Bulmer Hobson did not enjoy iconic status in the Irish history books, nor did he enjoy any real recognition in the Free State Government -- he has in fact, quite literally been confined to the margins of Irish history. Yet on all aspects of early 20th century Ireland, Hobson's name can be found in all the footnotes. He does, however, merit an entry into Henry Boylan’s "Dictionary of Irish Biography" (1999) and a brass plaque also adorns the bar in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin, which gives testament and some recognition to his importance In the Irish Volunteers movement.
Branded as the most dangerous man in Ireland in his heyday, Hobson's legacy can be found in his remarkable personality, the characteristics of his activism, his organization skills, his captivating rhetoric and a fundamental pacifist, always speaking out on behalf of the underdog.
All of this, however, was not how his colleagues in the Irish republican movement perceived him. He was scorned by many in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Cumann na mBan, and the Irish Volunteers, where he was perceived as a traitor.
Séan O’Casey loathed Hobson, always mocking him as having “a moony face, bulbous nose, and long hair covered by a mutton-pie hat." Countess Markievicz wanted to shoot him, with Patrick Pearse being the only one of the movement to give him a little credit, attributing the line “he is not lacking in physical courage” to him. The Volunteers hated him and never acknowledged him at all.
Hobson married Claire Gregen a Roman Catholic, which required a papal dispensation since, as a Quaker, he was a non-Catholic. Despite having reneged on his own Quaker background in joining the Irish republican movement, he sent his two children to a Quaker school in Waterford.
Born John Bulmer Hobson, he belonged to a prosperous pacifist Quaker family. His father, Benjamin Hobson, was a commercial traveler and a firm supporter of William Ewart Gladstone, a British Liberal politician who served as prime minister on four separate occasions, that is, from 1868–74, 1880–85, February–July 1886 and 1892–94.
Hobson's mother, Mary Ann Hobson, was from Darlington, in the north of England, and was a women’s rights activist and a suffragette, travelling to London to support all demonstrations for women’s rights. She was also an amateur archaeologist. She had long been involved in the Belfast cultural activities, giving a lecture titled, “Some Ulster Souterrains" as a representative of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in 1901. She founded the Irishwomen’s Association with her friend Alice Milligan, who lived next door to her. The Hobson family resided on Hopefield Avenue, in north Belfast and all three children were educated -- and boarded at -- The Friends School in Lisburn, County Down.
(Right: Members of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club at the Giant’s Causeway in June 1868.)
Hobson was born into a family where everything and anything was discussed at the dinner table -- nothing was left off the agenda, no views barred. His political influence were absorbed by participating in all discussions, and not least by family friends who lived next door, particularly Alice Milligan and Anna Johnson, who were both poets. So through these discussions at home, he learned the art of taking on the weaker side in every argument, particularly from his father. His mother provided Bulmer the political content, while Johnson and Milligan provided him nationalistic influences.
Given the background of being immersed in the Quaker Doctorian – and the conflicting radical side of his mother’s character; and his father generous spirit, Hobson made the decision at a very early age [13 years] to immerse himself in Irish history and politics. Heavily influenced by Milligan and Johnson, he subscribed to the nationalist journal Shan Van Vocht [a song, an Irish alliteration of "The Poor Old Woman"], a secret name for Ireland in 1798, when Ireland was expecting help from the French in the form of manpower and weaponry from revolutionary France. Unsurprisingly, the connection with this song and the journal is Theobald Wolf Tone, a rebel, and regarded as the father of Irish republicanism in this era, and the 1798 Rebellion. Hobson was an ardent fan of Wolf Tone and read almost anything he could find about him.
By the time Hobson was 21 years old, in 1904, he had been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by friend Denis McCullough. Hobson also joined the Gáelic League and the Gáelic Athletic Association. He was promoted to secretary of the Antrim County Board of the Gáelic League, and then resigned to help found Na Fianna Eireann, Ireland’s First republican Boy Scouts, with Countess Marcievicz in March 1909.
(Right: Members of Na Fianna Eireann at an Irish Language Training Camp Portmarnock, County Dublin, in 1920.)
Interestingly, studies undertaken by Sean Worgan at Keele University in Staffordshire, would suggest that between 1905 and 1907, Bulmer Hobson was also heavily influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian nationalist at the heart of the Italian Risorgimento [Resurrection], the 19th century movement that sought to unify Italy as an independent nation.
Having now absorbed these various influences in his early years, Hobson was still not content with being a part of all these nationalist strands, and, working full time as a printer, he and McCollough, a Catholic steeped in a Fenian background, founded the Dungannon Clubs. [Hobson described them as ‘semi-literary, semi-political and patriotic.’] Hobson was also heavily involved in writing in 1905 the manifesto which he called ‘‘To the Whole People of Ireland." Ostensibly, these clubs were formed to celebrate the Volunteers' success in securing for Ireland its own Parliament within the United Kingdom.
They were however an ‘open door’ for the Irish Republican Brotherhood and to promote Sinn Fein, which had been founded by Arthur Griffith in Dublin in 1900. This then, evolved into the Protestant National Society and was used as a means to recruit young Protestants into the Irish nationalist movement. Hobson became one of the key figures in the ongoing revitalization of the Irish Brotherhood in Ulster, along with Sean MacDermott, Patrick McCartan, Ernest Blythe and McCullough. Hobson also became involved in Sinn Fein.
So passionate and steeped in all aspects of Ireland's nationalist struggles was he that it was around this time that he, and not Griffith, was invited to the United States to introduce the Sinn Fein movement. Hobson was hailed as a hero for all his efforts.
(Left: A young Hobson, taken during his visit to the United States.)
Highly intelligent and a very industrious man, Hobson was arguably the most powerful man in Ireland in all the Irish republican movements between 1900-1914. Always looking for ways in which to promote Ireland’s cause, he was a founding member of the Ulster Literary Theater, and wrote a poetic drama called "Brian of Banba," specifically to be dramatized in that theater. His weekly newspaper, Republic, merged with the Peasant newspaper after six months, in an attempt to bring further attention to Ireland’s cause.
During Hobson's tour of the United States, he captivated the audiences. Prior to his return to Ireland, he read an article written by Arthur Griffith, politician, writer and one of the founders of Sinn Fein, the most powerful movement in 1900. Griffith was calling for the creation of just one association, to bring together all of the disparate nationalist groups of the era.
Hobson decided this was the best way forward for Ireland, and subsequently discussions took place between Hobson and Griffith. The consultations led to a decision to amalgamate all the Dungannon Clubs with Cumann na nGaedhead ["Tribes of the Gaels"]. So in 1907, The National Council merged with the Dungannon Clubs to form the original Sinn Fein [“We Ourselves” or "Ourselves Alone"]. Shortly, he was promoted to the vice presidency of Sinn Fein.
By this time, with no work available in Belfast, Hobson made the decision to move to Dublin, circa 1907, depending on which historical source one is reading. Dublin was the hub of all Irish nationalistic causes. He soon became firm friends with Thomas Clarke [executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising]. This friendship would last until 1914, when clashes about the leadership of the Volunteers would cause a permanent rift between them.
Not a person who shied away from controversy, Hobson left Sinn Fein in 1910 because of policy disagreements, and then gave his time to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He then contributed to a newspaper, titled Irish Freedom, once again highlighting the need for Irish republicans to pursue Irish freedom from British rule. Later in 1911 he took over the editorship of it from Patrick McCartan. [Some sources would suggest that he actually co- founded the Irish Freedom newspaper with McCartan.]
Interestingly, controversy surrounded Hobson's elevation to the IRB's Supreme Council in 1911. This just so happened to coincide with accusations of embezzlement of funds sent by the Irish-American organisations to the IRB. The resignation of Fred Allen and Sean O’Hanlon followed -- they were defiant in their support of T.J Daly, the accused, calling the allegations an outrage. Unsurprisingly, in view of this rancor, younger men, like Thomas Clarke, moved into positions of leadership within the IRB. Later that year, Fred Allen [who it has been said was one of the most powerful man in Ireland in the late 1800s] was reinstated to the IRB Supreme Council, having been persuaded to publish Irish Freedom – but he found it increasing difficult to assert his authority. Quarrels soon broke out and Allen again resigned with deep regret.
Hobson went on to excel in his new position and was elevated to the chairmanship of the IRB's Dublin Centres Board. Later in 1911, he was one of the principal founding members of the Irish Volunteers, retaining a primary connection with the IRB.
(Right: Unloading the Asgard at Howth.)
On the 26th July, 1914, Hobson was instrumental in putting a plan together, to bring sufficient Volunteers and their supporters, i.e., Cumann na mBan, in a discreet manner – to unload and distribute the cargo of weaponry and armory that was on the yacht Asgard at Howth, which had sailed into Dublin waters in broad daylight, amid a chorus of people gathering and, shouting encouragement. Despite the intense intervention of the King's Own Scottish Borderers battalion the Volunteers evaded the security forces – they managed to unload all the weaponry, secreting it away in safe houses around Dublin and beyond, for use in insurrection.
As secretary and member of the Volunteers' provisional council, Hobson [against the fervent pleadings of Clarke] was instrumental in allowing the Irish parliamentary leader John Redmond [a Home Rule supporter] to gain control of the Volunteers organisation. Reluctantly, Hobson gave into the demands of the Home Rule supporters that Redmond control the Volunteers, unwittingly believing that defying Redmond, who was very popular with most of the rank-and-file Volunteers, would cause a split that would lead to the Volunteers demise. Clarke, who was steadfastly opposed to this transition of power to John Redmond, never forgave him for this, and ever after only spoke to him in in the medium of formal meetings. Their friendship was forever severed. Hobson soon resigned from the Supreme Council, [citing his opposition to its growing militancy] . To add insult to injury, he was then sacked from his job as Dublin correspondent for the newspaper Gaelic America.
Hobson remained a full a member of the IRB, attending meetings with the rank-and-file. He was perceived as an outsider by those remaining on the Supreme Council, so he was not privy to any information of real importance. The chief of staff, Eoin MacNeill (left), was also considered an outsider. [MacNeill was not a hard liner like the more militant of the Supreme Council.] As far as the Supreme Council of the IRB were concerned, Hobson and McNeill sang from the same hymn sheet, that is, freedom from British rule could be gained by peaceful negotiation, not insurrection. Therefore, neither MacNeill or Hobson had any insight into how the Supreme Council intended to go forward. Rumors and speculation, however, kept Hobson aware that something ‘big’ was afoot -- and thus he kept MacNeill Informed of the rumors.
When speculation of a an intended insurrection turned into a reality, Hobson then alerted MacNeill that the Volunteers had received orders that the upcoming insurrection was planned for Easter Sunday. On that day, MacNeill issued an order countermanding this order, which kept most of the Volunteers from participating but served to delay the insurrection by a day.
To halt any more information from disseminating to the Volunteers from MacNeill, the Supreme Council, knowing Hobson was the informant for MacNeill, had Hobson kidnapped by Volunteer comrades on the afternoon of Good Friday, April 21st, 1916, and held him at gunpoint in one of their safe houses in Phibsborough [or Dorset Street] in Dublin, depending on which source one is reading]. He remained a captive until the evening of April 24th, when the Easter Rising was well under way. After the Rising, he went into hiding fearing for his life, and to avoid arrest -- this action would hurt his future political prospects, and led to rumors of him betraying the Volunteers.
He then withdrew from the revolutionary movement altogether, and made a living by involving himself in the Dublin's Gate Theatre, in forestration projects, and in the writing of non-political materials. He took no major role in either the IRB nor the subsequent War of Independence. While MacNeill went on to serve in the new Free State Government, Hobson was confined to a civil servant post and was appointed as the chief of the Revenue Commissioners Stamp Department, the very first government department that the IRB had infiltrated in any depth, which may or may not have been a comfort to him. While in this post, he was a fervent believer in social credit, and was an early advocate of quantitative easing [ the government printing money].
After his retirement in 1948, Hobson had a house built at Roundstone, in Connemara. Always a genial host and a good conversationalist on a wide range of subjects, he had many friends who visited him there. His wife, Claire [nee Gregan], died in 1958; he had been separated from her in the late 1930s. After a heart attack in 1960, Hobson went to live with his daughter Camilla and son-in-law,John Mitchell, in Castleconnell, County Limerick, where he finished the account of his life "Ireland, Yesterday and Tomorrow."
Although his voice may have been squelched by the changing political dynamics of the IRB and subsequent Irish governments, Hobson retained his thirst for putting his thoughts on paper and publishing major works, including "The letters of Wolf Tone" and "The Life of Wolf Tone," "A National Forest Policy," "Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow" and others.
On the subject of the Easter Rising, he maintained that "it was an intense personal tragedy, too painful to talk about ... I have spent most of the intervening years trying to forget it." A controversial figure in life, in death, controversy still stalks him.
Hobson died in 1969, and is buried in an obscure grave on the shores of Dog's Bay near Roundstone, marked by a rectangular white marble slab that reads: