Irish Secret Societies in the 19th Century

From the Lecture Series: Secret Societies

By Richard Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Although Irish secret societies were fractioned and dispirited due to their constant failures, they wouldn’t stop pursuing their goals toward independence. In 1914, a new opportunity presented itself as England was in trouble: the war with Germany. Before the start of the war, a new political crisis rose in Ireland that affected all the following events.

A street barricade erected by the rebels in Dublin during the Rising
A street barricade during the Sunday Easter uprising. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The British Parliament had agreed to approve home rule for Ireland. But it raised red flags to the Orange Order as the Irish parliament would be dominated by the Catholic majority. So, Orangemen formed a group of 100,000 militia called the Ulster Volunteers. In response, with the support of the Ancient Order of Hibernian, the Irish Republican Brothers created the Irish Volunteers with 200,000 members. The British army was in the middle of this. Most British officers in Ireland were Protestants, and many belonged to the Orange Order. In March 1914, about 100 officers in the Irish garrison resigned and joined the Ulster Volunteers. This led to a civil war, but the European war averted it. Although home rule had passed, the British government decided to postpone its enforcement.

Learn more about secret societies: the underworld of history.

Another Failed Attempt for Independence

As a result, nationalists were convinced that London would never agree to home rule. One of these nationalists was Sir Roger Casement, who was famous for his loyalty to the crown and revealing injustices in the colonial Congo and the Amazon. As a result of these investigations, he had turned into an anti-imperialist and pro-Irish-independence.

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He had a pivotal role in the creation of Irish Volunteers. In 1914, he asked the Germans to help them in their new revolution. The Germans agreed with caution. They had planned to launch the rebellion on Easter Sunday, April 1916. But things didn’t go as planned. Informers had tipped off the British, who then intercepted the ship that was carrying the arms from Germany. The casement was apprehended and taken to London.

Sir Roger Casement
Sir Roger Casement was a diplomat and Irish nationalist. He later became a humanitarian activist, poet and Easter Rising leader. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

In Dublin, the Irish rebels had mobilized 1,200 men against the 16,000 British soldiers and 1,000 Royal Irish Constabulary. A new failure was imminent. The leaders knew that they couldn’t defeat the British army, so they planned to capture key buildings like the post office and the city hall. They wanted to continue the capture until they gained international recognition. They could resist for six days, finally leading to the death of 500 people, half of whom were innocent civilians. 15 or 16 leaders of the opposition were executed, and more than 3,000 Irish civilians were rounded up by the British.

Sir Roger Casement was convicted of high treason and sentenced to hang. He might have received leniency due to his past services. But his homosexuality led to his execution as Scotland Yard revealed he had recorded his relationships with men and boys in the so-called Black Diaries.  

A Big Step Towards Independence

The movement continued to fight for independence. In December 1918, elections were held in Ireland, and the Sinn Féin Party won the elections. It was the legal political wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In January 1919, nationalist militants announced the independence of Ireland. Among them was a survivor of the Easter Sunday rebellion, Michael Collins. Knowing that factionalism and betrayal were the two destroyers of Irish nationalism, he demanded unwavering loyalty and obedience as the IRA’s adjutant general and director of intelligence. He formed the Squad to wipe out informers in IRA ranks and operated the IRA as an armed secret society rather than an army.

Collins in London as delegate to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations.
Michael Collins demanded unwavering loyalty. (Image: Agence de presse Meurisse/Public domain)

The Irish Free State is Born

In 1922, the Irish Free State was established, although it didn’t have full freedom. It had internal autonomy, but it was still a territory of the British crown. Members of the Irish Parliament had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king. This was a source of great disappointment for many Irishmen. The Protestant Ulster separated into Northern Ireland, which led to even more frustration. Collins believed that these compromises gave Ireland ‘the freedom to attain freedom’. Many others refused to accept it and swore to keep on their fight. As a result, the newly-established Irish State faced a civil war. IRA brothers turned into hostile forces. In August 1922, the anti-treaty forces killed Michael Collins in an ambush. But it turned out he was right.

Learn more about the 1930’s-“the low dishonest decade”.

Finally, in the 1930s, the Republic of Ireland was born, and in 1949, Ireland gained full independence from the United Kingdom.

But the Irish secret societies still didn’t want peace with England. They continued to work with the Soviet Union and Nazis to challenge England during WWII. In the 1960s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army launched the so-called trouble and continued for 30 years, keeping Northern Ireland in a state of war. Troubles officially ended in 1998 with the Good Friday peace agreement. But a secret faction named the Real IRA is still active until now.

Common Questions about Irish Secret Societies in the 19th Century

Q: Who was Michael Collins?

Michel Collins was an effective leader of the IRA. He realized their failures were due to factionalism and informers. So, he demanded unquestioned loyalty and secrecy from the members.

Q: Who was Sir Roger Casement?

Sir Roger Casement, a man who’d loyally served the crown, and gained international acclaim for exposing colonial injustices in the Congo and the Amazon. He was against imperialism and staged a rebellion against Britain. However, he failed and was executed by the British.

Q: When was the Irish State established?

The Irish State was established in 1922. But it wasn’t a fully independent state. Despite having internal autonomy, it was a dominion of the British crown.

Q: When did Ireland gain independence from Great Britain?

Ireland gained full independence in 1949. Before that, in the 1939s, the Republic of Ireland had been born. And in 1922, the Irish State had been established.

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