The dog that didn’t bark in 1867

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Volume 25

Ulster’s forgotten Fenians, 1858–1867

By Kerron Ó Luain

On the surface, the 1850s were barren years for those with Irish nationalist ideals. The Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, Fenian James Mullins wrote in later years that national sentiment ‘in those days, the fifties … was almost extinct in Ireland’. In Ulster, the Ribbon secret societies kept alive vague nationalist demands through their pub culture and quarterly passwords. But the objectives of their networks were social, sectarian and economic rather than political.

Working behind the scenes in the south, a nucleus of activists centred on former Young Irelander James Stephens and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa began to resurrect the national cause. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Phoenix National and Literary Society, both of which had strong Irish-American links, were their organisational vehicles. By the summer of 1858 they had amalgamated and soon became known colloquially as the Fenians. Their explicit aim was the overthrow of British rule in Ireland by force of arms.

In Ulster, Joseph Denieffe had already made inroads into the east of the province in 1856 under the direction of the New York-based Emmet Monument Association. By 1858 there were signs of Phoenix activity in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. In Belfast another former Young Irelander, John Griffith, continued to organise among independent republican clubs during the 1850s and joined the IRB shortly after its founding. In the summer of 1859 the press reported on the widespread distribution of a pamphlet with a strong Fenian tone on the streets of Belfast. Frank Roney, IRB head centre in the city, later claimed that by 1863 his organisation could boast at least 1,000 members in the northern metropolis. Elsewhere in the province, pockets of activity existed in north Monaghan, east Tyrone and in Belfast’s satellite towns.

Fenianism’s social base

Above: James Blayney Rice, a farmer’s son from Tyholland, Co. Monaghan—one of the few IRB recruits of farming stock. (NAI)

The early IRB failed to gain traction in rural areas. There was no clear programme on the burning question for farmers—the land. Republican insurrection was too risky a prospect for many tenants who stood to lose their holdings. Communal defence against Orange triumphalism was a concern for rural Catholics in Ulster, but Ribbonmen already fulfilled this function and the IRB was reluctant to descend into a sectarian quagmire.

One of the few IRB recruits of farming stock in the province was James Blayney Rice, a farmer’s son from Tyholland, Co. Monaghan. Rice, a former Ribbonman, successfully enlisted the lower classes of his district and in 1866 ordered 140 rifles from local arms dealers. About one third of these found their way to rank-and-file Fenians before Rice was eventually arrested.

The Ulster IRB enjoyed greater success in urban areas. Post-Famine Ireland was a country in the throes of major social, economic and technological change. English literacy increased and facilitated the spread of popular print, while the commercialisation of the economy accelerated the growth of an urban working class.
In Belfast, the linen and shipping industries developed rapidly. In 1850 there had been less than 60 power looms in Ulster; by 1862 the figure was 4,000. In this rapidly industrialising environment a large Catholic migrant population found itself alienated politically from the Tory-dominated municipal town council. Fenianism emerged with vigour among Catholics of the Pound district of west Belfast.

While the town-dwellers who joined the Fenians were not wealthy, neither were they destitute. Shoemakers, labourers, clerks, soldiers and tailors filled the ranks of the early IRB. Whereas Irish nationalist enterprises had hitherto been led by upper middle-class individuals, the IRB in Ulster counted among its leadership a gardener, a bricklayer, a clerk and two bakers. Fenianism, by involving the working classes in meaningful political activism for the first time, contributed immensely to the democratisation of Irish nationalism.

Nationalism in flux
Daniel O’Connell’s ‘Old Ireland’ supporters in Belfast and Newry had doggedly beaten back the republican advances of Young Ireland in 1847 and 1848. But the death of ‘King Dan’ weakened this constitutional nationalist tradition and opened a political space into which the Fenians gladly stepped. The Irish National League united the moderates in 1864, but by that time the IRB had already gained a foothold in Ulster.

League meetings in Dublin were interrupted by the IRB in an attempt to wrest control from the constitutionalists. Tensions had arisen less from the constitutionalists’ rejection of physical force—which they often verbally supported—and more from their unwillingness to cede élite control of popular nationalism to grass-roots Fenianism.

In Belfast, Fenians practised an embryonic form of entryism, a policy crucial to later republican activity. The Ulster Patriotic Association, a social body, was infiltrated by the IRB members, who delivered advanced speeches and enrolled men into their ranks at the association’s meetings. Likewise, the Catholic Institute, founded by Catholic merchants in 1859 to provide reading rooms for their co-religionists, was utilised by IRB man John Griffith for subversive purposes, much to the irritation of Bishop Dorrian.

The relationship between the republican and constitutional strands of Irish nationalism was not always confrontational. Fenians occasionally engaged in campaigns conceived by the moderates—for example, the National Petition campaign of 1860–1, or the tour of the ‘Papal Brigades’ to Italy in 1860, in which James Blayney Rice and Belfast IRB man Bernard O’Kane took part. The ideological ambiguities within Irish nationalism, which became apparent during these early years of IRB expansion, persisted well into the twentieth century.

Opposition from the pulpit
From early on the Fenians ran foul of the Catholic clergy. In 1865 the IRB organ, the Irish People, declared that the priests were ‘the worst slaves of the English garrison’. The Catholic Church throughout the country was vociferously opposed to the IRB. Fenianism’s oath-bound revolutionary nature, its secularism and its class-based challenge to the wealthy tenant farmer/clerical alliance all posed a substantial threat to the status quo.

In Ulster the clergy were particularly hostile. The province’s Catholic priests worked to suppress anything that might upset the precarious balance of sectarian tensions. At points when this balancing act had been disrupted in the past Catholics had usually suffered disproportionately in the ensuing inter-community clashes.

Throughout 1865 Bishop Dorrian and the lower clergy waged a campaign in Belfast to force those who attended confession to renounce the IRB. In November 1865 Daniel Darragh, IRB head centre at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, was removed from his post as schoolmaster by the Catholic priest in charge there. The following month the Belfast News Letter reported that the local Catholic cleric in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, had ‘completely defeated the plans of a seditious emissary from Belfast’.

Repeated denunciation certainly had a negative impact on IRB development in the northern province. For some, however, such as James Mullins, opposition from the pulpits reinforced their anti-clericalism. The Fenian later wrote that ‘it put us on our mettle; we met it with contempt and defied their power’.

Protestant Ulster
The existence of a large Protestant loyalist population influenced the character and development of the emerging Fenian movement in Ulster. In 1857 major sectarian riots broke out in Belfast in which Francis Brownlee, a future Fenian leader in the city, took part. Over the course of four days Brownlee led a group of 200 Catholics who clashed with Orangemen and fired shots at the police. The polarised nature of Belfast society and the second-class status of Catholics seems to have contributed to Brownlee’s politicisation and move towards Fenianism during the 1860s.

In a similar vein, Andrew McErlane, a Fenian suspect who came before the courts in Belfast in 1865, was charged with having yelled in the street:

‘To hell with the Orange Town Council and the Orange constables for they are all a perjured lot of rogues … I am a true St Patrick and have 30,000 men at my command. We are oppressed by a Protestant government but we will liberate ourselves yet.’

Inter-community riots also erupted in 1864. Frank Roney, along with other IRB men, took to defending Catholic areas from Orange attack. Roney reluctantly engaged in sectarian clashes. He rationalised his involvement by differentiating between Protestants who were susceptible to the idea of a republic and the Orangemen whom he believed would never accept one.

In fact, most Protestants appear to have been hostile to Fenianism, which they viewed as a conspiratorial popish plot. During the mid-1860s leaders such as William Johnston and Thomas Drew held ‘Orange soirées’ and lectures across the province that ratcheted up sectarian tensions and projected a strong mood of defiance.

In spite of these obstacles, the IRB adhered to its non-sectarian ethos insofar as it made genuine attempts to recruit among Protestants. In 1866 Thomas Neilson Underwood, a Strabane barrister with United Irish antecedents, was among the first Protestant Fenians to be arrested in the province. George McKibbin, a weaver from Newtownards who was expelled from a masonic lodge for Fenian activity, was another notable Protestant recruit, as was David Bell, a Presbyterian minister from Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. Other Protestants sworn into the IRB included a group with United Irish ancestry from Greyabbey, Co. Down, who dubbed themselves the ‘Greenboys’.

The presence of a large Protestant population also appears to have made the IRB more conspiratorial in its organisation. In Newtownards, Co. Down, Sub-Inspector Dobbyn reported in 1866 that it was ‘quite impossible to procure any information about them, they are so cautious, in consequence of living in the midst of a loyal population’.

Government and press sources also show little of the open daytime drilling by Fenians that was a feature in the south. The vast majority of surviving reports on drilling in Ulster document the activity as having taken place under cover of darkness or in secluded areas. The Belfast News Letter of 18 September 1865, for instance, reported that ‘60 or 70 young men were observed busy at drill in a sequestered spot, about three miles from Belfast’.

The physical-force tradition
Considering the range of opposition—from Church and State, from loyalists, constitutionalists and Ribbonmen—that the Ulster IRB managed to organise towards military ends at all was an achievement in itself. To compound matters, between 1858 and 1865 leader James Stephens had not put in place any systematic means of arming the IRB, and Ulster Fenians were left to fend for themselves.

Nevertheless, Fenians had expected to receive orders to stage a rising from 1865, and small quantities of arms smuggled on board steamers began to trickle into Belfast and were moved on to places such as Cookstown, Dungannon and Ballymoney. In early 1866 tools used to fabricate bullets and quantities of firearms were discovered in the houses of Patrick Grant of Rathfriland and William McCrea of Portstewart. Arms fabrication had been under way since 1865 in Belfast under the command of Francis Brownlee and Edward McCluskey—the latter had travelled to the city with a Scottish contingent in anticipation of a rebellion.

A number of small seizures were made by the police throughout 1866 in Belfast, but in January 1867 a raid on Charles McCarroll’s house in Hamill Street revealed an arms factory and an array of weaponry, including Enfield rifles, revolvers, swords and pike-heads. A similar-sized haul was discovered on 11 March at the house of Elizabeth Cassidy in Pound Street. Less than a week earlier, on 5 March, southern Fenians had attempted a rising at Tallaght, Co. Dublin.

The north, however, remained quiet. The decision not to go ahead with the rising in Ulster had been taken in February. It was most likely determined by the presence of a large military garrison in Belfast and the blow that had been dealt to the organisation by widespread arrests in 1866 following the suspension of habeas corpus. The situation deteriorated further when, in the lead-up to the 5 March rising, Ulster’s chief Fenian, William Harbinson, was also arrested. Harbinson later died in prison and the funeral, a key propaganda tool for generations of republicans to come, brought over 10,000 mourners onto the streets of Belfast.

Despite the suppression of the IRB, military preparations had been made by a small but determined cadre of Fenians. Although no action occurred in Ulster, as it did in the south, the physical-force tradition, carried on from United Irish times, had been re-established by Fenians in Ulster during the 1860s.

Kerron Ó Luain is an independent scholar who received a doctorate in history from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2016.

Read More:
Frank Roney

O. McGee, The IRB: the Irish Republican Brotherhood from the Land League to Sinn Féin (Dublin, 2005).
J. Newsinger, Fenianism in mid-Victorian Britain (London, 1994).
M. Ramón, A provisional dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian movement (Dublin, 2007).


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