Nationalism’s pilot light?

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), News, Reviews, Volume 16

LR. V. Comerford’s The Fenians in context (1984) takes the view that the Fenians did not manifest ‘an inexorable national spirit’.

LR. V. Comerford’s The Fenians in context (1984) takes the view that the Fenians did not manifest ‘an inexorable national spirit’.

TheFenian spirit is ever present in Ireland and needs at any time but alittle organisation to make it burst into renewed activity.’ So wroteJohn O’Leary in 1896. O’Leary had been a leading Fenian, playing asignificant editorial role on the Irish People, for which in 1865 he,alongside other leading figures, was convicted of treason-felony andsent into exile. Granted permission to return to Ireland in 1885, hewas celebrated by a new generation of young Irish separatists,nostalgic for those seemingly glorious days.

National identity as a metaphysical phenomenon . . .

MarkRyan, London’s leading Fenian, took a similarly idealised view ofFenianism. Writing of how the tradition was marginalised by theascendancy of the Home Rule Party, he observed: ‘For the time being thevoice of Fenianism—the real voice of Irish Nationalism—was drowned, asit had been before, and since, in the welter of party politics’.Parnell’s biographer R. Barry O’Brien seemed to agree, writing in 1898,when Fenianism was weak: ‘Fenians are the real nationalist force inIreland’ and from the ‘moment’ Parnell ‘first thought seriously ofpolitics he saw, as if by instinct, that Fenianism was the key of Irishnationality’. Parnell, O’Brien reckoned, ‘ultimately rode into power ontheir shoulders’. Ryan dismissed party politics whereas O’Brienlegitimised parliament-arianism by associating it with Fenianism.
O’Leary’snotion that Fenianism was the spiritual manifestation of Irishnationalism reflected the nineteenth-century conviction that nationalidentity was a metaphysical phenomenon, timeless and God-given; eachnation was a divinely inspired unit whose ‘natural frontiers’ denotedits proper extent. Even John Redmond, often portrayed pejoratively asthe archetypal imperialist Home Ruler, adhered to this ideal,describing the possible partition of Ireland as ‘an abomination and ablasphemy’. Fenianism was one manifestation of this nineteenth-centurydogma.

. . . or arising from conditions of modernity

Bycontrast, historians generally argue that national identity arises outof the conditions of modernity. Vernacular print capitalism, increasingliteracy, and the extension and bureaucratisation of the state allserved to create a sense of community and difference from othercommunities. Though consciousness of national identity did notnecessarily develop into the political ideology known as nationalism,it tended to because moderns believed that the political rights ofnations are a collective expression of the individual rights of thenation’s citizens. To struggle for the nation was to struggle for therights of the individual citizen. Increasingly linked to these viewswas the idea that a nation’s right to self-determination correlated tothe strength of the people’s distinctive cultural or ethniccharacteristics. Consequently, nationalists in the nineteenth centurytended to be culturally revivalist, as the Young Ireland movement, theGaelic League and the phenomenally successful Gaelic AthleticAssociation (GAA) suggest.

Mid-VictorianFenians, however, had only half-formed ideas of this sort; they wereless culturally essentialist than early twentieth-century Irishrevivalists. Instead, they adhered to a republican-democratic critiqueof the prevailing systems of deference and ‘aristocratic’ ascendancythat they believed kept ‘the people’ in political bondage. Fenians didnot argue that the Irish were Anglicised or the victims of culturalimperialism—few showed much interest in the Irish language (JohnO’Mahony was a notable exception)—but they strongly believed that theIrish needed to become ‘enlightened’. A true political revolution wouldfollow mental liberation. The original Fenians were less romantic andmore practical than many of their later adherents supposed. They weremid-Victorian radicals rather than late nineteenth-century romantics.

‘Patriotism as pastime’

R.V. Comerford, modern Irish historiography’s leading interpreter ofFenianism, rightly takes the view that the Fenians did not manifest ‘aninexorable national spirit’. In his The Fenians in context (1984),Comerford argues that the IRB was formed in 1858 in response to thepossibility of an Anglo-French war and therefore affirmed the old adagethat ‘England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity’. There was no warand, crucially, the Fenians responded by developing the idea that theirnationalist integrity was rooted in their patient unwillingness tocompromise their separatist ideals. Ironically, their strategy, asshown in Marta Ramón’s A provisional dictator: James Stephens and theFenian movement (2007) [reviewed in this issue, pp 58–9], workedagainst revolutionary readiness. Stephens was reliant on money, armsand manpower from Irish-America. Irish-America would provide thesesupplies when convinced that the organisation was ready in Ireland; theorganisation in Ireland would prepare for revolution when convincedthat support from the US was imminent. Fenianism’s revolutionaryspirit, it transpired, was contingent on the strength of its outsidesupport. In the event, the 1867 rising was caused by the determinationof US Fenians to break this deadlock.
Comerford suggests that tomake sense of the widespread appeal of Fenianism in the early 1860s itis helpful to consider the organisation in terms of mid-Victorianassociationalism. Though revolut-ionary in its declared aims, Fenianismappealed to upwardly mobile, self-improving young men seekingcomradeship and an understanding of their place in the world, oftenagainst the background of rural tedium and clerical oppressiveness. Ina brilliant article in Irish Historical Studies (vol. xxii, 1981),Comerford described this phenomenon as ‘patriotism as pastime’.

Nationalists, yes, but social democrats also

Consequently,contemporaries obser-ved, a Fenian could be identified by his uprightbearing and his readiness to meet the eye of the priest, landlord orpoliceman. Fenians prided themselves on their self-respect and refusalto conform to traditional deference. Fenians were anti-aristocraticdemocrats; they forged links with English radicalism and harbouredgrand, if vague, notions of agrarian reform. Owen McGee, in The IRB:the Irish Republican Brotherhood from the Land League to Sinn Féin(2005), has emphasised—perhaps too strongly—the purity of thisrepublican radicalism. By his reading, the organisation primarilyfunctioned to promote a democratic republicanism rooted in a sterncritique of constitutional nationalism. As the 1867 proclamationstated, the IRB aimed ‘at founding a republic, based on universalsuffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of theirlabour’. Nationalists, yes, but social democrats also. According toMcGee’s schema, the death of O’Leary in 1907 signalled not the passingof ‘romantic Ireland’—evident in the self-immolation of PatrickPearse—but the passing of a democratic republicanism. It’s a suggestiveargument, given that the losers of 1916 within advanced nationalism—menlike Bulmer Hobson—were committed to fostering mass insurgency, not anundemocratic putsch.

Nationalism’s pilot light

Anotherway of thinking about Fenianism was given classic expression by P. S.O’Hegarty. In his famous polemical history The victory of Sinn Féin(1924), a riveting pro-Treaty broadside against the brutalisation ofthe Irish republican tradition during the ‘Devil Era’, O’Hegarty placedthe IRB at the heart of all that had been most vital to Irishnationalism in the decades before 1916. Though ‘a minority of aminority’, the IRB had acted as the ‘parent and the watcher’ to a hostof nationalist organisations and initiatives:

‘Strange andtransient committees and societies were constantly cropping up, doingthis and that specific work. The IRB formed them. The IRB ran them. TheIRB provided the money. The IRB dissolved them when their work wasdone.’

Though numerically small, O’Hegarty suggests that the IRBachieved a kind of omniscience, always ready to identify and exploitnew opportunities. This is a classic expression of the idea that theIRB formed the revolutionary élite, the keepers of the Phoenix flame,nationalism’s pilot light. Stripped of its celebratory tone,O’Hegarty’s view of the IRB is cautiously confirmed in much historicalwork.
Paul Bew and Donald Jordan have shown how central the IRB wasto the Land War, providing a cadre of experienced organisers andpropagandists necessary to get the Land League off the ground. In myThe Fenian ideal and Irish nationalism, 1882–1916 (2006) I have shownhow, at the time of high Parnellism, leading Home Rulers frequentlymade a point of appealing to Fenian sensibilities: no man, as Parnellfamously said, had a right to set a boundary to the march of a nation.During the Parnell split, Fenians worked for Parnell and, thoughsceptical about his allusions to physical force, they were keen to cocka snook at the Catholic Church and the Liberal Party. As one Parnelliteadmitted, without Fenian support ‘we could have not carried on the warat all though Parnell fought like a lion at every turn’. In the 1890sParnellites continued to pander to the Fenians, supporting theircampaign for the release of the Dynamitards and allowing the offices ofthe Parnellite Irish Independent newspaper to provide Dublin Fenians anunofficial headquarters. Most significant, perhaps, was the role playedby IRB men in organising the 1798 centenary celebrations. Theydominated the central organising bodies and many of the localcommittees, but still the Home Rulers were able to set the agenda,leaving many Fenians furious. Fenian activists also dominated thepro-Boer War agitation and protests against the royal visits of 1900and 1903. These events politicised a new generation of advancednationalists, orientating them towards an Irish nationalism opposed tothe British connection.

Plenty of evidence for Fenian sentiment but little for structured activity

Despitethis feverish activity, we know little of the organisation’sfunctioning. No records of the Supreme Council, the IRB’s governingbody, survive, and evidence of Fenian activity tends to come fromunsystematic and often unreliable police records. The extent to whichwe can be sure that those fingered as IRB men by the police weremembers of an organisation with a meaningful institutional existence islimited. At best we have an impressionistic sense of a proportion ofnationalists sceptical that the Home Rule Party would ever deliverindependence. The decrepit nature of the IRB organisation is evident inthe unease with which younger men attracted to Irish republicanism inthe 1900s encountered the old guard. Liam de Róiste found ‘somethingrepellent . . . in all those tales . . . of the remnants of Fenianism:suggestions of treachery, suspicions, cunning “dodges”, the absurd airof secrecy’. Maud Gonne agreed, warning Bulmer Hobson off the ‘oldgang’ in Dublin, reporting that her husband John MacBride ‘used toattend secret meetings . . . but it was only an excuse for debauchery& . . . they kept the young men from doing anything’.
Inshort, there was plenty of evidence of Fenian sentiment but much lessevidence of its generating structured activity through the IRB. The IRBwas a vanguard, but for a much larger proportion of the populationFenianism functioned as a defiant tendency within a more pragmaticnationalism.

Generational tension

De Róiste’sscepticism is reflected in the conclusions of a number of historianswho have emphasised the role played by generational tension in thelimited revival of the organisation in the 1900s. Tom Clarke’s returnto Ireland in 1907 is often identified as the key moment, butdevelopments were already afoot elsewhere and class politics were animportant factor in this renewal of advanced nationalism. For example,Fergus Campbell’s Land and revolution: nationalist politics in the westof Ireland 1891–1921 (2005) has demonstrated that in County GalwayFenian-type networks with links to Sinn Féin existed and appealed tomen who had not benefited from land reform. These conclusions chimewith findings that suggest that during 1919–21 IRA activism was mostcommon among young men with little socio-economic stake in society. Inthe towns and cities the IRB retained influence in the Working Men’sClubs and transmitted their ideas to younger men through organisationslike the Young Ireland Societies. The establishment of Irish Freedom in1910 marked a successful bid by younger men to take control of the IRB.This new confidence bore fruit during the Ulster Crisis, when Feniantypes provided the backbone of the Irish Volunteers. Once again,however, the Home Rule leadership successfully undermined the radicalagenda.
Perhaps the most suggestive analysis of the IRB’s laterimportance comes in Joost Augusteijn’s From public defiance toguerrilla warfare (1996). Augusteijn traces the emergence of pockets ofradical nationalist sentiment throughout provincial Ireland in theyears before the Great War, generated partly by the GAA, the GaelicLeague, Sinn Féin and factions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Insome places nurtured by the IRB, more often it developed outside ofdirect IRB influence. According to Augusteijn:

‘Although the IRBhad not planned or initiated the growing radicalisation of Irishnationalists, its revitalisation provided the growing group of militantnationalists with a framework which would be able to exploitopportunities for expansion.’

Easter1916 was an IRB rising of sorts, though it was in direct contraventionof the 1873 IRB constitution, which stated that the organisation wouldinaugurate revolution when it had the support of the majority of theIrish people. During the revolution itself the IRB networks werecrucial, not least because the revolutionary élite tended to beBrothers: Michael Collins ran his war through the organisation. WhenSinn Féin split in 1922 Harry Boland believed that the IRB could holdthe movement together. Fraternity failed and, faced—finally—with apolitical choice, it backed the Treaty.

History of Irish separatism not simply the history of the IRB
Fenianismand the Irish Republican Brotherhood are again attracting the attentionof Irish historians, and a more complicated picture of the keepers ofthe Phoenix flame is emerging. Local studies demonstrate how theFenians were one of a number of competing factions within town orcounty politics. Histories of the Fenians abroad, though illuminatingthe international circuitry that energised Irish nationalism, oftendemonstrate that diasporic politics rather than the situation inIreland was the strongest determinant of Fenian activity outsideIreland. Examination of the Fenian-associated dynamite campaign of the1880s is helping to generate a more complex picture of Fenian ethics.There is plenty of scope for studying Fenianism through the lens ofgender, and a study of Fenianism and ideas of Irish masculinity has yetto be made.
New assessments of Fenianism have affected how weunderstand Irish history in the Home Rule period. The Home Rule Partynow seems more ideologically embattled, with its political ascendancyless secure than is often supposed, not least because Irish politicalopinion was more ‘advanced’ than some historians of Home Rule allow.Nonetheless, the history of Irish separatism is not the history of theIRB; the health of one did not exclusively reflect the health of theother. Rather than fetishising a single organisation, we must thinkinstead about how idealism and pragmatism always jockeyed for spacewithin Irish nationalism.

Matthew Kelly lectures in history at the University of Southampton.


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