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Eoin Mac Neill (1867 - 1945):
Scholar; Irish language promoter; political activist

Eoin Mac Neill was born John McNeill on 15 May 1867 to Catholic nationalist parents, Archibald and Rosetta, in Glenarm, a village on the Antrim Coast Road (north-east Antrim). His father was variously a baker, sailor and merchant. Eoin had four brothers and three sisters. After primary education locally, he boarded at St Malachy’s College, Belfast from 1881 to 1887. At St Malachy’s and at Queen’s College, Belfast, he studied for the degree exams of the Royal University of Ireland. In 1888 after attending lectures at Trinity College, Dublin and King’s Inns, he obtained a BA in jurisprudence, constitutional history and political economy. He became the first Catholic to obtain a junior clerkship by examination in the Accountant General’s office in the Four Courts in Dublin. He was already getting involved in the study of the Irish language. His interest in the language arose in part from his Glens of Antrim heritage, the area being the last redoubt of native speakers in north-east Ulster. This was against a background of cultural revival and the rise of Irish-Ireland movements. Mac Neill embarked on a study of the language from earliest times and developed his spoken Irish through visits to the Aran Islands in the west of Ireland.

He was greatly influenced by Douglas Hyde’s manifesto “The necessity of de-anglicising Ireland”. In 1893 he became a co-founder of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) with Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector and Father Eugene O’Growney, Professor of Irish at Maynooth. The aim of the League was to revive the Irish language and culture. Irish was still spoken mainly in the Gaeltacht areas of the west and south-west. But these were areas which had been most depopulated especially by the Great Famine of 1845-1851 and subsequent emigration. Other factors had contributed to this decline such as the delivery of the curriculum in the national schools through the medium of English and the fact that the vast majority of published material was in English. Even in Irish-speaking homes English was promoted to children as necessary for a career or for emigration to English-speaking areas and countries. The Catholic Church was at times lukewarm to Irish because some Protestant missionaries used it to proselytise in Gaeltacht areas. Indeed this attitude of Catholic clergy had been a factor in the decline of Irish in the Glens of Antrim. For many English was characterised as the language of progress and the future whereas Irish was seen as belonging to the peasant and the past. Consequently the Gaelic League faced an uphill struggle in attempting to reverse such negative tropes. Although Irish was largely perceived as belonging to Catholics and nationalists, the League attracted many Protestants and unionists who saw the language as part of their Irish identity. Mac Neill was the League’s unpaid secretary from 1893 to 1897, and in 1899 he became editor of its journal An Claidheamh Soluis (“The Sword of Light”). He nominated his friend Patrick Pearse to the League’s executive. Pearse later took over as editor of the journal. By the early 1900s the League had 400 branches throughout the country including in north-east Ulster. It was instrumental in getting Irish into the school curriculum and accepted in official use such as by the post office and in the census. In 1909 Mac Neill was appointed to the chair of early and medieval Irish history at UCD and played a leading role in the campaign to make Irish compulsory for matriculation. Among his many scholarly interests was that of the life of St Patrick, particularly in relation to Ulster and especially to Slemish which had loomed large in Mac Neill’s early life in Glenarm.

Many future revolutionaries became members of the League. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) targeted it as part of its strategy of entryism into cultural and sporting bodies. In 1915, with the support of Mac Neill, the IRB gained control of the Executive of the League, leading to the resignation of many Protestants including Hyde. Mac Neill’s political involvement arose from his article in An Claidheamh Soluis “The North Began”. Far from condemning the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and indeed manifesting admiration for Unionist leader Edward Carson, he suggested that an Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) should be formed to ensure the implementation of Home Rule. Mac Neill was asked by Bulmer Hobson, a Quaker from Bangor, and other IRB members to help bring this about. At a meeting, in the Rotunda in Dublin, on 11 November 1913, with Mac Neill in the chair, the Irish Volunteer Force was launched, and soon after he became its chief of staff. The Irish Volunteers quickly grew to 150,000 men. Mac Neill was insistent that the Volunteers would only take military action if the government dropped Home Rule or if it arrested their leadership. The IRB, which had a majority on the Volunteer Executive, aimed ultimately to use it for an insurrection. John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, seeing the Volunteers as a counterpoise to his dominance of nationalism, demanded that his party be given control of its Executive. Mac Neill, supported by Hobson, acceded to Redmond’s demands which earned both men the opprobrium of the militants. When Redmond called on nationalists to join up on the outbreak of war the Volunteers split, with the Redmondites taking the majority, now known as the National Volunteers, leaving a rump of 15,000 Irish Volunteers under Mac Neill.

Mac Neill’s difficult balancing act between constitutional and revolutionary nationalism reached breaking point in 1916. He was not opposed in principle to a rising, but felt that the time was not ripe. Knowing also how ill-prepared the Volunteers were he feared any rising would be put down with terrible bloodshed. He was however subjected to attempted manipulation by Tom Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada and Patrick Pearse who planned an insurrection for Easter Sunday 1916. The conspirators told Mac Neill that an arms shipment from Germany was already on its way. They produced a forged Dublin Castle document purporting to prove that the government was about to move against the Volunteer leadership. Consequently Mac Neill ordered Volunteer manoeuvres nationwide. However, on learning that the arms ship had been intercepted and scuttled and that he had been lied to by Pearse and others, over the document, he issued the so-called “countermanding order to all volunteer units”. Although this meant a nationwide uprising was out of the question, the IRB and others decided to act in Dublin on Easter Monday. They could only muster around 2500 volunteers. The Easter Rising failed militarily with fatal consequences for many, though not as many as if there had been a nationwide insurrection. However, the execution of the leaders produced a sea change in Nationalism, which largely moved from support for Home Rule to the separatism of the revolutionaries. Although he took no part in the Rising, Mac Neill was sentenced to life imprisonment and deprived of his UCD chair, although he was reinstated after his release in June 1917.

Although many revolutionary nationalists regarded him as a traitor, Mac Neill became a member of the reconstituted Sinn Féin party and was elected to Parliament, for the National University of Ireland and Derry City constituencies, in 1918. As an abstentionist he took his seat in the first Dáil becoming a minister which led to him being jailed from November 1920 until June 1921. In August 1921, he was elected Speaker of the Dáil and thus presided over the contentious and historic Treaty debates. He was strongly in favour of the Anglo-Irish Treaty but the ensuing Civil War in Ireland, between those supporting and those opposing the Treaty, brought great tragedy to his and many other families. Mac Neill and his wife, Agnes Moore (Mór Ni Mhódha) also from County Antrim, whom he had married in 1898, had eight children. Two of his sons fought on the pro-Treaty side but his second son Brian was killed fighting for the anti-Treaty side. Nevertheless, Mac Neill took a hard line in the Civil War fearing that it could lead to the unravelling of what had been achieved. This led him to support the execution of four republican prisoners, one from each province, as a reprisal for the assassination of Sean Hales, a pro-Treaty TD. He supported the death sentence imposed on Erskine Childers, although his terminally ill sister Anne had come down from Glenarm to plead on the condemned man’s behalf. The two were never reconciled as a result. (Childers had been one of the Irish negotiators of the Anglo-Irish Treaty; he later opposed it and was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm in breach of legislation passed by the new Free State government.) 

As Minister of Education from 1922-25, Mac Neill’s major achievement was the implementation of the compulsory use of Irish in education and other official business. In 1924 he was appointed Free State representative on the Boundary Commission set up as a result of the Treaty. Nationalists hoped that this would so truncate Northern Ireland as to render it unviable. The process was ultimately abandoned as unworkable by the Irish and British governments. However, the Commission’s findings were leaked in the Tory Morning Post newspaper. This showed that its recommendations were mere tinkering with the border territory and indeed that it proposed handing parts of east Donegal to Northern Ireland. Mac Neill came under strong criticism for not standing up to the other two commissioners, thereby letting down his fellow nationalists in Ulster. As a result in 1927 he lost his Dáil seat and returned to full-time academic life. He went on to contribute greatly to Irish scholarship, not least as President of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy. He retired from his professorship in 1941 and died in 1945. Given the controversial aspects of his political career, perhaps the best summary of Mac Neill’s life should be left to the Dictionary of Irish Biography: his was “a reputation more likely to rest on his epochal contribution to language revival than on his ambivalent and chequered political career”.

In 2017 he was honoured by the Ulster History Circle with a commemorative blue plaque unveiled by his relative, Senator Michael McDowell, at St Malachy's, Belfast.

Born: 15 May 1867
Died: 15 October 1945
Peter Collins

Biography of Eoin Mac Neill: Dictionary of Irish Biography; Maurice Manning, Irish Independent 12 November 2015: “Eoin Mac Neill: UCD’s Scholar Revolutionary”; 

From Dictionary of Ulster Biography, Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, 1993:

Eoin Mac Neill was born in Glenarm, County Antrim, and was educated at St Malachy's College, Belfast, and the Royal University of Ireland. He worked as a civil servant and in 1893 he was a founder member of the Gaelic League, editing its publication, the Gaelic Journal. From 1908 to 1945 he was Professor of Early Irish History at University College, Dublin. He became a commander of the Irish Volunteers, which he had helped to organise, and on Easter Sunday 1916 he countermanded orders for the Easter Rising because he felt that there could be no success. He was imprisoned and released in 1917. In 1918 he was elected member of parliament for the National University of Ireland. From 1922 to 1925 he was Minister for Education and served on the 1925 Boundary Commission, from which he resigned, just as its report was about to be published, and he retired thereafter from active politics. In 1927 he was appointed Chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. He published Phases of Irish HistoryCeltic IrelandSt Patrick and Early Irish Laws and Institutions.

Kate Newmann