The letter penned on Easter Saturday, April 22, 1916, by Irish Volunteers chief Eoin MacNeill, is one of around 20 he is thought to have dispatched to rebel leaders in an effort to call off the planned revolution.
Only two other copies are known of, one in the National Museum and one in the National Library, making it the only known copy to come to auction.
“Volunteers completely deceived. All orders for to-morrow Sunday are entirely cancelled,” says the note signed by MacNeill on what is now a tatty piece of paper, embossed with an address at Rathfarnham, Dublin.
Kieran O’Boyle, valuer at Adam’s auctioneers who estimate it at €30,000 to €50,000 in their Irish history sale on April 15, said it is being sold by relatives of the Kildare volunteer Edward Moran. He was one of the messengers sent around the country with the instructions not to go ahead with the planned mobilisation the next day, Easter Sunday, after MacNeill discovered Irish Republican Brotherhood plotters had tricked him into believing there were urgent British plans to suppress the Volunteers.
University College Dublin modern Irish history professor Diarmaid Ferriter said it was as a result of this countermand by MacNeill that the 1916 Rising was almost entirely confined to Dublin.
“Even there, the numbers were only about a quarter of what they might otherwise have been,” said Prof Ferriter. “The countermand order was one reason why the Rising commenced in confused circumstances.”
But while leaders in the capital proceeded with what numbers they could muster a day later than planned on Easter Monday, the confusion caused by MacNeill’s hastily written notes led Cork, Limerick, and most other parts of the country to postpone their plans, meaning the British military concentrated on quashing the Dublin rebellion. Ironically, it was the sympathy and anger caused by the execution of the leaders of the failed rising which prompted the wider public sentiment that went on to fuel the War of Independence.
“MacNeill was trying to get the message out to as many places as possible and also took out the famous ad in the Sunday Independent,” said Mr O’Boyle. “Military witness statements suggest he could have written up to 20 of these orders, but most are unlikely to have survived as the significance would not have been realised, until maybe after the Rising.
“After the Proclamation of Independence, copies of which come up occasionally, this is the second most significant document connected to the Rising as it significantly changed the immediate course of Irish history.”
The same auction includes a copy of the Proclamation, which was bought at an Adam’s auction for €240,000 in 2007 but has a pre-sale estimate of €100,000 to €140,000. The firm sold a different copy in 2012 for €100,000 and another last year for €96,000.