The early years of uniformed youth groups in Ireland, 1888-1930

By Marnie Hay

Were you ever a Cub Scout or a Girl Guide – or a member of any other youth group that required you to wear a uniform of some sort? Did you play games and learn new skills at weekly meetings, get to know kids from other schools, and enjoy (or dread) the adventure of weekend hikes and camping trips? Uniformed youth groups have always been designed to enable children and adolescents to engage in experiential learning, but much has changed since they were first formed, especially here in Ireland where youth group membership can be emblematic of religion and politics.

Uniformed youth groups are a form of youth culture that first developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a response to social anxieties associated with the tensions that resulted in the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18) and other more localised conflicts. Many countries in the western world, such as Britain and Germany, feared that they were losing their competitive edge in industrial and military affairs and their populations were deteriorating both physically and morally. The establishment of uniformed youth groups addressed often gendered concerns about the health, education and moral welfare of the rising generation: would boys be able to defend their countries and would girls be up to the task of being good helpmates and mothers? The general template of the uniformed youth group was adapted to the perceived needs of different countries. In the United Kingdom and the British empire, organisations like the various brigades, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides sought to instil imperial patriotism and middle-class values of order and discipline in the lower classes. In Canada guiding was also used to ‘Canadianise’ non-British immigrant and Indigenous girls. Furthermore, uniformed youth groups could be training grounds for nationalist fundamentalism, as exemplified in both the Irish nationalist movement and Nazi Germany.

The first uniformed youth groups established in Ireland were British imports. The Boys’ Brigade was launched by William Alexander Smith in 1883 in Glasgow. He used the discipline and dash of military drill as a way of providing guidance to the boys who attended his Scottish Free Church Sunday School. His example inspired the formation of the Church Lads’ Brigade for Anglicans, the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and the Catholic Boys’ Brigade. The first Irish companies of the Boys’ Brigade were founded in Belfast in 1888 and Dublin in 1891, followed by the establishment of a branch of the Catholic Boys’ Brigade in Dublin in 1894. The year before, the Girls’ Brigade had begun to offer Irish girls a combination of Bible study and physical training.

The best known of these early uniformed youth groups is the international scouting movement founded in 1908 by Robert Baden-Powell, a British army officer who specialised in reconnaissance and scouting. He was inspired by the model of the Boys’ Brigade and the American Woodcraft movement of naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, which promoted outdoor life and the lore of the Native American tribes. There is some debate about whether Baden-Powell’s main concern prior to 1920 was training citizens or future soldiers. In any case, girls took an early interest in the scouting movement with a large number attending the first big Scout rally at Crystal Palace in London in September 1909. Baden-Powell was opposed to including girls in his scouting organisation because he feared they would inhibit boys from joining. Instead, his sister Agnes formed the Girl Guides in 1910. In Ireland, Boy Scout troops were in existence in Bray, County Wicklow, Dublin city and county, and Belfast from early 1908. Girls embraced this new youth movement by joining Ireland’s first official Girl Guide company in Harold’s Cross in Dublin in 1911. The opportunities and freedoms for women and girls associated with the First World War helped to increase the appeal of guiding, enabling girls to participate in signalling, drill and camping, as well as contributing to the war effort through more traditional feminine activities such as fundraising, knitting socks for soldiers and volunteering in hospitals.

Some Irish nationalists viewed these British youth groups as a cultural threat that could be turned into an opportunity. They recognised the value and appeal of youth groups, but wanted to offer Irish nationalist alternatives that prepared youth for future roles within the independence movement. Constance Markievicz and Bulmer Hobson formed Na Fianna Éireann (or the Irish National Boy Scouts) in Dublin in 1909 in order to counteract the growing popularity and influence of the Boy Scouts and Boys’ Brigade in Ireland, offering members a combination of military training, outdoor pursuits, and Irish cultural activities, such as Irish language classes, hurling, concerts and céilís. Although the Fianna was mainly for boys, troops for girls existed in Belfast and Waterford for short periods during the revolutionary era. The year 1912 saw the formation in Dublin of the Irish National Girl Scouts, which changed their name to the Clan na Gael (or Clann na nGaedheal) Girl Scouts in 1915 when they became an auxiliary of the Hibernian Rifles. Founding member May Kelly initially started this group with the help of fellow Drumcondra resident Seamus McGowan, who had been involved in organising Fianna troops on the north side of Dublin. Boys from families who were less radical in their nationalism could join the Hibernian Boys’ Brigade, which the Ancient Order of Hibernians started in late 1911 for Irish Catholic boys. Serving and former members of the Fianna and the Clan na Gael Girl Scouts later participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and other events of the Irish Revolution, providing, for example, military support services as dispatch carriers, couriers and intelligence gatherers.

After the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, uniformed youth groups continued to evolve and compete for members. Although the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were open to children of all religions, these organisations were perceived in the popular imagination as being British and Protestant in orientation, so they sought to adapt themselves to the new southern state at the same time that Irish Catholic equivalents were being founded. For instance, the management of the southern Irish guiding operation shifted from London to Dublin in 1929, and new badges were added for Irish speaking and Irish traditional dancing. Due to the Fianna’s association with Republicanism, it was seen as particularly important to provide a non-political youth organisation for Irish Catholic boys. The Catholic hierarchy approved the foundation of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland in 1926, and the Catholic Guides of Ireland (first known as Clanna Bhríde) soon followed in 1928. As some Irish families prioritised politics over religion, some children from Republican backgrounds continued to join the Fianna, the Clan na Gael Girl Scouts, and Cumann na gCailíní, a new group for girls founded in 1930 by the Republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan.

The early years of uniformed youth groups in Ireland were characterised by divisions based on religion, politics and gender, reflecting tensions within Irish society at the time. In order to attract members and remain relevant, uniformed youth groups have continued to develop and evolve throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Today uniforms are often more informal in style, some groups welcome boys and girls as members while others remain single sex, and if a group has a religious denomination, it is not likely to be a symbol of political affiliation south of the Irish border. The opportunities for personal development and sociability remain the same.

Further Reading:

Clare Brophy, In the Spirit of Adventure: A History of the Catholic Guides of Ireland (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2009).

Gillian Finan, A Hundred Years A-Growing: A History of the Irish Girl Guides (Dublin: Liberties Press, 2010).

J. Anthony Gaughan, Scouting in Ireland (Dublin: Kingdom Books, 2006).

Marnie Hay, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution, 1909-23: Scouting for Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).