The Fenian Movement
In 1848, a small
group of revolutionaries known as Young Ireland launched an ill-prepared
uprising which was quickly quelled.
Among them were James Stephens and John O'Mahony, who both sought refuge
in Paris, a city which harboured plotters exiled from many countries. In 1853, O'Mahony sailed to America in the
hope of encouraging Irish emigrants to support a new rising. Stephens returned
to Ireland in 1856, tramping throughout the country to assess the people's
mood. On 17 March 1858, he formed in Dublin the secret society which became
known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Later in the year he sailed to
America, where O'Mahony became leader of a new organisation called the Fenian
Brotherhood. It took its name from the fian or band of warriors led by
the legendary Gaelic hero, Finn Mac Cool, and the name Fenians came to be used
for the whole body of revolutionary conspirators.
The Fenian movement, which sought a revolution "sooner or
never", quickly attracted thousands of young supporters. When one of the
1848 rebels, Terence Bellew McManus, died in America in 1861, his enormous
funeral procession through Cork and Dublin showed how widespread was the
sympathy for the Young Ireland ideas which
Fenianism now embodied. However, Stephens came in conflict with other
nationalist organisations which sought to end the Union by constitutional
methods, and the Catholic Church was generally hostile. In 1863 his decision to found a weekly
newspaper, the Irish People, was criticised by O'Mahony, who preferred
Fenianism was strongly supported by Irish emigrants in
America. Many gained military experience in the American Civil War, and when
this ended in April 1865 Stephens promised an Irish rising later in the year.
However, the government had been alerted by its spies, and in September the Irish
People was suppressed. Stephens and his closest associates were arrested,
but he escaped from prison and reached America. The government quickly took the
offensive, arresting suspects and confiscating arms. Some army units, thought
to include Fenian sympathisers, were moved from Ireland.
Stephens had now lost influence, and it was left to civil war
veterans, notably Thomas Kelly, to instigate a rising in March 1867. It was no more effective than the 1848 fiasco. Kelly had made his headquarters
in England, where Fenianism had strong support among Irish emigrants, and had
earlier failed in an attack on Chester Castle to capture arms and ammunition.
He and another Fenian were arrested in Manchester on 11 September. A week
later, they were rescued while being taken from court to gaol. A police officer
was shot dead, and three Fenians were subsequently hanged for his murder. They
became known as the Manchester martyrs, and their words from the dock,
"God save Ireland", were soon embodied in a popular patriotic ballad.
Other Fenian prisoners were treated more leniently, with death
sentences being commuted. However, the
execution of the Manchester martyrs, for what was perceived as an accidental
killing, aroused great anger among Irish people at home and abroad. Equally, there was a growth of anti-Irish
feeling in England, particularly in December 1867, when a number of Londoners
were killed or severely injured when a Fenian bomb exploded during a rescue
attempt at Clerkenwell prison.
Almost fifty years would pass before the next rising in Ireland, and
during this period the main thrust of Irish nationalism was provided by a
parliamentary campaign for home rule. However, the Irish Republican Brotherhood
preserved the ideal of total separation from Great Britain, and some Fenians
were active in new organisations like the Land League and the Gaelic League. Of
more immediate importance, though, the Fenian rising had further persuaded some
British politicians that the Irish problem called for radical measures. Among
them was a future prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone.