From Baden-Powell to Wolfe Tone … the early years of scouting in Kildare
By Liam Kenny
The fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the scout troop in Naas (4th Kildare) which took place earlier this month gives opportunity for reflection on the story of scouting in Co Kildare. Today there are scout units operating throughout the county from Leixlip to Athy and all united under the one banner of Scouting Ireland. However it was not always so and scouting, no less than many other organisations in the country, reflected the nuances of the cultural and political strands of Irish life in the early 1900s.
The origins of scouting as a nationwide movement are attributed to Baden-Powell an English general who achieved hero status for his actions in the Boer War (1899-1900) when he had maintained the morale of the beleaguered citizens in a town which endured a long siege by the Boer forces.
Baden-Powell’s experience of survival in the Spartan landscapes of South Africa led him to propose the foundation of a movement for boys and young men which would emphasise concepts of self-sufficiency, discipline, duty with a particular stress on the skills of field craft and camping. He was also influenced by the writings of Rudyard Kipling who was a poet of Empire and whose stirring verse inspired loyalty to King and Country.
Baden-Powell was no stranger to Ireland and had been based at the Curragh Camp for some years in his capacity as Inspector of British Army Cavalry.
Thus it is not surprising that his advocacy for a scout movement spread across the Irish Sea and was taken up by leaders of public opinion in Irish counties. An early indication of scouting in Kildare appears in the publication of a notice in the Kildare Observer newspaper of 15 June 1912 which announces that “A movement is on foot to form a branch of the Boy Scouts in Naas, and an assembly of all boys between the ages of 11 and 18 who wish to join will be held at the Pavilion, Co. Kildare Cricket Grounds.” (better known today as the Tennis Club on the Dublin Road).
A week later the paper reports that despite the short notice “a large number of youths assembled at the Co Kildare Cricket Grounds and patrols were formed.” Unsurprisingly the convenor of this first scout unit in the county town was one Col. T.J de Burgh of the old Naas family who was described as Commissioner for Co. Kildare. Apart from his long-standing role as patron of good causes in Naas, Col de Burgh had also served in the Boer War, almost certainly knew Baden-Powell personally, and would have shared the same motivations for creating an organisation which would adopt some characteristics of military organisation while at the same time never being military in the sense of an armed service. Indeed the involvement of the de Burgh’s was significant as at a public meeting in Naas Town Hall in August 1912 one of the speakers was T J de Burgh’s brother, Col Ulick de Burgh (also a Boer War veteran) who was introduced as the Deputy Commissioner of the Boy Scouts in London. The meeting was also addressed by the first scoutmaster in Naas, T J de Burgh’s son, Tommy, who just two years later was to meet a tragic fate when he was lost in skirmishing in the opening weeks of the First World War. His body was never located.
As part of the team-building and healthy outdoor pursuits content promoted by the early scout movement, sport formed a significant activity. Reports from the local press highlight scout troops involved in hockey and football matches. One of the most surprising reports previews a hurling match in December 1912 between two troops of the Naas unit at the de Burgh estate in Oldtown – normally the preserve of English inspired games such as hockey and cricket. Picking up on the Celtic revival theme of the times the enthusiastic previewer eulogises: “We hail the fine old National sport of princes to our midst, and we hope the Naas Boy Scouts, will become skilled players at the great game – a game requiring wonderful agility and dash …”.
However the years from 1912 saw a ratcheting up of tensions on national and international stages. Within Ireland – at least in the southern counties – there were increasing pressures for independence while on a bigger stage the big powers of Europe were moving inexorably to the brink of war.
It was inevitable that the scout movement with its troops of young men organised in a quasi-military formation would be drawn into the militaristic atmosphere of the time. In June 1914 the Kildare Observer reported that scouts from Kildare and Dublin had participated in a mock-battle in which scout troops from the Curragh and Newbridge had to break through a cordon around Naas formed by the local troop with support from the Dublin Sea Scouts who had arrived into Naas harbour having rowed down the canal from the city.
However if there was a tendency in some quarters to see the scout movement as a source of recruiting for the war effort there were other influences where scout-type organisations had different motivations. A report of the Wolfe Tone commemoration at Sallins in June 1914 relates that 250 members of the Fianna Eireann scouts had taken part in the procession. The Fianna scouts had been formed by Countess Markevicz and Bulmer Hobson as movement for boys with a strongly nationalist ethos.
In modern times the scout movement is a united organisation spanning all creeds and cultures but its birth reflects the complex cultural nuances of Ireland in the early years of the 20th century. Leinster Leader, 25 June 2013, Series no: 337.