13 March 2008 Edition
Irish Republican Brotherhood : 150th Anniversary
The founding of the Fenians
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
THERE is a small, unassuming building in a terrace of premises in East Lombard Street, Dublin, which houses a tyre firm. Unless they have business there, few people notice the building where one of the most important meetings in Irish history took place. It was here, in the house of Peter Langan, lathe-maker and timber merchant, in East Lombard Street on St Patrick’s Day 1858, that the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded.
Present at that fateful meeting were James Stephens, Thomas Clarke Luby, Joseph Denieffe, Garret O’Shaughnessy and Peter Langan. “We were all supremely joyous and anxious for the work,” wrote Joseph Denieffe in his memoir. The five men took an oath which had been composed by Dublin Protestant republican Thomas Clarke Luby:
“I, AB, in the presence of the Almighty God, do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established, and that I will do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity; and finally, that I will yield implicit obedience in all things, not contrary to the laws of God, to the commands of my superior officers. So help me God.”
It seems that the name of the organisation was not formally adopted at that meeting. Denieffe gives it as the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood but it became the Irish Republican Brotherhood and under that name it lasted in Ireland and among Irish exiles all over the world until the 1916 Rising and beyond.
Joseph Denieffe was the main link between the new republican movement and its equivalent in the United States.
Parallel with the founding of the IRB in Dublin, the Fenian Brotherhood was founded in the United States under the leadership of O’Mahony. He conceived the name based on the legendary warriors of ancient Ireland, Fianna Éireann. This was anglicised to ‘Fenian’ and, ironically, the English term re-entered the Irish language as Fínín’, the movement being known in Irish as ‘na Fíníní’.
The immediate origins of the IRB were in the failed Young Ireland insurrection of 1848. Stephens, O’Mahony and Doheny all took part in the 1848 Rising and fled to France. It was their discussions in Paris that aimed to spark the flame of the next phase of revolution. But the embers were not yet extinguished in Ireland and in 1849, under the leadership of James Fintan Lalor, there was a short-lived effort to stage another rising. Plans included the kidnapping of Queen Victoria on her visit to Dublin in August 1849. It all came to nothing but participants included IRB founding members Thomas Clarke Luby and Peter Langan.
That same year, Michael Doheny was involved in the Irish Republican Union in New York. It had a military arm, as did the more significant Emmet Monument Association, under the leadership of John O’Mahony. Joseph Denieffe was sent over to find out what could be done. In 1855, he came to Dublin to try to meet what few republicans he could find. He found a chimney sweep named Farrell. Covered in soot from his work, Farrell brought Denieffe to meet Peter Langan in Lombard Street. On the same street lived Philip Gray, another ‘49 man’.
Philip Gray died in 1857 and James Stephens wrote to O’Mahony, seeking help to erect a monument to him. This correspondence revived contacts and acted as a cover for the nascent trans-Atlantic movement. The Emmet Monument Association had been wound-up in 1856 but a ‘Revolutionary Committee’ of its leaders was established and it was this committee that sent the endorsement of Stephens as IRB leader.
With just four co-founders, £80 sent from America and a thin network of contacts, James Stephens set out on 18 March 1858 to organise the IRB throughout Ireland. He was armed with the authority of the Fenians in exile from whom he had sought, in his own words, the powers of a “provisional dictator” in order to drive forward the new movement. This power assisted Stephens in building up the IRB but it was to prove counter-productive in directing the movement once it was well-established.
Despite all its difficulties, the IRB was an extraordinary mass movement for Irish freedom. In the years following 1858 it grew by leaps and bounds. As well as carrying the inspiration of Wolfe Tone and 1798, Thomas Davis and Young Ireland and the experience of the insurgents of 1848 and ‘49, the Fenians organised in political, social and economic conditions that made the people responsive to their message. The population of the country had been reduced by two million through starvation and emigration. While the world witnessed the holocaust visited on Ireland by British rule, ‘constitutional nationalism’ was thoroughly discredited. The young who were forced to emigrate were eager to right their country’s wrongs.
The IRB was democratic in its outlook and also in its membership. Its rank and file was from among ordinary working people, especially in the towns. It echoed early movements of working people around Europe.
In his Labour in Irish History, James Connolly wrote of Fenianism:
“Just as ‘98 was an Irish expression of the tendencies embodied in the first French Revolution, as ‘48 throbbed in sympathy with the democratic and social upheavals on the continent of Europe and England, so Fenianism was a responsive throb in the Irish heart to those pulsations in the heart of the European working class which elsewhere produced the International Working Men’s Association.”
The IRB newspaper, The Irish People, ran from 1863 until its suppression in 1865 and set out a political philosophy of democratic Irish republicanism, social justice, opposition to landlordism and to church domination in political affairs. Catholic bishops were some of the IRB’s fiercest opponents; Cardinal Cullen of Dublin publicly welcomed the British suppression of the paper and arrest of its staff.
The IRB Rising was postponed in 1865 and proved abortive in 1867. But this was far from the end of Fenianism. The following years saw mass movements in support of the Fenian prisoners, reorganisation in Ireland and America, the epic rescue of the prisoners from Western Australia in 1876, the ‘New Departure’ with the IRB playing a key role in the Land War and the rise of Parnell, bombing campaigns in England in the 1880s, the IRB initiative in founding the GAA, and participation in most of the Irish-Ireland movements that followed. Then, 100 years ago, former Fenian prisoner Tom Clarke returned from America and, with Seán MacDiarmada, began the rejuvenation of the IRB that was to lead to the 1916 Easter Rising.
A new era in Irish history began when the Irish Republican Brotherhood was established in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day 1858, 150 years ago this week.
IRB plaque to be unveiled
Acting on a proposal of Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, Dublin City Council has agreed to erect a plaque on 16 Lombard Street to commemorate the founding of the IRB. The plaque will be unveiled later this year.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.