The Fenian ideal and Irish nationalism, 1882–1916

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

The Fenian ideal and Irish nationalism, 1882–1916
M. J. Kelly
(Boydell Press, E85)
ISBN 1843832046
This book is more a study of Irish nationalist mentalities than it is a political history. Implicit in the author’s approach is the theory that a people’s use of language is the primary factor not only in defining but also in shaping the whole culture in which they live. Hence Kelly suggests that through analysing the language that people used during the period 1882–1916 it is possible to explain how Irish society was shaped by the attempts of various contemporaries (writers, journalists, policemen, politicians, etc.) to define what ‘the Fenian ideal’ and ‘Irish nationalism’ meant. The declared purpose of his study is to clarify how this whole cultural process took place.
The book takes the form of six thematic essays, four of which are reprints (in modified form) of articles that have appeared elsewhere, and also includes an introduction and epilogue. In the introduction, which provides a fresh historical synopsis of the subject-matter, Kelly sets out an interpretative framework for the book. He argues that the Fenian ideal, or Fenianism, was always too broad in its cultural appeal for it to be defined simply with reference to the Fenian movement itself, namely the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, a.k.a. the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood), which was often a marginal influence. The time-frame Kelly adopts in his book might be said to naturally reinforce this particular perspective. Except for an opening chapter treating Fenian subcultures specifically in 1880s Dublin, the book deals exclusively with Irish life in the years during and after the fall of Parnell (1890–1), studying the semantics of Irish nationalism up to the outbreak of the First World War. As Kelly notes, this was a time when the Irish revolutionary underground was very small and in disarray. The author then offers some fresh perspectives on nationalist writers from around the turn of the twentieth century, such as William Rooney and Terence McSwiney, and also provides some interesting historical details, such as a statistical breakdown of Irish Volunteer membership made by the police during 1914. Indeed, the strongest sections in the book are probably these chapters that deal with the early years of Sinn Féin and the rise of a highly literate generation of Irish nationalist sympathisers in the Edwardian era.
To avoid the pitfall of focusing purely on cultural debate, Kelly simultaneously provides much information from police reports regarding the movements of individual Fenians. To combine the two perspectives, he uses techniques that are reminiscent of the Annales historiographical school, adopting a primarily theoretical and interdisciplinary approach, often providing details in an intentionally isolated context, yet still keeping his feet (more or less) planted within the traditional historical discipline. While this gives the book something of a fresh analytical or literary approach, it could also be said to be the cause of a number of its weaknesses.
Kelly’s attempt to weave a narrative that brings together past and present reflections on Irish cultural debate with old police reports on the movements of various IRB suspects is not always successful, since the two subject-matters are not necessarily connected. Indeed, such is his preoccupation with offering diverse reflections upon various theories of nationalism or language in an Irish context that Kelly is often inclined to quote various contemporaries, or cite various revolutionaries’ movements, without contextualising them with direct reference to political developments of the time or the individual biases or party affiliations of the individuals in question. This might be said to reflect a weakness of many theoretically orientated historical studies, whereby details are often used primarily to fit a particular theoretical framework at the expense of attempting to locate them within their own time and space, resulting in an essentially anecdotal form of historical narrative.
Kelly identifies quite convincingly the existence of a ‘disjunction between nation and state’ in the rhetoric of Irish nationalism. In turn, he defines the Fenian ideal as having been an attempt by contemporaries to present the Irish nation as a source of ‘unimpeachable authority’, to which one could appeal to legitimise one’s actions, desires or objectives, without making direct reference to the existence of the British state (p. 10). This paradigm formed the basis of many Irish contemporaries’ presentation of ‘national’ concerns as being somehow divorced from merely ‘political’ ones. Kelly, in turn, essentially works within this paradigm himself, so he can better analyse the diversity of Irish nationalist mentalities. In so doing, however, he refrains from dealing directly with the role of religion in shaping Irish identities, conflicting Irish identities or, indeed, Irish party interests generally. For example, the conflict that existed between the proscribed society of the IRB and the Catholic Church is mentioned but deemed unimportant. Meanwhile, the issue of Catholic clericalism in politics (the basis of Ulster Protestants’ opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party, their fear of Home Rule and willingness, in turn, to accept the confessional British nationalism of the Protestant Orange Order) finds little mention, except during references to the Parnell controversy of 1891 and the ensuing Parnellite myth, which essentially provides that lens through which Kelly sees James Joyce’s occasional political allusions (and reinvention of real-life IRB characters) in Ulysses, a novel that is cited many times in the text.
This might be said to reflect one of the pitfalls in defining the Fenian ideal, or Fenianism, as primarily a cultural phenomenon, divorced from all questions of party or confessional allegiances within Irish life. Like Roy Foster, Kelly describes most thoughts expressed upon nationalism during the Irish Revival as a form of literary Fenianism (a wonderfully vague term), while he is also inclined to describe every piece of nationalistic rhetoric in Ireland as some kind of variation on a Fenian song. Whether or not such literary devices obscure more than they illuminate where Fenianism actually began or ended as a factor in Irish life is a question that is certainly worth asking, however.
The epilogue to the book, ‘Fenian song and economic history’, provides an interesting overview of various viewpoints advocated by members of the Irish Volunteers and National Volunteers during 1914–15 without dealing directly with the planning of the 1916 Rising. Kelly then concludes by arguing that a Fenian ideal was always a quite powerful factor in Irish life and possessed a deeper emotional resonance than the cause of devolved government or Home Rule. Once again, however, he refrains from attempting to define how this Fenian ideal impacted directly on Irish politics itself, evidently being satisfied with presenting it instead as something that existed only in the realm of culture, like Joyce’s fictional characters or the writings of historians themselves, both past and present.
Overall, this book reflects much of what is generally considered stimulating in contemporary writing on Ireland by Irish Studies scholars or historians in Britain. It should appeal particularly to readers who are inclined to view Irish nationalism primarily as a theoretical or rhetorical puzzle, as well as those who view all past and present literary variations of the Irish story as somehow existing perpetually together in a timeless world of their own.

Owen McGee is the author of The IRB (Four Courts Press, 2005).


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