Ulster & the Irish Revolution

22 June 2015

The exodus of thousands of Northern Irish nationalists to the new Irish Free State following partition in 1921 and their forgotten influence on the Irish revolution was explored at a major conference in Trinity College Dublin on Saturday, June 20th, 2015.

The experience of this group of northern activists, who fled Ulster because they faced arbitrary detention and continuous persecution at the time of the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty, has been largely forgotten. Forgotten too has been this group’s significant contribution to the Irish revolution. 

Today we are faced with the striking paradox that while many of the key individuals who revived Irish republican nationalism in the early 20th century were from Ulster, they and their experiences have been excluded from the 1916 pantheon, explains Professor Eunan O’Halpin, Professor of Contemporary Irish History and co-organiser of the conference with Dr Marnie Hay of St Patrick’s College Drumondra/DCU.

The influx of this group of young and energetic nationalists to the new Irish Free State had a significant impact on its culture and politics. For the remaining nationalist minority in the new Northern Ireland the loss of this group, many of whom were political and cultural leaders, resulted in political stagnation, he says.

“It is now time to reconsider the influence of prominent Northern political figures such as Eoin MacNeill, whose article “The North Began” in An Claidheamh Soluis in 1913 triggered the foundation of the Irish Volunteers, along with Seán MacEntee, Patrick McGilligan, Frank Aiken and Kevin O’Sheil. We also need to re-examine the influences and experiences of the many other men and women from Ulster such as Bulmer Hobson, General Dan McKenna, Mabel FitzGerald and Seán Lester who came south and made huge contributions in public service, business, the professions, the Garda Siochána, the defence forces or in family life.”

Entitled, The North Began? Ulster and the Irish Revolution, 1900-25, the conference is being hosted by the School of Histories and Humanities in Trinity  and St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra and forms part of the national Decade of Centenaries programme. The symposium is aimed at a general audience and will feature a mix of academic discussion, the personal reflections of descendants of Northerners who migrated to the new Ireland and cultural interludes including a choir performance and poetry reading.  It will also focus on important new sources for studying this overlooked aspect of Irish history - the Bureau of Military History, the Ernie O’Malley notebooks, the Military Service Pensions and the O’Kane and Marron interviews.

Topics explored at the conference included Bulmer Hobson and Northern Republicanism, the Ulster Literary Theatre and the partitioning the civil service and the legal profession. The symposium also heard from the audience about the personal impact upon families and communities of this forced migration.

“As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising it is a timely opportunity to reconsider the neglected experiences and influences of Northern republican activists who made their lives in the new Ireland after 1921. Their successful assimilation into the political, economic and cultural life of the Ireland has had the consequence that history has largely forgotten the difficult circumstances in which they left the North,” Professor O’Halpin added.

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