Having looked at the genesis of the Fenian movement in America, and their part in the Civil War of the 1860’s, on both sides, it’s time that we swung back to affairs in Ireland itself, and the next in the long line of rebellions against British control there, this one to be led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
The IRB, as previously noted, was founded in 1858 by James Stephens, the entity soon to be more commonly referred to as the Fenians. Like many other entities that had come before them, they had remarkable success in terms of recruitment before any shots were ever fired in anger, with it claimed that the IRB could count 50’000 men in their number by the time that we have come to describe, more if you included the men attached to the actual Fenian Brotherhood in America.
They drew their support primarily from working class areas and men, be they farmers in the countryside or labourers in the city. Conditions in Ireland might have been improving, but the suffering of the Famine was still very near, and resentment over both the hunger and the British reaction to it was bound to create the conditions for a new revolutionary organisation to step up. Ireland also remained under-represented when it came to the democratic process, with only around one sixth of all Irishmen eligible to vote (and of course, no women), and what elections there were went under the rule of public voting: any Irish tenant who voted against their landlord or their landlords’ wishes had to do so in plain view, and would suffer the consequences afterwards. The IRB tapped into the festering sense of injustice prevalent at the time.
The IRB are also somewhat unique among the myriad of organisations that fought for Irish independence in that they were first to actively court and engage with the Irish community abroad, especially America, forgoing the previous foreign target for support, France, who had failed repeatedly in their frequently piecemeal efforts to support the Irish revolutionary spirit. The United States was a fertile ground in terms of both finances and men for the cause, and the military experience that came with the Civil War was seen as a prized asset in the years afterwards, as the Fenians made their plans and prepared for the inevitable uprising.
With their “circles”, the Fenians were able to institute a national organisation that had a distinctly local flavour when you looked at it more closely, tying themselves into the same kind of rhetoric previously employed by the Ribbonmen and other similar societies. They would meet secretly and drill in formations, practise with arms, but for the first decade of their existence, or most of it, that was all that they limited themselves to doing in terms of practical acts. Other than that, men like Stephens were mindful of the kind of pageantry needed to capture imaginations: they were among the first nationalist organizations to take advantage of funerals as events of great propaganda value.
The general political message of the Fenians was also something that attracted people in its sheer simplicity, as it went little beyond the securing of a free Ireland and the use of force to do this, but it was in its popular being that the IRB was important: unlike the United Irishmen or the Young Irelanders, it did not find its primary source of power from the upper-classes, and was committed to violent resistance against British rule right from the outset.
By 1865, Stephens and the other leaders of the IRB were ready to start moving forward with firmer plans. Those leaders included men like Thomas J. Kelly, a veteran of the Union Army, John Devoy, a former member of the French Foreign Legion and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a shopkeeper whose Phoenix National and Literary Society had merged with the similarly minded IRB in 1858. O’Donovan Rossa was an especially important figure, who acted as a business manager for Fenian publications and was a leading light in the Kerry and Cork areas, that would be critical in the coming rebellion. However, like all such organisations before or since, the Fenians were riven by a certain amount of discord and clashes between personalities, between those who urged rebellion quickly at any cost and people who preferred to wait and prepare for a longer period, between the Irish side and the American side.
The plans for a rising went through numerous different formats in this time. They ranged from thoughts of a nationwide guerilla struggle, to a short coup d’etat of the British administration in Dublin, to more fantastical scheme of using the Irish-American community to attack British possessions in the new world: schemes that would go onto to become a reality at a later time. But all the while, the Fenians were already being undone by their worst enemy: informers.
The British, through their own intelligence services and the work of the RIC and DMP, were readily able to infiltrate the IRB, via its active membership and in the offering of generous financial sums in return for important information. IRB members and safehouses were under watch constantly. Even while Stephens was dreaming of a British Army infested with Fenian soldiers refusing to combat an uprising, his own organisation was leaking vital information at nearly every level, essentially dooming any rebellion long before it actually begun. The British had learned, to an extent, from their experience in 1798, when the full scale of the eventual rebellion had caught them almost completely by surprise, even with the information of informers available. In the 1860’s, Dublin Castle knew far more about the IRB than Stephens and the others were aware, and this reality hamstrung their efforts from start to finish. The rise of IRB activities, the influx of men who had served in the American Civil War, the spread of Fenianism in various parts of the British Empire, careful notes were taken of it all, and additional troops were quietly ferried to Dublin at different points of the mid 1860’s.
One of the main undoings of the IRB in this period was its chief media arm, the Irish People newspaper that Stephens had founded in 1863, partly in response to the drying up of financial support from America during the Civil War. In 1865, after meetings with like-minded nationalists in America, Stephens was in a more active stage of preparing a rising, and sent messages home to that effect, messages that were intercepted by the British. Using an informer within the Irish People staff, Pierce Nagle, the “G Division” of the police were able to find justifiable reasons to raid the offices of the paper, which happened to be situated only a short walk down the road from Dublin Castle itself. Numerous arrests were made, among them O’Donavan Rossa and the recently returned Stephens, although the latter was able to escape custody a short time later. This was in mid-September, with Stephens having declared that rebellion should go ahead the following week, to coincide with the anniversary of Robert Emmet’s aborted rising.
With many key leaders taken into custody, the IRB floundered for a time, eventually finding new leadership under Thomas Kelly, who was determined to press on with plans for the rising as soon as possible, even as British authorities embarked on a further campaign of arrests and raids nationwide, that brought the Irish People to its knees and left the larger organisation of the IRB in tatters. Soon, in an effort to keep the apparent crushing of the Fenians going, the government suspended habeas corpus. But still, the IRB remained in being.
The plan, such as it was, was for a general campaign of sabotage and limited guerilla activity in the country, especially related to the cutting of telegraph wires and the blocking of other communication and transport routes. At the same time, a general insurrection was to be launched in Dublin, after the local garrison had been lured away by an assembling of men in Tallaght, to the south of the city. The rebellion was going ahead with many assumptions: that Irish members of the British Army and local militia would either not fight or actually join the Fenian cause, and that the specific details of the planned operation would remain secret: neither eventuality came to pass, as the British authorities were well-warned in advance, by informers on both sides of the Irish Sea. There were other obvious problems too, not least the lack of guns, with efforts to smuggle weapons into the country routinely failing.
The remaining Fenians were ready to make a move in 1867, in different parts of the country, but ignorant of the odds they faced, a disaster beckoned.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.