In the aftermath of the failed 1848 rebellion, many of those who had allied themselves to the Young Irelander movement and fought at Ballingarry fled abroad, or were pushed into an involuntary exile by British authorities that sought to drain the swamp of budding Irish nationalism without resort to the scaffold: some lessons had been learned from 1798 anyway. All over Europe and the new world, would-be Irish revolutionaries settled, but maintained their desire to overthrow the traditional balance of power in their homeland. I’d like to take an entry, albeit a brief one, to talk about the entities that would be created from this feeling, and the people behind them. Two of these were James Stephens and John O’Mahony.
O’Mahony was a Limerick man, whose father and uncle had fought in 1798. A writer and scholar of some means, he had joined the Repeal movement in 1843 but became unhappy with the direction Daniel O’Connell was going fast, joining up with the Young Irelander faction and then taking part in the events of 1848. That meant he had to leave Ireland, and it was Paris where he ended up, living in poor conditions and supporting himself through translation work, before travelling on to New York to join other Irish nationalists.
There, O’Mahony was a founder for what was dubbed the “Emmett Monuments Association”. As readers might recall, Robert Emmett had stated before his execution that he wanted no epitaph to be written for him until Ireland was a free nation. The Emmet Monuments Association was thus not what it said on the tin, but a secret society dedicated to the nationalist ideology.
The Association spread quickly throughout the Irish-American community, but ultimately was unable to make good on its own aims, which it actively sought by trying to make allies of Tsarist Russia, before and during the Crimean War. The old dream of getting one of Britain’s enemies to aid an Irish insurrection was alive and well, but no more possible this time around, the war in Crimea ending before anything resembling a concrete alliance was close to being formed. The Monument Association faded away for a few years, its higher ranks agreeing that the time for action was simply not opportune. But things were progressing elsewhere.
James Stephens was a Kilkenny native, with a murky early life, who had become active in nationalist politics by his twenties. After 1848 he fled to Paris with John O’Mahony, but where O’Mahony eventually went to New York, Stephens stayed, becoming part of numerous secret societies in France with the aim of mastering the art of the conspiracy, unhappy with the way that 1848 had gone. In 1856 Stephens returned to Ireland and began organising with other nationalists, while keeping in touch with events and organisations in America.
In 1858, at the pressing of men like O’Mahony who was no longer satisfied with the set-up in the States, Stephens founded his own nationalist secret society, which would go on to dominate Irish revolutionary affairs and politics for nearly 70 years: the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or IRB. Shortly after, Stephens travelled himself to America, and played a part in O’Mahony’s corresponding organisation: the Fenian Brotherhood, named after the legendary army of Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, the term at that point not carrying the negative connotation it has today (depending on who you ask).
Both were somewhat different from the Young Irelanders that had preceded them, as they openly operated under the idea that only a physical force revolution would give Ireland an independent government. There was no vagueness to what the IRB and the Fenians were offering. Stephens was also committed to the idea of social revolution going hand in hand with the political, realising that a vast amount of the Irish population was not currently waiting in line to support republican principles, but might be educated to that point if they could be effectively told what republican government could offer the working class.
While separated by an ocean, the two organisations were intractably linked from the moment of their genesis, to the extent that, in the popular consciousness, many fail to see any difference between them at all, both coming to carry the name of “Fenian” It is the IRB, that being situated primarily in Ireland, that can be considered to be more important to Irish military history, it’s higher echelons and leadership containing some of the most important names that would figure in Irish affairs from the 1850’s to the 1920’s.
While it would take a while for the exact structure of the IRB to solidify, a structure did emerge, in line with other secret societies that Stephens had learned from. From the start, with its oaths of secrecy and attempts to limit knowledge between different strands, the IRB was locked in a battle with the constant threat of spies and informers. “Circles”, with commanding “Centres” were meant to act as separate cells, with the different levels kept strictly separate from each other to limit the possibility of discovery, but in practise, this didn’t quite work as planned.
The IRB spread rapidly, with branches and cells soon operating throughout the major cities of Britain, America and as far afield as Australia, essentially anywhere Irish nationalists had a tendency to gather. These branches operated independently in terms of recruitment, but interlinked with others when it was appropriate. And the organisation would continue to grow in the decade after its founding, refining its structure and preparing to strike blows all over the globe, not just in Ireland. Indeed, in many respects it was to America that the Fenians looked with the most hope, for both military and financial support, as the Irish revolutionary movement would continue to do so for some time to come.
But events in the United States, with its internal tensions pushing things to the breaking point, would overtake some of the leading members of the Fenian Brotherhood, and many other Irish besides. In 1861, the most terrible war in American history saw the Union split in two, and Irishmen would fight on both sides.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.