1 May 2008 Edition
Annual Fergal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture
The Fenians at home and abroad
By Michael Kenny
THE Annual Fergal O’Hanlon Memorial Lecture was delivered on 20 April by Michael Kenny, Assistant Curator, National Museum of Ireland. The venue was Teach na nDaoine, Cortolvin, Monaghan, where Sinn Féin Councillor Seán Conlon welcomed the audience.
The topic of the Fenians was chosen as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Méara Bhaile Mhuineacháin Padraigín Uí Mhurchadha proposed the vote of thanks which was seconded by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD. We carry here an edited version of the lecture.
THE Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day 1858 following contacts between James Stephens, who had returned to Ireland in 1856, and John O’Mahony, leader of the Irish republicans in New York. Both were 1848 veterans who had shared exile in France, mixing with the various European radicals and revolutionaries who thronged Paris between 1848 and 1851.
Stephens was the chief organiser and undisputed leader of the new movement. He was ably assisted by another 1848 man, Thomas Clarke Luby, who attended the inaugural meeting in Dublin and helped formulate the membership oath. The oath was simple: “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. Amen.”
The aim was equally simple, to establish an independent Irish republic by physical force. History had shown, it was felt, that Britain would “never concede self-government to the force of argument but only to the argument of force” and that therefore parliamentary politics were futile and demoralising. Some modern historians have criticised this apparent negativity but one has to remember that this was not a democratic age and academic ramblings about ‘mandates’ fail to take account of the fact that the vote at this point was confined to less than 5 per cent of the adult male population.
Stephens, Luby and their associates immediately made contact with other, like-minded groups and individuals. There was in existence already a nucleus of committed republicans, especially among the artisans of Dublin and Kilkenny and in organisations such as the Phoenix Society in west Cork. However, the new movement was to find its greatest support among “small farmers and labourers, soldiers, schoolmasters, clerks, shop assistants and urban workers generally... they wrote off the landed aristocracy as a whole, were suspicious of the well-to-do middle class and pinned their faith to the common man”. James Stephens believed that a “thorough social revolution” was required before the mass of the people could be coaxed to embrace republicanism.
The IRB was organised in cells, similar to contemporary secret societies in Europe. It spread slowly at first but 1861 proved a turning point. In that year, Terence Bellew McManus, an 1848 veteran, died in California and his remains were returned to Ireland. The funeral, organised by the IRB, was an occasion of huge public demonstrations of sympathy which boosted recruitment dramatically. In 1863 the IRB launched its own newspaper, The Irish People, which proved extremely influential in gaining new members and spreading republican principles. Apart from Luby, its chief contributors were John O’Leary, Charles Kickham and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, all of whom were to become important figures in the movement later.
Following a period of recruitment, arming and drilling, the long-awaited rising was planned for 1865. By this stage the IRB was estimated to be 100,000 strong but was poorly equipped and badly led. Arms were procured in various ways. One of the most audacious was the open purchase of firearms in Britain by Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, a colourful veteran of the American Civil War, posing as an agent of the Chilean Government. Guns were also acquired from sympathisers in the British Army itself, where by the mid-1860s there were an estimated 15,000 Fenians, recruited by agents such as Patrick ‘Pagan’ O’Leary, John Devoy, William Roantree and John Boyle O’Reilly.
O’Leary was a veteran of the American/Mexican war of 1847; Roantree had served in the US Navy and fought under the American soldier-of-fortune, General Walker, in Nicaragua; Devoy had gained his military experience in the French Foreign Legion; O’Reilly had enlisted in the British Army for the express purpose of recruiting Fenians, something for which he was to suffer heavily when his activities were discovered.
As the plans for insurrection intensified, a considerable number of Irish veterans of the American Civil War made their way to Ireland and Britain in preparation for action. Funding from America increased. The sheer success of people such as Devoy in gaining recruits had, however, made secrecy virtually impossible. The movement, at home and abroad, was infiltrated by informers, some close to the leadership.
As Stephens and his lieutenants finalised their plans, the authorities swooped in September 1865 and arrested many of the leaders. The principal recruiters in the British Army, such as John Boyle O’Reilly, were rounded up soon afterwards and the ‘contaminated’ regiments posted abroad. Stephens was arrested but escaped from Richmond Prison in a daring rescue planned by two men who were to figure prominently in the subsequent history of Fenianism: John Devoy and Thomas J Kelly. His authority within the movement was, however, irretrievably damaged.
The difficulties faced by the IRB at this point were exacerbated by a split in the American organisation. One faction, led by John O’Mahony, wished to channel all available funds directly into an Irish insurrection. Another wing, known as the ‘senate’ group, impatient with postponements and failures in Ireland, began to plan for an Irish-American invasion of Canada.
The widespread arrests and deportations of figures such as John Boyle O’Reilly, John Devoy and Joseph Deneiffe crippled the IRB. A small, hardcore were determined to go ahead with a rising nevertheless but when it did take place in the spring of 1867 it was a total failure. Unco-ordinated uprisings in the Iveragh peninsula of County Kerry in February and in south Dublin in March were easily suppressed, as were minor attempts in Cork, Waterford and Tipperary around the same time. In the Dublin fighting, the constabulary barracks of Stepaside and Glencullen were captured but the rout of the main Fenian body at Tallaght was followed by the dispersal and arrest of most of the participants. In Cork, attacks on Midleton and Castlemartyr failed, as did the attempt to capture Kilmallock Barracks in County Limerick.
The last episode in the confused saga of heroism and inefficiency was still to come. Believing that fighting was still going on in Ireland, John O’Mahony’s group in New York fitted out a small vessel, the Jackmel, which sailed from that city on 12 April 1867 with several thousand Springfield rifles and 40 military veterans abroad. At sea she hoisted the Irish flag and changed her name to the Erin’s Hope.
Arriving in Sligo Bay on 20 May, the ship was boarded by the indomitable Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, described by John Devoy as “by long odds the most remarkable man the Fenian movement produced”. Burke carried with him the heart-breaking news that the rising was over.
The captain sailed his ship halfway round the country before landing his passengers near Dungarvan, County Waterford, where most of them were promptly arrested. The ship, with cargo intact, sailed back to America. She had come, in the words of John Devoy, “two years too late”.
James Stephens, his credibility damaged beyond repair, had by now been replaced by a more militant group, back-boned by American Civil War veterans and determined to fight on regardless of the odds. Some of the most dramatic exploits of this group were carried out, not in Ireland, but in England.
Fenianism spread to England at an early stage, gaining a strong following not only among emigrant Irish labourers and artisans, but also among second-generation Irish. It even attracted some workers and political activists who had no connection with Ireland whatsoever. It gained the sympathy of some commentators as the natural ally of the radical movements that led to the formation of the Labour Party. Fenian leaders in England were on friendly terms with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were keenly interested in Irish affairs. There were Fenian cells in the major cities, and the movement was particularly strong in Lancashire, among mill workers and artisans.
This brings us to one of the most interesting features of the Fenian movement – its huge range and diversity. In parts of Ireland it had strong agrarian undertones; in England and Scotland, it had a high social content; in America, it was an organisation with considerable military potential.
Following the 1865 debacle and the lack of action in 1866, a body of English-based activists and Irish-American officers, led by Thomas Kelly, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and John McCafferty, drew up a daring plan to spearhead a rising from England. The audacious scheme involved a surprise attack on the military arsenal in Chester, to be followed by the commandeering of the mail-boat or other shipping in Holyhead and the transportation of the captured arms back to Ireland.
The leader of the attack was to be Captain John McCafferty, a former officer in the Confederate Army, who had fought in the notorious Morgan’s Raiders. The plan, like so many others, was betrayed to the authorities and had to be aborted but the sheer strength of the organisation may be measured from the fact that over one thousand Fenians from Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and other towns, turned out on the appointed day. Among them was a young one-armed man carrying a bag of bullets. His name was Michael Davitt, who was later to claim his place in Irish history as the founder of the Land League.
The Chester fiasco was followed by the arrest of Captain McCafferty. In September of the same year, Colonel Kelly, now head of the IRB following the demotion of Stephens, was arrested in Manchester with another Irish-American officer, Captain Deasy. A fortnight later both men were rescued from a prison van in broad daylight. A policeman was shot dead during the rescue. Three of those arrested in the subsequent police round-up – William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien – were sentenced to death and hanged on 23 November. They had been part of the rescue party but none had fired the fatal shot.
The executions caused outrage, even among those most vehemently opposed to Fenianism, as did the refusal of the authorities to allow them a church burial. The song God Save Ireland, composed in their memory, was to become one of the best-known of all republican anthems.
It is also worth noting that the English-based Fenians were in many cases risking relatively well-paid jobs and in the contemporary climate of fear, hysteria and ‘Fenian fever’ had nowhere to hide when their plans failed or were uncovered.
The leader of the Manchester rescue, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, was himself arrested and lodged in Clerkenwell Prison, London, from which an attempt was made to rescue him in December 1867. The gunpowder explosion that blew a huge hole in the prison wall failed to free Burke but killed several people in adjoining tenements. It sparked off a wave of public and media hysteria and brought Irish issues onto the streets of Britain.
In the longer term, the amazing conviction and resilience that sustained Fenianism was to have a major influence on contemporary politicians and commentators, and especially on William Gladstone, the Liberal prime minister, who was later to become a committed advocate of Home Rule for Ireland.
In the wake of the defeats and debacles of 1865-67, the various strands of Fenianism began the slow process of reorganisation. The Catholic Hierarchy, with few exceptions, was fiercely hostile. The Bishop of Kerry, who regarded Fenianism as a godless conspiracy, threatened “God’s heaviest curse, His withering, blasting, blighting curse”. Fenians were refused the sacraments and, in 1870, Pope Pius IX condemned the organisation by name.
Fenians such as Charles Kickham demanded, in turn, that the church should keep out of politics. Kickham’s quotation from Fr Luke Wadding, a 17th Century scholar, “Time was when we had wooden chalices and golden priests but now we have golden chalices and wooden priests,” raised temperatures further.
The plight of Fenian prisoners, in jails on three continents, provided a rallying point. The United States Government was lobbied to intercede for Fenian prisoners in Canada. In Ireland, an Amnesty Association, which included many constitutional nationalists and whose president was Isaac Butt, founder of the Home Rule movement, agitated for the release of prisoners and highlighted the ill-treatment suffered by many.
Conditions in British prisons at the time have been described as “harsh to the point of being sadistic”. One prisoner, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, spent 123 days on a bread and water punishment diet, 231 days on a penal class diet in a darkened cell, 28 days in a completely dark cell and 34 days with his hands manacled behind his back. After this, he was occasionally punished for singing. At his trial, he had been accused of the ultimate evil: “inciting the lower orders to believe that they might expect a redistribution of property”. This was the original ‘appalling vista’ that terrified the ruling classes. While in prison he was elected MP for Tipperary, further highlighting the plight of those jailed. Amazingly, he was to survive until 1915.
Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, whose incarceration included a term in Broadmoor Asylum, lived until 1922, while John Devoy survived until 1929.
In Britain, an Amnesty Committee held parades and public meetings, demanding the release of those incarcerated. Political figures, workingmen’s associations and international radicals joined together in what was an unusual display of solidarity. Among the most vocal was Karl Marx. The government relented and began to release prisoners. Leaders such as John Devoy, O’Donovan Rossa and Thomas Clarke Luby were released in 1871 but only on condition that they should not return to Ireland. Most of them headed immediately for America.
Fenians were also released in Australia, some of whom followed their comrades to America. There they were joined by others, including John Boyle O’Reilly, who had escaped from Australia. The released prisoners who arrived in New York in 1871 were given a huge welcome and were received in the White House by President Grant.