Digital Recreation of one of the Fenian Flags used during the 1867 Rebellion
After the suppression of the Irish People newspaper in September 1865, disaffection among Irish radical nationalists continued to smoulder, and during the later part of 1866, IRB leader James Stephens endeavoured to raise funds in the United States for a fresh rising planned for the following year. However the rising of 1867 proved poorly organised. A brief rising took place in County Kerry in February, followed by an attempt at nationwide insurrection, including an attempt to take Dublin in early March. Due to poor planning and British infiltration of the nationalists, the rebellion never got off the ground. Most of the leaders in Ireland were arrested, but although some of them were sentenced to death, none suffered execution. There followed a series of attacks in England aimed at freeing Fenian prisoners, including a bomb in London and an attack on a prison van in Manchester, for which three Fenians, subsequently known as the Manchester martyrs, were executed in November 1867. A series of raids into Canada from 1866 to 1871 by US-based supporters also accomplished little.
The Fenians were a transatlantic association consisting of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in Dublin by James Stephens in 1858, and the Fenian Brotherhood, founded in the United States by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny, also in 1858. Their aim was the establishment of an independent Irish Republic by force of arms. In 1865, the Fenians began preparing for a rebellion. With the ending of the American Civil War, they hoped to recruit willing Irish veterans of that war for an insurrection in Ireland. They collected about 6,000 firearms and had as many as 50,000 men willing to fight. In September 1865, the British moved to close down the Fenians' newspaper The Irish People and arrested much of the leadership, including John O'Leary, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Bryan Dillon, Thomas Clarke Luby and Stephens. Stephens, the leader of the movement, later escaped. In 1866, habeas corpus was suspended in Ireland and there were hundreds more arrests of Fenian activists.
Stephens' successor as leader, Thomas J. Kelly tried to launch the insurrection in early 1867, but it proved uncoordinated and fizzled in a series of skirmishes. The plan was for a country-wide campaign of guerrilla warfare, accompanied by an uprising in Dublin in which Fenian fighters would link up with Irish troops who had mutinied and take the military barracks in the city.
The Fenian Brotherhood, especially a faction of it under William R. Roberts, mobilised up to 1,000 Irish veterans of the American Civil War to launch raids on British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada in order to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland, between 1866 and 1871. While the U.S. authorities arrested the men and confiscated their arms afterwards, there is speculation that many in the US government had turned a blind eye to the preparations for the invasion, angered at actions that could be construed as British assistance to the Confederacy during the American Civil War. There were five Fenian raids of note. While they had some minor successes against Canadian forces, they were militarily and politically unsuccessful.
In February 1867 Fenians, one of whom was Michael Davitt, attacked Chester Castle in order to obtain arms for the rising. The revolt's organisers had hoped to benefit from considerable support among Irish nationals, or their descendants, living in England. The arms stored in the castle were to be seized, the telegraph wires cut, the rolling stock on the railway to be appropriated for transport to Holyhead, where shipping was to be seized and a descent made on Dublin before the authorities should have time to interfere. This scheme was frustrated by information given to the government by the informer John Joseph Corydon, one of Stephens' most trusted agents.
On 14 February 1867 there was an attempted rising in County Kerry. The Fenians attacked a coastguard station, robbed a man's house and stole his horses, and killed one policeman before heading towards Killarney. When the Fenians were near the town it was discovered that the RIC and British army were occupying it. They then retreated by passing between the Toomey Mountains and MacGillycuddy Reeks. On 5 March 1867, risings took place in Dublin, Cork City and Limerick. The largest of these engagements took place at Tallaght, County Dublin, when several hundred Fenians, on their way to the meeting point at Tallaght Hill, were attacked by the Irish Constabulary near the police barracks, and were driven off after a firefight.
The rebels burnt down police barracks at Ballingarry, Emly, Gortavoher and Roskeen, in County Tipperary. A number of rebels armed with pikes gathered at Ballyhurst outside Tipperary town led by Colonel Thomas F Bourke of Fethard. A short battle took place with soldiers of the 31st Regiment which resulted in one man being killed and several wounded. Some escaped, though many were interned in Clonmel gaol to await trial. Before the end of the week the rising in Tipperary was crushed.
A total of twelve people were killed across the country on the day. When it became apparent that the co-ordinated rising that had been planned was not transpiring, most rebels simply went home. The rising failed as a result of lack of arms and planning, but also because of the British authorities' effective use of informers. Most of the Fenian leadership had been arrested before the rebellion took place.
However, the rising was not without symbolic significance. The Fenians proclaimed a Provisional Republican government, stating,
The Irish People of the World
We have suffered centuries of outrage, enforced poverty, and bitter misery. Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who treating us as foes, usurped our lands, and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home, while our men of thought and action were condemned to loss of life and liberty. But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. We appealed in vain to the reason and sense of justice of the dominant powers. Our mildest remonstrance's were met with sneers and contempt. Our appeals to arms were always unsuccessful. Today, having no honourable alternative left, we again appeal to force as our last resource. We accept the conditions of appeal, manfully deeming it better to die in the struggle for freedom than to continue an existence of utter serfdom. All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying it. We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored. We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State. We appeal to the Highest Tribunal for evidence of the justness of our cause. History bears testimony to the integrity of our sufferings, and we declare, in the face of our brethren, that we intend no war against the people of England – our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields – against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs. Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty. Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.
The Provisional Government.
The proclamation preceded the Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic by almost 50 years. it also sheds some light on early Fenianism: it is centred with the ideas of republican democracy; however it is embedded with ideas of class struggle. The proclamation claims that their war was "against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish" which denotes that their ideology at this time was in some way embedded in class differences against the landed aristocracy rather than merely against British rule.
On 11 September 1867, Colonel Thomas J. Kelly ("Deputy Central Organizer of the Irish Republic") was arrested in Manchester, where he had gone from Dublin to attend a council of the English "centres" (organisers), together with a companion, Captain Timothy Deasy. A plot to rescue these prisoners was hatched by Edward O'Meagher Condon with other Manchester Fenians; on 18 September, while Kelly and Deasy were being conveyed through the city from the courthouse, the prison van was attacked by Fenians armed with revolvers, and in the scuffle Police Sergeant Charles Brett, who was seated inside the van, was shot dead. The three Fenians, who were later executed, were remembered as the "Manchester Martyrs."
On the same day of November 1867, Ricard O'Sullivan Burke, who had been employed by the Fenians to purchase arms in Birmingham, was arrested and imprisoned in Clerkenwell Prison in London. In December, whilst he was awaiting trial a wall of the prison was blown down by gunpowder in order to effect his escape. The explosion caused the death of twelve people, and injured one hundred and twenty others. The Clerkenwell Outrage, for which Fenian Michael Barrett would suffer the death penalty, powerfully influenced William Ewart Gladstone in deciding that the Anglican Church of Ireland should be disestablished as a concession to Irish disaffection.
The rising itself was a total military failure, but it did have some political benefits for the Fenian movement. There were large protests in Ireland against the execution of Fenian prisoners, many of whose death sentences were, as a result, reprieved. In addition, the bravery of the three "Manchester Martyrs" on their execution provoked an emotional reaction among the Irish public, 17 monuments were erected in their honour and annual commemorations were held well into the 20th century. An Amnesty Association for Fenian prisoners was established by Isaac Butt, later the founder of the Home Rule League.
The Fenians themselves re-organised after the failure of the rising. In 1873, the Irish Republican Brotherhood adopted a new constitution, which stated that armed rebellion would not be pursued again until it had mass backing from the people. In 1879, the leaders of the IRB, principally John Devoy, decided on a New Departure, eschewing, for the time, physical force in favour of adopting the land question and building a broad nationalist movement. The Fenians, therefore, cooperated with the Land League in the land agitation from the 1870s onwards and in the rise of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Not all Fenians agreed with this policy however, and several breakaway groups emerged that continued to believe in the use of political violence in pursuit of republican objectives. One was the Irish National Invincibles who assassinated the two most important British functionaries in Ireland, Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke, Chief and Under Secretaries for Ireland, respectively, in Dublin in 1882 (see Phoenix Park Murders). Two other factions, one sponsored by O'Donovan Rossa, the other by the Irish-American Clan na Gael, carried out a bombing campaign in Britain between 1880 and 1887.
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- Murphy (2003), p. 117
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