The Fenians

In the decades following the Famine and the 1848 insurrection, emigration increased at an alarming rate. By 1851 there were one million people of Irish birth in the US and quarter of a million of Irish birth in Britain. This was partly due to landlords who, in their efforts to reduce the number of small-holdings, evicted at will and substituted grazing for tillage, while letters from those who made it to the New World also encouraged their friends and relatives to follow them. The humble homes of the poor were burned to the ground to prevent them being occupied by other impoverished tenants.

One of the leaders of the 1848 Rising, who had taken part in the attack at Ballingarry, was Terence Bellew McManus, from Fermanagh. He later escaped to America but died in 1861 and was given what amounted to a state funeral by Irish exiles in New York, where his remains ‘lay-in-state’ in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue before being shipped back to Ireland. In Dublin he was given yet another massive funeral, some 30,000 following his remains to Glasnevin cemetery, despite the fact that Cardinal Cullen refused his lying-in-state in any Dublin church. A graveside oration was given by James Stephens, a Kilkenny man and another 1848 survivor, who was now emerging as leader of Irish Republicanism.

Stephens, who was severely injured at Ballingarry, had returned from France and founded a new revolutionary organisation in Dublin in 1858 and which, during the 1860s would become known as ‘The Fenians’, commonly named the “Irish Republican Brotherhood” (IRB) throughout Ireland. Stephens also founded the “Irish People” newspaper in which he propounded separatism and revolution. Three of its contributors were John O’Leary, Thomas Clarke Luby and Charles J. Kickham, and it became particularly popular with the Irish in Britain where thousands flocked into the IRB.

Knowing the importance of secrecy and realising that part failure in 1848 had been due to plans being betrayed, the Fenians became an oath-bound secret society, but because of this they incurred the wrath of the Catholic bishops, who immediately used the threat of excommunication on anyone who became involved.

The leader in each area was known as ‘the centre’ with the principal leader called ‘head centre.’ Stephens became the ‘head centre’ in Ireland and the organisation quickly spread into every corner of the country, with O’Donovan Rossa (born at Roscarbery, Co Cork in 1831) and John Devoy (born at Kill, Co Kildare in 1842) emerging as two of the more prominent leaders. In Ulster, many Ribbonmen were also absorbed into the Fenians.

John O'Mahoney, who had also taken part in the abortive 1848 Rising and later emigrated to the USA, first established the ‘Fenian Brotherhood’ in America in 1859 and was ably assisted by Michael Doheny. In November 1863 they held their First Convention in Chicago.

Another active Irish exile was John O’Neill (born Clontibret, Co Monaghan in 1834), who had emigrated to America at age 14 and later served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, where he won distinction as a brilliant soldier and leader. Following the ending of that War in 1865, O’Neill conceived the idea of invading Canada and, with this in mind, enlisted as many war veterans of Irish descent as possible, enrolled them in the Fenians and, at the head of 600 followers, crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo and invaded Canada.

There he was confronted by a British military force but defeated them at Ridgeway Heights on June 2nd 1866. However, with nothing but the vast Canadian plains facing them, there was little they could achieve, so they returned to the US where they were all interned but later allowed to go back to their homes. O’Neill, who had risen to the rank of General in the Union army, would lead two further invasions of Canada in 1870 and 1871, but these were less successful and also ended in arrest before being allowed to return home again.

News of O’Neill’s success at Ridgeway in 1866 soon spread to Ireland and caused much excitement. Also, having learned from past experiences, they were now convinced that nothing could be gained by constitutional methods, and arrangements were immediately got under way for an armed uprising to take place on February 11th 1867, but later postponed to the night of 5th-6th March. Unfortunately, this news did not reach Kerry in time and the uprising went ahead in that county. This coupled with an abortive raid on Chester Castle warned the authorities of what was afoot and they were even more prepared for the Rising when it came.

An Irish Republic was proclaimed on 4th March 1867 and the following night several outbreaks of insurrection took place throughout the country, notably at Tallaght in Dublin where the Dublin Fenians had assembled, and in Limerick, Tipperary, Sligo and Louth but very little went according to plan and they were all dispersed by police and British army units.

The reasons for the failure of the 1867 Rebellion were not hard to find. Despite the fact that they were a secret oath-bound society, their plans were betrayed to the authorities who were fully aware of what was about to take place and were prepared for the event. In addition, several Fenian leaders had been arrested prior to the insurrection .. O’Donovan Rossa had been arrested in 1865 at a time when he was also manager of “The Irish People.” Plans, which were haphazard to say the least, were also frequently mis-interpreted or failed to reach those for whom they were intended, and, to crown it all, there was a heavy snowstorm on the night of the uprising, causing chaos and making communication between the various groups extremely difficult. Add to that the fact that the insurgents were poorly armed and very few had any experience of how to wage war.

Another factor militating against success was the continuing internal wrangling and dissension that bedevilled the organisation from the outset. Stephens was involved in much bickering with other leaders at a time when unity of purpose was essential.

On April 12th 1867 a ship called ‘Jackmel” left New York with a cargo of rifles and ammunition, as well as 38 Fenians, bound for Ireland. In mid-Atlantic on April 29th they raised the Fenian flag and changed the name of the ship to ‘Erins Hope’. Arriving off the coast of Sligo on May 20th, they learned that the Rising had already taken place. They then sailed around the coast and landed the 38 Fenians at Dungarvan, but these were all arrested after they had waded ashore, and the ship returned with its cargo to America.

The Fenians were also extremely active in England and this was not surprising considering the numbers who had emigrated there following the Famine and who carried in their hearts a bitter hatred of England which had caused them so much hardship over the previous two decades. In September 1867 their leader Col. Tom Kelly was arrested, but a daring attempt was made to rescue him from a prison van in Manchester, by a band of some thirty Fenians. Unfortunately, a policeman sitting inside was accidently killed when a shot was fired in an effort to break the lock on the van door.

Five young Irishmen were later arrested and tried, and three of them were convicted of the murder although there was no proof that they were actually the people involved in the rescue attempt. Their names were Allen, Larkin and O’Brien and following a much publicised trial, they were hanged at Salford Jail on Saturday 23rd November 1867. They have since been remembered in Irish history as the “Manchester Martyrs” and for their call “God Save Ireland” as they were escorted from the dock, a call later translated into song.

In Nov/Dec. 1867 further uprisings took place in Co Cork where the IRB carried out a number of daring arms raids, while also in December, an attempt was made to rescue a Fenian prisoner from Clerkinwell prison in London. A hole was blown in the prison wall but, unfortunately several people were killed in the blast. It was events like this, however, that made the British parliament finally realise that the Irish problem would have to be faced - hitherto they had given Ireland little attention. As a result Gladstone, when he came to power, dis-established the Protestant Church in Ireland in 1869 and the following year, 1870, introduced the First Land Act. Dis-establishing the ‘Established Church’ brought an end to the payment of tithes, while the Land Act guaranteed the principle of secure tenure.

Following the 1867 uprisings many leaders were captured,tried and sentenced to death, but this was usually commuted to ‘transportation’ to Australia. Most of these were later involved in a daring escape in 1876, the plans of which were conceived by John Boyle O’Reilly. O’Reilly was born near Drogheda in 1844 and spent part of his early life in England. Returning to Ireland he joined the army but was recruited by John Devoy as a secret agent to enroll Irish soldiers in the British army into the Fenians. Arrested in 1866 he was sentenced to 23 years penal servitude but later escaped to America and in 1876, along with Devoy, successfully organised the rescue of the remaining Irish prisoners in Western Australia. He later won fame in Boston where he became a very successful poet and journalist. He died in 1890.

Despite the failure of 1867, the influence of the Fenians (IRB) actually increased and they would play a prominent part in Irish history over the next half century, particularly in the lead up to, and the acting out of, the Rising of 1916.