Eoin MacNeill

Eoin MacNeill

Eoin MacNeill
Minister for Education
In office
30 August 1922  24 November 1925
President W. T. Cosgrave
Preceded by Fionán Lynch
Succeeded by John M. O'Sullivan
Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann
In office
16 August 1921  9 September 1922
Preceded by Seán T. O'Kelly
Succeeded by Michael Hayes
Minister for Industries
In office
1 April 1919  26 August 1921
Preceded by New office
Succeeded by Office abolished
Minister for Finance
In office
22 January 1919  1 April 1919
Preceded by New office
Succeeded by Michael Collins
Teachta Dála
In office
Constituency Clare
In office
Constituency National University
In office
Constituency Londonderry City
Member of the
House of Commons of Northern Ireland
In office
Constituency Londonderry
Personal details
Born John McNeill
(1867-05-15)15 May 1867
Glenarm, County Antrim, Ireland
Died 15 October 1945(1945-10-15) (aged 78)
Dublin, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Political party Sinn Féin,
Cumann na nGaedheal
Spouse(s) Agnes Moore
Children 8
Alma mater Queen's University Belfast
Religion Roman Catholicism

Eoin MacNeill (Irish: Eoin Mac Néill; 15 May 1867 – 15 October 1945) was an Irish scholar, Irish language enthusiast, nationalist activist, and Sinn Féin politician.[1] MacNeill has been described as "the father of the modern study of early Irish medieval history."[2] A key figure of the Gaelic revival, he was a co-founder of the Gaelic League, to preserve Irish language and culture. In 1913 he established the Irish Volunteers and served as their Chief-of-Staff. He held this position at the outbreak of the Easter Rising but had no role in it or its planning, which was carried out by IRB infiltrators. MacNeill helped countermand the Easter Monday uprising, after learning about it and confronting Patrick Pearse, by placing a last-minute news advertisement advising Volunteers not to take part. He was later elected to the First Dáil as a member of Sinn Féin.

Early life

MacNeill was born John McNeill,[3] one of five children born to Archibald McNeill, a Roman Catholic working class "baker, sailor and merchant", and his wife, Rosetta (née McAuley) McNeill, also a Catholic. He was reared in Glenarm, County Antrim, an area which "still retained some Irish-language traditions."[4]

He was educated at St Malachy's College (Belfast) and Queen's College, Belfast. MacNeill had an enormous interest in Irish history and immersed himself in its study. In 1888 he achieved a BA degree in economics, jurisprudence and constitutional history and then worked as civil-servant clerk.[4]

In 1893 he co-founded the Gaelic League, along with Douglas Hyde; he was unpaid secretary from 1893 to 1897, and then became the initial editor of the League’s official newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (1899–1901).[4] He was also editor of the Gaelic Journal from 1894 to 1899. In 1908 he was appointed professor of early Irish history at University College Dublin (UCD).

He married Agnes Moore on 19 April 1898; the couple had eight children, four sons and four daughters.[5]

Irish Volunteers

The Gaelic League was from the start strictly non-political, but in 1915 a proposal was put forward to abandon this policy and become a semi-political organisation. MacNeill strongly supported this, and rallied to his side a majority of delegates at the 1915 Oireachtas. Douglas Hyde, a non-political Protestant, who had co-founded the League and been its President for 22 years, resigned immediately afterwards.[6]

Through the Gaelic League, MacNeill met members of Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and other nationalists and republicans. One such colleague, The O'Rahilly, ran the league's newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, and in October 1913 asked MacNeill to write an editorial for it on a subject more broad than Irish language issues. MacNeill submitted a piece called "The North Began", encouraging formation of a nationalist volunteer force committed to Home Rule, much as the Unionists had done earlier that year with the Ulster Volunteers to thwart Home Rule. Bulmer Hobson, a member of the IRB, approached MacNeill about bringing this idea to fruition, and, through a series of meetings, MacNeill became chairman of the council that formed the Irish Volunteers, later becoming its chief of staff. Unlike the IRB, MacNeill was opposed to the idea of an armed rebellion, except in resisting any suppression of the Volunteers, seeing little hope of success in open battle against the British army.

The Irish Volunteers had been infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which planned on using the organisation to stage an armed rebellion, with the goal of separating Ireland from the United Kingdom and establishing a republic. The entry of the UK into the First World War was, in their view, a perfect opportunity to do so. With the co-operation of James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, a secret council of IRB officials planned a general rising on Easter, 1916. On the Wednesday before, they presented MacNeill with a letter, allegedly stolen from high-ranking British staff in Dublin Castle, indicating that the British were going to arrest him and all the other nationalist leaders. Unbeknownst to MacNeill, the letter—called the Castle Document—was a forgery.[7]

When MacNeill learned about the IRB's plans, and when he was informed that Roger Casement was about to land in County Kerry with a shipment of German arms, he was reluctantly persuaded to go along with them, believing British action was now imminent and mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers would be a defensive act. However, after learning of Casement's arrest and the loss of the promised German arms, and confronting Patrick Pearse, MacNeill countermanded the order for the Rising in print, greatly reducing the number of volunteers who reported for duty on the day of the Easter Rising.[8]

Pearse, Connolly, and the others agreed that the uprising would go ahead anyway, but it began one day later than originally intended to ensure the authorities were taken by surprise. Beginning on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, the rising lasted less than a week. After the surrender of the rebels, MacNeill was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, although he had taken no part in the insurrection.

Political life

MacNeill was released from prison 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.[9] He was 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. In 1922 he was in a minority of pro-Treaty delegates at the Irish Race Convention in Paris. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State, he became Minister for Education in its first government.

MacNeill's family was split on the Treaty issue. His younger son, Brian, took the anti-Treaty side and was killed in disputed circumstances near Sligo by Free State troops during the Irish Civil War in September 1922. Two other sons, Niall and Turloch, served as officers in the Free State's army.[10] One of Eoin's brothers, James McNeill, was the second and penultimate Governor-General of the Irish Free State.

Irish Boundary Commission

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. On 7 November 1925 a conservative British paper, The Morning Post, published a leaked map showing a part of eastern County Donegal (mainly The Laggan district) that was to be transferred to Northern Ireland; the opposite of the main aims of the Commission. Perhaps embarrassed by this and more so because, he said, that it had declined to respect the terms of the Treaty,[11] McNeill resigned from the Commission on 20 November.[12][13] He also resigned on 24 November as Minister for Education, a position unrelated to his work on the Commission.

On 3 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, over-riding the Commission.[14] This angered many nationalists and MacNeill was the subject of much criticism, though in reality he and the commission had been sidestepped by the inter-governmental debt renegotiation. In any case, despite his resignations, the intergovernmental 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.[15][16] He lost his Dáil seat at the June 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.[17] He was a contributor to the RIA's Clare Island Survey, recording the Irish place names of the island.[18] On 25 February 1911 he delivered the inaugural address on "Academic Education and Practical Politics" to the Legal and Economic Society of UCD.

He was President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland from 1937 to 1940[19] and President of the Royal Irish Academy from 1940 to 1943.[20]

Later life

He retired from politics completely and became Chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. In his later years he devoted his life to scholarship, he published a number of books on Irish history. MacNeill died in Dublin of natural causes, aged 78. His grandson is the former Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell.[21]


  1. "Professor Eoin MacNeill". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  2. "Eoin MacNeill". Internet Archive: Princess Grace Irish Library. Archived from the original on 2009. Retrieved 11 September 2010.
  3. Ryan, John (December 1945). "Eoin MacNeill (1867–1945)". Irish Province of the Society of Jesus. Irish Province of the Society of Jesus. 34 (136): 433–448. JSTOR 30100064., p. 433
  4. 1 2 3 Maume, Patrick; Charles-Edwards, Thomas (2009). "MacNeill, Eoin". In McGuire, James; Quinn, James. Dictionary of Irish Biography. UK: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Maume, Patrick. "MacNeill, Eoin (1867–1945)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 10 September 2010.
  6. Ryan, John (December 1945). "Eoin Mac Neill 1867–1945". Irish Province of the Society of Jesus. Irish Province of the Society of Jesus. 34 (136): 433–448. JSTOR 30100064.
  7. Martin, Francis X (1967). Leaders and men of the Easter Rising: Dublin 1916. Thomas Davis lectures. Cornell University Press. pp. 120, 147–148. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  8. De Rosa, Peter. Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916, Ballantine Books (18 February 1992); ISBN 0449906825/ISBN 978-0449906828
  9. "Eoin MacNeill". ElectionsIreland.org. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  10. McGee, Harry (8 December 2012). "McDowell's search for the rebel uncle he never knew". Irish Times. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
  11. Dáil Éireann – Volume 13 – 24 November, 1925: THE BOUNDARY COMMISSION Historical debates of Dáil Éireann, November 1925
  12. Executive Council (Irish Cabinet) notes 10 November 1925.
  13. Executive Council memo of 20 Nov 1925 on his resignation
  14. Dáil debate and vote on the Boundary Commission, 1925
  15. Dáil Éireann – Volume 13 – 10 December, 1925: PRIVATE BUSINESS. Line 1769
  16. Cosgrave's letter of thanks, 22 December 1925, difp.ie; accessed 19 March 2016.
  17. Bart Jaski, Early Irish Kingship and Succession, p. 27f.
  18. "Could Clare Island be the next Gaeltacht?". The Irish Times. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  19. "Eoin MacNeill and the promotion of Celtic Studies in America". Retrieved 30 October 2014.
  20. "RIA Elects first Woman President in 229 years". Royal Irish Academy. Retrieved 30 October 2014.
  21. Profile, easter1916.ie; accessed 15 September 2015.
Preceded by
Seán T. O'Kelly
Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann
Succeeded by
Michael Hayes
Political offices
New office Minister for Finance
Succeeded by
Michael Collins
Minister for Industries
Office abolished
Preceded by
Fionán Lynch
Minister for Education
Succeeded by
John M. O'Sullivan
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