The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society 1848-82, R.V. Comerford. (Wolfhound Press, £14.99) ISBN 086327627X Newspapers and Nationalism: The Irish Provincial Press 1850-1892 Marie-Louise Legg (Four Courts Press, £32.99) ISBN 185182341

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

R.V. Comerford’s The Fenians in Context, re-issued in paperback after thirteen years, has not aged gracefully. To revisit it is to be reminded of a particularly complacent moment in 1980s historical revisionism, then at its peak. By 1988 Comerford’s arguments were still sufficiently state-of-the-art to be incorporated wholesale into the relevant section of R.F. Foster’s Modern Ireland, but they appear to have dated very rapidly since. This, it should be said, is less because of any major new published work on the Fenian movement in the intervening years than because of a historiographical shift away from the peevish anti-nationalism which mars Comerford’s sometimes original analysis. It may also have something to do with the recent trend towards, in Patrick Collinson’s phrase, ‘history with the politics put back in’. For this is a book which offers an account of Fenianism from which politics are resolutely, often perversely, excised.
The kernel of the book is an article which Comerford published in 1981 in Irish Historical Studies, in which he reinterpreted the Fenian movement in the context of a wider European embourgeoisement which had produced an increase in urban-centred leisure time. Fenianism was only one of many other young men’s organisations and fulfilled a similar social need to British colliery brass bands or association football—though not, presumably, to the International. The idea, long held by nationalists, that Fenianism exemplified the post-famine stage of Irish republican continuity was jettisoned for a new analysis of the movement as socially constructed, and ultimately contingent. Unlike his neo-Young Ireland, educated, middle class leaders, the average Fenian was, according to ‘Patriotism as Pastime’, an eminently clubbable young artisan, with time on his hands, and ‘in need of social and recreational outlets’. For most of its members, argued Comerford, Fenianism was less a revolutionary political organisation than an elaborate male-bonding exercise. John O’Mahony’s ‘legions of liberty, silently enrolled’ were not, in fact, much interested in liberty, but simply needed a pretext for cricket matches, drinking and, ‘the ultimate pastime’, after-dark military drilling. For these ‘groups of young men otherwise condemned to social and political insignificance’, and frequently ‘with an eye to free drink’, the romance of gun-running, imprisonment, exile and possible (sometimes actual) execution must have been an added thrill.
That Fenianism should be seen as one reflection of the rising self-confidence and independence of a particular, male, usually Catholic artisan class in Ireland in the 1860s is an important insight. The national petition campaign of 1860 and the National League of St Patrick were other examples. But, as Comerford concedes, both of their memberships were subsumed en masse (at least in Dublin) by the IRB; the League of St Patrick became one of many Fenian front organisations. This book offers no explanation for the extraordinary, international success of Fenianism as a contagious idea which bound together diverse social and economic groups of Irish from Bolton to Boston, from Belfast to Butte, Montana. Neither the ‘Patriotism as Pastime’ thesis, nor the expanded book-of-the-article accommodate the complexity of the movement. For despite the recurrent internal splits and military fiascos of the period, which Comerford relates with relish, Fenianism ‘as an ideal’, according to T.W. Moody, ‘proved to be the most militant, pervasive, and undeviating influence in Irish politics down to 1916’. Moody’s immaculate and complex study, Michael Davitt and the Irish Revolution, 1846-82 from which this quotation is taken, was published three years before Comerford’s book. It is the ghostly historiographical presence behind The Fenians in Context, which nonetheless acknowledges it only in a very select bibliography. Moody’s balanced and always evidentially backed attempt to place Fenianism, a movement ‘preoccupied with politics’, in its broader political and economic contexts, forms several chapters of the Davitt study. A student of Fenianism would do well to compare the two books.
Comerford’s thesis which, as the book’s title suggests, attempts to re-integrate Fenianism into the contexts from which nationalist memory has falsely removed it, ought to have been more innovative than it was. For all its social fluidity and its political pragmatism Fenianism remained ideologically consistent, and it is this latter element which Comerford repeatedly underestimates. The IRB’s strategy of infiltration and take-over of other organisational networks, combined with its secrecy, meant that it was often only visible in ‘context’, but an awareness of those contexts should not obscure the fact that Fenianism was in fact a revolutionary republican organisation. A sustained analysis of the class element within Fenianism, or its relationship with other contemporary European republican revolutionary movements, or its role in the world of Irish American politics, or in Anglo-American relations, or in the British labour movement, would indeed have illuminated Fenianism enormously. Some of these areas are gestured towards, rather than fully developed. In order to do this, Comerford would need to have taken the movement as a political force seriously, and this (like Gladstone, but unlike the misguided Karl Marx, according to The Fenians in Context) he does not do. There are various ways in which a secret society can enter the public sphere: social gathering is of course one of them, but it does not preclude the others. Cannot a man enjoy a few pints—especially free ones—a game of football, and work towards an Irish republic? It has been known to happen.
A rigid adherence to the central thesis of the book causes its author to overstate and occasionally to make assertions without empirical foundation. This tends to impoverish potentially important points. Instead of arguing that the social and economic dimensions of Fenianism worked alongside the ideological one, Comerford removes one and overplays the other, occasionally with pathological results. His treatment of the 1861 funeral of ’48 veteran Terence Bellew MacManus is symptomatic. This funeral, along with the political wranglings to control it, was considered a turning point in popular Fenian memory. It is, Comerford tells us, ‘one of the most written-about and least understood episodes in the history of the period’. The conclusion which he reaches is, inevitably, that the ‘the crowds were out not because the funeral was MacManus’s, but because it was a spectacle and an excuse for ovating’. Crowds had showed up at several other non-republican events in Dublin during the year, and so the explanation is, once again, social. Comerford does not put the MacManus funeral, as he should, in the ‘context’ of the tradition of republican funeral parades, which had followed the same, symbolically loaded, route through Dublin since the 1790s. Nor does he provide any analysis of the makeup of the crowds: how, for instance, does he know that the MacManus demonstration was not in part a reaction against the parade which had greeted the queen in Dublin several months earlier? Such a nationalist counter-demonstration occurred in 1897, following another royal visit.
More worrying is Comerford’s treatment of the executions of the Manchester Martyrs, Allen, Larkin and O’Brien, in November 1867. These were carried out, we are told, by a British state anxious to quell domestic disturbances, including the so-called ‘Murphy riots’, and so ‘for reasons unconnected with Irish politics’. Apart from the fact that these riots occurred in 1868, after the executions, Comerford neglects to offer the (surely vital) information that these were sectarian riots which involved attacks on Catholic churches in Irish areas of northern British cities. Prominent Fenians such as Michael Davitt were involved in a defensive capacity, as Moody shows. These ‘domestic’ disturbances were therefore clearly deeply imbricated, in fact, by Irish politics. It is in these over-anxious efforts to revise the nationalist account of the Manchester episode, or of the career of James Stephens, or of the impact of the ‘67 rising, or indeed of Fenianism itself, that we find the real ‘context’ of Comerford’s deeply ideologically-driven project. Unfortunately, the book does not allow the opposition much of a voice. This is true both of pre- and post-revisionist work on Fenianism: the brief update on Fenian studies since 1985, for instance, excludes Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain (1991) by John Newsinger, an early critic of Comerford’s work.
One of the more successful aspects of The Fenians in Context, which dates back to Comerford’s 1979 study of the Fenian novelist and journalist Charles Kickham, is his treatment of newspapers. Marie-Louise Legg’s account of the Irish provincial press builds on Comerford’s work, with interesting results. ‘Newspapers’, she writes, ‘are part of the theatre of the nation’, and she illustrates this by weaving the work of largely forgotten local journalists and editors into the wider development of Irish nationalism. She examines the newspaper business itself, and places the exponential growth of the press in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century in the context of increasing efforts to suppress it by the British state. Apart from the fact that work on the nineteenth-century Irish press is much needed, it is refreshing to see an account of nationalism which pays attention to its too often neglected regional and local aspects. The difficulty, as Legg warns in her introduction, is that there exists no major study of the metropolitan press in Victorian Ireland, or of the vital role played by the Irish-American press. As a result of this scholarly vacuum Legg’s thesis has a large hole in the middle of it: it is all periphery and no centre. A reading of Habermas on the public sphere would have raised important questions for Legg. Were there, for instance, ‘matrix presses’ in the provinces in this period? What was the relationship between publishers and editors? How did the metropolitan papers affect the local ones in commercial and political terms—and vice versa? Is there, in an Irish context, any mileage to be got from Habermas’s statement that the ‘the history of the big daily papers in the second half of the nineteenth century proves that the press itself became manipulable to the extent that it became commercialised’? Were local papers less or more manipulable than the national dailies? Despite a certain conceptual flatness, however, Legg’s is a solidly researched book, with a splendidly useful appendix.

Mary Burgess

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