Eoin MacNeill was born in County Antrim on May 15, 1869, the second-youngest child in a family that consisted of five boys and three girls. His father, Archibald MacNeill, was a baker, sailor, and a merchant. Combining all these skills, he set his family up to live what would be perceived as a middle-class lifestyle in the Glens of Antrim in this era. His mother was Rosetta MacNeill (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 MacNeill siblings would on go on to become high achievers in the areas of education, medicine, and the family business. Young Eoin attended the local school where he received his primary education mixing with Protestant and Presbyterian children. The local Protestants and some Irish speaking Presbyterians tended to venerate St. Patrick because of his association with the Slemish Glens. Later, he attended St. Malachy College, Belfast where he studied for the examination for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He also studied for a modern language scholarship. He then went on to gain a degree in Trinity College Dublin and attend lectures in Kings Lynn on constitutional history, jurisprudence, and political economy.
MacNeill was an avid learner and reader of the Irish language, both Old and Middle Irish. He was initially self-taught, and later studied the Irish language under the tutelage of the Jesuit scholar Edmund Hogan. He visited the Aran Islands on a regular basis, where Gaeilge is the spoken and written word in all aspects of life. The study of language, in turn, led him to the study of Irish History.
MacNeill then obtained a junior clerkship in the accountant-general office in Dublin’s Law Courts. He was the first clerk ever to be appointed by competitive examination rather than 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, nine out of eleven clerks were Catholic.
Continuing his work in the field of academia and the Irish language, he contributed articles to the Irish Ecclesiastical Record and the Gaelic Journal. In 1893, he took a leading role in the founding of the Gaelic League, 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 (and unpaid) role of becoming secretary to the Gaelic League. He was also co-editing the "Fáinne an Lae" (Daylight) and acting as the first editor of "An Claidheamh Soluis" (Sword of Light). He married Agnes Morre in 1898, and became the father to four sons and four daughters. The combination of all of these responsibilities 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) and distaste for correspondence.
By this time, he had met and become a close friend of Patrick Pearse. He nominated Pearse as a member of the Gaelic League Executive Committee. 1902 saw him establishing an Irish language printing business, which left him with heavy financial losses. Undeterred, he then went on to become the Vice President of the Gaelic League, replacing Fr. Michael O’Hickey. He was appointed to the chair of early Irish History at University College Dublin, forfeiting his pension rights at this time. He took a leading role in in the campaign to make Gaeilge compulsory for matriculation in the new University. He published “Irish in the National University,” a plea for Irish education, in 1909.
When MacNeill 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. He published an article in November of 1913 called "The North Began" in "An Claidheamh Soluis" which was a country wide appeal to all rebels. This led some separatists associated with the Irish Republican Brotherhood to approach him to ask him to take up the lead in organising the Irish Volunteers.
At this point in his life, MacNeill was seen by some as a Redmondite who was being manipulated. Despite this uneasiness at MacNeill's support for the moderate 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 Volunteers to demand an end to compromise on the Home Rule issue; pressurising the liberals to grant Home Rule to Ireland. However, this did not happen. 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 and Irish Republican Brotherhood) to give in to avoid nationwide disruption. This set the divide in which a fraction was led by MacNeill with Hobson as his chief counsellor, while Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse et. al were perceived as the inner sanctum of the Irish Republican Army. The fact that Pearse and MacNeill 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 MacNeill's willingness to accept Pearse’s assurances between 1914-1916 was that their friendship and commitment to Ireland’s greatest cause remained intact. When it was revealed that his friend had systemically misled him about the plans and armoury for the 1916 Rising, his indignation had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.
MacNeill 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: an Independent Ireland. Pearse, however, had an ideological perception of war being "against the evil empire" at whatever cost. There were no grey areas for him. This of course would have caused many heated discussions, and perhaps it may be the reason why Pearse could not take MacNeill into his confidence about the Rising.
Early in April 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood convinced MacNeill that a crackdown was imminent by producing a forged "Castle document" (possibly based on genuine contingency plans.) It was only on Maundy Thursday (April 20, 1916) that MacNeill discovered that the IRB group were preparing for a general mobilisation on that Easter Sunday. He initially agreed (reluctantly) but then he found out that the documents that he had been shown were in fact fraudulent. Information had also been sent to him by Roger Casement indicating that the consignment of armoury would not be sufficient to go ahead with the Easter Rising. As a consequence of all of these issues being presented to him, he sent out messengers around the country ordering a general demobilisation. He also took out an advertisement in the Sunday Independent, 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 the consequences of all of the actions which contributed to the Easter Monday Rising 1916 are now in the public domain.
MacNeill was subsequently arrested after Dublin Castle identified him as the person who had called for the suppression of the Rising. He was court-martialed and charged with directly contributing to the Rising by establishing, arming and training the Irish Volunteers. He was deprived of his University College Dublin chair, and sentenced to life imprisonment. 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. MacNeill continued his political and academic career, which spanned over fifty years. He resigned his professorship in 1941, and died in 1945.
More from this series:
Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Inghams.
Now available to order from Waterstones USA ;England /Ireland