The Vitality of Fenianism

From 'Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government’, 1868.]

FALSE appreciations of the character, origin, and aims of what is now known as Fenianism have betrayed most of our public writers into the utterance of false prophecies. The forces which combined to constitute the Fenian movement have not been analyzed with that calm impartiality which would give soundness to the judgment, and an instinctive perception of the meaning and power of the conspiracy. Its strongest elements have thus been quoted as the clearest evidences of its weakness. Our attention has been repeatedly invited to the fact that the social position of Irish insurgents has greatly fallen since Lord Edward Fitzgerald's time, and even since the less brilliant period of Smith O'Brien and his companions. This the public has been asked to accept as an argument that Fenianism is more vulgar, and therefore less formidable, than former insurrectionary movements. Were the men of 1793, however, inferior in vigour to the leaders of 1789 in France, because they were more plebeian?

The argument, so long and largely insisted upon, will not stand a moment's thoughtful investigation. Had the promoters of Fenianism believed that the addition to their ranks of those who had much property to lose would have strengthened their power, they would have striven to conciliate them, following the tactics of 1848. They did nothing of the sort. Almost the first symptom of their presence in the country was the expression of opinions depreciatory of so-called popular leaders, and sarcastically severe on the prominent personages of "Young Ireland." Such persons, it was said, might join the Brotherhood if they pleased; but they must be content to accept a subordinate place, and work their way up, if found worthy of promotion. The projectors of the association did not want men of position, scrupulous with respect to risk; what they wanted was the rank and file of an Irish army. A peasant could pull a trigger quite as easily as a gentleman, could undergo fatigue better, and would be less likely to display a want of trust in his self-confident superiors.

To provide these raw levies with competent officers was not a difficulty, but the reverse. The American war was accepted as a military training school by tens of thousands of the more ardent Irish emigrants in the United States. Before that, indeed, the American division of the society had been organizing and drilling a few incomplete regiments; and the amount of pains taken in this process of self-instruction may be judged from the fact, that many of their privates were at once appointed officers in the new levies on the out-break of the war. This gave them an opportunity, by which they were not slow to profit, of spreading Fenian views, and of increasing the numerical power of the Brotherhood. So great became their influence, that in some Irish regiments no man had a chance of promotion who was not a member of the Brotherhood, as a correspondent in one of the Irish-American papers complained.

Here, then, was a nursery of commanders, men peculiarly adapted for the purposed work, because they had risen, generally, from the position occupied by the masses in Ireland, shared their sympathies, and understood their feelings. That, here as elsewhere, the Irish did not fail to distinguish themselves by deeds of desperate valour, the generous testimony of Confederate writers amply proves. Their gallant onsets turned the beam of victory on more than one American battle-field, as the charge of the Brigade Irlandaise had done before, for France, at Fontenoy. Their fame, somewhat exaggerated no doubt, penetrated every peasant's cot in Ireland, both by newspapers which republished the special reports of the vigilant Irish-American press, and by private letters recording the promotion of the writers to ranks hitherto regarded in Ireland as the exclusive perquisites of the ascendancy party, and therefore hedged with a certain divinity. The natural results followed. Young men poured out from the old country to share in their glory, and became initiated in the Republican principles of their comrades: a revolution was accomplished in their minds, giving them self-confidence, and inducing them, as veterans who had bought their commissions with their blood, to think of the home-forces without alarm.

At the same time, the rout of raw levies at Bull's Run taught them what, in the commencement of operations in their native country, they might expect; whilst the subsequent successes gave them a hope of ultimate triumph. They drew from their experience in the American campaign the lesson that, in Ireland, their best plan would be to shun the example of the United Irish of 1798, to avoid pitched battles, and compel the British commander to disperse his troops in order tokeep in check their guerilla bands. By adopting and persevering in this strategy, they hoped both to inure their men to arms and to keep their flag flying in the country until they could claim for Ireland recognition as a belligerent power.

The influence of the Irish element in the United States is not to be despised. When it chooses it can give the casting vote in several States; and there is no doubt that the Fenian chiefs were correct in their anticipation that a real rising in Ireland would band together its most widely-separated ranks. The American people, they argued, would not withhold their sympathy, nor be chary of their gold; and they counted confidently on the American merchants, who suffered so much from privateers fitted out in English ports, to enforce the law of retaliation to its fullest extent. Proofs of sympathy on the part of Americans of high standing they had in abundance: some forwarded contributions to the great Fenian Fair at Chicago; others, more recently, at a pic-nic at Buffalo (where those who were to invade Canada had assembled) said their hearts were with them, and urged them to go on Passes were given to "General Mullen," a chief organizer, to facilitate his progress along the line during the war. In fact, the only voices raised against them were those of some of the Catholic clergy and their organs in the press This, however, rather tended to make the non-Catholics regard them with favour, as proving them to be truly independent republicans, not to be cowed by clerical dictation.

The American laity are peculiarly proud of being ''free citizens," and jealous of anything resembling interference with their privileges. Distrustful of the Irish as over-submissive to their clergy, they accepted the Brotherhood as showing, in their own words, that they were assuming the stature and mien of freemen, beneath the sun of Washington. No Catholic priest openly spoke in its favour; but one is now a prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary, having been found guilty of accompanying a party of raiders to Canada, and ministering to the wounded. On the other hand, a Baptist or Methodist minister and an ex-Presbyterian minister laboured constantly for them, whilst an Episcopalian clergyman accompanied the same party of raiders, avowedly as their chaplain, but acting on an emergency as an officer. In the spring of 1865 the Brotherhood could point to branches in twenty-seven States or districts, ranging from three to forty-one "circles" in each; and in the army and navy to fifteen branches or circles, counting 14,620 members The total number of members represented by all the circles was estimated at 80,000; but these were not all necessarily combatants. Indeed a Fenian Sisterhood had started into existence also—a remarkable indication of the enthusiasm which pervaded the Irish masses.

The origin of Fenianism in the United States is not of old date, although it has had its precursors. "America was lost by Irish emigrants" said, in 1784, Mr. Gardiner, afterwards Lord Mountjoy. There was an Irish Society formed in America, whose members were men of wealth, and which taxed itself in sums surprisingly large to assist the sometimes sorely-straitened Republican army. It was called the Society of the "Friendly Sons of St. Patrick;" Washington accepted its invitation to become an honorary member, and was entered as an adopted Irishman. Again, when news of the attempted outbreak of 1848 reached America, a directory was immediately constituted, and a fund raised, a considerable portion of which still remains unspent in the hands of trustees, one of them being a distinguished American publicist. In the words of one of the prominent speakers at the first meeting convened, they intended it as a present for Ireland "when she set up housekeeping for herself."

It was not until exactly ten years ago that the germ of the actual Brotherhood was planted by John O'Mahony, originally a "gentleman farmer" of Tipperary. Having been compromised in the abortive movement of 1848, he fled to Paris, where he lived for some time with a younger and suppler refugee, James Stephens, the son of a Kilkenny clerk. Here Stephens, whilst translating a novel of Dickens for the feuilleton of the Moniteur, got acquainted with some unquiet spirits of the Continental revolutionary societies. O'Mahony and he became enrolled members, and studiously made themselves acquainted with the best methods of secret organization for ulterior purposes. When their plans were matured they consulted some French officers, veteran Irish rebels of 1798, and some American officers, who had been leaders of "Young Ireland." The scheme did not win encouragement. The American fund was not given; and the two refugees had to depend upon themselves. Stephens went to Ireland, forming first the Phoenix Society, which exploded, whilst from its ashes emerged the greater "I. R. B," which signifies the "Irish Republican Brotherhood." O'Mahony proceeded to the United States to organize the Transatlantic Irish nation. In 1857, aided by another refugee, Colonel Doheny, he founded the "E. M. A." or "Emmet Monument Association," the allusion being to that passage of Robert Emmet's speech in the dock, in which he requests that his epitaph may remain unwritten till full justice can be done to his memory. The first attempt was a failure. But the explosion of the Phoenix Society, trifling as it was, sufficed to stir the interest of the Transatlantic Irish, and induce some of them to become members of O'Mahony's new organization, the Fenian Brotherhood. What suggested the word "Fenian" was, no doubt, Keating's Gaedhlic History of Ireland, which O'Mahony published with a translation.

Now, it is easy to perceive that there is but a half truth in the statement so frequently heard, that Fenianism is of American origin, and has no source in Irish grievances. Technically, indeed, there have not been any Fenians in Ireland except those who came from over the Atlantic; but then there has existed a society of "Irish Republicans" in Ireland specifically identical with them, and even anterior in date of formation. How the two societies appeared to each other, magnified by the sea-mists through which they were viewed, should not be forgotten; for it has greatly helped to give them both vitality. If the "Irish Republic" were alone to be dealt with, it would now be a matter of history. But American Fenianism is not directly to be met; and it knows its strength and its value as a base of supply. "Fenianism," says the New York Irish People (a paper at present confiscated in the Irish Post Office), "contemplates the organization of the Irish elements in America in one great national association for the purpose of combining all the vast resources at its command, moral, national, and political, and directing them intelligently, systematically, and determinedly towards the liberation of Ireland. It contemplates, secondly, the formation of allied associations in Ireland, Great Britain, the British Provinces, and wherever else any branch of the Irish nation may be found in sufficient force."

The element to be operated on in Ireland is not badly described by a sober witness, the Bishop of Kerry, in a recent pamphlet. Having stated that the upper and upper-middle class are loyal, "because for them Emancipation has been a reality; it has given them the rights and privileges which follow rank and wealth," he adds:—"It is not so with the millions for whom Emancipation has had no practical or appreciable result. For them," as a consequence, "the past still lives in the present; they think they are an oppressed race. Men live in the hope of what they call a deliverance of their native land. Hence a dreamy, unreal, discontented existence. Like the Athenians asking in their streets, 'What news? Is Philip dead?' we have a people expecting good fortune from some unforeseen chance, or from the possible ruin of the power which they consider the cause of their miseries." Dr. Moriarty thinks that this state of affairs is due to the existence of the Irish Church Establishment; but it is not due to this alone. A study of the popular press in America, as well as in Ireland, will show how much the many abortive efforts made in Parliament to deal with the land question have caused confidence in the good intentions of the Legislature to give place to despair, and even to suspicion of an irreconcileable hostility. Expectations have been raised only to be disappointed; and thus it has come to pass that a Presbyterian Clergyman, prominent in the agitation for tenant-right, has become one of the Executive Council of the "Irish Republic." Hope deferred makes a nation desperate.