A great amount of information has recently surfaced about the men and women who partook in the Easter Rising and the ensuing War of Independence. There is no doubt that there has been a renewed interest in the subject, especially among young people. After a lecture and discussion about the life of Winifred Carney one man told me: “When I was at school I learned about the Battle of Hastings and the War of the Roses but nobody ever told us anything about what happened in Ireland.”
The role played by northerners has largely been overlooked. On a trip to Glasnevin a few months ago I was greatly surprised to find that one of our group was able to tell us exactly where Big Jim Larkin’s family lived in South Armagh and another related that she was related to Denis McCullough, leader of the Irish Volunteers and President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1916.
McCullough and Bulmer Hobson did much organising from the beginning of the 20th century which led to an awakening of the nationalist spirit in the north and in Belfast in particular. The foundation of the Dungannon Clubs led to the employment of Seán Mac Diarmada, the architect of the Easter Rising. The Dungannon Clubs led to the formation of Sinn Féin. In 1902 Bulmer Hobson formed Na Fianna Éireann in June on the Falls Road which aimed to give youths a focus on Irish sports, culture and the promotion of the Irish language. Hobson said at the time: “Here was something we could mould into a strong force to help the liberation of Ireland.” Each local group or slua formed a hurling team. Hobson belonged to Tír Na nÓg. Initially there were about ten teams in the league with 150 to 200 boys taking part. It is unfortunate that while Hobson came up with some good ideas he didn’t persevere or delegate responsibility to others, with the result that the Fianna, like many of Hobson’s other projects, petered out within two years.
Among those who joined the Fianna were two brothers, Joseph and Seamus Robinson, who were part of the Oscar Slua and both were very enthusiastic. Both would later join the Gaelic League. The Robinson family lived in Benares Street off the Springfield Road. Their father was born in France since his father had to flee from Ireland in 1848 when he took part in the Young Irelanders’ uprising.
Their experience in the Fianna helped raise the spirit of nationality in the brothers. They were already imbued in the culture – their father Seamus was a fluent Irish speaker – and would go on to dedicate their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom. The Robinson family moved to a new life in Glasgow in 1905 as their father was unable to get constant work in Belfast. Joe, now 18, moved constantly between Glasgow and Belfast, keeping in contact with Bulmer Hobson.
Hobson told Countess Markievicz about the Belfast Fianna. She was enthused and helped and funded Hobson in founding (or refounding) the Fianna in Dublin in August 1909. This time there was emphasis on scouting, camping, drilling and a uniform with green Fianna shirts with brass buttons and saffron kilts was adopted. Hobson sent for Joe Robinson and he was elected as treasurer. Joe Robinson was sent to Belfast to organise new branches which he did with much success and then he repeated the feat in Dundalk. In 1910 he was sent to Glasgow where his family now lived. He began organising sluas among the Irish communities in the greater Glasgow region, Edinburgh and Dundee.
Having successfully established the Fianna throughout Scotland with an Executive Council (Ard Coiste) to oversee its development Joe Robinson helped to establish the Irish Volunteers and was a captain of the first company in Glasgow.
When the split occurred in 1914 three of the four companies sided with John Redmond but Robinson’s company remained loyal to Eoin McNeill. He visited Ireland regularly and took part in the landing of rifles at Howth in 1914. By this time he was the centre of the IRB in Glasgow. He befriended many Donegal men who were working in the coalmines. Rather than recruit them he encouraged them to locate munitions and explosive stores which were duly raided.
These were sent to Dublin, often via Belfast. Many different ploys were used to smuggle guns, explosives, fuse wire and ammunition. Cumann na mBan members who worked in clothing manufacturers often made jackets and coats with secret pockets and these were smuggled out. Michael O’Flanagan, a bar manager who received many parcels of ‘goods’ from the Donegal men, was told by Robinson to leave Glasgow as his house was being monitored closely by CID men. His house was full of explosives. He packed them into chairs and mattresses and loaded them on to a dray under the noses of the detectives and brought them to the docks. Robinson enlisted the help of a sympathetic steward on the Burns & Laird lines plying the route between Glasgow and Dublin, who supervised the loading of the furniture on to the boat and allotted O’Flanagan a cabin where he could stay out of sight for the sailing.
The IRB sent men over to Glasgow to evaluate activities there and men such as Cathal O’Shannon reported that they were highly impressed. It was decided that Joe Robinson should be requested to pick out around thirty volunteers to come to Kimmage in Dublin in January 1916 for further training for the upcoming Rising. Just before the group left, Joe Robinson was arrested for “burglary of explosives, raiding Admiralty works and importing arms from Germany”. He was never charged but was held in Reading prison for eleven months until December. On release he once again set about continuing his work with the Fianna and the Volunteers and the drive to smuggle munitions to Ireland was redoubled.
However, in November 1917, two members of the Fianna were arrested at Belfast Docks having disembarked from the Adrossan ferry. They had 230 two-ounce sticks of gelignite and “a considerable amount of blasting powder”. Documents incriminating Joe Robinson were found on them and early in 1918 he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.
He was released in April 1922 and was appointed as Divisional Commander of the Scottish IRA in Glasgow and Dundee. Arrested again in 1923 he was deported to Ireland and held in Mountjoy for eleven weeks. Following the Civil War he went to live in Bray where he married his fiancée Hannah Dougan, a member of Cumann Na mBan in Glasgow. Joe Robinson organised and provided munitions and trained volunteers although he was denied the opportunity to take part himself. On the other hand his young brother Seamus was often in the eye of the storm.