Bulmer Hobson - from revolutionary to civil servant
Bulmer Hobson was born in Belfast in 1883 to Quaker parents. Despite a conventional, middle-class upbringing, he had become a committed nationalist by the time he left school at the young age of 16 in 1899.
He immediately embarked on a whirlwind of activity, founding clubs and societies and joining others, all with the aim of promoting the Irish language, culture and sports. In 1904 he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Belfast where he quickly rose through the ranks.
In 1913 he established the Irish Volunteers and became secretary of its Provisional Committee. The following year he supported the co-option of members of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party on to the Provisional Committee, a move that estranged him from many of his colleagues.
Hobson opposed the Rising, arguing that the time was not right and that a strategy of passive resistance supported by guerrilla warfare was far more likely to succeed than a direct confrontation with the might of the British empire. These views ensured that he was excluded from the planning of the Rising and subsequently written out of the history of 1916.
In October 1924, Bulmer Hobson secured the post of Deputy Director of Stamping in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, where he remained until his retirement in 1948 at the age of 65. The Stamp Duty office was housed in the basement of the State Apartments in Dublin Castle. It is fitting that Hobson found himself working for an Irish Government Department in a building that had until recently been the centre of British power in Ireland for seven centuries.
Bulmer Hobson worked for the Office of the Revenue Commissioners from 1924 to 1948. For twenty four years he was the Deputy Director of Stamping, overseeing the printing of stamps, passports, tax discs, pension books and other ‘secure’ documents. He was a middle-ranking civil servant, one of the many diligent but anonymous people who ensured that the business of the State was carried out.
Turn the clock back to the early days of the 20th century and a very different picture emerges. Between 1900 and 1916 Bulmer Hobson was one of the most influential advanced nationalist leaders in the country; a founder of Na Fianna and the Irish Volunteers, senior member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and a gun runner. In 1914 he had as much sway among nationalists as Clarke, Pearse, MacDermott and the other leaders whose names are indelibly associated with the fight for Irish independence.
Yet within two years Bulmer Hobson had been swept aside. Disagreements over control of the Irish Volunteers and the best strategy to overthrow British rule in Ireland set him at odds with his nationalist colleagues. Almost overnight the ultimate insider became an outsider who played no part in the subsequent emergence of the Irish Free State he had plotted and planned to bring into existence.
In recent years historians have begun to rescue Bulmer Hobson from obscurity. His key role in preparing the ground for the final push for Irish freedom has been recognised. But he remains in many respects the forgotten revolutionary. His rise to prominence and sudden fall from grace is one of the most fascinating stories associated with the 1916 Rising.
In 1905, Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough established the Dungannon Club in Belfast. Its primary objective was to secure ‘the political independence of Ireland’. It also set itself the task of improving the intellectual and physical resources of the country. Within months, several other Dungannon Clubs had been established in places as far afield as London, Newcastle and Glasgow. The manifesto of the Dungannon Clubs, almost certainly written by Hobson, conveys the strength of his feelings about Irish independence. The extract shown here is a battle cry for freedom.
TO THE WHOLE PEOPLE OF IRELAND
DUNGANNON CLUB BELFAST – 1905
I. - Ireland Today
Ireland stands today in the midst of the strong and powerful peoples, weak and miserable; among the wealthy nations we are poor and beggarly, among the proud we cry with a weak voice faintheartedly for that strong and independent national life that can only be won by strenuous effort and great sacrifice. We have but to let things drift, and continue in our old courses for another generation and the Irish Nation will have perished utterly; we have but to turn like men and take the helm into our own hands, and we can make it strong, and great and independent.
We can, if we will, build up a people self-contained, self-centred, self-reliant - a people not looking for the repeal of an English Act, nor for the permission of England to exist and develop to its highest and fullest capacity.
Today we are uneducated, but our people must be taught: today our industries are paralysed, and the people are leaving the land. They must be kept at home here in Ireland, industries must be started.
A complete commercial - a political and social reconstruction of the country is requisite - and has got to be undertaken by the men of Ireland now. It is a great work, but we will not step aside because of the greatness of it. IT CAN BE DONE IF THE PEOPLE WILL, AND IT MUST, OR THEY PERISH.
In 1909, Bulmer Hobson wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘Defensive warfare: a handbook for Irish nationalists’. It was published by Sinn Féin in Belfast because its emphasis on guerrilla warfare and passive resistance did not find favour with the more militant members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin.
The pamphlet argued that violence should be used defensively in support of a national campaign of passive resistance. Hobson’s view was that an occupying power could be defeated if the people withdrew their consent to be governed and decided to govern themselves. He also argued against futile violent gestures. This approach became an article of faith for Hobson and was later to set him on a collision course with other leaders in the nationalist movement.
Bulmer Hobson did more than most to lay the foundations for the successful overthrow of British rule in Ireland. He was, however, opposed to a direct military confrontation, favouring instead a strategy of passive resistance and ‘defensive warfare’.
This strongly held view set Hobson apart from many of his more militant colleagues. And so, despite his prominence in nationalist circles, his commitment to an independent Ireland and his involvement in the Howth gun running, Bulmer Hobson was not part of the Military Council, the core group of IRB members planning the Easter Rising.
But he was still an influential man and the Military Council was concerned that he might try to obstruct their plans to stage a Rising. To remove this danger they decided to have him kidnapped.
On Good Friday morning, Hobson was invited to an urgent meeting of the Leinster Executive of the IRB in a house in Phibsboro, Dublin. On arrival, he was arrested by several junior IRB officers and held at gunpoint.
He was released unharmed on the evening of Easter Monday, when it was too late for him to have any further influence on events. He walked home - and out of history - while the Rising took place around him.
He was so important around the time that the Military Council decided to kidnap him so that he would not be able to interfere with the Rising. It was a cruel fate that it was his own men who kidnapped the Quartermaster of the Defense Forces. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).
Given Bulmer Hobson’s later career in the Revenue Commissioners, it is ironic that one of the men who guarded him during the kidnapping was a Customs and Excise officer. Mortimer O’Connell, a native of Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, came to Dublin in 1914 to take up a posting as a C&E official in the D. W. D. Distillery in Jones’ Road. By this time he was already a member of the Irish Volunteers and had been sworn into the I.R.B. by Seán MacDermott.
O’Connell led a double life, working for C&E while at the same time training with the Volunteers and acting as a courier for the I.R.B. He often used his Customs Commission (an official document) like a police badge to assist him in his more clandestine activities.
After guarding Hobson, O’Connell joined his colleagues in F Company, Dublin Brigade, of the Irish Volunteers and fought with them at various locations around Dublin in Easter week. After the surrender, he was arrested and interned in Frongach in Wales.
In later years, Mortimer O’Connell worked in Dáil Éireann where he rose to become Clerk of the Dáil in 1948. He died in 1956.
Published: 21 February 2023