The Fenian Rising of 1867 was, at the very least, an event of bigger scope and impact on Ireland that the 1848 Young Irelander rebellion. But even that is damning with faint praise really: 1867 was another Irish nationalist catastrophe, as the ambitious plans drawn up in the previous few years came to nothing amid wide scale infiltration of the IRB by British authorities.
The rising, such as it was, saw its first start in the south of Kerry in February of 1867, around the town of Cahersiveen. Fenians gathered in numbers with the aim of marching on Killarney, but the efforts fizzled out when it became clear that they were essentially on their own, and the local authorities well forewarned. What Fenians that weren’t arrested dispersed as rapidly as when they had come together. While the affair provoked alarm around the country, it didn’t dent the apparent enthusiasm of what was left of the IRB elsewhere, with early March the selected time for a more nationwide affair.
It may seem odd to us today, looking back, at the sheer lack of concrete planning that had been made, but many of the Fenians were seemingly of the opinion that, once a rising had got underway, improvisation in reaction to circumstances would carry the day, with the popular will sweeping away what enemies lay in their path. Engaging in a guerilla struggle from the start was discounted as inadequate, and the plain truth that the organisation was riddled with intelligence leaks was ignored. In reality, with a lack of guns, coordination between different units and leaders with enough battlefield experience, the Fenians were always going to struggle before the impact of informers is even added to the mix.
On the 5th of March, the Fenian Rising began in earnest, but in the end amounted to a similar enough pattern in different counties, most notably Cork, Tipperary and Limerick. The Fenians gathered at pre-determined points with whatever weapons they had to hand – in a distant echo of 1916, expectations of foreign arms being landed to help from outside sources failed to materialise, one American ship arriving too late – and then set out in a pell-mell fashion, to attack police barracks in search of more arms and materials, with some small success. But in all cases, the realisation came that a mass uprising was not taking place. When this became clear, the Fenian bands mostly dispersed back to their homes or fled into the forests and hills, there to try and avoid the retribution of British authorities, which came on strong in the aftermath. A spell of unseasonably bad weather, that had much of Ireland under snow in the immediate aftermath, added to the calamity for the IRB, with many of the bands forced to come in from their hiding places because of it.
In Ireland, there were only a small number of places with fighting of truly noteworthy status. Of these, it is probably the operations to the south of Dublin that draw the most attention. It was a vague idea of the Fenians, for the garrison of the city to be drawn out by a gathering of Fenian troops to the south so an uprising could more easily take place in the city. In the end, half of this plan went into action, as Fenians gathered in the area of Tallaght, then a village separate from Dublin, looking to provoke a British response.
The 8’000 or so Fenians couldn’t help but be noticed when they gathered and marched, and local police moved to block their path towards Tallaght. In point of fact, it was still simply the “Irish Constabulary”, but their actions that year gained them the prefix “Royal”. In a small number of engagements, advanced parties of Fenians met police blockades, and after some brief exchanges of gunfire – widely inaccurate when coming from the Fenians, not so much from the RIC – the Fenians fled.
In the end, the majority of the Fenians reached Tallaght Hill, outside Jobstown, but with nothing happening in the city, no overall national command to direct them and with the awful weather making the position untenable, they nearly all dispersed the following day. 12 people had been killed on March 5th, eight of which were Fenians. In Ireland, everything fizzled out in the aftermath, as the police and other authorities continued their largely successfull suppression of the IRB, arresting more members, many of whom would wind up transported to Australia, or at the very least, exiled outside of Ireland.
A strategic analysis of the uprising is simply repeating the reality: with its leadership either in prison or unable to communicate effectively with its membership, the chances of success were tiny, and this is reflected in what actually happened that day. The Fenians would have been better off showing patience and waiting when it became undoubtedly clear that they had been infiltrated wholesale, but they couldn’t be deterred, and the result was something that barely merits the title of a rebellion, any more than the action at Tallaght deserves the title of a “Battle”. It would be 49 years before a similar revolt would be attempted, the IRB committing itself in the aftermath to resist the urge for another rebellion until it was clear that the majority of the people were on their side.
The Fenians actions in March were roundly mocked by some, referred to as a “teacup rebellion”, but it would be inaccurate to claim that the Fenians had no effect whatsoever. They showed that the nationalist movement in Ireland was numerically quite large and that there was a strong enough sentiment for violent action if they were roused sufficiently. The proclamation of an Irish Republic released that year was also noteworthy for its dedication to social change and class struggle, many of its ideas and ethos later adopted in the similarly titled document for 1916. Moreover, there was a recognition from those in power, that things did need to change in Ireland in response to the events in question.
It was abroad that we must go to next. The Fenian uprising in Ireland had been little more than a damp squib, but the rising was not limited to Ireland, and it was not even limited to Britain, not really. The Fenians had men everywhere, and they were determined to stroke blows as well. In the next two entries, we will go first to Britain and Fenian efforts there, before having a look at the more spectacular efforts in North America already taking place.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.