Eoin MacNeil – was born in Co Antrim May 15th 1869 – the second youngest child in a family that consisted of five boys and three girls. His father,Archibald MacNeil was a baker ;sailor ; and a merchant; combining all these skills to set him and his family up to live what be perceived as a middle class lifestyle in the Glens of Antrim in this ere. His mother was Rosetta MacNeil [nee Macauley] . His father had been prosecuted in 1872 for participating in a demonstration against the first Orange march in the Glens. His family were held in high esteem in the Glens of Antrim.
Steeped in education and the history of Ireland in a Catholic enclave- which still retained some Irish-Language traditions ; the MacNeil siblings would on go on to become high achieves in the areas of education ; medicine and the family business. The fact that the local Protestants and some Irish speaking Presbyterians tended to venerated St Patrick because of his association with the Slemish Glens [ St Patrick was said to have been a slave on this glens ; spending six years heading livestock for Mulchi ; the Local Chieftain ] the young Eoin attended the local school where he received his primary education; mixing with Protestant and Presbyterians alike. Later he attended St Malachy College, Belfast where he studied for the examination for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. [RUC]; he also studied for a modern Language scholarship. He then went on to gain a degree in Trinity College Dublin and attend Lecture in Kings Lynn – in Constitutional history/ Jurisprudence/Political Economy .
MacNeill was an avid learner/ reader of the Gáelic language , both old and Middle Irish ; self-taught in the early part of his learning ; he then began to study the Gáelic language under the tutelage of the Jesuit scholar Edmund Hogan. This in turn led him to the study of Irish History; visiting the Arran Isle on a regular basis; where the Gáelic language is the spoken and written word in all aspects of life on the Isle’s.
MacNeil then obtained a junior clerkship in the accountants –general office in Dublin’s Law Courts. He was the first clerk ever to be appointed by competitive examination rather that patronage- he was also the first clerk to be a Roman Catholic/ and not a member of the Church of Ireland. When he left however in 1909 there were nine out of eleven were Catholic.
Continuing his work in the field of academia /education and Gáelic language he contributed articles to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and the Gáelic Journal. In 1893 he took a leading role in the founding of the Gáelic League with other clerks; guided by the inspirational Douglas Hyde who was committed to the necessity of de –anglicising Ireland in the face of over seven hundred years of English rule. MacNeill took the unofficial responsibility [and unpaid] role of becoming secretary to the Gáelic League –combining all of this with co-editing the Fáinne an Lae [Daylight] and becoming the first editor of An Claideamh Soluis[Sword of light]. All of these role’s combined with his paid role of following an intellectual scholarly career – the fact that he had been married since 1898 to Agnes Moore and had become a father [they had four sons and/ four daughter’s] along with all the responsibilities of daily life contributed to him having what has been called a ‘nervous breakdown’ which left him with an abiding lassitude [a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy] and distaste for correspondence. The Gáelic League took a dim view and were none too happy with him being a civil servant in a British Establishment.
By this time he had met and become friends with Patrick Pearse and nominated him as a member of the Gáelic League executive committee; they became very good friends. 1902 saw him establishing an Irish Language Printing business- which left him with heavy losses. Undeterred, he then went on to become the Vice President of the Gáelic League; replacing Fr Michael O’Hickey. Unstoppable it appeared, in his academic intellectual career- he was appointed to the chair of early Irish History [including Irish Medieval History] at University College Dublin; forfeiting his pensions rights at this time.. He took a leading role in in the campaign to make Gáelic compulsory for matriculation in the new University; he published “Irish in the National University;” a plea for Irish Education 1909.
When MacNeil heard that a group calling themselves the ‘Ulster Volunteers’ had been created ; he was one of the first to call for the formation of Irish Volunteers 1913 ; to be based on the Ulster model. He published an article Nov 1913; called ‘The North Began’ in An Claidenmh Soluis which had a country wide appeal to all rebels. This led some separatists associated with Irish Republican Brotherhood to approach him to ask him to take up the lead in organising the Irish Volunteers launched 11.11.1913
At this point in his life- MacNeil was often seen as a Redmondite [an Irish Nationalist Irish politician, barrister, an MP in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1900 – 1918] who was being manipulated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood . Despite this uneasiness at MacNeils support for Redmond; his allegiance to the IRB and his involvement with the Irish Volunteers was unwavering.
He continued to hope, that ‘Redmond’ would use the existence of the Irish Volunteer’s to demand an end to compromise on the Home Rule issue; by pressurising the Liberals [H.H Asquith; Liberal Parliamentarian] to grant Home Rule to Ireland. However, this did not happen, as Redmond demanded that as civil leader of the Irish Nation he should control this Military Force. When Redmond threatened to establish his own rival organisation MacNeill was persuaded by Bulmer Hobson [member of both the Irish Volunteers / Irish Republican Brotherhood who was also opposed the Rising] to give in to avoid nationwide disruption. This set the divide in which a fraction were led by MacNeil with Hobson as his chief counsellor ; with Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse et.al being perceived as the inner sanctum of the Irish Republican Military Army. The fact that Pearse and MacNeil were only ever thought of as being connected by their roles within the Irish Volunteers tends to obscure the debt and length of their personal friendship. What lay at the heart of MacNeills willingness to accept Pearse’s assurances between 1914-1916 was that their friendship and commitment to Ireland’s greatest cause remained intact; which is why when the revelations that his friend had systemically misled him, about the plans and armoury for the 1916 Rising; his lasting indignation at this revelation had a profound effect on him all his life.
MacNeils and Pearse differed on the way forward for a war; MacNeill stood by the principle of the conditions being acceptable for a for a’ just war’; by causing as little harm as possible to achieve their goal; which of course was an Independent Ireland; while Pearse had an ideological perception of war being ‘against the evil empire’ at whatever cost ; there were no grey area’s for him. This of course would have caused many heated discussion’s- and perhaps it may be one of the reason why Pearse could not take MacNeil into his confidence about the plans for Rising; knowing that he would have a different opinion.
Early in April 1916 the Irish Republican Brotherhood group convinced MacNeill that a crackdown was imminent by producing a forged ‘Castle document’ [possibly based on genuine contingency plans] It was only on Maudy Thursdau 20th April 1916 that MacNeil discovered that the IRB group were preparing for a general mobilisation for that Easter Sunday. He initially agreed [reluctantly] but when he subsequently found out that the documents that he had been shown were in fact fraudulent; and information had been sent to him by “Casement” that the consignment of Armoury would not materialise for the Rising; and even if it had have materialised ; it would not be sufficient to go ahead with the Easter Rising. As a consequence of all of this issues being presented to him ; he sent out messengers around the country ; following this up with an advertisement in the Sunday Independent ; ordering a general demobilisation for the Easter Sunday [ knowing that this would be an admittance to his involvement with the Volunteers and the IRB ]. This only delayed the Rising by one day; and as history unfolded; the consequences of all of the actions, and issues, which contributed to the Eater Monday Rising 1916 are now in the public domain
MacNeill was subsequently arrested after Dublin Castle found out that it was him, who had called for the suppressions of the Rising1916. He was Court Martialled; sentenced to life imprisonment; charged with directly contributing to the Rising by establishing, arming and training the Irish Volunteers- he was deprived of his University College Dublin chair.. The following year 1917 he was released with all the other Volunteers when they were granted amnesty. He was reinstated to the chair of University College Dublin after his release in 1917.
PS . MacNeill was primarily a scholar and cultural activist, his political and academic career spanned over fifty years; only resigning his Professorship in 1941 ; he died in 1945.
[once again this series has overlapped into more historical events; these however are stories for another day]