Illuminations: Na Fianna Éireann
By: J. Michael Finn
Countess Constance de Markievicz was born Constance Georgina Gore-Booth, in London on February 4, 1868. Her father was Henry Gore-Booth, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner and arctic explorer.
At Lissadel, the Gore-Booth estate in County Sligo, Constance was raised in a life of wealth. Her father taught her how to hunt and shoot at an early age. She also became a skilled and fearless horsewoman.
In 1898, while enrolled in an art school in Paris, France she met Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz. He was a Russian-Polish count and artist from Ukraine. They were married in London in 1900. Constance and Casimir settled in Dublin, where they soon became a part of Dublin’s Anglo-Irish society.
The event that changed her life occurred in 1906, when Constance rented a cottage at Balally, near Dublin. The Irish poet Padraic Colum had once lived there and he left behind issues of Arthur Griffith’s nationalist newspaper, Sinn Féin (pron: shin fain).
Reading these papers, Constance became enlightened to the cause of Irish nationalism. From then on, Countess de Markievicz spent the rest of her life and a large part of her own fortune in furthering the fight for Irish freedom. She joined Sinn Féin in 1908, as well as, several other nationalist organizations.
In March 1909, the Countess read that the Viceroy of Ireland, John Hamilton-Gordon, had founded several Boy Scout troops in Ireland and that a large ceremony was planned to occur at Clontarf near Dublin. She was angered at the sight of the young Scouts, whose fathers “had thrown in their lot with the Fenians” saluting the British flag. She wrote, “Nothing could be sadder than to see these boys saluting the flag that flew in triumph over every defeat their nation has known.”
Her biographer wrote: “For Constance emotion and action went hand-in-glove, so she immediately started to plan what to do about the Viceroy’s scouts.” She decided to start her own scouting organization for Irish boys. The boys would be held together by their great love for Ireland.
She called her troop The Red Branch Knights; it consisted of only eight boys. The Countess took on training them in her home, much to the amusement and frustration of her husband (he referred to the boys who were always under foot as “sprouts”).
In time, the Countess became convinced that the scout troop would have to be run more on the basis of a “Boy’s Republic,” with a military-style organization. The Countess invited Bulmer Hobson to assist her, as he had run a similar organization in Belfast. Hobson, a Quaker from Belfast, had joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1904 and was an early member of Sinn Féin.
Hobson accepted the invitation and a new organization was founded at a meeting in 34 Lower Camden Street, Dublin, on August 16, 1909, at which Hobson was elected as president (thus ensuring a strong IRB influence), the Countess as vice-president and Pádraig O’Riain as secretary. Seán Heuston was the leader on Dublin’s north side, while Cornelius “Con” Colbert was the leader on the south side.
At Hobson’s request and inspired by the Fianna of third century Ireland, they called the new organization Na Fianna Éireann (pron: nah fee-uh-nuh air-uhn) meaning Soldiers (or warriors) of Erin. Their motto was, “Strength in our arms, truth on our lips, and purity in our hearts.”
Most people referred to them in English as the “Fianna Boys.” Na Fianna grew rapidly and established hurling and football teams, pipe bands and ambulance-corps, in every part of the country.
The Countess owned a large rambling house at Rathmines called Surrey House. It became the unofficial headquarters of Na Fianna. The older boys gathered and trained there, and a mini firing range was set up in the basement.
The boys always referred to the Countess as “Madam” and they were introduced to visitors as “Madam’s Boys.” The coming and going of individuals from the home was often under surveillance by the intelligence section of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
The Irish Volunteers
When the Irish Volunteers were formed in January 1913, the value of the work undertaken by Na Fianna became clear. The senior boys were ready and competent to train the Volunteers and to transform raw recruits into disciplined soldiers. Four Na Fianna officers were elected to the first Executive Council of the Volunteers, including Liam Mellows, who became the first secretary.
Na Fianna drill halls and equipment were at the disposal of the Volunteers, and they grew rapidly in strength, along with Na Fianna. Patrick Pearse wrote in his essay “To the Boys of Ireland” in February 1914: “We believe that Na Fianna Éireann has kept the military spirit alive in Ireland over the past four years, and that if the Fianna had not been founded in 1909, the Volunteers of 1913 would never have arisen.”
The year 1914 marked Na Fianna’s first event of national importance, the Howth Gun running. The Fianna Boys marched from Dublin with the Volunteers to Howth, bringing their hand-carts with them, and were the first to reach Erskine Childers’ yacht, The Asgard.
From 1915 onwards, Na Fianna Éireann threw themselves wholeheartedly into anti-British activities. Their participation at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in August was the occasion of a great display of strength by the Na Fianna.
Seven years of intensive effort and dedicated service to the nation culminated in the 1916 Rising of Easter Week, when Na Fianna Éireann officers were given command of important sections of the operations. Seán Heuston was in charge at the Mendicity Institution and defended his position for three days.
Con Colbert was second in command in Marrowbone Lane and assumed command at the surrender. The Countess with Michael Mallin held the College of Surgeons with the Irish Citizen Army and a troop of Fianna Boys.
Members of Na Fianna were engaged in the fighting in other parts of the city and carried out the dangerous work of dispatch carrying and scouting. Six Fianna Boys were killed during the Rising and several were wounded. Na Fianna members Seán Heuston and Con Colbert suffered execution by the British on May 8, 1916.
Countess Constance de Markievicz was an Irish woman of determination, independence, idealism and self-sacrifice constantly in pursuit of freedom for the Irish people. Her work in founding Na Fianna Éireann directly contributed to the fight for Irish independence.
The Countess died at the age of 59 on July 15, 1927 in a Dublin hospital of complication from appendicitis. She had given away the last of her wealth, and died in a public ward “among the poor where she wanted to be.”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.