Captain O’Shea and the Fenians

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Letters, Volume 18



Captain O’Shea c. 1880. (Multitext, UCC)

Captain O’Shea c. 1880. (Multitext, UCC)

—Myles Dungan’s article on Captain O’Shea and the Fenians contains interesting information about politics in Clare, but he is surely misinterpreting the situation in speaking of a ‘sustained and practical nature of the [Fenian] alliance with O’Shea’ (p. 37). It was a very regular occurrence from the late 1860s until the mid-1880s for MPs, particularly those with an uncertain support base like O’Shea, to take up prisoners’ cases with a view to acquiring extra support from constituents. Parnell himself did this during the mid- to late 1870s, a fact that encouraged some to retrospectively, and mistakenly, portray Parnell as being in an alliance of a ‘sustained and practical nature’ with amnesty activists like James Carey, with whom he had shared platforms. Fenians were frequently eager to find any MPs who might speak on behalf of members who were facing court proceedings or who had already been imprisoned, and this was a particularly strong issue in Clare from roughly 1881 to 1888. This demand would have come from within the Clare IRB ranks, and this in turn would have been something for the provincial IRB representative to deal with. Such associations with MPs, however, were essentially ones of temporary expediency and ‘testing the water’, not a formal political alliance. It was the allegation that these associations constituted a real political alliance that underpinned Tory demonisations of the Irish Parliamentary Party during the 1880s.
With regard to the 1885 general election, there were several cases of IRB activists seeking to influence the choice of parliamentary candidates for diverse reasons, such as the amnesty issue or a desire to radicalise Irish Party representation generally. Dungan’s argument that O’Shea’s ‘regular opposition to the dictates of the Irish Party leader [Parnell] allowed him a foot in the IRB door’ (p. 34) is misjudged in this context. For example, the principal Fenian mentioned in Dungan’s article, P. N. Fitzgerald of Cork City, frequently argued in person with Parnell (MP for Cork City), yet he organised and chaired a large demonstration in Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary, in August 1885 in which it was argued that Parnell deserved nationalists’ full support in the forthcoming general election.
The mysterious reference to a ‘Fenian Chief’ in one of O’Shea’s letters is certainly curious, however. If this referred purely to the situation in Galway, it could have been any one of a number of characters in Connacht. If it was a reference to an actual head of the whole organisation, this would point to either John O’Leary or John O’Connor. Of these two men, it was O’Connor who most frequently discussed IRB organisation in the west of Ireland with Fitzgerald. In this context, a serious problem for anyone attempting to unravel the story of the Fenian movement in the 1880s is that there is so little known about O’Connor, who frequented London and Paris. If he was ever ‘turned’, then the entire Fenian organisation in Ireland was essentially compromised without their knowing, and there is no way of historians knowing either! In this respect, the untrustworthy reputation of the Fenian movement, as a potential trap for naïve enthusiasts, was certainly justifiable: it was a movement based upon trust, but its members were inherently placing blind faith in men who could potentially be very untrustworthy characters. Be that as it may, attempting to clarify this web of intrigue as accurately as possible is necessary if the basis of some kind of narrative of the history of the Fenian movement is to be established.
On this theme of trust, another curious episode of the backdrop to the 1885 general election, which has yet to be adequately explained, was Parnell’s decision during the summer of 1884 to order Timothy Harrington, the secretary of the Irish National League in Dublin, not to accept funds from the Irish National League of America (which had just appointed a new treasurer in Fr Charles O’Reilly) but instead to redirect these American funds to an account held in his own name in London or to an account held in Paris by a Mr Monro, whose identity is unclear (NLI, MS 8581, folders 1 and 3). While this may have been a simple accounting matter, it may point to Parnell being concerned that if the National League organisation in Ireland was held in some way accountable to the organisation in America as to what parliamentary candidates were selected, or else felt that it had sufficient financial power to determine these issues purely for itself, then his authority over the party would be lessened. Whether wisely or unwisely, Parnell sometimes seems to have had problems in trusting his proverbial parliamentary lieutenants.


—Yours etc.,


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