On February 22, 1917, several key figures in the Irish Volunteers were arrested and placed in military detention around Ireland. Of 20 men detained, it was barely eight weeks since 13 had been released from custody after being held without charge in Welsh and English prisons and prisoner camps in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.
In Cork, those detained on this day 100 years ago included Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney – the two leading figures in the Irish Volunteers in Cork city and county. Both had been returned to Cork days before Christmas 1916. On the morning of February 23, in the company of fellow-detainees Sean Nolan and Peadar O’Hourihane, they were marched in military custody from Cork’s Victoria Barracks to the Glanmire Road railway station.
Within days, after journeying by train, boat, and further train trips, the men were distributed to villages in rural England. Rather than being interned, as their status has sometimes been described, the men were effectively banished from their native country without having been convicted or charged with any offences. Deposited in various parts of the English countryside, they were assigned to local lodgings and required to stay within a short radius and to apply to the local constabulary if they wished to travel outside their respective assigned areas.
The justification for this exercise was the supposed information that arms were to be landed from German ships on the west coast. This meant “it became necessary to at once place under restraint certain dangerous extremists”, according to the Royal Irish Constabulary’s account to the Under Secretary for Ireland in Dublin Castle. Documents seized on the person or in the homes of certain of the men may have justified suspicion of renewed efforts to organise and arm the Irish Volunteers. But just like the ‘German arms plot’ that saw many key figures rounded up over a year later, there was little evidence to support the theory. The main movements of note by O’Hourihane in the previous weeks, since his own return from Frongoch in 1916, had been that he was “very active” in the Macroom district organising Irish classes, with police in west Cork suggesting “this check on his activities will have a beneficial result”. It was unstated, but the work of O’Hourihane and others as Gaelic League organisers did happen to provide cover for Irish Volunteers activity, links that would be expanded over the following year as feiseanna and outdoor ‘aeridheachts’ became cover for district officers to convene battalion councils amid heightened military restrictions during 1918.
MacCurtain and O’Hourihane were confined to the area around Ledbury, MacSwiney and Nolan to Bromyard about 30 miles away. Just as they did at home, however, they spent much of their time cycling the country roads to visit each other or to meet with Irish ex-pats in the larger towns and cities of the region.
They remained in this exile until the end of June 1917, when they were released at the same time as the Easter 1916 convicts who had been detained since the Rising in Frongoch, or in a number of English jails. All were allowed home under the amnesty announced by the British government as it renewed efforts to seek a political solution to the ‘Irish question’. But by the time MacCurtain, MacSwiney and the rest returned home, the Sinn Féin political revolution had already begun, spurred by Westminster bye-election victories in Roscommon and Longford of Count Plunkett and the imprisoned Joe McGuinness; and the quiet re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers was taking hold in the Cork countryside where MacSwiney, Nolan and others had laid the groundwork in 1915 and 1916.
The evidence of that groundwork, and the early re-organisation work of the Irish Volunteers, was to be seen among the documents seized by the Royal Irish Constabulary when they arrested Sean Nolan in February 1917. Most likely compiled ahead of a convention of Cork companies at the end of January 1917, a table of those signed up in more than 30 towns and villages showed that they boasted over 800 members (and around 500 more likely to join up in the event of conscription being threatened again), more than 50 rifles, almost 300 shotguns, and 100 revolvers.
RIC Inspector General, monthly report, February 1917, Colonial Office (CO) 904/102/214
RIC West Cork Riding County Inspector, monthly report, February 1917, CO 904/102/256
Papers found in possession of Sean Nolan when arrested on February 22, 1917, CO 904/29/305-308
Florence O’Donoghue, Tomás MacCurtain (Tralee: Kerryman, 1958)
Peadar Ó hAnnracháin [Peadar O’Hourihane], Mar Mhaireas É, volume 2 (Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair, 1955)