The nationalist Irish Volunteers were established in November 1913 as a response to the formation of the unionist Ulster Volunteers in 1912. Members of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers selected areas around the country which they would visit with the aim of setting up Volunteer companies. Committee member Colonel Maurice Moore of Moorehall in Carnacon outside Castlebar chose to return to his home county to organise and mentor the men of Mayo. Moore had military experience since the 1870s with the Connaught Rangers and was well respected by both traditions.
The sexagenarian's industrious recruitment drive in Mayo was a major success. Large companies were set up not only in the expected main urban centres of Ballina, Castlebar, Westport, and Claremorris, but quite remarkably, companies were raised in almost every village too. While the Ballina company could attract 500 members it was not uncommon for villages the size of Balla to count on the support of 100 fighting men. Based on newspaper reports of Volunteer review meetings, I estimate that there may have been as many as 3,000 Volunteers training in Mayo prior to the split in the militia in late 1914. Colonel Moore left a command in each area under which training took place after last Mass every Sunday.
Known only to some, the IRB membership of the Provisional Committee had plans to use the Volunteers to execute a rebellion against British rule when they felt the time was right. Had one clear order for rebellion reached Mayo on Easter Sunday 1916, the remaining Irish Volunteers in each Mayo town and village, though depleted after the split, would have carried out the Rising in Mayo. As it transpired, order and countermand delayed the Rising until Easter Monday which led to confusion and only one rebellion related act was carried out in Mayo. The Balla and Kiltimagh companies forced a detachment of RIC to give up weapons they were transporting through the village. Volunteer James Ruane’s 1916 medal from that military action is currently on display in the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina.
Commemorations in Mayo have been taking place across this centenary year. I was fortunate to have been asked to speak at the Attymass 1916 commemoration last Sunday. The community spirit displayed on the day echoed the spirit that existed in every Mayo parish at the founding of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and 1914. The attendance on Sunday of Fine Gael senator Michelle Mulherin, her Seanad colleague Rose Conway Walsh of Sinn Féin, and Fianna Fáil deputy Dara Calleary, whose grandfather Phelim Calleary was an organiser of Irish Volunteers in Mayo, reinforced the fact that Volunteers came from all persuasions and that many went on to become members of the surviving political parties in this State.
The Rising did not start and end in Dublin in Easter week 1916. Preparations for the conflict were years in the planning and were conducted in every corner of the island. British reaction to the rebellion was meted to all suspected of treason, regardless of geography. In the aftermath of the Rising, Mayo experienced mass arrests, deportations, and in the case of Westport’s Major John MacBride, execution. The political legacy of the Rising too, was felt throughout Ireland as men trained as Volunteers morphed into the ranks of the IRA. It is for all those reasons that the Rising belongs to everyone and should be remembered through commemorations in every area.