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13 February 2017 Edition

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Fenian Rising - 150th anniversary - 5 March

Remembering the Past

The Fenian Proclamation also appealed to the ‘workmen of England’, reflecting contact between the fledgling workers’ movement in Britain and the Fenians

ON 5 MARCH 1867, the ill-fated Rising by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians, consisted of sporadic and short-lived confrontations with British forces in a few locations across Ireland. But this was by no means the end of the IRB and the continuing influence of Fenianism was profound. 

IT WAS A BITTERLY COLD NIGHT of blizzards and snow. In south County Dublin, large bands of men gathered for the long-postponed armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland. But promised arms from America had not arrived. Poorly armed or unarmed, the men went through a night of bitter disappointment, confusion, tragedy and finally dispersal for most, imprisonment for many and death for a few. 

Similar scenes on a minor scale occurred in Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford and Louth in that month of March 1867. The month before, in County Kerry, unaware that the Rising, originally fixed for February, had been postponed, Fenians marched from Cahirciveen towards Killarney before dispersing. 

To many an outside observer it must have seemed that the Irish rebels had lived up to the British propaganda image of them as ineffective, divided and infiltrated by informers. While there was a grain of truth in some of this, the propaganda image was designed to hide the sheer scale, depth and extent of Fenianism as a political and military phenomenon in Ireland, Britain and North America. It was a force that had the potential to subvert British rule in Ireland with very serious wider implications for the British Empire, both before and long after 1867. 

The Irish Republican Brotherhood – also known as the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood – was founded in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day 1858. Its leader was James Stephens, a veteran of the Young Ireland Rising of 1848. Another ’48 veteran, John O’Mahony, simultaneously established the Fenian Brotherhood of America, naming it after the Fianna, the legendary heroic figures of ancient Ireland. “Fenians” became the popular name for the movement on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The fire of Fenianism soon blazed high, finding a ready response in a nation devastated by the Great Hunger of 1845-1849 during which at least a million people died of starvation and disease and a million emigrated. The flow of people out of Ireland was unceasing throughout the 1850s and 1860s, and from 1858 the popular political movement among those who remained and those who emigrated, especially the young, was Fenianism. Ireland was still in the grip of British rule and landlordism, the twin evils that had caused the Great Hunger, and thousands of people were soon pledged and organised to break that grip. 

In Ireland, Stephens was very successful in building up the organisation based in secret ‘circles’ spread throughout the country. His confidence and apparent daring won many recruits and the movement spread quickly, especially in the cities and towns among tradesmen and the labouring class. In the United States, the movement grew among the ever-expanding Irish communities, with a steady flow of recruits and money. 


The trans-Atlantic strength of the movement was shown in 1861 when the body of the patriot Terence Bellew McManus was repatriated to Ireland and interred in Glasnevin after a huge and impressive funeral organised by the IRB. The pro-British Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Cardinal Cullen tried to thwart the funeral and led widespread clerical condemnation of Fenianism then and subsequently. Because of this hostility and that of the press, Stephens founded The Irish People newspaper in 1863. It championed Irish republicanism and had a radical social edge. 

As one modern historian, Marta Ramón (A Provisional Dictator – James Stephens and the Fenian Movement, 2007),has commented: 

“The paper’s campaigns in favour of peasant proprietorship, social egalitarianism, working-class self-reliance, or independence from ecclesiastical influence in political matters, appeared to the movement’s contemporaries as the thin end of the wedge of a whole new social arrangement, and one that middle-class constitutionalist nationalists had every reason to oppose.” 

The Fenians exposed the hypocrisy of the Catholic Hierarchy who blessed the British Empire and the Irishmen who joined its army but at the same time condemned those pledged to Irish freedom. A founder member of the IRB, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, summed this up in a ballad: 

No sin to kill for English greed in some far foreign clime,

How can it be that patriot love in Ireland is a crime?

How can it be by God’s decree I’m cursed, outlawed and banned

Because I swore one day to free my trampled native land?


• Fenian flags captured after Tallaght (top) and from Stepaside (below)

The aim of the Fenian movement was to establish an Irish Republic and its method was by force of arms through insurrection in Ireland with the support of officers, arms and money from the United States and with the co-operation of Fenians in England and Scotland. 

As the movement grew, tension and anticipation heightened, not least among the British authorities. Despite later claims that the movement was riddled with informers (though informers there were) it was remarkably watertight given its size and the significant financial inducements offered by the British authorities.

The success of Fenian recruiting among Irishmen in the British Army in Ireland was such that the chief recruiter, John Devoy, later estimated that they had up to 15,000 members in regiments stationed in the country, ready to rise at the IRB’s command. This was in 1865, but the unique opportunity was to pass, never to recur. 

Insurrection was promised by James Stephens and aimed for in 1865 but the arrest of most of the Irish leadership and the suppression of the Irish People newspaper in the autumn of that year was a severe blow. Stephens was held in Richmond Prison and was sprung from that jail by the IRB in November, his escape giving a brief boost to a movement that had been greatly disrupted. In February 1866, John Devoy and other key ‘soldier Fenians’ in the British Army were arrested. James Stephens was heavily criticised for not ‘giving the word’ to rise and his leadership was coming to an end. 

In the United States in 1866, the Fenian movement was also experiencing serious internal division. 

John O’Mahony struggled to maintain control over the organisation which he compared to a wild horse. He was determined to focus its energy on sending practical aid, including a military expedition, for the planned rising in Ireland. But the ‘Senate wing’ of the movement, led by millionaire Irish-American WR Roberts, wanted to launch an invasion of British-controlled Canada. An initially successful raid was made across the border but it could not be followed up after the US authorities clamped down. 

The Fenian split in the USA was complex but a key factor was that some leaders, such as Roberts, were using the movement to advance their personal ambitions among Irish communities who were beginning to flex their muscles in US politics.


• Fenian leaders John Devoy and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Many Irishmen who had fought in the American Civil War (1861-1865) were Fenians and were eager to fight for Irish freedom. In the winter of 1866/67, significant numbers of them made their way to Ireland. Stephens was by now discredited and in December 1866 he was replaced by Civil War veteran Colonel Thomas Kelly as head of the IRB. A French adventurer and political radical, Cluseret (later a leader in the Paris Commune), was recruited by Kelly as a military commander. 

On 10 February 1867, the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic was established with Kelly at its head. It issued a Proclamation, a precursor of 1916, which was socially advanced and internationalist:

“Republicans of the entire world! Our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy.” 

It also appealed to the “workmen of England”, reflecting contact between the fledgling workers’ movement in Britain and the Fenians. 

5 March 1867 was set as the date for the Rising. In England, the Fenians planned a daring raid on Chester Castle, which had a large store of arms but was poorly guarded. The attempt, for which 1,200 north of England Fenians mobilised on 11 February, was betrayed by the informer John Joseph Corydon. Two days later, the premature outbreak in Kerry took place, with the seizure of the barracks in Cahirciveen, which was the beginning and end of that action. 

Despite these disasters, preparations for 5 March went ahead. The main focus was Dublin where Fenians were to mobilise in the city and to the south in Tallaght and the Dublin mountains. The principal body of Fenians was at Tallaght and they assembled on that night of fierce weather only to be thwarted by confused leadership and totally inadequate arms. Nonetheless, several hundred marched on the barracks where they were fired on by a small force of police. In the confusion, the Fenians thought they were facing a much larger force and retreated.  Two Fenians were killed – Stephen Donoghue and Thomas Farrell. (They are buried in the Fenian Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery). 

Elsewhere in south Dublin that night, a smaller but better-armed and organised body of Fenians set out for the mountains from Palmerstown Park. They fired on Dundrum Barracks and went on to capture Stepaside and Glencullen barracks, seizing arms and taking prisoners. In an account published in America in 1905 (quoted in the 1958 Wolfe Tone Annual) Henry P Filgate, who took part, says that the men marched in regular military formation, some armed with modern rifles, and his officer, Patrick Lennon, ordered police to “surrender to the Irish Republic”. 


• A dramatic interpretation of 'The Battle of Tallaght'

Isolated mobilisations also took place in Counties Cork, Limerick and Tipperary, and a large number of Fenians assembled in Drogheda. By the night of 6 March, the much-heralded Rising was over, a mere shadow of what it might have been. But this was far from the end of Fenianism. 

Too late, a Fenian arms ship, the Jacknell, renamed Erin’s Hope, sailed from New York, reached Ireland in May and then returned across the Atlantic. In September in England, Thomas Kelly was arrested and, following his rescue from a prison van in Manchester, three young Irishmen – William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien – were framed and executed in November, gaining immortality in the annals of Irish republicanism as “The Manchester Martyrs”. 

Despite the catastrophe of 1867, the Irish Republican Brotherhood remained alive in Ireland and, though divided, Fenianism persisted in the United States. There were Fenian bombing campaigns in the 1870s and 1880s in England, and the threat of force influenced the Irish policy of British governments, as even Prime Minister William Gladstone admitted. 

The Fenians played a key role in the Land War of the 1880s. The IRB was revived at the start of the 20th Century by former Fenian prisoner Tom Clarke, in conjunction with John Devoy, head of Clan na Gael in the USA. Devoy and Clarke were the main movers in planning the 1916 Rising and to Clarke went the honour of being first signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. 

James Connolly wrote of Feniansim that “its glory consisted in the fact that against all odds . . . there were proven to be in Ireland thousands of men and women who were prepared to affirm that Ireland was a nation with an independent destiny of its own” and that “we of the working class are proud to remember that those heroes were of our own class”.


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