The James Connolly Society Monaghan and the Matty Fitzpatrick Society, Newtownbutler, held a commemoration to mark the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Rising In Tyholland, Co Monaghan on Sunday 5th March.
Proceedings where chaired by Brian Clinton and the main oration was given by John Crawley. A wreath was laid on behalf of the 1916 Societies by veteran Republican John McCluskey, the Roll of Honour for Tyrone and Monaghan, where read by Eamonn Hanna and Mark Campbell. Whilst Damien Johnson from the Newtownbutler Society, read the Fenian Proclamation and Alexis Rooney played a lament, concluding with ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’.
John Crawley’s Oration:
On Saint Patrick’s day 1858, in a timber yard at Lombard Street in Dublin, six Irishmen founded a secret society dedicated to the establishment of an independent democratic Irish republic. A Protestant member of the group, a Dubliner called Thomas Clarke Luby wrote the oath which read in part:
“I…do solemnly swear allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established, and…I will do my very utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to defend its independence and integrity…”
This society came to be known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood or IRB. It’s counterpart in the United States, founded a year later by John O’Mahony, was called the Fenian Brotherhood. IRB men soon came to be called Fenians by the British press.
Little could those six men have foreseen that within a decade they would have tens of thousands of members on five continents , be ready to launch a rebellion in Ireland and invade Canada. Not for the first or last time in Irish history the right men and the right moment had combined to change the narrative and inject hope and inspiration into a cause the British government had confidently assumed to be a beaten docket.
Ireland in 1858 was a country prostrate with oppression. The people had been profoundly traumatised by the Great Hunger which ravished the land from 1845 to 1852. The countryside was devastated and laid waste by starvation, fever, disease and forced emigration. The majority of landless labourers lived in abject squalor, their only possessions a pig and a manure heap. A French observer noted that the poorest beggar in Europe lived like royalty compared to an Irish peasant. Shattered, shocked, overwhelmed and overpowered by an Empire that never took its knee off their necks most Irish people were in no condition to resist nor capable of imagining the possibility of doing so.
Into this black hole of hopeless and helpless despair stepped the Fenians. Many of them were veterans (cynics might say the ‘residue’) of the rising of 1848 which had culminated in the battle of Widow McCormick’s cabbage patch. A brief skirmish in which two rebels were killed by Britain’s ‘Irish’ constabulary. There were no military or police casualties. It’s likely this ‘rebellion’ would have remained a forgotten footnote in Irish history were it not for deeper and more profound contributions these patriots made which resonate to this day.
1848 had not been launched as direct retaliation against the Famine but inspired by the republican revolutions against European monarchies which swept Europe that year. Just as Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen had been inspired by the French revolution of 1789. A group called the ‘Young Irelanders’ led by men such as William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchell (both Protestants) and Thomas Meagher of Waterford. Their vision was articulated by the nationalist writings of another Protestant Young Irelander Thomas Davis who chaffed against Daniel O’Connell’s monarchism and policy of progress through collaboration with the British state and his stated belief that Irish freedom wasn’t worth a drop of blood. O’Connell had said:
“The people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the empire, provided they be made so in reality and not in name alone; they are ready to become a kind of West Britons, if made so in benefits and justice…”
Daniel O’Connell wouldn’t be the last Irish politician to demand equality in return for Irish acceptance of the legitimacy of British state institutions.
The Young Irelanders took the view that Ireland was a separate nation and that if Britain continued to occupy her by force then the Irish people were justified in using force to end that occupation.
The men of 1848 embraced the republicanism of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. To this was added the romantic nationalism of Thomas Davis and the need for Ireland to develop its own language, literature, and identity. Davis founded an influential weekly newspaper in 1842 called ‘The Nation’. Thomas Meagher introduced the tricolour as a symbol of national unity. A symbol that Irish republicanism could embrace all traditions. Sixty-eight years later it would fly over the GPO during the Easter Rising as the national flag of the 32-County Republic. It was never intended to be flown as the flag of a lesser state.
Looking superficially at the legacy of 1848 we see a farcical encounter in a Tipperary cabbage patch and may scoff at the incompetence of it. Yet a deeper look reveals that even in defeat legacies are left and inspirations kindled. These were instrumental in founding the Fenian movement which in turn would be instrumental in organising the Easter Rising of 1916 which in turn would galvanise and inspire the Irish Republican Army.
The Fenian monument in this graveyard lies beside the graves of patriots of a later Fenian tradition including Lawrence McKenna, a brave and committed IRA Volunteer and Republican former prisoner who died prematurely in February 1993 and Volunteer Lawrence McNally who was killed in action beside Pete Ryan and Tony Doris in Coagh, Co. Tyrone in June 1991.
James Blaney Rice, grandson of a rebel in the 1798 rebellion, was a prominent Monaghan Fenian who came from Tyholland, Co. Monaghan. He was visited by O’Donovan Rossa during his tour of Ulster in 1864. Rice was instrumental in organising Monaghan and Cavan for a Fenian rising. He held many night meetings in the Tydavnet and Scotstown areas. He recruited heavily from an existing Ribbonmen structure in North Monaghan.
The Ribbonmen were an agrarian secret society of rural Catholics struggling against the injustices of landlordism and often fighting with Orangemen. Some of them did not want to align with Protestants in a common cause and others could not see past parochial or tribal issues. Those who could see themselves in a political union with Protestants and who could take a national view of issues and were willing to take the oath were recruited into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
A Resident Magistrate noted in August 1866 that:
‘Should any trouble arise during the winter…all the magistrates concur in the opinion that Rice will be at the head of it.’
Unfortunately James Blaney Rice was arrested on arms charges in February 1866 and spent 8 months in Mountjoy prison and the following 2 ½ years in American exile. Returning to Ireland in June 1869 he was kept under close police surveillance. They believed him to be the Ulster representative on the Supreme Council of the IRB.
With the local leadership of Rice and another prominent Monaghan Fenian called Daniel McPhillips off the scene County Monaghan played no role in the 1867 Rising. This pattern was repeated across the country where the use of informers and the arrest of key personnel sabotaged plans for republican action.
Like the rebellion of 1848 the rebellion of 1867 ended in failure. 150 years ago today on March 5th 1867 as many as eight thousand IRB men assembled at Tallaght hill but when it came to it were easily dispersed by the vastly outnumbered members of Britain’s Irish constabulary. Fenians also assembled in Cork and Drogheda but soon melted away. The so-called ‘Irish’ constabulary was renamed the Royal Irish Constabulary by a grateful Queen Victoria for their efforts at repulsing the Fenian threat.
Many Irishmen joined with England and their fellow countrymen in the Royal Irish Constabulary in the struggle to resist the emergence of a democratic Irish republic. With only 4% of the adult male population of the United Kingdom eligible to vote in that monarchical class ridden system the politics of republican democracy was of necessity revolutionary politics. Revolutionary politics had no attraction for the rising Catholic middle class, many who had done well out of the Famine, nor for the Catholic Church.
The British government had permitted Maynooth seminary to be established in 1795 in order to prevent Catholic priests travelling to the continent and becoming exposed to democratic and republican ideas.
By the 1860s Britain’s strategy of nurturing a loyal Catholic leadership had paid off. The Irish Hierarchy recognised the British government as the lawful and legitimate authority in Ireland and welcomed the advantages of the British empire. They appreciated, for example, that Irishmen serving in British army regiments around the world were a major reason that Catholic churches were springing up in places as far away as Australia. They feared that gains made by the emerging Catholic middle and professional classes might be jeopardised by British reaction against Fenian actions. The Fenians were essentially a working class and small tenant farmers and labourers movement. The Catholic Hierarchy could not risk the consequences to their emerging power and status if the ‘lower orders’ forgot their place and started thinking for themselves.
In his 1864 encyclical ‘Quanta Cura’ Pope Pious IX had condemned anyone who advocated the separation of Church and state and denounced the concept of liberty of conscience. In its annex ‘The Syllabus of Errors’ the Pope condemned the concepts of democracy and socialism as well as freedom of speech and religion. Precisely what the Fenians were advocating.
Cardinal Paul Cullen of Dublin welcomed the suppression of the IRB’s newspaper ‘The Irish People’ and the arrest of its staff in 1865. In 1861 he had refused to allow the body of Fermanagh man and veteran of the 1848 rising Terence Bellew McManus to lie in state at the Pro-Cathedral. McManus’s body had been shipped over to Ireland from San Francisco where he had died in a poor house. The funeral arrangements were made by the Fenians and proved a huge propaganda boost for that organisation. Around 50,000 people followed his coffin to Glasnevin cemetery while another 50,000 lined the streets. It demonstrated that the national spirit was not as dead as many in England and Ireland believed and hoped it to be.
Poor planning, the lack of arms and training and the prior arrest of many of its leadership led to the failure of the 1867 Rising. Unfortunately, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was thoroughly infiltrated by British intelligence and riddled with informers.
Yet things did not die there. There was huge support for prisoner releases and Amnesty Associations sprang up across Ireland in support of the release of Fenian prisoners. The cry from the dock of ‘God Save Ireland’ by the Fenians Allen, Larkin and O’Brien before they were hanged in Manchester in 1867 added an inspirational slogan to the lexicon of resistance and a title to one of Ireland’s most stirring rebel songs.
The Fenian rising in 1867 and their activities in England in the late 1860s greatly concerned British Prime Minister William Gladstone. When informed by a messenger in December 1868 that he had been charged with forming his first cabinet he remarked, “My mission is to pacify Ireland”.
It was Gladstone who began British peace processing in Ireland, designed to divert and deflect the Irish people away from the path to independence and onto ground Britain could manipulate and control.
He initiated a number of reforms including a weak and largely irrelevant land act but it was the start of a series of measures that would gradually weaken the hold of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and eventually lead some decades later to tenant ownership.
Some Fenians supported political campaigns that they felt would advance the conditions of the Irish people until the opportune moment for a successful rebellion would arise, particularly support for the land campaign. They were instrumental in founding the Gaelic Athletic Association and promoting the Irish language. In later years up to one third of Home Rule MPs had been former Fenians. Some had taken the constitutional path for genuine reasons. Some had simply burnt out and others sold out. Still others did it because they came to the conclusion that a successful armed struggle against the most powerful empire on earth was simply impossible.
Yet, it was a small secretive group within the IRB led by such men as Tom Clarke and Sean Mac Diarmada in Ireland and John Devoy in the United States who were instrumental in the organisation and planning of the Easter Rising of 1916.
From the United Irishmen of 1798, to the Young Irelanders of 1848, the Fenians of 1867, the Volunteers of 1916 and the Irish Republican Army thereafter we find a contextual thread running throughout.
In almost every case a handful of patriots, unrepresentative and vastly under resourced have, with the right leadership, republican analysis, strategy and motivation been able to seize the initiative when opportune moments arose to challenge the British occupation.
Republicans seem to continually be swimming upstream toward a life of hardship and sacrifice. Their incorruptible commitment to a political ideal is often portrayed as eccentric and can bemuse and even frighten people who are content to travel the paths of least resistance the Brits make sure to keep open to divert them from reaching republican objectives. How can anyone calling themselves republican come to believe that equality can be achieved within the political architecture framed to deny it? Of course, some want to believe it for an easy life and others are paid to believe it for an even easier life. It’s hard to let go of the handrails that make us feel secure in our lives, salary, pension, family and status. It’s not easy to resist the gravitational pull of personal ambition. Only a handful of patriots in our history ever really did so and many paid the price in lost lives and liberty. The Brits need you to know that a successful revolution cannot be led from a position of safety. Yet, for all that, those who travel the path of greatest resistance, because that is where the Brits ensure republican objectives are always placed, leave ripples that resonate throughout our history and a wake behind them that has inspired many to find a hope and courage to follow they did not imagine existed until it was demonstrated to them by people who proved that leadership is not a party political slogan but a product of action and example.
Unfortunately, in many cases having seized the initiative republicans have lost it almost as soon as they grasped it. Informers and agents and the loose talk they thrive on were always a major problem as was the poor to non-existent military training, inadequate logistical and financial capacity and a lack of technical and tactical competence which made some armed republican organisations formidable to everyone but the enemy. The fact that only one IRB leader in its sixty-five year history had any professional military experience was a principal reason they decided to task John Devoy with recruiting Irishmen from within the British army. While attracting some outstanding men they also recruited many informers.
For all the mistakes and missed opportunities the principal thread running throughout is the belief in a united, democratic and sovereign republic. That Ireland, all of it, is a separate nation and has the right to defend itself. And that no matter how cowed and complacent people might appear Irishmen and women would always be found to rise to the challenge.
There is also a contextual thread running throughout British strategy to defeat that republic.
The holy grail of the British conquest of Ireland has ultimately been about achieving democratic title to its authority. As early as 1799 Undersecretary Edward Cooke wrote to the British Prime Minister William Pitt regarding concerns about Irish MPs swamping the House of Commons should the Act of Union be approved:
‘By giving the Irish a hundred members in an Assembly of six hundred and fifty they will be impotent to operate upon that Assembly, but it will be invested with Irish assent to its authority’.
A ‘New and Agreed Ireland’ is the latest happy-clappy euphemism to redefine the republican project and portray defeat as a veiled victory. The conspiracy to nurture a permanent British redoubt imprinted with Irish democratic assent to its political or cultural legitimacy must be recognised for what it is and resisted by republicans.
Contrary to contemporary political revisionism the tricolour is not a symbol of peaceful division. It does not represent an ‘Agreed Ireland’ where the two traditions agree to disagree in peace and harmony about the constitutional source of Irish sovereignty and the legitimacy and extent of British influence in constraining Irish democracy. It is a symbol of a national community of sovereign citizens comprised of all traditions and persuasions. It represents the republican vision of a United Ireland. Any situation where some Irishmen and women are deemed citizens of the sovereign republic but others recognised as wards of some concocted Crown dependency is a major defeat for Irish republicanism and a setback to the achievement of a national democracy.
Why is it that the United States, a nation of nations with a population of over 300 million can be a united national republic, India with a population of 1.2 billion containing two thousand ethnic groups and 15 official languages can be a united national republic. But Ireland with a population half the size of London containing two principal traditions cannot. Is there an intrinsic defect in the Irish national character or could it be those other republics don’t have a more powerful foreign government in the mix politically, militarily and economically underwriting a particular minority interest over those of the majority? Should we pander to these contrived divisions for the sake of peace or continue the struggle to end them for the sake of peace?