Eoin MacNeil - Patriot Or Traitor?

William Johnstone assesses the role of Eoin MacNeill, the man who issued the countermand to the order to rebel in 1916. William Johnstone is a Ballymoney unionist with an interest in history and politics.

Now that the Easter Rising centenary is over (well, the celebrations / commemorations are anyway) there is a question I would like to ask and would appreciate thoughtful answers from readers.

Was Eoin MacNeill a hero or a villain, a patriot or a traitor?

I do not claim to be an expert on Irish Republicanism but the role of MacNeill in the 1916 events is, I believe, one that is open to confusion and misinterpretation.

My reading of the events of circa 1916 is that MacNeill was a careful, maybe even canny, Irish Nationalist. I believe he was committed to Irish independence but only in the actual achievement of it. This, in my mind sets him apart from some of the leaders of the Rising.

Pearse and Plunkett stand out to me as romantic revolutionaries and irresponsible in their actions. They seemed determined to do something at Easter that year and victory wasn't really important. I have read where, at the end of the Rising, Pearse seemed delighted that they had held out longer than Emmett had a hundred or so years earlier. The chaos, misery and deaths of civilians didn't seem to matter at all. Indeed, given his writings and reported comments prior to the Rising, it could be argued that the more blood spilled the better.

Connolly was undoubtedly a revolutionary but was he confident of a military victory? I doubt it. His Irish Citizen Army had been founded primarily to protect workers after the beatings they were subjected to by the henchmen of business owners when the former had taken industrial action. Indeed they were only reputedly co-opted on to the Rising leadership so they could be controlled. Connolly's Marxist views couldn't have sat easily alongside the Roman Catholicism of Pearse.

Plunkett was a strange choice of military commander, having only a theoretical knowledge of war. And although Clarke had some previous experience, he was, by 1916, tired and suffering from ill health. The other leaders shared all of the enthusiasm and inexperience of those mentioned and these were the men who were about to rebel against the might of Britain.

I can understand MacNeill being alarmed and anxious.

MacNeill is credited with having spawned the notion of an army after writing an article in a paper advocating this. The Irish Volunteers were duly formed and MacNeill was head of the movement after the Volunteers spilt. When word of the Rising reached MacNeill, he was understandably angry and shocked that the army that he was meant to head, was on the brink of a rebellion without his knowledge! This and other factors led to the countermanding orders that caused many to stay at home.

Between MacNeill's order and the secrecy that was paramount, many Volunteers didn't turn up for the fight. Did the Rising fail because of MacNeill? I think not - I don't believe it was ever going to succeed nor did any of the leaders believe it would. Was MacNeill a saboteur? I don't think so. I think he was a realist without the romantic fanaticism of the leaders. I think MacNeill would have weighed the issues and realised there was no hope of victory and that the risk to human life was too high to contemplate rebellion, especially when it was known that Casement had been caught and his cargo of arms scuttled.

Eoin MacNeill in many ways created a monster he couldn't control. The Volunteers were infiltrated by the IRB who controlled it, undermining MacNeill and those supposedly in charge. So, that's my view but I would genuinely like to hear the views of others.


  1. William

    quick response, McNeill was an intellectual and a pragmatist. Pearse was essentially a romantic and a visionary. He seen his role as redemptive; he wanted to redeem the broken spirit of Ireland. Pearse was also the great orator.

    Clarke and Mac Diarmada of the IRB were manipulators and played the others insofar as they could.
    McNeill to his credit provided an alternative to Redmond's lunacy of sending Volunteers to fight for the colonial master. Its also worth noting that one of his son's was pro-treaty and one anti-treaty. The anti-treaty son lost his life on Benbulben, Co. Sligo during the Civil War in dubious circumstances. Its alleged that he was executed after surrendering to Free State forces.

  2. Pragmatists save lives, but can they build nations? People like Pearse are the soul of a movement. A nation without a soul is not a nation. It is just a body of people who can thrive under any government. Of course McNeill is a traitor. You couldn't accept that perhaps because you have a different concept of that word. You may think of a traitor as someone who is "evil". A traitor is someone who betrays himself and his own belief. If a group of men is raping my wife, would I pause to consider if I have a chance against them? And if I do, can I still claim to love my wife? I would be a traitor not because I left my wife a terrible fate but because I betrayed myself.