Roots of revolution

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Stephen Coyle

THIS three-part series will focus on a prominent Irish revolutionary family who lived in Govanhill in the early years of last century and went on to play important roles in the struggle for Irish freedom. As I will go on to explain the family home was a base where many of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) operations were directed in the lead up to the Easter Rising, a target of police raids, and the centre for the production of revolutionary propaganda during the War of Independence and Civil War. Many prominent figures in the Irish revolutionary movement found their way there, be it on army business during the guerrilla war in Ireland, or as a staging post by Sinn Féin politicians on speaking tours of Scotland to convince the country’s Irish communities, and Scottish public, of Ireland’s legitimate claim to national freedom and sovereignty in the form of an Irish Republic.

Who were this remarkable Irish family and what brought them to Govanhill? They are the Robinson family from Belfast and they have an interesting background. James Robinson was an industrial mould maker, and his wife Sarah Jane Robinson (née Black) was employed as a wool weaver. James’ grandfather had been a Grand Master of the Orange Order and went on to marry a Catholic. James and Sarah Jane were children of exiled Fenians. James’ father made his way to France after the abortive rising 1848 with the help of his Protestant employer who had a great regard for him and his ability as an engineer. They were both born in France but moved to Belfast during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and set up home. They were supporters of Parnell’s constitutional nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party. James was a fluent Irish speaker.

Their oldest son Joseph was born on April 21, 1887 at Sevastopol Street in Belfast, to be followed a few years later by Séumas, who was also born in the Clonard district of Belfast on January 6, 1890. A daughter was to follow. However, it is the military and political fortunes of the two sons that is the focus of this feature.

Band of brothers
Both brothers were educated at Dominican Covent School, Falls Road, St Mary’s Christian Brothers School, Divis Street, and later at De La Salle Brothers, Clonard. Joe, as he was popularly known, left school around the turn of the century and began an apprenticeship as a house painter.

Séumas became interested in Republicanism and Nationalism during the centenary commemorations of the 1798 Rising in 1898 and was ‘determined to devote his life to the Fenian ideal.’

In 1902, at the age of 15, Joe and his younger brother Séumus, joined a newly formed youth organisation called Na Fianna Éireann. A young Belfast Quaker called Bulmer Hobson set up this pioneering group for young Nationalist men in Belfast with the help of some like-minded friends. Hobson had felt there was a lack of Irish cultural and sporting organisations. There was great excitement among the new recruits and Hobson later remarked: “Here was something we could mould into a strong force to help in the liberation of Ireland.”

One of the success stories of the new Fianna organisation was that it had its very own hurling league. Each local area in Belfast was to have its own separate club; the Robinson brothers subsequently joined ‘Oscars’ club. Joe became the Fianna hurling league’s organiser shortly after it was set up. Unfortunately, the initial period of popularity did not seem to last and within a year or two, the Belfast Fianna ceased to exist, caused in part by Hobson’s lack of perseverance and failure to delegate responsibility to others. Nonetheless, it did not dampen the brothers growing spirit of nationalism.

Scotland and scouting
In 1903, the Robinson family left Ireland for Glasgow to try and make a better life for themselves, due to the father not being able to secure steady employment in Belfast. They moved into a tenement building in Govanhill at 10 Robson Street (above right) off Jamieson Street, and close to the junction of Aikenhead Road and Cathcart Road. Soon after arriving in Glasgow, Joe joined the local branch of the Irish language society known as the Gaelic League, but was soon back in Ireland, temporarily leaving his family behind in Scotland.

In 1909, another attempt to launch a new Irish Nationalist scouting body was undertaken by Bulmer Hobson and Constance Markievicz. It was to be somewhat different to the previous model, with more of an emphasis on scouting activities, such as drilling and camping; however, the cultural and language aspects would remain a strong element. This new organisation also had the freedom of Ireland as one of its stated objectives. Joe Robinson, who had remained friends with Bulmer Hobson, assisted in establishing the new organisation also called Na Fianna Éireann. He was at the inaugural meeting in Lower Camden Street, Dublin on August 16, 1909 and was elected to the first committee as treasurer and national organiser. Without doubt, the success of the Fianna in the early months of its existence was due in part to the dedication and commitment of Robinson.

In 1910, Joe Robinson was sent to Dundalk and Belfast to establish branches of the Fianna Scouts; this he achieved with great success. From there he returned to Glasgow, where his family were still residing, to

promote and organise new units of the Fianna. Joseph’s younger brother Séumas was also a member of the newly formed Glasgow Fianna named the William Neilson Slugh (troop) after the Presbyterian boy patriot who was hanged during the 1798 Rebellion. Other prominent early members were Éamonn Mooney, Alex Carmichael and Seamus Reader. Robinson was appointed officer commanding of the Glasgow Fianna, and was still on the National Fianna Executive Council (or Ard Choiste) back in Ireland as its Belfast representative. In 1911 he became national vice-president of Na Fianna Éireann until 1913.

Rejuvenating the revolution
By 1900 the underground Irish Republican Brotherhood was in decline and what had once been a fighting force was now a group of old men reminiscing about military defeats. The nadir of the IRB’s fortunes came in 1912 and it coincided with the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill, when the organisation only had a paying membership of 1660 in Ireland and 200 in Scotland.

Joe Robinson was prominent in the IRB, the secret Fenian organisation, of which his grandfather had once been a member. He joined in Ireland in 1911 and used his knowledge and experience to the benefit of the local Glasgow IRB circle. He would subsequently become ‘centre’ of that circle, and was deemed a commandant.

In January 1913, the Unionists in Ulster formed the Ulster Volunteer Force, the purpose of which was to provide an effective military opposition to Home Rule. Eoin MacNeill recommended the formation of a similar force and at a meeting attended by over 30,000 people in the Rotunda in Dublin in November 1913, 4000 names were handed in to enrol in the National Volunteer Force, which pledged itself to defend Home Rule from the UVF threat. Ten days later on December 4, 1913 a government proclamation forbade the importation of arms or ammunition into Ireland. The government had watched Carson’s drilling and arming for 11 months without saying a word. When Nationalist Ireland followed suit, they acted at once.

In 1913, Joe Robinson was instructed by Séan MacDiarmada of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood to establish a local Company of the recently founded Irish Volunteers organisation in Glasgow. He became Captain of the first Scottish Irish Volunteer Company. Although strongly influenced by John Redmond and the constitutional Nationalists of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the new body was extensively infiltrated by the IRB. By October 1914, there were more than 2000 volunteers in Scotland. When the First World War broke out, Redmond pledged the volunteers to the British war effort, precipitating a split in the organisation. The rupture in Ireland was replicated in Scotland with the bulk going over to the Redmond camp. When the split with the Redmondite National Volunteer faction came in 1914, Robinson immediately set about re-organising and recruiting for the Irish Volunteers. He swore in new recruits like Michael O’Flanagan to the IRB at his home in Robson Street.

On his regular visits to Dublin, Joe (above) would attend senior Fianna Éireann and Irish Volunteer meetings and would usually stay at the home of his close friend Constance Markievicz, at Surrey House in Rathmines. He was in Dublin for the Howth gun running, which involved the delivery of 1500 Mauser rifles by the Asgard to the Irish Volunteers at Howth harbour in 1914 and was a key participant in that event.

Support grows
Joe Robinson’s importance for the National movement really took off from this point. In the months leading up to the Easter Rising, the Irish Volunteers in Glasgow had many in their ranks who were working in munitions factories and shipyards, recalled his brother Séumas. The IRB and Na Fianna Éireann constantly raided for explosives at collieries near Blantyre, Hamilton and Uddingston and the anarchists were initially blamed. Seamus Reader records that on Thursday November 11, 1915, Eamon Murray of the Dublin Fianna came to Glasgow on behalf of Countess Markievicz and the Irish Citizen Army. He stayed at 10 Robson Street. He was told that stuff had lately gone over and he was delighted when told that he might be picked for a raid if he stayed a while. Four days later the Bothwell Park Colliery Power Magazine was raided and three tonnes of explosives, 500 Detonators and 25 feet of strum or fuse were procured. Murray, Joe Robinson, Seamus Reader and local Volunteer Seamus McGallogly, who worked at the colliery, were among those involved in the raid.

The following tribute from Margaret Skinnider, the Glasgow school teacher and member of Cumann na mBan, was paid to the Glasgow Fianna who she drilled and trained: “I must show you some photos of my boys in Glasgow. They are about 14 or 15 years old and they certainly have done their bit for Ireland, although they were not over in the fight [Rising]. You know Glasgow is in Scotland, it is the centre of a great coal and iron mining district. In the mines they use a great deal of dynamite and gelignite for blasting. Well we used to go and raid places to get this gelignite and dynamite to send over to Ireland. In one night we took 500lbs of explosives, 220lbs of dynamite and 230lbs of gelignite. This was the biggest haul we ever had in one night. I will show you some of the little boys who were there. It lets one see what a boy can do when there are millions of Irishmen and women doing nothing.”

A significant supply of explosives was freely given by Scottish miners who were supporters of the Clydeside socialist John Maclean. The explosives were then smuggled across the Irish Sea by Fianna boys and women from the Anne Devlin Branch of Cumann na mBan, who travelled from Glasgow to Dublin with guns and ammunition, much of which went to the Irish Citizen Army. Two of these women were Margaret Skinnider, and a woman who is named only as ‘Miss O’Neill.’ Lizzie Morrin, a dressmaker from Govanhill, made waistcoats and jackets with hidden pockets for carrying guns and ammunition unobtrusively. Joe later said of these activities that his men were ‘engaged in the highly dangerous and important task of obtaining and shipping munitions and explosives to Ireland for the purpose of the Rising.’ These were sent to Dublin, often via Belfast.

Rising on the horizon
In January 1916, Joe Robinson received orders from the Supreme Military Council of the IRB to send 28 of his best men to Kimmage in Dublin for further training for the approaching uprising. He was also due to leave for Dublin himself to prepare for events but on January 20, along with Seamus Reader, he was arrested by local detectives, who were acting on a tip off from Dublin police.

In an article he wrote in the early 1960s Seamus Reader related how the arrests came about.

“At a meeting with Seán MacDiarmada of the Supreme Military Council in Dublin, he said that Ireland would be forced into action at any moment, that events in England, and especially in Scotland, were moving fast, and that certain Irish and Irish-American transactions had got out of hand,” he wrote.

“He said he was sending two short statements to Scotland on the facts that I had been aware of, and that I should be able to make the necessary explanations, and that for that reason, he wanted me to go back to Scotland at once, to speed up affairs. He said it was important that Joe Robinson should get the men on the special list to Dublin, as port controls would get tighter and my work more difficult. He also stated that it had been suggested that I should take instructions for Dungannon, on my way, but his opinion was that I should go tomorrow, Wednesday, January 19, from Dublin to Glasgow. I agreed to do so. He gave me five pounds, two letters and Fianna badges for the men, to show when they came to Dublin.

“I then met Cormac Turner and Sean Hegarty on the premises. He said he had promised Joe Robinson that he would let him know when he had arrived safely. I told him not to bother, as I would be in Scotland as soon as his postcard. I left them with Sean MacDiarmada and went back to Surrey House. I learned afterwards that, earlier that night, or on the next morning, Wednesday, January 19, Hegarty did send a telegram to 10 Robson Street, Govanhill, Glasgow, stating ‘Arrived safe and well’ signed ‘Reader.’ Before going to bed that night, I memorised my interview and coded some notes for my report in Scotland.

“I learned later—in the month of May 1916—from Joe Robinson that, while I was aboard a ship on my way to Scotland, Joe Robinson’s home at 10 Robson Street, Govanhill, Glasgow, was searched at 11pm on January 19, 1916. Found in the house was a telegram from Dublin, stating ‘Arrived safe and well,’ signed, ‘Reader.’ This telegram was sent by Sean Hegarty to Joe Robinson, unknown to me. Also found in the house, in a cabinet, was a .22 automatic pistol, some cartridges and a list of Dublin addresses. In Joe Robinson’s pocket were found the keys of the Glasgow Irish Volunteer Headquarters Hall, 32 Ann Street [now called Midland Street]. Joe Robinson was put under arrest in the early hours of Thursday, January 20, at 12.15am. Later that day they searched the hall and papers relating to the Irish Volunteers were found. Some high explosives, and cartridges were also found. Robinson was then taken to prison, and detained.”

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