How to Deal with Fenianism

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

THE surprise occasioned by the recent Fenian outbreak at Manchester is not a hopeful symptom. It indicates a want of acquaintance with the actual position of affairs, which promises ill for the immediate future. It is a repetition, on a small scale, of the mistake which was made by so many of the Northern politicians during the American civil war, and which gives their speeches such a ludicrous appearance, when they are read by the light of events. At every capture of a prominent Fenian, at every attempt at revolt which has been put down, at every trial where a batch of political prisoners has been consigned to penal servitude, the same story has been repeated. The "neck of the rebellion" has been broken several times; "the bubble has burst" more than once. The thought has been merely the offspring of the wish. Men have been anxious to accept any view that could plausibly relieve them from the duty of studying what might reveal painful objects, and make action necessary. But the oftener the neck of the rebellion has been broken, the more clearly it has been shown to be hydra-headed; and the more frequently the bubble has burst, the more palpable it has become that those causes remain which can send other like bubbles to the surface from the fermenting elements beneath.

As a specimen of the superficial views with which men content themselves till their satisfaction is rudely disturbed, we may take Lord Dufferin's statement, in his Presidential Address to the Social Science Congress at Belfast, that Fenianism is the offspring of agitation. As a matter of plain fact, which might be known by any one who took the trouble to study the question, Fenianism can claim no such parentage. When its organization was first developed through the country, there was no agitation, as it is called, going on. By agitation is meant in Ireland the public efforts of those who seek, by petition and other peaceful modes of Constitutional action, the redress of what they consider grievances. As in Ireland a small section of the population long enjoyed all the benefits that make life agreeable, the movement of the excluded millions to obtain, first a small, and then a fair, share of them, was always particularly obnoxious to the minority. This is a state of things which must be expected to continue until a just equality of of rights is reached; and Lord Dufferin will hardly stave off the advancing tide by showing that, in consequence of "the folly of a knot of agitators," the difference in the rate of interest, "between a first charge on an Irish property and that on a landed estate in England is gradually rising to more than one per cent." Fenianism and agitation seek their ends by opposite means, and are unfriendly to each other. It is evident that if the masses in Ireland were at any time given up to agitation— that is, devoted to seeking from parliamentary action the redress of the evils they complain of— there would be no room amongst them for Fenianism, since the latter is essentially hostile to appeals to what it considers an alien and inimical Legislature. It is not to agitation, but to the death of agitation, that Fenianism owes its being. If the millions sought for redress from the Legislature for grievances which the Legislature admitted to be such, and if after seeing Parliament admit these grievances they found that, in spite of many fervent professions, nothing practical was done, is it to be wondered at that they despaired of parliamentary redress? Despair of legislative action gives the death-blow to agitation which is fed by a hope of it; and despair of peaceful petitioning opens the way for the contemplation of the last resource of peoples. The Tenant League agitation had been extinguished; its chiefs had retired into private life, exiled themselves in despair, or died with disappointed hopes; the nation had fallen into an apparent apathy, upon which the dominant party triumphantly congratulated themselves. And then Fenianism began. A little leaven — a few years— and the material so well prepared by hands which kneaded for other ends has been leavened throughout. Those who abhor agitation for fear it should wrest some privilege from themselves, or conquer some long-lost right for the majority of their countrymen, should learn that its suppression must be followed by conspiracy, so long as the grievances it springs from remain, and a people remains to feel them. Despair is not contentment. When a wound is no longer complained of, it is often because gangrene has set in.

The same superficial spirit which has misapprehended the origin of Fenianism has likewise misunderstood its powers of existence, and made men unable to conceive a wise or efficient method of dealing with it. Judging it by what they have seen of other movements, those who are under the influence of this spirit, have fancied that the vitality of Fenianism depended upon the influential action of one or two persons. They have argued falsely, but after a popular method, that the Irish are such hero-worshippers and so devoted to their leaders that the life of the movement would last only so long as the chiefs were at liberty to act. These chiefs have been regarded, also, as actuated only by base and selfish motives; and it has been held that if the eyes of their dupes could be once opened to their iniquity, the whole affair would collapse. Yet we have seen leader after leader discarded, and the two founders whose assistance was supposed absolutely essential— Stephens and O'Mahony — excommunicated and disgraced; whilst the association still survives, and even flourishes. Manifest mistakes have been made by the chiefs, and detected by the rank and file; accusations of dishonesty have been bandied about against prominent officials; informers have cropped up as plentifully as could have been expected; but none of these things, nor all of them combined, have been sufficient to annihilate the association. One reason for this may doubtless be found in the republican and democratic form assumed by the brotherhood. Its mode of government is not from above downwards, but from beneath upwards. Its root cannot be severed at a single stroke, for it does not spring from one or two principal men, but arises by some thousands of inconspicuous rootlets. We must bear in mind that it has been fully organized; and that by the organization given it, the vitality of the association has not been centralized in one part, but developed around innumerable local centres, carefully linked together. Some of the chiefs may be captured, few or many; but that does not disorganise the Society; the "circles" can elect new "centres"; and new "head-centres" can be chosen to replace the old. So long as the broad basis of the rank and file exists, so long can it raise up the pyramid of officers. To sweep off the most prominent men, therefore, is not to destroy the association; to have been misled into thinking the contrary, shows that the reality of things has not been understood.

It has been remarked that the Irish Republican Society is not equal, as far as regards social status, with certain organizations which preceded it; and here is another reason why Fenianism is so hard to kill. One of the higher animals, where the nerve-material is gathered into one chief centre, is easily stricken dead by a blow upon it; but how is it with a polyp? A thousand individuals or centres of vitality are combined together in a common polypdom; the mass may be cut and severed into many pieces, but life endures none the less, and with it the power of retrieving losses. Thus it is vain to dream that the detention of some of its chiefs, and the flight of others, have had any greater effect than to mar somewhat the working of the Society, to decapitate some circles, to isolate others, and to disorganize a few of the weakest. These things are not irretrievable. They are such as to cause delay, but not despair. And it must also be borne in mind that the half of the Society beyond the Atlantic has all along remained fully organized and hopeful.

These are facts which must be faced when the question how to deal with Fenianism is considered. There are people who appear to fancy that rigorous measures have not yet been tried, and who exclaim that no further hope of obtaining the Queen's mercy must be allowed to exist. If they think that any exercise of mercy heretofore has helped to stave off the dissolution of the Society in Ireland, they err. It is a fact that the Irish Tories did not more desire the execution of some of the political prisoners than did many of the Fenians themselves. The letter of President Roberts to a prisoner in the Canadian gaol, condoling with him on having received a respite, may be accepted as a token of this feeling. If the association were on the point of expiring, an execution of political prisoners, so far from hastening its death, would make every ramification of it tingle and glow with renewed life and vigour. The Irish are not cowards; nor when their feelings are once engaged do they stop to calculate the cost. Long years of experience should at least have taught us this— that by a system of penal rule we gain nothing but undying resistance and perpetual hostility. There is indeed no need to theorize on this subject. It is a fact that the Irish State Trials, so far from awing the population, won for the prisoners an amount of sympathy which they never received when they were free to act. And it is no less the fact that deaths— the deaths of those who were killed in affrays with the military and constabulary— have had by no means that deterrent effect which the advocates of rigorous measures think they ought to have. Men who have served through the American campaign are less repelled by fear of death than by dread of prison life; and the same rule holds with those of their kith and kin who have joined the republican ranks in Ireland.

Besides, a severe policy, useless at home because of the democratic form of the organization, would be worse than useless when considered with regard to foreign affairs. It would at once raise Fenianism in America and elsewhere to a pitch of prosperity which it has not hitherto attained, and give it, together with a new lease of life, a more favourable position in the eyes of the Americans. As it is, things go well with it in the United States, as far as popularity is concerned. It has done good service to the dominant Republican party, and several of the leaders of that party have openly avowed themselves well disposed to it. Moreover, the Fenians themselves are working to effect a union of the two sections into which they are divided, and have appointed delegates to confer with each other. The meeting of the Congress of what once was the O'Mahony wing has elected a President, whose avowed aim is to effect a reconciliation. This idea seems to find equal favour on the other side; for the Congress of the Roberts wing has accepted the advances made to it. And the result of the Conference has been an arrangement for completing the union of both sections with the Irish Republicans in the British dominions.

Whilst these preparations are taking place, it is of interest to note that General Spear, an experienced American officer, reports that the army of the Roberts wing in the United States amounts to 9,300 enlisted men, and that they possess nearly 20,000 rifles, 16,500 sets of accoutrements, and 120,000 rounds of ammunition. The other wing, now presided over by Mr. Savage, is declared to own 15,000 stand of arms, as many sabres, a large quantity of ammunition, and one vessel. One result of the Cleveland Congress is that the Roberts section have pledged themselves to raise 50,000 for the purposes of the association. It has been resolved to appoint four military organizers and an inspector-general, and to train and equip ten batteries of field artillery, three cavalry regiments of ten companies each, and two light batteries, mounted to go with the cavalry. The members of the association are directed to waste no more money on flags or trappings, on the ground that every available dollar should be spent on arms and ammunition. The association in Ireland, according to the message of President Roberts, are eager on the subject, and only want the co-operation of the Irish-Americans, but will not rise again till an army fully equipped and armed stands on Irish soil to assist them. In Ireland the Fenians had for some time discontinued the provisional government in its functions, and left to Colonel Kelly the duties of "Head Executive of the Irish Republic." Hence the determined resistance shown to his capture in Manchester.

In all the great centres of England, Wales, and Scotland the association is much stronger than would be readily supposed. The Irish support it in larger proportion than at home; and there is also an English Republican Brotherhood to countenance and assist it.

The true way of dealing with Fenianism is to detach the popular sympathies from it; and this can only be done by effecting a complete change in the condition and government of Ireland.