At 290 Antrim Road, a plaque marks the family home of Bulmer Hobson, once described by British intelligence as “the most dangerous man in Ireland.” It is a somewhat curious thing, a plaque erected as part of the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising, dedicated to a figure who was opposed to that rebellion happening, believing the movement ill-prepared and insurrection ill-advised.
Hobson’s place in Irish revolutionary history is thus a peculiar one. Instrumental in the foundation of Na Fianna Éireann, the republican boyscout movement which raised a direct challenge to the mainstream Baden Powell scouts, he was also central to the reorganisation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the early twentieth century. By then, the IRB movement was in decline and needed saving. By 1910, it was estimated to have as few as a thousand members in its ranks. Dan Breen dismissively recalled a generation who had become “great fellows for talking and drinking and doing very little after that.” However, a younger generation of political radicals grabbed the movement and transformed it. None were more important to the story than Hobson.
Bulmer Hobson was born in Belfast in 1883, the son of Benjamin Hobson, a greengrocer and a Quaker. As a young man he had involved himself in the Gaelic League, as well as serving as secretary to the Antrim board of the Gaelic Athletic Association. His involvement with the IRB began in 1904, when he was introduced into the body by Denis McCollough, another Belfast radical who had, in turn, been sworn into the body by his own father. McCollough and Hobson both sought to rejuvenate the movement and did remarkable work in this regard. In the case of his home city, Hobson remembered that:
At this time, 1904, the I.R.B. in Belfast consisted mainly of older men and it was quite inactive. McCullough and myself tried to infuse new life into it by recruiting young members, and in this we were fairly successful.
In the years preceding the Easter Rising, the IRB was in something of a crisis, and Hobson would recall that “the membership of the whole I.R.B. at this time, 1911, was, I think, about 600–700 in Dublin and about 300–400 elsewhere, the total being probably about 1,000 and certainly not more than 1,500.” Hobson was centrally involved in reviving the IRB, and in influencing the Irish Volunteer movement towards a separatist ideology.
Yet a political commitment to separatism didn’t mean a desire to launch insurrection. As Shane Browne noted in a recent article on Hobson, he saw the Volunteers “as purely a defensive force, but the radical separatists were of a different ilk”. To their mind, the Volunteers were intended to become “an instrument for insurrection.” In a 1909 pamphlet entitled Defensive Warfare: A Handbook for Irish Nationalists, Hobson maintained that:”We must not fight to make a display of heroism, but fight to win.”
It was as an organiser of the young that Hobson was particularly effective, and Na Fianna Éireann emerged from his efforts to organise Belfast’s youth into nationalist politics. As Marnie Hay, a leading authority on the youth organisation, has noted:
During the first seven years of its existence, this nationalist youth organisation developed branches in at least nineteen Irish counties – mainly in the cities and larger towns of Leinster, Munster and Ulster – as well as in Glasgow and Liverpool.
The organisation listed its purpose at the time of its foundation as being “the training of the youth of Ireland, mentally and physically, to achieve this object by teaching scouting and military exercises, Irish history, and the Irish language.” It was implied from the beginning that while young, those within the organisation could have an important role to play, as “though one may be too young to be the possessor of that powerful weapon called a vote, nobody is too young to serve his country, and, if necessary, fight for his country.” Hobson, along with Countess Markievicz, turned Na Fianna into a serious and committed revolutionary body.
Fearful of Hobson’s ability to disrupt insurrection, he was kidnapped in April 1916 on the orders of the Military Council who plotted the Easter Rising in secret, and held in a house in Cabra on Dublin’s northside until the insurrection was underway. Hobson played no further part in the revolutionary movement post-1916, but did become an important figure in the writing of the history of the revolution, contributing very important insights to the Bureau of Military History. Still, while he believed in the need to capture the history of that period, there were traces of bitterness towards some of his contemporaries. That bitterness was probably best captured in his remarks about P.H Pearse, claiming that “he was a sentimental egotist, full of curious Old Testament theories about being the scapegoat for the people, and he became convinced of the necessity for a periodic blood sacrifice to keep the National spirit alive.”
If Belfast awoke to a sense of Fenianism in the early twentieth century, then Bulmer Hobson was in no small part responsible.