The Bold Fenian Men: History Ireland December 20, 2008Posted by Garibaldy in History, Irish History.
Who were the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood? Dangerous dynamite-obsessed neanderthals, the first international terrorists? Beardy picnicking day-trippers for whom political activity was mostly an excuse for socialising? Anti-aristocratic democratic secular republicans? At bottom, just another branch of Catholic nationalism? Innovative political agitators who broke the back of landlordism and gave Parnellism its strength? Diehards mostly isolated from the people, as illustrated by 1916? Some, or even all, of the above?
These are some of the issues raised by the current, and most interesting, edition of History Ireland, due to the 150th anniversary of the founding of the IRB. As well as an introduction by Fearghal McGarry and James McConnel, the commissioning editors, the magazine includes articles on the historiography of the Fenians, the relationship between the Fenians and Young Irelanders, the Fenians in Canada, the Ladies’ Committees of the IRB, Cardinal Cullen and the Fenians, the Manchester Martyrs, land league posters (including some fascinating visually striking ones), bomb-making in Brooklyn, and Fenians in the French Foreign Legion. While initially I was going to talk about each article, this close to Christmas I lack the inclination to write something so long, and I suspect most readers have no desire desire to read it. Instead then, I am going to discuss what the Feniansmight have represented, with reference to their Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and some of the articles in History Ireland (the text of the Proclamation is in the magazine).
From the Irish People of the World (1867)
We have suffered centuries of outrage, enforced poverty, and bitter misery. Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who treating us as foes, usurped our lands, and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home, while our men of thought and action were condemned to loss of life and liberty. But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers.
Our mildest remonstrances were met with sneers and contempt. Our appeals to arms were always unsuccessful.
Today, having no honourable alternative left, we again appeal to force as our last resource. We accept the conditions of appeal, manfully deeming it better to die in the struggle for freedom than to continue an existence of utter serfdom.
All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it.
We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.
The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.
We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.
We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the justness of our cause. History bears testimony to the integrity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England—our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields—against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs.
Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms.
Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.
Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic
The Provisional Government
Stirring stuff indeed. And, it must be said from the off, not a hint of national chauvinism nor religious bigotry. The Irish people – it is clear from this Proclamation – for the IRB are the people of Ireland who are not aristocrats and landowners. As well as foreshadowing Connolly’s definition of the Irish people as effectively the rural and urban working class and their allies, it also echoed the revolutionary principles of 1789, when the French people was defined by the revolutionaries as those who contributed to the economy through productive activity.
The claim of equal rights for all, the rejection of monarchy, the stress on the separation of Church and State, even the structure of a secret society all place the Fenians firmly within a European democratic republican tradition. And an international one, with an appeal to republicans everywhere (although most likely this practically meant America). Whereas the Jacobins remained fundamentally bourgeois republicans, the Fenian Proclamation calls upon international workingmen’s solidarity in its disavowal of a war on the English people and its appeal to English workers. This suggests that those Irish socialists who have sought to stress the links between some Fenians and the First International have not been stretching a point as much as some would like to think. From this document, then, it seems fairly clear that the Fenianshave little in common with the Catholic nationalism that came to shape much of the politics of twentieth-century Ireland, and that they instead represent an Irish variant of an international militantly secular post-Jacobin republican tradition. Certainly Cardinal Cullen thought so, hence his remark that “eternity is not long enough, nor hell hot enough” to punish them. Owen McGee’s recent book The IRB makes a very strong case for seeing the Fenians in this way.
However, the story is not so simple. Although we can place the official ideology of the movement in this tradition, and the New Departure and Land War led by ex-Fenians like Michael Davitt in this radical popular republican tradition, it becomes more problematic when we remember that men like Eoin O’Duffy were also members of the IRB, as was a great deal of those around Michael Collins during the Tan War, and subsequently a lot of the early Free State Army officer class. Perhaps we ought then to see a gap between the early Fenians and those who joined forty or fifty years later. It is entirely possible that by then, the ideals of the majority of the members of the movement had changed. Certainly, as Matthew Kelly’s account of the historiography in History Ireland points out, Fenianism was sometimes used to describe the spirit of the Irish nation, and the IRB men of the Celtic Revival period were much more interested in the cultural aspects of nationhood than their predecessors.
Or, perhaps the official ideology of the organisation had never really represented the views of a great deal of its members anyway. Vincent Comerford nearly 30 years ago posited the idea that the Fenians represented “Patriotism as Pastime”. In other words, they were a manifestation of the mania for associations in the UK that sprang up in the mid and late-Victorian era – Association Football, the GAA, and other sporting organisations, as well as social gatherings such as “Fenian picnics”, and the glamour and excitment, and sense of belonging and comradeship, that belonging to a secret society brought to young men from the lower classes in rural and urban Ireland. In other words, there were plenty of reasons short of militant republicanism that would entice someone into joining the IRB. But, on the other hand, as Fearghal McGarry’s study of Eoin O’Duffy shows, joining bodies like the Gaelic League could lead to joining the IRB.
The IRB may have asserted their separatist principles in arms, but this was not the only tactic that Fenians adopted. Possibly as an outworking of the socially-aware republicanism represented in the Proclamation, much of the leadership of the Land War and subsequent land agitation came from current and ex-Fenians. Matthew Kelly’s The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism details not only the Fenian involvement in the Land War, and their alliance with Parnell in the early 1880s, but also how the Fenians were key to the political strategy of the Parnellites after the split – what he calls the Redmonite/Fenian nexus, opening up a very interesting line of argument, and one that can help rewrite the history of the events that led to 1916. Fergus Campbell’s Land and Revolution shows in great detail how the IRB (and then the Volunteers and IRA) was involved in land agitation in the west. Again, the Fenians emerge as a disparate body, with different attitudes in different places at different times.
History Ireland, and the works cited above, deal not only with the organisational history of Fenianism, but with the popularity of Fenian principles. While Kelly states in History Ireland that McGee has perhaps exaggerated the extent to which the Fenians were democratic republican purists. he himself argues that the ideas that made up Fenianismwere much more popular than the organisation itself, and that the strength (or sometimes weakness) of the organisation and of the Irish Parliamentary Party has led historians to underestimate the extent to which there existed a strong body of separatist opinion in Ireland, for which Home Rule was the bare minimum, and not the final aim. To understand separatist and republicanism, therefore, we must look beyond the IRB itself to its rival organisations, and broader public opinion.
What then of the Fenians and unionism? Were they simply locked at the end of the day into a Catholic nationalist framework? Kelly points out that Fenian newspapers warned the Ulster unionists in the period before the First World War that they would fight to keep them, what Kelly calls “separatist tough love”. While it is true that the Fenians sought to secure independence for the entire island, they cannot be shoehorned into a Catholic nationalist framework, as some historians have tried to do with people like Peadar O’Donnell in the 1920s and 1930s. And in fairness, few have tried. That said, clearly, especially at the very end of the nineteenthand in the early twentieth century, the IRB did contain some old fashioned Irish nationalists.
The IRB that emerges from the pages of History Ireland then is a complex beast. Although some of those involved in the Fenian tradition were inspired by terrorist ideals, others were not, and it is a step too far to call it a terrorist organisation. Speaking for myself, I am inclined to agree most with McGee’s picture of the organisation, as socially-radical, secular republican revolutionary democrats, part of a wider European tradition with its roots in the French Revolution, though I recognise that this does not describe all Fenians at all times. This could of course be me seeing what I want to see. The Fenians lurk large in my own political views because of the success of the New Departure and its influence on republicanism in the 1960s. For others, they might represent the disaster of militarism and conspiracy. Given that the books of McGee, McGarry, Campbell, and Kelly are available in paperback, perhaps some CLR readers will be inspired to give or get them for Christmas.