Eoin MacNeill

Eoin MacNeill

Eoin MacNeill ( _ga. Eoin Mac Néill, 15 May 1867–15 October 1945) was an Irish scholar, nationalist, revolutionary and politician. He was a co-founder of the Gaelic League, to preserve Irish language and culture, going on to establish the Irish Volunteers prompted and encouraged by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, [McGee pg.354] and becoming Chief-of-Staff. Though he held this position at the outbreak of the Easter Rising, he took no role in it or its planning, and even went so far as to try to prevent it.

Early life

MacNeill was born John McNeill in Glenarm, County Antrim. He was educated in Belfast at St. Malachy's College and Queen's College, Belfast. MacNeill had an enormous interest in Irish history and immersed himself in its study. In 1893 he founded the Gaelic League, along with Douglas Hyde, and became editor of its first newspaper, "Gaelic Journal". In 1908, he was appointed professor of early Irish history at University College Dublin (UCD).

He married Agnes Moore and they had 10 children.

His brother James was the second last Governor-General of the Irish Free State.


Through the Gaelic League, MacNeill met members of Sinn Féin. MacNeill became chairman of the council that formed the Irish Volunteers in 1913; he later became its chief of staff. He was vehemently opposed to the idea of an armed rebellion, except in resisting any British suppression of the Volunteers, seeing little hope of success in open battle against the empire. However, the Irish Republican Brotherhood went ahead with its plans for armed rebellion with the co-operation of James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army. Pádraig Pearse and some other Volunteer members also supported this move. Easter Sunday, 23 April 1916, was the day the rising was to be staged. When MacNeill learned about the plans the previous Thursday, and when he was informed that German arms were about to land in Ireland, he was reluctantly persuaded to agree, believing British action was now imminent.Fact|date=December 2007

However, on learning of the arrest of Roger Casement, and the interception of the promised German arms, MacNeill committed what republicans at the time believed was an act of treasonFact|date=December 2007 when he countermanded the order for the Rising in print, severely reducing the number of volunteers who reported for duty on the day of the Easter Rising. Pearse, Connolly and the others all agreed that the rising had to go ahead, and it began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. After the surrender of the rebels, MacNeill was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Political life

MacNeill was released in 1917 and was elected Member of Parliament for the National University of Ireland and Londonderry City constituencies for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election. In line with abstentionist Sinn Féin policy, he refused to take his seat in the British House of Commons and sat instead in the newly-convened Dáil Éireann. He was also a member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland for Londonderry during 1921-25 although he never took his seat.

In 1921 he supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State, he became Minister for Education in its first government. However his family was split on the issue. His younger son, Brian, took the anti-Treaty side and was killed in fighting near Sligo by Irish Army troops during the Irish Civil War in September 1922. Another of his sons served as an officer in the Free State's National Army.

In 1924 the Irish Boundary Commission was set up to renegotiate the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. MacNeill represented the Free State. He resigned a month after a leak on the commission's proposed changes (which were minuscule) Fact|date=January 2008 was published in a newspaper. In December 1925 the Free State government agreed with the governments in London and Belfast to end its onerous Treaty requirement to pay its share of the United Kingdom's "imperial debt", and in exchange it agreed that the 1920 boundary would remain as it was. [ [http://historical-debates.oireachtas.ie/D/0013/D.0013.192512100009.html Dáil debate and vote on the Boundary Commission, 1925] ] This angered many nationalists and MacNeill was the subject of much criticism, though in reality he and the commission had been side-stepped by the inter-governmental debt renegotiation. In any case the boundary deal was approved by a Dáil vote of 71-20 on 10 December 1925, and MacNeill is listed as voting with the majority in favour. He then resigned as minister at the end of 1925 and lost his Dáil seat in the 1927 election.


MacNeill was an important scholar of Irish history, and among the first to study Early Irish law, offering both his own interpretations, which at times were coloured by his nationalism, and offering translations into English. He was also the first to uncover the nature of succession in Irish kingship and his theories are the foundation for modern ideas on the subject. [Bart Jaski, "Early Irish Kingship and Succession", p. 27f.]

Later life

He retired from politics completely and became Chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. He published a number of books on Irish history. In his later years he devoted his life to scholarship.

Eoin MacNeill died in Dublin of natural causes at the age of 78. He is also the grandfather of the former Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality & Law Reform, Michael McDowell.


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