By Shane Browne
The kidnapping of Bulmer Hobson is an extraordinary, but largely forgotten, tale of the Easter Rising of 24–29 April, 1916.
Born in Belfast in 1883, Hobson had been a rising star in the Irish Republican Brotherhood but with the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in November, 1913, his estrangement from the radical and separatist element within the movement had widened.
Hobson had believed the policy of the Irish Volunteers should have been to prepare for a defensive struggle using guerrilla tactics, only engaging in combat if forced to do so, but this policy would put him at odds with some of his colleagues within the IRB.
Historian, Charles Townshend, has described Hobson as an “unusual kind of ‘physical-force man’, but a dedicated revolutionary for all that”. In his 1909 pamphlet, Defensive Warfare: A Handbook For Irish Nationalists, Hobson had firmly asserted, “we must not fight to make a display of heroism, but fight to win”.
Thus, his disillusionment with the insurrection of Easter 1916 was not the repudiation of force, but “the futile use of arms”. He saw the Irish Volunteers as purely a defensive force, but the radical separatists were of a different ilk, believing the Irish Volunteers should become “an instrument for insurrection”.
As a result, Hobson was not privy to the final arrangements for the Rising.
Marnie Hay, Hobson’s biographer, has concluded, “By mid-January 1916 at the latest, Hobson was aware that the IRB was planning an insurrection.” Mortimer O’Connell – a fellow member of the IRB and an Irish Volunteer who fought at Jameson’s Distillery on Easter Week – remembered him as the “outward show of the IRB”.
Consequently he “was in a key position”, and in the eyes of O’Connell, was “unusually influential”. This unusual influence, especially over some of the younger men in the movement, meant Hobson’s card was marked.
Denis McCullough – who along with Hobson had led the revival of republicanism in Belfast in the early twentieth century – would also warn him to “adjust his attitude and actions accordingly”, as a rising was inevitable. Hobson, however, ignored these warnings, and would subsequently take “every action possible, within the constraints of his IRB oath of secrecy, to avert an insurrection”.
In Hobson’s view the insurrection went against the amended IRB constitution of 1873, whereby a mandate was needed from the majority of the Irish people before incurring an act of war against the British Empire. He had also wanted the training and tactics of the Irish Volunteers directed towards a guerrilla campaign, agreeing with J.J. (‘Ginger’) O’Connell’s analysis that hedge fighting was best suited to the Irish terrain.
Hobson had asked O’Connell, chief of inspection for the Irish Volunteers, to draft a memo on how the Irish Volunteers should wage any future war – and while Hobson still felt any conflict would inevitably incur loss – he firmly believed that if it was distributed “over the whole… it will never be a serious loss to any individual”.
However, it was a speech at a Cumann na mBan concert on 16 April, 1916, that was the catalyst that finally marked him down for ‘arrest’ by his IRB colleagues. Here Hobson had unabashedly warned “of the extreme danger of being drawn into precipitate action”, proclaiming that “no man had a right to risk the fortunes of a country in order to create for himself a niche in history”.
Desmond Fitzgerald, an organiser for the Irish Volunteers in Kerry, remembered how “one could feel he was treading on dangerous ground”. Many denounced this brash announcement but it was those that saw it as “black treachery” that Hobson had to be wary of.
McCullough recalled running into Seán MacDiarmada after the concert and found him indignant to Hobson’s speech. He angrily exclaimed, “We’ll soon stop this bloody fellow.” Hobson’s influence over Eoin MacNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, was also a major factor in his kidnapping.
Éamonn Ceannt remembered talking with Thomas MacDonagh, who remarked, “Bulmer Hobson is the evil genius of the Volunteers and if we could separate MacNeill from his influence all would be well.”