Monday, November 25, 2013

The Formation of the Irish Volunteers: 25 November 1913

From my collection of ephemera,
a facsimile of the circular sent out to announce the meeting.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first recruitment meeting of the Irish Volunteers. If you google the phrase 'formation of Irish Volunteers' you will find a plethora of histories about this landmark day — some are accurate, some not so much. As is usually the case when it comes to any history, the most accurate picture of an event can be gleaned by looking at a wide variety of resources, including witness accounts of those in attendance1, newspapers of the period, and texts which rely on original documents. When you look at all of the sources together, you have a better chance of coming up with something which best approximates what actually took place.

The first recruitment meeting of the Volunteers took place at the Rotunda Rink in Dublin on 25 November 1913, and two members of my family were present. From my father's side of the family, my paternal grandmother's then sixteen year old brother Michael Francis Magee was present in the audience2.

From my mother's side of the family, Laurence Joseph Kettle, one of two honourary secretaries of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers, took his place on the platform as one of the planned speakers3. Although he was a member of the Provisional Committee, Thomas Michael Kettle, brother of Laurence, did not attend this first meeting — citing illness — but he was fully onboard with the plans in place for the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He later wrote, "I am personally grateful to the founders of a scheme which restores to me my self-respect as a citizen."4

By all accounts there was tremendous excitement in the Rotunda Rink on the evening of 25 November. Clearly many Irish were ready to commit to the creation of a volunteer movement to free Ireland from British rule, and persons from all walks of life and all religious persuasions filled the hall that night. 

A clipping from the Irish Press,
25 June 1948.
The image of Kettle is from May of 1914.
Initially the Provisional Committee had rented out the large concert hall of the Rotunda hospital as the site for the meeting; however, as the date approached it was clear that the number of attendees was going to far exceed the capacity of that space, and so the Rotunda rink was taken5. On the night of the meeting, not only was the rink filled to its capacity of 4,000 persons, but as many as 3,000 additional persons filled the Rotunda gardens and the streets outside, prompting meeting chairman Eoin (John) MacNeill to ask Seán T. Ó'Ceallaigh to chair a concurrent overflow meeting in the large concert hall6.

There were a number of speeches made, including one by Eoin MacNeill in which he exhorted the numbers in attendance to volunteer, telling them not to deliberate but to take action. He told the crowd he wanted only three things from the volunteers: courage, vigilance and discipline. MacNeill then called upon Laurence Kettle to read the Manifesto of the Irish Volunteers. Unfortunately, some segments of the crowd — especially those affected by the lockout — became quite raucous when Kettle stepped up to read the Manifesto. He was alternately booed and cheered, screamed at and applauded. There were reports of blanks fired in the hall and detonators being set off.  Some persons were escorted out of the hall to prevent a full-on riot from breaking out. The din was so loud Kettle's recitation of the Manifesto could not be heard. Nevertheless he read it straight through, reportedly ending his reading with the comment, "This work we are engaged in tonight is a national work. This is not the place for the introduction of small quarrels"7,8.

The laudable object of the Irish Volunteers, as stated in the Manifesto, "is to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland", with the ranks of the volunteers open to all "without distinction of creed, politics or social grade"9.

Despite the disturbances that occurred during the meeting, the outcome cannot be viewed as anything other than a huge success for the independence movement. After the speeches ended, registration forms were given out, and it is said that between 3,000 and 3,500 people signed up. Among the numbers filling out a form on that night was 16 year old Michael Francis Magee. Clearly the speeches had met their mark in the heart and mind of that young man. He kept the pledge he made that night, and went on to fight in the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence10.


1. Bureau of Military history archives has many statements in which witnesses give their recollections of the meeting.
2. Military Pension Record, held privately.
3. Martin, pp. 29, 78, 81, 96, 105. Also, as of late Laurence Kettle has been mistakenly identified as a north county Dublin farmer. Although he was the son of farmer and land leaguer Andrew J. Kettle, and brother of farmers Patrick and Charles Kettle, Laurence was not a farmer. In 1913 he was Deputy City Electrical Engineer for Dublin City.
4. The Irish Volunteer 1:1, 7 February 1914.
5. Bulmer Hobson BMH Witness Statement #51, page 6.
6. Martin, page 91. Interesting to note that Seán T. Ó'Ceallaigh — anglicized Sean T. O'Kelly — served as the second president of Ireland from 25 June 1945 – 24 June 1959.
7. Martin, page 108.
8. Martin, page 29. Bulmer Hobson cites the shouting down of Kettle as a consequence of Kettle's involvement in what Hobson terms as "a local labour dispute", a significant detail considering this inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers took place during the Dublin Lockout of August 1913 - January 1914. This treatment of Kettle was likely a consequence of Kettle's support of family member Patrick Kettle, a north county Dublin farmer, who while willing to negotiate with his farm employees, flatly refused to negotiate with union representatives. 
9. Martin, page 100.
10. Michael Francis Magee served in 'A' company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade. He was a Section Commander during the Easter Rising, and held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant during the Irish War of Independence. Michael was chosen to serve in the Active Service Unit and in 1921, just six months before the truce which ended the hostilities of the Irish War of Independence, at the age of 24, Michael Magee died 22 January 1921, as the result of gunshot wounds he suffered during the abortive ambush at Drumcondra.

For further reading:

1. Bureau of Military History Archives

2. Hobson, Bulmer. A Short History of the Irish Volunteers, Candle Press, Dublin, 1918. (access this text online at

3. Martin, F.X., editor. The Irish Volunteers 1913-1915, James Duffy & Co., Dublin, 1963.

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  1. Never knew any of that history, thanks for telling it

    1. Thanks for your comment Bill! As always, much appreciated.


  2. Hello! For Thanksgiving I am thankful for my fellow bloggers who inspire & teach & entertain us all. Please visit my blog where I list your blog as one of my favorites. Colleen

    1. Thanks so very much Colleen! What a nice thing to be mentioned. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.


  3. Hi Jennifer, Interesting to see you speak of the Kettles. In primary school, we learnt about the family. It's hazy now, but I remember Tom Kettle was the poet and it must have been his father who participated in the Land Wars. They lived at Millview, close to some of my own ancestors. Indeed a number of my lineages come from Yellow Walls, like I do myself. Glad I found your blog.

    1. Hello Dara, and welcome! Thanks very much for your comments. It's lovely to discover our family members lived close by way back when. I have one very old picture of Millview in its better days. You probably know it was demolished in 1971, and the site of Newtown house, St. Margaret's, is now part of a golf course. I've written a couple of articles about Tom and about his father Andrew J., but wanted to bring Laurence back into the light of history, so to speak, since he is often forgotten about or spoken of in a negative way.


  4. Jenn, you have some very interesting relatives! Thanks for sharing this history.

    1. Thanks for your comment Charlotte. As always, much appreciated. They are an interesting bunch aren't they?



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