THE IRB GATHERS STRENGTH
The American Civil War broke out in 1861. There were Irishmen on both sides of the conflict. Both the Confederates in the South and the Union side in the North formed Irish brigades. John Mitchell, an IRB man, was a soldier on the Confederate side and a vociferous advocate of his cause.
The American Civil War ended in 1865. The War between the States had distracted the IRB in the US from its goal of severing the Union of Ireland and Great Britain. IRB men in the United States or the Confederacy had been preoccupied in the intra-American conflict for 4 years. It became difficult to ship weapons out of America and into Ireland.
Once the Civil War was over it became apparent that conflict had in fact been beneficial to the IRB. Thousands of IRB supporters had had military training and indeed combat experience. America had produced guns like billy-o for four years. Enormous quantities of weapons were lying around unneeded and could be bought very cheaply.
The IRB in the United States was known more by the name Fenians. In fact the IRB in the USA soon changed its name to Clan na Gael. IRB men in both the South and the North of the United States set aside their differences with remarkable speed. They then looked to their common objective – to smash the Union between Ireland and Great Britain.
From 1865 onwards the IRB smuggled significant amounts of weapons into Ireland. Of course the Government soon grew aware of this. It was impossible to get all arms shipments through without any of them being intercepted. Informants tongues soon wagged. Dublin Castle know that something was in the offing. Irishmen who had obtained military experience on both sides of the American Civil War traveled back to Ireland to prepare for the anticipated uprising. Some of these men had become American citizens and some had not.
The IRB claimed to have tens of thousands of members. The figure of 50 000 was bandied about. The British Army in Ireland was to a great extent composed of Irishmen. The IRB claimed that thousands of Irish soldiers were in fact sworn members of the IRB. This turned out to have been mostly false. A ship sailed from the United States to Ireland carrying arms. The ship was called Erin’s Hope.
In 1867 the plan was for the IRB to launch its uprising. The rising was to begin with a raid on Chester Castle in Great Britain to seize the weapons there. From Chester the arms would be taken to Ireland for the rising to begin. This scheme was hopelessly over ambitious. The aim was for a train to be hijacked and telegraph lines shut. A train would then transport the arms to Holyhead – this port would also have been seized. A ship would be commandeered and the weapons take to Dublin to effect a rising there.
The Catholic Church was very against the IRB.The Catholic Church was a conservative force and it despised republics. Republic up until that point had turned out to disestablish the Catholic Church and even to be anti-clerical. Nationalist movements in Italy had clashed with the Roman Catholic Church. The French Republican movement was anti-clerical. The Roman Catholic Church was committed to upholding the status quo. As the bishop of Kerry said, ”hell is not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish such miscreants.’
‘ The Protestant churches were also against the IRB. This was because their congregants were most Unionist. Many people had good reason to oppose the IRB. Some were against the IRB because they were Unionist. Constitutional nationalists were against it because they disliked the IRB’s radical policies. Those who were faithful communicants of the Catholic Church were guided by the injunctions of their clergy. Some people were more pragmatic. Even if they shared the goals of the IRB there was every reason to doubt that the IRB would succeed. Risings in the past had been quickly defeated. There was a danger that a rising would soon degenerate into a sectarian bloodbath as had been the case in 1798.
THE 1867 RISING
In February there was an attempt at a rising in Kerry that did not amount to much. In Kerry many of the local gentry panicked at the thought of the IRB killing them. The landlords fled to the county hotel. Some took the train to Dublin. On the fateful day in Chester some Fenians turned up and milled around. The attack was desultory and a complete failure. This sort of fiasco was to typify IRB actions for the next few decades. Bombastic rhetoric, a timid gathering of loudmouths whose much boasted valour deserted them at the first sign of danger.
Outside Dublin several hundred Fenians gathered at a village called Tallaght. It was a snowy day – 5 March. The IRB men were confronted by men of the Irish Constabulary. Sub Inspector Burke was reluctant to kill anyone. He called on the Fenians, ”Disperse or so help me God I will fire.” The Fenians did not disperse – at least not yet. Firing broke out. One Fenian was wounded in the leg. The rest executed a well-known Fenian manuevre – rout. The fact that only one man was hit and not fatally suggests that both sides wanted to avoid bloodshed. Such scenes were repeated in various points around Ireland. The Battle of Tallaght as it became known occurred on the same day as various actions around Ireland. This at least showed a little co-ordination. 12 people were killed that day.
In Drogheda men gathered on the streets. They fired a few shots and then scarpered. In Cork there was a small demonstration by the IRB who scattered when the authorities made a move on them. In Killmallock the IRB succeeded in storming a police station. A rebel ballad remarked, ” twas the hottest fight of all.”
The 1867 turned out to be a clear and shameful defeat for the IRB. The tens of thousands of devotees of the Fenian cause turned out to be either fictitious or just full of hot air. The state had very easily beaten the IRB. The IRB had little public support. IRB men were put on trial for various offences including treason. Some were sentenced to death. Not one was executed. They had their sentences commuted to lesser sentences. Some were transported to Australia. The very next year, 1868, the Government ceased using transportation as a punishment. In the end under 20 people were killed in Ireland in what was supposed to be a huge uprising. This author has not heard of a single soldier who mutinied in favour of the IRB. The Fenian Rising was mostly just hot air. The north of Ireland had been all but free of violence
THE IRB ATTACKS IN GREAT BRITAIN
A Fenian named Timothy Deasy was in prison in Manchester. IRB men in Great Britain decided to try to rescue him. They attacked the horse-drawn prison van that was transporting Deasy. One of the IRB men fired at the lock holding the van shut. A police man inside the van was struck by the bullet and died. Deasy was freed and fled abroad.
This incident is recorded in the rebel song, ”The smashing of the van.” The public was horrified that a policeman had been killed. Several Fenians were arrested and put on trial for murder. One was acquitted. Another was an American sailor. He and the others were sentenced to death. The American had his sentence commuted . Presumably this was done so as not to antagonise the US.
From the dock the Fenians shouted, ”God save Ireland!”
At dawn outside Strangeways prison a huge crowd gathered. Dozens of soldiers were there in case there was trouble or an attempt to save the condemned men. At Strangeways Prison the three Fenians were executed by hanging. The executions were carried out on the walls of the prison in full view of thousands of people who came to watch. This was the last year in which executions were carried out in public.
The three men who were hanged were known as the Manchester Martyrs. Many people in Ireland prayed for them. Moderate nationalists also expressed sympathy for these men. Some people adulated these three because they approved of the IRB. There was a great deal of sympathy for them because some maintained that these three were innocent. It is dubious if it was one of these three who fired the fatal shot. In any even it is certain that only one man fired on the van – not three. Therefore that three should be punished with death was held to be unfair. The IRB insisted that they had never intended to kill anyone that day and that the bullet had been fire merely to break the lock. Under the law of the time a doctrine of common purpose existed. These men had conspired to commit a crime. As a result of a wilful act of violence a man had died. This made it murder even if the intention had not been to kill. These men were reckless as to the possibility that someone should suffer death as a result of their actions. Therefore all those who were concerned in the plot were legally culpable.
T.D. Sullivan, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, composed a song dedicated to the Manchester Martyrs. ”God Save Ireland said the heroes/ God Save Ireland say we all/ Whether on the battlefield we die/Or on the scaffold high/ What matter when for Erin dear we fall.” This song called ”God Save Ireland” became the virtual national anthem of Nationalist Ireland.
Karl Marx wrote that there was a considerable degree of respect for the IRB’s demands among the working class of London. A leading Fenian was held in Clerkenwell prison in London. The IRB decided to free him. The IRB left a wheelbarrow full of explosives outside the prison wall when they knew their man was exercising in the yard. The plan was that the bomb would blow a hole in the wall enabling the IRB prisoner to escape. The bomb exploded. This did not cause a breach in the wall but injured many others, many of them died of their wounds over the coming weeks. 12 people were killed. Public opinion in Great Britain turned sharply against the Fenians. As Dr Marx noted, one cannot expect people to want to be blown up.
Michael Barret was convicted of laying the charge outside Clerkenwell Prison. He was sentenced to death. He had the dubious distinction of being the last person to be publicly executed in the British Isles. The Fenian Rising caused a recrudescence of anti-Irish feeling in Great Britain. This was mostly against Irish Catholics as it was recognised that Irish Protestants were seldom in the IRB and indeed most Irish Protestants were stalwartly opposed to the IRB.
FENIAN RAIDS ON CANADA.
The Fenians in the US trained openly. As the US Constitution guaranteed the right to bear arms the US Government could do nothing to stop private militias preparing to fight. The Fenians purposed to attack British North America – which is now called Canada. There was much dissension within Clan na Gael in the United States as to whether attacking Canada was a sensible use of energy and manpower or was a diversion from the actual target – Eire.
From1865 to 1870 there were several Fenian attacks on Canada. Some of them involved over a thousand men. The main battle was called the Battle of Ridegway. One Fenian who was killed was buried in the United States with the name of an organisation called, ”The Irish Republican Army” on his headstone.
It is suspected that the US Government did little agaisnt the raids at first for a few reasons. The United Kingdom traded with the Confederate States of American during the American Civil War and this was condign punishment for the British Empire. More than a few Americans, even those who were not of Irish blood, felt sympathy for the Fenian cause. There was electoral good sense in tolerating Fenian activity. Some Americans believed that the existence of Canada as a dominion of the British Empire was offensive. The American Revolution had some unfinished business. The Monroe Doctrine stated that no European country should control any portion of the American Continent. The US Government did intervene after a time. Troops were sent under the Union commander from the Civil War, Ulysses S Grant to disarm the Fenians. The Fenians did not resist. John O’Neill was the chief Fenian commander for these invasions of Canada.
Canada was much more a focus for immigration from Great Britain than from Ireland. There were Irishmen who moved to Canada but they were mainly Protestant. Toronto became a centre for the Orange Order. Canadian Orangemen march in 12th July parades in feather war bonnets. The ethno-religious composition of the Canadian population (outside French-speaking Quebec) explains why the Fenians got short shrift when they invaded Canada.
Canadian Orangemen were to the fore in the defence of the dominion. Alexander Muir a Canadian Orangeman originally from Great Britain, was one of those who served in the militia against the Fenians. Muir wrote, ”Maple Leaf Forever” – a Canadian patriotic anthem.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE 1867 RISING.
In Ireland an amnesty campaign was started. Letters were written to newspapers and petitions were handed in to the government requesting that IRB prisoners be released. The amnesty campaign drew support from many people who had not supported the IRB. Over time the Government acceded to these requests.
William Ewart Gladstone was made to sit up and take notice of Ireland on account of the Fenian Rising. The Liberal leader was chopping wood at his estate at Hawarden in 1868 when a message arrived for him. The Liberals had won the election and Her Majesty the Queen asked him to form as government – he was to be Prime Minister. He said, ”My mission is to pacify Ireland.” W.E. Gladstone looked for legitimate grievances.
One of the most obviously unfair laws in Ireland was that which said that the Church of Ireland was the established church when no more than 15% of the populace belong to it. W.E. Gladstone resolved to disestablished the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland would continue to exist of course but it was no longer to be the state religion and supported from public funds. It would be a private institution on the same footing as the Catholic Church, the Religious Society of Friends, the Wesleyan Church and so on and so forth.
In 1869 a bill was passed to disestablish the Church of Ireland. Some hardline Protestant supremacists in the Conservative Party argued against it. They said it was a surrender to terrorism and it was strengthening Popery. The act became law and was phased in over a couple of years.
THE FENIAN BOMBING CAMPAIGN.
In 1880 the IRB decided to set off bombs in Great Britain. The aim of this was to pressurise the UK Government into giving the IRB what they wanted.
Tom Clarke was an IRB man born in Great Britain who was one of the dynamitards. He was found guilty of terrorist offences and he served a few years in prison for his crimes.
Hammersmith Bridge suffered a bomb blast courtesy of the IRB. Minor damage was done. The Continuity IRA set a bomb off at this bridge in 2001.