Difficulties and opportunities: making sense of the Fenians

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

An American Fenian bond from the 1860s. The Fenians were an international phenomenon with a presence on all six continents. (National Museum of Ireland)

An American Fenian bond from the 1860s. The Fenians were an international phenomenon with a presence on all six continents. (National Museum of Ireland)

Founded 150 years ago, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was a secret, oath-bound, revolutionary organisation dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish republic by force. The Fenians (as they were known generically) were an international phenomenon with a presence on all six continents. Not only did the organisation engage in military operations across the globe, it also constructed political machines in urban America, participated in political struggles in Ireland and infiltrated Ireland’s literary and sporting cultures, most famously the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League.
Although commemoration was a key strategy by which Fenianism sought to legitimise its activities, neither the IRB’s ‘birthday’ (St Patrick’s Day 1858) nor its first attempt at armed rebellion in 1867 were key dates in the republican calendar. Thus, in contrast to the 1966 commemoration of Easter 1916, the 1967 anniversary was low-key. For a country that takes its commemorations seriously—perhaps too seriously—this year’s 150th anniversary is about to fade into history with remarkably little attention. The fact that the only political party to mark the anniversary was Sinn Féin (a commemorative range of Fenian-themed prints, T-shirts and jewellery is still available from its online store) offers a clue to the reasons for this reticence. While Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have engaged in unseemly ownership disputes over the republican tradition in the past—as the controversies provoked by the state funeral of Kevin Barry and the ‘nameless nine’ in 2001 and the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 2006 demonstrated—Sinn Féin’s claim to the Fenian legacy went uncontested this year, which is odd given the IRB’s role as the most important organisation in the history of Irish republicanism, the tradition from which nearly all of Ireland’s non-unionist political parties derive. It was the IRB who planned the Easter Rising that proclaimed the Irish Republic in 1916, and it was Michael Collins’s IRB élite who guided the IRA’s fight for freedom during the War of Independence. The most obvious explanation for this reticence is the IRB’s identification with violence. In contrast to the United Irishmen—commemorated as democratic pioneers of non-sectarian republicanism for the 200th anniversary of 1798—the Fenians have left behind a more problematic political legacy. It is surely no coincidence that Sinn Féin is the republican party most comfortable with identifying with its ‘physical force’ past, or that the very term retains a resonance in Northern Ireland—whether embraced by ‘unrepentant Fenians’ or as a sectarian term of abuse (‘Fenian bastards’)—which it has long ceased to enjoy in the south.

Above: The twin towers of the World Trade Center as the second aircraft is about to strike on 11 September 2001. Controversially, the IRB can be viewed as the forerunners of modern-day terrorism, as the attention devoted to the Fenians in post-9/11 histories of international terrorism demonstrates. (Daily Mail)

Above: The twin towers of the World Trade Center as the second aircraft is about to strike on 11 September 2001. Controversially, the IRB can be viewed as the forerunners of modern-day terrorism, as the attention devoted to the Fenians in post-9/11 histories of international terrorism demonstrates. (Daily Mail)

Fenianism distinguished itself from its republican predecessors from the very outset, not so much for its ideology as for its single-minded commitment to the belief that physical force was necessary to win complete Irish independence. Fenianism can be regarded as a relatively late addition to the nineteenth-century secret societies committed to the then subversive notions of democracy and liberalism which attempted to overthrow imperial regimes throughout Europe. Or, more controversially, the IRB can be viewed as the forerunners of modern-day terrorism, as the attention devoted to the Fenians in post-9/11 histories of international terrorism demonstrates. The bombings of London’s underground and symbolic targets such as the House of Commons and Scotland Yard are not as recent a phenomenon as many people imagine: the Fenians were doing it in 1885. Nor are its repercussions, such as the (over-?) reaction of the media, the public and the state. It was the activities of the Fenians that prompted the formation of Special Branch (initially known as the Special Irish Branch) in London and, as David Wilson outlines, the secret police in Canada (pp 24–7). Niall Whelehan’s article on the Brooklyn Dynamiters (pp 42–5) illustrates how—as in more recent times—technological advances provided new opportunities to those willing to use violence in pursuit of political objectives, in turn prompting ever-more intrusive security responses by the state. Both David Wilson and Mervyn Busteed, in his article on the Manchester Martyrs (pp 35–7), draw attention to another very contemporary problem, the difficulty of suppressing a militant minority within a wider ethno-religious group without alienating the moderate majority and creating public sympathy for the extremists.
From its very inception, Fenianism was an internationalist movement: it was formed in the expectation of a major European war, and it had attempted to establish a revolutionary directory to coordinate Irish, North American and Australasian operations by 1876. Máirtín Ó Catháin and James McConnel’s article on Fenians in the French Foreign Legion (pp 46–9) and David Wilson’s article on cross-border links between American and Canadian Fenians in the 1860s reflect the recent scholarly emphasis on its trans-national dimensions. Although specialised studies are emerging (such as Mitchell Snay’s book reviewed by Brian Kelly, p. 63), more work is required in order to unpick the relationships between Fenians in New York, Chicago and Boston and their co-conspirators in Dublin, Glasgow, London and Sydney. To what extent did their shared Fenian commitment transcend local class, community and ethnic differences?
The last three years have witnessed a renaissance in Fenian studies, with major surveys by Matt Kelly (see his article on changing perceptions of the Fenians, pp 16–20), Owen McGee, Ó Catháin’s study of Scotland (reviewed by Donald MacRaild, p. 61), Fergus Campbell’s examination of IRB networks in County Galway, and Marta Ramón’s biography of the ‘Fenian chief’, James Stephens (reviewed by Peter Hart, pp 58–9). Rose Novak’s article on Fenian women (pp 28–9) raises for further discussion issues of masculinity, sexuality and the ‘Fenian swagger’. Her article also draws attention to our need to better understand Fenian discourses. Frank Rynne’s article on Land War posters (pp 38–41) examines just one aspect of this turn, with further research required on Fenian poetry and prose, the print media, and ballad and song. These last two genres demand particular attention because they may also help to reconstruct Fenianism’s largely neglected Irish language heritage. Another area yet to receive dedicated attention is the IRB and its enemies. While Oliver Rafferty’s article (pp 30–4) examines the trenchant opposition to Fenianism offered by Archbishop Cullen and the Catholic Church in the 1860s (notwithstanding the existence of some Fenian priests), the opposition of spies and policemen also requires further attention.
The recent surge of interest in the IRB has also produced a fascinating debate about the ideological nature of Fenianism. While the IRB tended to depict itself as the authentic voice of Irish nationalism, a consistent political force that had striven for the same objectives since the formation of the United Irishmen, Richard Davis’s article (pp 21–3) illustrates the personal and ideological divisions between the IRB and their Young Ireland predecessors. Recent historians have followed Vincent Comerford (whose classic study of Fenianism appeared a quarter of a century ago) in locating Fenians within the context of their own particular period. The Fenians of the 1860s, as Matt Kelly points out, were mid-Victorian radicals who were committed to a republican critique of aristocratic ascendancy; many of Patrick Pearse’s generation of Fenians were influenced more by romantic nationalism than by modern republican theory.
The political significance of Fenianism, whether during the Land War, the Parnellite era, the later campaign for Home Rule or the Irish revolution, remains an open question. This is particularly the case for the final years of the organisation. Did the Easter Rising and the Irish revolution witness the ultimate success of the IRB when republican violence brought about an independent Irish state? Or did the subsequent emergence of a Catholic Gaelic state—as Owen McGee argues in his important recent study—represent the hijacking of the republican ideal by a more narrow ideological tradition? When, how and why did the IRB come to an end? Or, as one Fenian scholar has recently speculated, are they still among us? While some believe that the IRB’s importance ceased after its unity—like that of every other republican organisation in Ireland—was dashed by the Treaty split and the Civil War, John Regan has recently argued that Michael Collins intended a much more significant—and potentially sinister—role for the IRB in the new Irish Free State. We hope that this special issue of History Ireland to mark the 150th anniversary, following on from the international conference in Belfast in June 2008, will bring to a wider audience the fascinating debates occurring among scholars of Fenianism.

James McConnel lectures in history at the University of Ulster, Magee. Fearghal McGarry lectures in history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

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