’s national culture.

  • 1 Marnie Hay, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth-Century Ireland, Manchester, Ma (...)

2Though ostensibly boys of all political persuasions were welcome, Hobson intended the Fianna to foster republicans, and in 1912 created a Fianna circle of the underground Irish Republican Brotherhood, elegantly masking as the John Mitchel Literary and Debating Society; both Colbert and Seán Heuston (also executed after the Easter Rising, aged twenty-five) joined it. Hay credibly demonstrates how the Fianna were “the military trailblazers” of Irish nationalism: rising through the ranks and into adulthood, within a few years their officers were training and / or transferring to other adult paramilitary groups, namely the Irish Citizen Army and the Volunteers after 1913. Their existence is well engrained in nationalist memory, and serving and former Fianna participated in every conflict of the revolutionary decade from the 1913 Lockout to the Civil War (on the anti-Treaty side), the timeframe of this study. Yet, though Markievicz romanticised their role in 1924, and wrote of Colbert and Heuston winning martyr’s crowns in 1916, it is only relatively recently that they have become the subject of dedicated studies. Scholarly yet very accessible thanks to its clear and fluid prose, this book accounts for the organisation’s early history and its actual military contribution to the Irish Revolution, and flows naturally out of Hay’s published doctoral thesis on Hobson1. Her further research focused on childhood and youth in Ireland, a long neglected strand overshadowed by adult actors of history. Thus this book rescues from oblivion many obscure but dynamic members and organisers. The movement’s broader Irish and international contexts, development and membership, its range of activities, and its role in generating and disseminating print propaganda are discussed in thematic chapters. The Fianna experience itself is discussed in terms of their military training, scouting skills, historical and patriotic instruction-cum-indoctrination, and social and nationalist networking. For example, they provided parading and piping displays at major national events. Though discipline and order were fundamental, the author does not neglect episodes of adolescent mayhem. Initially aimed at boys eight to eighteen, some older officers remained into their twenties, and some girls joined in Belfast and Waterford, but only for short stints. By 1922, entry was set at boys only, aged twelve minimum. Due to its gender bar, the movement was never truly national, but rituals and rhetoric embraced a secular ethos. Knowledge of squad, company and ambulance drill, and understanding commands in Irish were essential. Then came full scouting skills, route marches and camping trips. The cover illustration of the first Fianna Handbook (1914) was an unsophisticated yet evocative scene of a Celtic warrior in a barren landscape with a slain victim at his feet; yet inside were drill diagrams borrowed from British army manuals. The Fianna’s performance is identified, its value assessed, and official recognition by the Irish state is considered. Hay concludes with an analysis of the state’s awarding of service pensions and / or medals to former members, and provision of financial compensation to dependants of fallen members, the ultimate recognition.

3In her prior groundbreaking research, Hay had underlined how “adolescence” had been discovered during this transformative epoch, and demonstrated how the Fianna were expected to promote Irish culture in language, sport, theatre and music. But they were equally imbued with the propaganda of the age which highlighted a moral dichotomy between Ireland and degenerate and debased British people. Fianna print propaganda promoted an idealised image of Irish nationalist youth, stressing patriotism combined with morality. Revolutions are won by feats of arms, but fuelled by ideology. Beyond this lofty concept, which in established nations also sent millions of young men to early graves, many Fianna dutifully smuggled weapons, served as dispatch carriers and orderlies, gathered intelligence, but also built barricades, commandeered bikes, raided shops and vans in the light of day, obstructed communications, and were willing perpetrators of political violence. Overall the book provides a robust and comprehensive history of a movement whose activities encompassed both friends and families, touched by tragedy, or proudly watching bayonet fighting at an aeraíochtaí (outdoor festival). Students, and an international audience, will welcome the constant contextualisation within the bigger historical picture. The perspective is balanced, and foibles are documented. Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution fills a major gap in conventional Irish history, and will facilitate adaptations for secondary schools, allowing adolescents of the future to engage with a far more relevant strand of history than high politics.

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1 Marnie Hay, Bulmer Hobson and the Nationalist Movement in Twentieth-Century Ireland, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2009.

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Référence papier

Sylvie Kleinman, « Marnie Hay, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909-1923: Scouting for Rebels »Études irlandaises, 44-2 | 2019, 165-167.

Référence électronique

Sylvie Kleinman, « Marnie Hay, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909-1923: Scouting for Rebels »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 44-2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 06 mai 2020, consulté le 24 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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