1914: Irish Volunteers on Tyneside.

After the third Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced in parliament in April 1912, an armed militia was raised in Ulster to resist Home Rule and by December 1912 there were twenty battalions of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in Belfast alone.[1]

It was inevitable that Irish nationalists would respond to defend Home Rule and in November 1913 the Irish Volunteers was formed in Dublin. At first recruitment to the Irish Volunteers was slow, but, after the UVF landed weapons at Larne in April 1914 unhindered by the police, thousands flocked to join and by the end of July, the Irish Volunteers’ strength stood at 150,000 men.

As the Irish Volunteers grew in popularity, so John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, acted to seize control of the movement from an executive secretly dominated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In June 1914, a month after he had publicly expressed his support for the Volunteers, Redmond had the Volunteers’ executive packed with his own supporters. Rejecting Redmond’s leadership, the displaced executives led by Patrick Pearse formed a new Provisional Committee. An action that culminated in the Easter Rising in 1916.

It was not only in Ireland, however, that the call to join the Irish Volunteers was heard.

In January 1914 a company was formed in Glasgow.[2] Other companies followed in London, Liverpool and Manchester,[3] and in April 1914 Catholic newspapers in Britain owned by Charles Diamond printed his appeal for recruits:[4]

‘Wanted 500,000 Volunteers: We think it the duty of every convinced Nationalist to prepare himself for a struggle… Let the Irish Nationalists in Great Britain be up and doing. There are plenty of Territorials among them, plenty of ex-army men, who will enable them to drill and organise.’

Two weeks later, an anonymous letter was printed in the Tyneside Catholic News appealing ‘to the Irish Nationalists of Great Britain to join the Volunteer movement’.[5] Though signed ‘Erin go Bragh’ (Ireland Forever), the author was almost certainly Thomas Lavin of Gateshead, as later events reveal.[6]

In his letter, the author described how he was ‘the son of an Irish exile, and an Irish ex-soldier of 21 years’ experience’, who had retired with the rank of Colour Sergeant. He then offered to help any scheme that would assist ‘in organising and drilling a Tyneside army of Irish Volunteers’, and asked to be put in touch ‘with any prominent Irishman in accordance with my views with the object of organising a battalion on Tyneside in defence of the land of our fathers’.

Later in May, Thomas Lavin told a meeting of Gateshead’s Irish National Foresters that his aim was ‘to instruct Irishmen on Tyneside who were prepared to drill to defend their people against the religious bigotry of Orange fanatics’, and that ‘he had the promise of 700 men already’ for an ‘Irish National Volunteer Corps’.[7] And soon The Irish Volunteer in Dublin was confidently reporting that ‘great progress’ had been achieved in Gateshead under ‘ex-Colour Sergeant Lavin’; that the town’s ‘prominent Irishmen’ were ‘vigorously pushing forward the movement’; that ‘branches have also been formed at Jarrow and Walker’; and that Tyneside would ‘shortly be teeming with enthusiasm for the movement’.[8]

Adding to the momentum, under the caption ‘Mr Redmond’s Army Recruits Nationalists at Gateshead’, the Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle printed a photograph of the leadership of the newly-raised corps of ‘Irish National Volunteers’ on Tyneside, explaining that both ‘extreme as well as moderate Nationalists’ were volunteering. Chairman of the new corps was local school teacher James Doyle, but sitting centre-stage and every inch the ex-Colour Sergeant, was ‘district organiser’ Thomas Lavin.[9]

At the end of June, a committee was formed in Gateshead to co-ordinate the Volunteer movement across Tyneside. During the meeting, the ‘Tyneside and District Organiser’, Thomas Lavin, attempted to allay people’s fears, when he sought to counter ‘the impression abroad that they [Irish Volunteers] were going to buy rifles and maxim guns and go mad through the town’ by explaining that the Volunteers was ‘a movement similar to the UIL [United Irish League], which had striven for years to secure the rights of Ireland’. But he concluded ominously, ‘Our object is to hold what we have gained’.[10]

Volunteer fever, however, was slow to spread beyond Gateshead and this lack of progress was, almost certainly, caused by the leadership of the United Irish League of Great Britain (UILGB) being reluctant to support the Volunteer movement in Britain. And, even when the leadership finally spoke, it only half-heartedly supported Volunteers in Britain, focussing rather on the need to raise funds for the Volunteers in Ireland.[11] The leadership may also have feared Irish Volunteers triggering sectarian violence in Britain during the summer of 1914, when war in Ulster seemed certain.[12]

Taking their cue from the leadership, Teesside’s UILGB branches agreed that ‘there is no necessity for joint action towards establishing a Corps on Teesside’, and that only funds should be raised for the Volunteers in Ireland.[13] UILGB branches in County Durham took the same decision.[14] On Tyneside, however, the Volunteer movement found more enthusiastic support. In Newcastle, the Irish National Foresters agreed to form a company of Volunteers,[15] whilst at Hebburn, a meeting at St Aloysius’s saw the creation of a ‘Hebburn Corps’ with two hundred recruits enrolled.[16]

The Volunteer movement on Tyneside, however, was neither as popular nor as successful as elsewhere in Britain. In Manchester, one company of Irish National Volunteers set out ‘to procure bandoliers, haversacks, belts, hats, and putties for the Company, and, where possible, rifles’.[17] No evidence has yet been found, however, proving that Tyneside’s Irish Volunteers ever drilled in uniform or purchased any military equipment.

This lacklustre response prompted criticism in the local press. One anonymous correspondent asked if the ‘prominent Irishmen of Newcastle’ were ‘afraid or ashamed to be mixed up in such a movement’; whilst another questioned ‘Why the Irishmen on Tyneside stand aloof from the Volunteer movement? In former times they eagerly helped in every Irish movement as fast as they could, but today it would seem as if the old spirit is dying’.[18]

There was similar criticism in Liverpool: ‘Wake up Liverpool…  With an Irish population larger than that of most of Ireland’s counties, there should be no difficulty in raising 5,000 Volunteers’.[19] The Liverpool Irish did, however, respond, and, before Easter 1916, Volunteers from Liverpool joined Volunteers from Glasgow, London, and Manchester in Dublin as they trained for the rising.[20] No Volunteers left Tyneside to join them.

A week after the outbreak of the Great War, Irish nationalists  in Sunderland pledged £50 as the ‘first instalment to the Irish National Volunteers Fund’, and agreed ‘if the necessity arises’ to ‘form a corps of 1,000 men for home defence from the local Irish citizens’.[21] This corps does not appear to have been formed, but in late August 1914 a company, probably the last established on Tyneside until 1920, was raised at Lemington, to the west of Newcastle. And, once again, Thomas Lavin was there.[22]

After the Lemington company was formed, no further evidence of Tyneside’s Irish Volunteers has been found, and in October 1914, when delegates from companies in Glasgow, Liverpool, London, and Manchester, met in Dublin at the first Irish Volunteer convention organised by the breakaway Provisional Committee, there were none from Tyneside, suggesting that either these Volunteers had remained loyal to John Redmond, or, more likely, that the companies no longer existed.[23]

The Irish Volunteers only had a brief existence on Tyneside in 1914. Nothing appears to have survived other than for a few press reports, and how many young Irish men actually enrolled, wore uniform, and attended drill nights between May and August 1914 is open to doubt. The importance of the Irish Volunteers on Tyneside, however, lay in its role as precursor to the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the British Army, even though no evidence has yet been found associating any of the Volunteer officers to the brigade’s formation in the autumn of 1914. Though in Scotland, it has been shown that 50 per cent of Redmond’s Volunteers had enlisted in the British Army by May 1915, and it is probable that a similar percentage of Tyneside’s Irish Volunteers also enlisted.[24]

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all newspapers have been accessed from the British Newspaper Archive

[1] For the origins and growth of the UVF and IV, see Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London, 2005), chapter 1, ‘The Militarisation of Politics’. Also David Fitzpatrick, ‘Militarism in Ireland, 1900-1922’, in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery (eds), A Military History of Ireland (Cambridge, 1996).

[2] Máirtín Seán Ó Catháin, Irish Republicanism in Scotland, 1858-1916, Fenians in Exile (Dublin, 2007), pp. 233-4.

[3] The Irish Volunteer, 1.12 (25 April 1914). The British Library

[4] Tyneside Catholic News, 25 April 1914. The British Library

[5] Tyneside Catholic News, 9 May 1914.

[6] Thomas Lavin was born in Darlington .c1866. His Irish-born father was an iron worker. In 1911, after leaving the British Army, Lavin was living in Gateshead and working as a ship’s fireman.

[7] Tyneside Catholic News, 23 May 1914.

[8] There is no evidence that IV companies in Jarrow or Walker were formed. Irish Volunteer, 1.18 (6 June 1914).

[9] Thomas Lavin is incorrectly identified as ‘J. Larvin’. Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle, 19 June 1914. Newcastle City Library

[10] Tyneside Catholic News, 27 June 1914.

[11] Tyneside Catholic News, 18 July 1914.

[12] Daniel M. Jackson, Popular Opposition to Irish Home Rule in Edwardian Britain (Liverpool, 2009), p.234.

[13] Catholic Times and Catholic Opinion, 24 July 1914. The British Library

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tyneside Catholic News, 11 July 1914.

[16] North Mail, 28 July 1914; Tyneside Catholic News, 1 August 1914.

[17] Tyneside Catholic News, 11 July 1914.

[18] North Mail, 14 July 1914; Tyneside Catholic News, 1 August 1914.

[19] Irish Volunteer, 1.18 (6 June 1914).

[20] Before Easter 1916, 50 Volunteers from Scotland travelled to Dublin to join the garrison at Kimmage. Ó Catháin, Irish Republicanism in Scotland, p. 238.

[21] Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle, 13 August 1914.

[22] Tyneside Catholic News, 29 August 1914.

[23] Irish Volunteer, 1.35 (3 October); 37 (17 October); 38 (24 October); and 39 (31 October 1914).

[24] Glasgow Observer, 8 May 1915, quoted in Elaine McFarland, “‘How the Irish Paid Their Debt”: Irish Catholics in Scotland and Voluntary Enlistment, August 1914-July 1915’, The Scottish Historical Review, 82.214 (2003), p. 279.

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