Fenian Movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood

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Fenian Movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood

Between the Great Famine (1845–1851) and the Land War (1879–1882), Ireland was apparently settling into an accommodation, internally and externally, as a subordinate part of the British empire. Several of the countercurrents to this trend found expression in the Fenian movement that began in Ireland with the foundation in Dublin on 17 March 1858 of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Its founder was James Stephens. Others who, like him, had been radicalized under Young Ireland influence, such as Thomas Clarke Luby, John O'Leary, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, and Charles J. Kickham, became stalwarts of the movement in Ireland. In 1859 a U.S. counterpart, the Fenian Brotherhood, was formed, the name referring to the warrior Fianna of Gaelic folklore and reflecting the scholarly interests of the brotherhood's leader John O'Mahony. From 1863 onward Fenianism was to become a synonym for revolutionary Irish nationalism.

Both wings gathered widespread support in the early 1860s, with the Fenian Brotherhood becoming a prominent vehicle of Irish-American self-expression. In Ireland the socioeconomic changes of the 1850s had fostered a category of apprentices and literate wage earners, especially in retail trade; Stephens attracted them to the IRB by appropriating various nationalist initiatives, most notably the funeral of the Young Irelander Terence Bellew MacManus, which was organized by the National Brotherhood of Saint Patrick and culminated in a grand procession through Dublin on 14 November 1861. By 1863, in the towns of Leinster and Munster and to a lesser extent in the other provinces, young men were organized into a national network leading back to Stephens. Young men of their social background found their recreational outlets restricted by agents of social control who were busily transforming postfamine Irish society into an exemplar of respectability—priests, policemen, and magistrates. The new organization emboldened members to engage in autonomous socialization in public houses, at sporting events, and at their supposedly secret drilling exercises. The appeal and impact of Fenianism in the mid-1860s cannot be understood without reference to this social dimension.

Thus the original intention of conducting an entirely secret society had been overtaken by the realities of Irish life, and it was further undermined when Stephens in 1863 launched his own weekly, the Irish People, and brought key individuals from the provinces to work at its office in Dublin. Over its lifetime of twenty-two months the Irish People, while not openly admitting that it was the organ of the Fenians, hinted broadly at their existence and advocated Irish independence and military action as the means to that end. Every other form of nationalist movement was denounced in intolerant fashion. Frequent cannonades against "priests in politics" were intended to strengthen the nerves of Fenians facing pressure from clergy who feared a revolution. The paper helped to consolidate the organization in Ireland and to spread it among the Irish in Britain.

The IRB had been launched without a program or manifesto, as an immediate response to a critical situation. In the wake of the Crimean War (1854–1856) relations between Britain and France had become fraught, and the prospect of an Anglo-French war—the classic opportunity for Irish revolution—seemed very credible. Stephens, O'Mahony, and other Fenian strategists were determined to have a force in place ready to take advantage of this longed-for eventuality. As it happened, France did go to war in 1859, not with Britain but with Austrian power in northern Italy. Faced with the disappearance of the original raison d'être of their organizations, Stephens and O'Mahony decided to continue on the new basis of working toward a revolution in Ireland (supported by Irish Americans), even without any international crisis affecting Britain.

The U.S. Civil War introduced new and encouraging factors. Participation in the warring armies meant that tens of thousands of Irishmen in the United States were obtaining military experience and might be persuaded to put it to use in a war of Irish liberation, if one could be instigated. And the U.S. conflict caused serious tensions between London and Washington, raising the prospect of an Anglo-American war. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Stephens promised that there would be action in Ireland before the year was out. It was only the prospect of imminent rebellion that enabled Stephens to maintain his position as dictatorial controller of the IRB. In the summer of 1865 he may have had up to 50,000 at his call, but they were very poorly armed, and he hesitated to launch a rebellion with no hope of success. In September the authorities struck, seizing the Irish People and arresting leading figures. Stephens escaped and in May 1866 reached New York City, where he found the movement in confusion, a so-called Senate group having emerged in opposition to O'Mahony. In April and May each of the factions had in turn fomented a brief raid on Canada. Stephens took control of the O'Mahony wing and boosted his authority by reinstating the objective of a rebellion in Ireland itself by the end of 1866. Thousands of Irish-American Civil War veterans prepared to cross the Atlantic. When Stephens in mid-December announced another postponement, he was deposed and a core group of military men left for England, where they laid plans for what proved to be a desultory attempt at rebellion in Ireland, the main action occurring on 5 and 6 March 1867.

In November 1867 the execution of William O'Meara Allen, Michael Larkin, and William O'Brien for killing a policeman during an attempted rescue of prisoners in Manchester provided the Fenians with martyrs. For a few years the movement attracted vibrant support, boosted by the general exuberance associated with Gladstone's concessions to Irish popular opinion before and after the general election of 1868. The mistaken idea that these concessions had in fact been won by the Fenian threat gained ground and was given some credence by Gladstone for his own purposes. A campaign for the release of Fenian prisoners drew widespread support. The IRB was put on a new footing in 1868 when the former autocracy was replaced by a supreme council with representatives from around Ireland and Britain. Membership began changing in 1871, as a loss of interest among the urban population was partially offset by inroads on the ranks of the Ribbon societies. By 1877 the numerical strength of the IRB was concentrated among the small farmers of south Ulster and north Connacht. Meanwhile, activists had become accustomed to participation in electoral politics in alliance with the Home Rule Party, and a few prominent Fenians had even been elected to Parliament as Home Rulers.

After 1867 a number of organizations contended for the leadership of militant Irish America, and of those, Clan na Gael came to dominate thanks to the dynamic leadership of John Devoy, exemplified by his masterminding of the escape of Fenian prisoners from Western Australia on board the Catalpa in 1876. Devoy forged a compact with the IRB that was intended to secure Clan na Gael influence on both sides of the Atlantic. With Devoy's backing the advocates of involvement in Home Rule politics were expelled from the supreme council in 1877. Clan na Gael was never without competitors for the support of Irish Americans: O'Donovan Rossa collected a large sum of dollars for a skirmishing fund that he launched in 1876 with the support of Patrick Ford's New York–based Irish World; and John O'Mahony maintained an independent, if exiguous, existence for himself and the Fenian Brotherhood until his death in 1877.

SEE ALSO Butt, Isaac; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Newspapers; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Stephens, James; Sullivan Brothers (A. M. and T. D.); Primary Documents: Two Fenian Oaths (1858, 1859); "God Save Ireland" (1867); O'Donovan Rossa Graveside Panegyric (1 August 1915)


Comerford, R. V. The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society, 1848–82. 1985. Rev. edition, 1998.

D'Arcy, William. The Fenian Movement in the United States, 1858–86. 1947.

Moody, T. W., ed. The Fenian Movement. 1968.

Ó Broin, Leon. Fenian Fever: An Anglo-American Dilemma. 1971.

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The Story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858–1924. 1976.

R. V. Comerford