The Bicycle and the Irish Revolution

Almost as soon as John Kemp Starley developed the first recognisably modern bicycle, the two-wheeled safety bicycle, in 1885, its potential military use was being explored by armies across the world. As early as 1886 the French Army was using cyclists as despatch riders, and in 1888 another milestone was reached when the London Regiment organised the world’s first cyclist battalion. Over the next two-and-a half decades specialist cyclist units became a feature in most of the world’s armies. The British Army was particularly keen on the bicycle in the Edwardian period; its first book of regulations regarding the machine’s use in battle, in drilling and on ceremonial occasions was drawn up in 1907 and revised in 1911.

    It was not just regular armies that saw considerable potential in the bicycle. When the Third Home Rule crisis spawned a number of paramilitary armies the two largest of these, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Irish Volunteers, devoted considerable effort to developing bicycle units. The UVF’s cyclist component was particularly impressive. Boys and youths who were too young to join the adult UVF could join its affiliated Cadet Corps, whose main function was the delivery of despatches by bicycle. Cyclists played important roles in mobilising the UVF during the gun-runnings at Larne and Donaghadee in April 1914 and in securing the safe passage inland of the smuggled arms.

    The Irish Volunteers also made extensive use of cyclists as scouts and messengers when they smuggled rifles at Howth and Kilcoole in July and August 1914, with Na Fianna Éireann bicyclists playing a particularly important role in the latter operation. Like the UVF, the Irish Volunteers established numerous cyclist corps whose role was envisaged as being essentially a form of wheeled cavalry carrying out conventional military operations, as well as scouting and delivering despatches, rather than the kind of guerrilla tactics that the Irish Republican Army later employed during the War of Independence. This is hardly surprising, as the Volunteer newspaper, the Irish Volunteer, in its advice columns for cyclist troops, plagiarised from the British Army’s manuals for cyclist units.

    The evidence suggests that before the Easter Rising most Volunteer cyclists used their bicycles for rather more mundane tasks, such as simply travelling to attend meetings, while officers routinely cycled while engaging in recruiting and inspection visits (preferably riding Irish-made “Pierce” or “Lucania” machines). The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) routinely used bicycles for patrol duties by this stage (Figure 1), and frequently shadowed Irish Volunteer officers on their recruiting trips. On the first morning of the Rising, a large proportion of the rebels received their mobilisation orders from cyclist couriers, including many Cumann na mBan cyclists, and throughout Easter Week bicycle despatch riders were vital for maintaining rebel communications in Dublin and elsewhere. The rebels’ greatest military successes when using bicycles was the series of attacks on RIC barracks and other targets that were carried out by the 5th (Fingal) Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, under the command of Thomas Ashe, most notably at Ashbourne on Friday 28 April.

Figure 1. R.I.C. cyclists outside Bodyke barracks in 1913. (Source: Irish Independent, 12 January 2020. Courtesy Mediahuis/Irish Independent Archive.)

    Just as the bicycle played an important role in separatist activities before and during the Easter Rising, it played a similar role in the revival and improvement of separatist organisations’ fortunes in the rebellion’s aftermath. Sinn Féin, Na Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan and Irish Volunteer organisers were constantly awheel as they went about their tasks of reorganisation and dissemination of separatist propaganda. Cyclist enthusiasts for the separatist cause were particularly noticeable in the by-election and general election campaigns of 1917 and 1918: for many people in rural Ireland, their first glimpse of the so-called “Sinn Féin flag” was when supporters of Sinn Féin candidates cycled through their areas sporting miniature tricolours on their bicycles.

    The killing of two R.I.C. men at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, on 21 January 1919 by local members of the Irish Volunteers (the members of which organisation later took to referring to themselves as the I.R.A.) is usually regarded as the beginning of the War of Independence. The bicycle’s importance to the I.R.A. is illustrated in this first action in the campaign for independence, as the ambush of the two policemen included the involvement of two cyclist scouts who spent several days in watching the R.I.C.’s movements, and on the day of the ambush one of these scouts cycled ahead of the policemen to alert the attackers about the route that they and their cartload of gelignite were taking. Over the course of the next two-and-a-half years, the I.R.A. made frequent use of bicycles for communications, gathering intelligence, scouting and travelling to and from attacks on Crown forces, and were often aided in these endeavours by Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna Éireann cyclists, as attested by innumerable Bureau of Military History witness statements. The I.R.A. leadership and the underground Republican government also routinely made use of the bicycle: Michael Collins is perhaps the most famous cyclist amongst the rebel leaders of this period, but he was far from being the only one.

    Many of the bicycles that the rebels used were stolen from the R.I.C. and British Army and, in the final stages of the conflict, from Post Office workers and the general public. R.I.C. cyclists were popular targets: at first the rebels generally refrained from killing police cyclists and instead just stole their weapons and bicycles, but over time they switched tactics and killing the policemen became their principal aim. By my estimate, some 67 police cyclists were killed during the conflict, about 15.6% of the overall R.I.C. fatalities. Hardly any of these policemen were carrying out duties that posed a direct threat to the I.R.A. at the time that they were attacked and killed. Most were either attempting to carry out normal police duties such as attending petty sessions or investigating reports of burglaries, or were buying provisions or collecting their pay when they were killed. Many were unarmed, and were attacked when returning from leave or from courting local women. Despite the dangers that they faced, the R.I.C. continued patrolling on bicycles throughout the War of Independence, sometimes jointly with British soldiers, (Figure 2) who also used bicycles extensively. Just as the pike-wielding rebel may be seen as the iconic figure of the 1798 Rising, the bicycle-riding rebel, policeman or soldier may be seen as the iconic figure of the independence struggle some 120 years later.

Figure 2. Cyclists of R.I.C. and 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment, preparing for a joint patrol at Clonakilty. (Source: Imperial War Museum, © IWM Q71699).

For a more extensive treatment of this topic, see Brian Griffin, “The Bicycle and the Irish Revolution, 1913-1921”, The Irish Sword, vol. 33, no. 134 (Winter 2022), pp 381-467.

Brian Griffin is an adjunct associate professor in Maynooth University’s history department. He has written numerous articles on Irish cycling history, as well as a monograph, Cycling in Victorian Ireland (2006). He continues to work on various cycling topics, and recently has begun to research aspects of the social and cultural history of the Great War from an Irish perspective. See more on Brian’s profile at http://irishhistorians.ie/members/brian-griffin/ and for more on the topic see this blog

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