The enigma of Bulmer Hobson

Bulmer Hobson.

Bulmer Hobson.

ONE OF the more positive aspects of the wave of new books being published on the 1912-1923 period in Irish history is that it will fully explore the events leading up to, during, and after the 1916 Rising. Not only this, but for the first time, the lives of many enigmatic men and women who a played vital - and often dangerous - part in the fight for Irish Independence, but who have been airbrushed out of history, will be recorded in full.

One such man was Bulmer Hobson, an Ulsterman and a Quaker, who became a member of the Gaelic League, established Fianna Éireann, took part in the Howth Gun Running, became an influential member of the IRB and, at one stage, was “arguably the most powerful person in the Republican movement in Ireland”.

So obscure is the memory of the “most powerful” man (in 1914 ) that a distant relative after a long search for traces of him “found myself (in 2009 ) on the shore of Dog’s Bay (near Roundstone )...in a little cemetery, wondering if it might contain the Hobson grave. Having checked all the headstones without success, I was about to conclude that this was not the right burial ground, when I realised that the place where I was standing was untypically even. I scuffed the sand away with my foot to reveal a horizontal slab and, bending down, I parted the grass and the sand to reveal BULMER HOBSON 1883-1969!”

Stan Hobson Greer was born in 1946 in Northern Ireland to an Anglican father and a Quaker mother. He was a pupil at the Quaker school in Lisburn and graduated from Trinity College in 1969. He had always been aware that there was a ‘black sheep’ in the family who had gone to the “other side” but he did not discover the identity of Bulmer Hobson until 2006. His traces had been totally obliterated from the family archives and almost totally from the historical accounts of the period.

He describes the journey that led from the discovery of Hobson’s existence to the lonely grave in Dogs’s Bay in an extraordinary, short, but effective, monograph entitled In Search of Bulmer Hobson and published under his own imprint, rather aptly called The Graven Image Press.

In the preface, Stan Hobson Greer tells us this “is a personal account of my discovery of the complex identity and motives of a ‘forgotten’ family member and Irish nationalist: a man who became one of the foremost players in early Irish twentieth century Irish politics. Although from a pacifist Quaker background in Northern Ireland, he went on to import guns and ammunition illegally into Dublin in order to arm the Irish Volunteers, before finally opposing the Rising in 1916. However, this is not an academic historical work. Neither is it a political biography: I include only a resumé of Hobson’s political career and an outline of the events leading up to 1916, and focus instead on the person: unanswered questions about his early influences, his motivation and his final disillusionment”.

Although short, this monograph offers a fascinating insight into the run up to the 1916 Rising from a North of Ireland perspective. Greer describes Hobson’s Quaker background and how gradually he espoused the Nationalist cause influenced especially by two women Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston better known as Ethna Carbery.

One of the fascinating aspect of the narrative is the dilemma Hobson found himself in during the Howth Gun Running when, as a pacifist, he was actively involved in illegally running guns for a violent revolution and it was as a result of this dilemma that he found himself in a moral cul de sac in the days leading to the Rising.

Greer’s final paragraph reads: “This is not the pluralistic Ireland that Bulmer Hobson had worked for nor the path he had advocated. In the events leading up to 1916 he had acted according to his principles. We should not be ashamed to speak about Bulmer Hobson.”

I totally concur and would hope this fascinating monograph will lead to much more being written about an extraordinary Irishman.

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