On St Patrick’s Day, 1916, thousands of men and boys in uniform — almost half of them carrying arms — took to the streets of cities and towns to demonstrate the growing membership.
Even they did not know on that mid-March Friday that they were being readied to take varying roles in a major rebellion against British rule in Ireland by the end of April.
But only the week before the patron saint’s national day, Dublin Castle had been advised that Irish Volunteers leaders were being warned to be in readiness for a German landing “at an early date”.
Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) inspector general Neville Chamberlain went on to write that general parades of the movement had been ordered, “probably as a test of their strength”. Sure enough, they turned out in huge numbers, with police taking note of who was in charge, how many took part in each event, and to what extent they were armed.
From almost 40 county inspectors (Cork, Galway, Tipperary and others were split into two Ridings), reports compiled in RIC headquarters put the numbers who turned out at just over 4,500 outside Dublin city. When 1,400 who paraded there — from among the capital’s estimated 2,225 Irish Volunteers — were added, it was seen that a total 5,955 members of the organisation had shown up at nearly 40 events in 19 counties.
It was not just the police or government who were increasingly of the belief that something major was imminent. Sean Cody of Dublin Brigade’s 1st Battalion G company recalled nearly 40 years later to the Bureau of Military History how, at that time, “It was felt by all that soon something big would take place.”
Even the British military had to take an alternative route as soldiers carrying war material on horse-drawn vehicles encountered the procession of Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army that occupied the length of Dame Street from City Hall to College Green.
“A large force of armed police were simply powerless to intervene and I cannot recollect a single incident to mar the fine demonstration arid the high standard of discipline and training displayed by the combined republican forces,” Cody said.
It was certainly, as historian Fearghal McGarry has described it, like a dry run for a rising.
Earlier, the Dublin Brigade attended a military Mass in Saint Michael and John’s Church, which was unable to hold all Volunteers, so the 3rd Battalion had to attend an earlier service. An armed guard inside the altar-rails presented arms during the consecration, while Brigade officers saluted with their swords.
Perhaps more alarming than the numbers turning out nationally was the fact that 2,637 Volunteers— almost half those on parades nationally — were carrying rifles or shotguns. These were part of an arsenal of nearly 4,000 such weapons believed by police to be in Irish Volunteers ownership.
They were mostly the remnants of the rifles from the 1914 gun-running episodes at Howth and Kilcoole, or arms owned by, donated or loaned to, Irish Volunteers companies from across the country. And many of those companies chose to carry pikes or hurleys rather than risk confiscation of their small, but precious, collections of arms.
In many cases, the Irish Volunteers (who were secretly coming under increasing control of the Irish Republican Brotherhood) marched alongside the ranks of the National Volunteers.
But in many places this militia, under the nominal control of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond were by now an inactive organisation. Their numbers were slowly dwindling over the previous year, in tandem with once-strong public sympathy for the European war effort.
In Cork city, the Irish Volunteers boasted nearly 1,100 men as they took up position at the tail end of the civic parade organised under the chairmanship of Lord Mayor Thomas Butterfield. There had been speculation, mainly fuelled by the Cork Constitution — a unionist rival to the Redmond-supporting Cork Examiner — of possible tension between Tomás MacCurtain’s Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, and the National Volunteers from which they had split 18 months earlier.
But while there was little basis to the rumours, companies arriving from around the county by train were under strict orders not to use ammunition without an order, or to be under the influence of drink.
(The recent failed prosecution of a Ballinspittle Volunteer who had accidentally fired two shots from a shotgun leaving a pub after a Sunday march could have influenced the need for such instructions. The journey home from one of Co Clare’s four St Patrick’s Day parades, at Carrigaholt, saw a row break out among two locals, and Irish Volunteers instructor Philip Curtin was remanded in custody by the local magistrate for breaking Michael O’Dea’s jaw in three places.)
Despite the impressive numbers, police reported “no demonstration of sympathy” among the public who watched the processions, “nor was the attitude of the spectators very encouraging.” Indeed, that could have been an understatement of feelings among the 2,000 who lined the route of the Cork parade — from the Western Road, it moved in Great George’s Street (now Washington Street), left onto South and North Main Streets, along Pope’s Quay and Camden Place, over St Patrick’s Bridge onto St Patrick’s Street, Grand Parade, South Mall and ending at Parnell Place, where Lord Mayor Butterfield addressed the crowd.
Taking up the tail of the proceedings, the Irish Volunteers marched behind the much smaller cohort of 250 National Volunteers. They, in turn, were led by boy scouts carrying ropes, explained by placards as marking the space “reserved for the four hundred of our comrades now fighting for Ireland in the trenches”.
Such evocative reference to the local men at war in Europe might have encouraged the verbal abuse felt by the Irish Volunteers marching behind, particularly from family members of the missing soldiers.
“‘British soldiers’ wifes [sic] and daughters spit in our faces, using vile language as they swarmed out of the slums on the principal streets,” wrote John Lordan in 1950, a Kilmichael native who marched with the Volunteers from Kilmurry near Macroom.
They and others had left their limited arms at home, parading instead with croppy pikes made at a forge in Crookstown, a sign of the poor levels of weaponry at the disposal of the organisation.
It was this shortage which made the ongoing plot to import rifles from the Germans a crucial one if the imminent Rising was to succeed.
Outside of Dublin, the following numbers of Irish Volunteers paraded on St Patrick’s Day, 1916, according to police records:
1,080 men (560 with rifles or shotguns)
617 (206 armed)
748 (461 armed) in Limerick, Newcastlewest and Ardpatrick
748 (367 armed) in Tralee, Dingle, Caherciveen, Killarney and Listowel
165 in four locations
138 in a church parade in Carrickmacross
137 in Garranboy, Carrigaholt, Newmarket-on-Fergus and Crusheen
130 (59 armed) at Coalisland and Boragh
122 (14 armed) in a church parade in the city
116 (24 armed) in Wexford, Ferns and Enniscorthy
109 (49 armed) in Dovea, Tipperary and Dualla
76 (all armed) in Ballinagh
65 in Athlone and Tyrrellspass
65 in Ballaghadereen
60 (21 armed) in Castlebar
50 in Tullamore