jump to navigation

The Bold Fenian Men: History Ireland December 20, 2008

Posted 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.


1. Jim Monaghan - December 23, 2008

I have always felt that they were influenced by French radicalism especially Babeuf. The form of organisation seems to have drawn from this source. James Stephens spent many years in France.
There is an alerrnative history (I love some of these) by a science fiction writer called Harrison where there is a Fenian victory with American support. I think Meagher lead the American liberation army.
The British were building ships for the confederacy and the American ambassador told them that if they sail it is war.
The Fenian strategy of a rising in conjunction with Britain involved in a war was realistic. I think the bombing campaign was one of gestures.


2. Tim Von Bondie - December 23, 2008

Are the IRB still going?


3. Jim Monaghan - December 24, 2008

The IRB died in the Civil War.
One wing was led by Liam Lynch, the other by Collins. The abortive army mutiny had a wing which used the name. It really no longer exists. Most/all republican organisations would calim the heritage.


4. Garibaldy - December 24, 2008

Jim I think you are totally correct about the influence of French radicalism, and subsequently the conspiratorial republican secret societies across Europe. That alternative history sounds very interesting. There’s supposed to be a good one about WWIII by a British general the name of which escpaes me now.


5. Renoir - December 26, 2008

Jim, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ makes sense on paper and, as you’ll know, Comerford long ago argued that Fenianism emerged in response to the Anglo-French tension of the late 1850s and the invasion scares of that time. However, throughout the 1860s Irish nationalists – not just Fenians – tended to have wildly exaggerated notions of how foreign affairs would benefit Ireland. It was, by and large, wishful thinking, and I think reflected a tendency to work from Ireland’s position outwards rather than coolly appraise the realpolitik of the imperial powers. I agree with Garibaldy that the Fenians were genuine radicals and that the 1867 declaration is a a very important marker of their beliefs and unjustly neglected. For all the brilliance of Comerford’s analysis – and it is brilliant in parts (_Fenians in Context_ much more than than the often opposed ‘Patriotism as Pastime’ argument) – he doesn’t take the ideological dimension of Fenainism sufficiently seriously. I also agree that the French connection (FCIR?!) v important, but strategically the Fenians didn’t offer more than localised threats and for all his big talk (targeted at US sympathisers) Stephens knew this.

There’s a guy who claims the Fenians are still going (no longer secret) and they will assemble at the Rotunda sometime in January…


6. Renoir - December 27, 2008

PS Perhaps we should think about a strategy which depended on a lot of other people killing each other?


7. catapla rising - January 2, 2009

Davitt was still a Fenian when the Land League began. Dev, was IRB briefly and 1916 was organised and planned by the IRB. Comerford sniggers at the Fenians but has helped a new generation of students get a handle on them


8. catapla rising - January 2, 2009

Eoin McGee’s book is a masterpiece of research and a great piece of original research, Kelly’s suffers from his mentor Roy Forster’s obsession with respectability which seems to have rubbed off. He can’t quite reconcile the radical nature of Fenianism with their darling Yeat’s interest in the brotherhood. Joyce wrote very favourably about the Fenians.


9. Renoir - January 4, 2009

catapla rising,

What do you mean by ‘respectability’? I don’t get that in relation to Kelly’s book.


10. Claire - January 5, 2009

There’s controversy also as to the extent to which the IRB were responsible for passing the treaty and whether they were involved what John Regan called a counter-revolution. Brian Murphy has dealt with the issue as well I think. I think it arose from Cathal Brugha’s contributions to the treaty debates. He was opposed to its resurrection after 1916.


11. WorldbyStorm - January 5, 2009

As an aside I like Regan’s book.


12. Jim Monaghan - January 5, 2009

Professor John Newsinger, is a lecturer in Irish Political History. Teaching interests: Author of The Fenians in mid-Victorian Britain (1995), Dangerous Men: Myth, Masculinity and the SAS (1997), Orwell’s Politics (1999), Dublin: Rebel City, Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Lockout (2003) and numerous articles in Irish historical journals. Course Leader of Conflict and change in 20th Century Ireland and of the Irish Revolution 1912-1921.

The above challenges many of Comerford premises.


13. Renoir - January 5, 2009

And there’s a fairly comic Comerford/Newsinger stand-off in Saothar (1992). Kelly and McGee have reviewed each other in, respectively, Irish Historical Studies and History Ireland, while Alvin Jackson has reviewed them together in the current Victorian Studies, drawing out the strengths and weaknesses of both. Jackson (rightly) thinks neither has written a masterpiece.


14. CL - January 5, 2009

-The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy.-K.Marx, Dec, 1867


15. First as Tragedy… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - February 6, 2009

[…] 2009 Posted by Garibaldy in Irish History, Terrorism. trackback Back in December, I wrote about History Ireland’s special edition on the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenians. Today, I see that at least one idiot, and possibly more, is now using the name to claim the launch […]


16. “It is the left republican tradition started by Connolly and continued by Mellows, Gilmore, O’Donnell, the Republican Congress, Clann na Poblachta and even the Workers’ Party to which we belong.” Discuss « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - February 17, 2009

[…] A particularly good example of this is the Fenian Proclamation of the Republic in 1867 available here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Irish Left Archive: Irish Socialist, from the […]


17. What will you be reading this summer? « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 12, 2010

[…] third is the sort of thing I wouldn’t usually read, but it looks interesting. Matthew Kelly, who we’ve mentioned before, is an historian of Fenianism. But he has now branched out from Ireland to write Finding Poland, a […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: