The Fenians, armed rebellion and mass direct action

Leaders of the Fenian'sFor some 66 years a secret underground revolutionary organization operated across the globe but in particular in Ireland, the USA and Britain with the aim of overthrowing British rule in Ireland. The activities which included repeated invasions of Canada, land war & rebellions in Ireland and the bombing of British cities led to the creation of the secret police in Britain (Special Branch), greatly accelerated the confederation of Canada into a single state and even played a part if the development of the submarine.


This blog is based on notes I'd prepared for a WSM educational on the Fenian's. It's my intention to write something more substantial but I'm aware that might take some time to get to so I'm blogging this now. The first part is a quick general history of the Fenian's the second looks at their involvement in mass direct action (the land war) and the links with the early left. The information here is I'm sure far from everything that is available, this is largely based on the biography Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom .

The Fenians was the umbrella term used by friends and enemies alike for for two separate but linked organisations. The Irish Republican Brotherhood which operated in Ireland & Britain and The Fenian Brotherhood which operated in North America, and was later known as Clan na Gael. The organization lasted some 66 years from 1858 to 1924.

The origins of Fenianism lay in the failure of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848. In 1842 3 members of the Young Ireland Movement launched a paper called The Nation. They had developed out of Daniel's O'Connells repeal movement but by 1846 had broken with him over his attempt to rule out any use of physical force on principle. Under the influence of the European republican wave of the 1840's and in the disastrous conditions of the famine they staged a small rebellion of "miners, tradesmen and small tenant farmers" near the colliery at Ballingary, Tipperary. It was a minor firefight with a police patrol in a stone house, not really much of a rebellion. In theory they had created revolutionary clubs with tens of thousands of members but their insane respect for property which stretched as far as forbidding the requisitioning of food from the big houses made it impossible to sustain an army of any size in the middle of the famine. Alongside this the Catholic church actively worked to discourage involvement and disperse the very limited forces that did come out.

The captured leaders were initially sentenced to death but then exiled to Australia while others escaped to France including James Stephens. Stephens came back to Ireland in 1856 and claimed to have walked 3000 miles around the country to find out what feeling was on the ground. contacting others who had been involved in 1848 as he did so. He was also in communication with exiled rebels in the USA and with their encouragement launched the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) on March 17 1858. The IRB soon established group in all the countries the Irish were migrating to. In theory they were organized in hierical circles of 9 with an officer from each circle being the only person in contact with the circle above.

In concert John O'Mahony founded the Fenian Brotherhood in American in 1858. By the 1860's this had split into two factions over the issue of where to take action, both of which sold 'Irish Republic' bonds to Irish migrants. The other faction under William R. Roberts used the money to buy arms and launch an invasion of Canada using Irish men who had fought in the American Civil War. They invaded in 1886 at Buffalo and the St Lawrence Valley. In 1867 they had a convention of 400 delegates in Philadelphia during which 6000 Fenian soldiers armed and in uniform marched through the streets. A second invasion from Vermont and Upstate NY was launched in 1870. A third attempt was made in 1871 near the Red River in Manitoba. These were all brief and rapidly defeated, in the end the main outcome was to escalate the Confederation of Canada.

In late 1863 the paper the Irish People was founded by the IRB in Dublin. It was closed in 1865 after the plans of the American organization for a rising were discovered. In March 1863 the Special Irish Branch was formed in London to monitor the IRB. In 1867 the Stephens faction sent solders to Ireland to help in the doomed rising of that year. Many were arrested on arrival and the rising itself only amounted to limited local efforts in Kerry in February, and in March in Cork, Limerick and Dublin (in Tallaght).

There were 3 significant events in Britain in this year
1. Chester raid - a scheme by Lancashire IRB to raid Cheshire castle to seize arms, rush them by train to Holyhead and then by Ferry to Dublin. The plan was compromised by an informer. Michael Davitt was involved in this.
2. Manchester Martyrs - 3 Fenians were executed for the attempt to rescue Fenian Leaders Kelly and Deasy from a prison van, they killed a guard in the process.
3. Clerkenwell Explosion - the attempt to blow Richard Burke out of prison which killed 12 and injured over 100

After 1867 the Supreme Council of the IRB meeting in Manchester decided to support neither of the north American factions and instead launched a new organization Clan na Gael. The Brotherhood itself voted to disband in 1880. This July 1867 meeting also reorganized the IRB itself with an 11 man Supreme Council, 7 were delegates from districts, 4 were co-opted. In turn they elected a 3 person executive.

In 1881 one of the odder bits of Fenian history occurred when 'The Fenian Ram' a submarine was launched but never used due to a dispute over funds which saw the IRB steal the submarine but be unable to operate it. 

In May 1882 an offshoot of the Fenian's, the Irish National Invincibles, assassinated the Chief secretary and the Permanent Under Secretary in the Phoneix Park. Although sometimes referred to as anarchists I've not found any real link to the anarchist movement and presumably this label was used because of the similarity to the propaganda by deed assassinations being carried our by anarchists in the same period. The leaders James Carey was a builder who had become a counciller "for the good of the working man'. He turned informer to save his life only to be killed in a ship off the coast of South Africa when his identify was discovered by a fellow passenger. When the news reached Dublin at least 8 huge bonfires were lit in celebration, at the time the Fenian's in the city were split into three distinct groups.

By the early 20th century the IRB was considered stagnant but by 1908 Dungannon Club founder Bulmer Hobson had teamed up with returned exile Tom Clarke to once more re-organise the IRB. By 1914 the old leadership had been outed and a new generation was in place including Sean MacDermott, and Tom Clarke. In 1913 the IRB were behind the launch of the Irish Volunteers. The IRB recruited high ranking members of the Volunteers including Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh, and Patrick Pearse. They were also working with Indian Nationalists of the Ghadar Party, had published Indian Nationalist material in the Gaelic American and even tried to smuggle arms into India.

In 1916 the IRB were thus one of the key forces behind the rising and then in organising the IRA during the tan war / war of independence. They were led by the Collins faction of the republicans so in 1924 the Supreme Council voted to dissolve the organization as its goals had been achieved.

That then is the military history which is pretty interesting in its own right, the maintenance of a secret underground organization over 6 decades and several countries, through two waves of rebellion, the second successful. Like earlier movements defeat tended to be blamed on informers and the solution to this was seen as greater secrecy and later as brutal action against informers and police most famously in the Collins period on Bloody Sunday

The Fenians and the early workers movement

But there is another story also happening in those years and that is the emergence of the workers movement, in Europe and also in Ireland. There is very little written on how and where the Fenians intersected this movement but even a quick examination reveals they did. I've written at some length on the 1886-22 period when this movement is clearest but the links go further back.

It’s hard to uncover this. The Fenians were a secret organization and as has been written by the likes of EP Thompson about other secret organization like the Luddites this menas not only were written records non existent or unavailable but participants tended not to talk about their role even decades afterwards with the exception of a few leaders who wrote often self serving biographies.

Some of the leadership held radical left wing positions, Fenian leader James Stephens said he was of "firm resolution to establish a democratic republic in Ireland; that is, a republic for the weal of the toiler.” The radical republicanism meant the Fenian's were seen as a threat not only by the British state but also by better off catholics in Ireland and the catholic church. Bishop Moriary of Kerry famously warned "when we look down into the fathomless depth of this infamy of the heads of the Fenian conspiracy, we must acknowledge that eternity is not long enough, nor hell hot enough to punish such miscreants." In fact all sorts of radicalism in Ireland and Britain came to be called Fenianism and in Britain there were connections between the Fenians and movements like the Chartists. Michael Davitt for instance worked with former chartist leaders.

We know one of the most important US Fenian leaders, John Devoy was a member of the First International in New York in the early 1870's. He was the Irish delegate to the North American convention and attended Central Committee meetings in New York. In 1871 Marx sent a letter to the American Sec. asking him to hand over the enclosed letter from our Irish Secretary to John Devoy but Devoy appears to have purged that letter from his correspondence and did not mention his brief membership of the IWA in his autobiography.(1)

In 1878 Michael Davitt a London based IRB operative who had been jailed in 1870 met Devoy in New York. Davitt's family had fled the famine for the industrial slums of England where at the age of 11 Davitt had lost his right arm in a cotton mill after working for two years in various mills. Davitt went on a speaking tour of the US where as well as talking about Irelands claim to nationhood he introduced the idea of the peasants claim to the land. On Davitt's return to New York at a meeting of the Clan leaders in the Five Points Devoy proposed a program which included that the land of Ireland belonged to the people of Ireland alone and "the only final solution of the Irish land question is the abolition of Landlordism." (2)

The Land War was to be hotly fought for the next 14 years in Ireland as mass struggle involving tens of thousands in a variety of forms of sustained direct action. From the information available its clear that the Fenian's or at least a faction of them played a significant role in initiating that struggle.

At a public meeting three weeks later Devoy declared that "The land question is the question of questions in Ireland, and the one which the national party must speak out in the plainest language" - this was a radical departure from putting the republic as the central question. He said "The landlord system is the greatest curse inflicted by England on Ireland .. I believe in Irish independence , but I don't think it would be worthwhile to free Ireland if that foreign landlord system were left standing." (3)

Stephens, the IRB leader who was in exile in Paris wrote to Devoy accusing him of being misled by Davitt and that "I regret beyond measure what you have said." As with all the other republican movements the majority position was that class conflict would undermine the national unity needed to defeat Britain. But as with many of the other movements there was also a substantial minority who instead argued (in Connolly's later words) that 'The cause of Labour is the Cause of Ireland and the Cause of Ireland is the Cause of Labour.'

Shortly afterwards the split within the Home Rule Confederation between Butt and Parnell became public and the Leaders of the Clan telegrammed Parnell so say he had their support on five conditions which included "vigorous agitation in the land question on the basis of peasant proprietary". This was also published in the Herald and two days later an article obviously written by Devoy was published under the heading "An Irish New Departure" saying that Fenianism was going to take up the land question.

The IRB Supreme Council were to reject this plan in Feb 1879 at a meeting in Paris attended by Devoy but Parnell contacted Devoy and with Bigger met him in France in March. No formal agreement was reached but Devoy was to present this as enough for the Clan to supply arms and money. (4) Devoy then went on a secret and illegal (he was banned from Britain and Ireland) tour of IRB circles in Britain and Ireland to argue the case for the New Departure. In early April he actually dined with Parnell and Davitt (whom had been touring the west) in Morrison's Hotel in Dublin! The Land War begun in Mayo before their next meeting in the hotel on June 1st at which they agreed to put Parnell forward as the leader of the land movement. Quite what was agreed in return is hotly disputed!

Some months before in Castlebar, Mayo on October 26 1878 the Mayo Tenants Defence Association had been formed. Just after the first meeting in Morrisson's it had held its first Monster meeting when 15,000 had gathered at Claremorris on April 20th and been addresses by Thomas Brennan who said ". . . I have read some history, and I find that several countries have from time to time been afflicted with the same land disease as that under which Ireland is now labouring, and although the political doctors applied many remedies, the one that proved effectual was the tearing out, root and branch, of the class that caused the disease. All right-thinking men would deplore the necessity of having recourse in this country to scenes such as have been enacted in other lands, although I for one will not hold up my hands in holy horror at a movement that gave liberty not only to France but to Europe. If excesses were at that time committed, they must be measured by the depth of slavery and ignorance in which the people had been kept"

The Irish National Land League was founded in Castlebar Oct 21 with Parnell as president and Davitt as one of the secretaries, it adopted a resolution that its aims were "first, to bring out a reduction of rack-rents; second, to facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers". The Land War is considered to run from then until 1892 in pursuit of the Three F's, Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale. Most famously the League organized the campaign against Captain Boycott in autumn of 1880.

Parnell and the other leaders were imprisoned in October 1881 under the Irish Coercion Act in Kilmainham Jail for "sabotaging the Land Act" from where they issued the No Rent Manifesto. Initially the League was non sectarian, even holding meetings in Orange Halls in the north which led to the gentry entering the Orange Order to halt this.

In prison in 1882 Davitt came out in support of Land Nationalisation as oppose to peasant propietorship and on his release campaigned for an alliance between the British working class, Irish labourers and tenant farmers.

From 1886 the League renewed the struggle under the Plan of Campaign where tenants in trouble due to bad harvests offered reduced rent and if this was refused went on rent strike. This targeted 203 estate and won rapid victory on 60 and defeat on 15. As the war continued on the remaining estates Parnell distanced himself from it. The Coercian Act of 1867 made illegal "boycotting, intimidation, unlawful assembly and the organisation of conspiracies against the payment of rents". The Act resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of people including over twenty MPs. It also abolished trial by jury. Balfour told the police not to hesitate to open fire and they killed 3 during a riot of 8000 in Mitchelstown. In April 1888 the Vatican condemned the plan of campaign.

By 1893 the campaign collapsed, its finance exhausted and some tenants did not recover their land until 1907. The stick won but during Balfour's short tenure as Prime Minister in 1902-05 Wyndham "Land Purchase Act" of 1903, allowed Irish tenant farmers to buy the freehold title to their land with affordable government-backed loans.

The period of the 1900’s and 1910’s is much better researched in terms of left history and in that period we see a large cross over in the south between rank and file activists in the republican and union movements. Was the same the case with the Fenians during the early years of the Land League? Certainly Davitt and Devoy argued for involvement and took the not inconsiderable risk of touring Ireland to talk to IRB sections as that movement emerged. Presumably this had some impact on what at least some of these Fenian's then did in relation to the league.

But as an organization the IRB backed away from the Land struggle in the 1880’s and republicanism increasingly turned to a cultural struggle of creating an Irish nationalist revival that was catholic, peasant and gaelic in character. If the early period of the Land League had threatened to overcome sectarian barriers this later cultural struggle served to re-enforce them and lay the basis for the divisions of the 1900’s and the partition that was to come.

1 p73, Irish Rebel
2 p105, Irish Rebel
3 p107, Irish Rebel
4 p117, Irish Rebel



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