Young Ireland and the Fenians (2)

Eleanor Hull
Young Ireland and the Fenians | start of chapter

The first work taken in hand by Mitchel on his release was to denounce and attempt to destroy the excellent work of the Tenant League in Ireland, and to preach the doctrine that neither land legislation nor Home Rule should be sought for through Parliament. In the American Civil War he fought on the side of the Southern slave-owners.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the poet, took a nobler line. He was the beneficent protector of the Irish immigrants into Canada, improving their conditions and urging on them agricultural settlements and avoidance of the cities. He rose to be Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Emigration and helped to frame the Federal Union of the Dominion. His experience of the corruption and tyranny of mob-rule in the United States led him to reconsider his opinion that democracy is the highest form of government; consequently, he was accused of forsaking the National cause, and a Fenian fanatic put an end to McGee’s useful career by assassination.

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy spent several years of a full life in establishing the Tenant League, to arrest the universal demoralization and endeavour to check evictions. He succeeded in uniting Ulster with the South in an effort to push forward urgent reforms; and his Association supported the Tenant-right Bills of Sharman Crawford and Napier to which reference has already been made.[12]

At the election of 1852, after the resignation of Lord John Russell, a substantial majority was sent from Ireland pledged to the support of the Bill, which passed its second reading, but was disavowed by Lord Derby, the new Prime Minister. The fall of his Ministry quickly followed, to make way for a Ministry with Lord Aberdeen at its head and Russell as Leader of the House. But at the moment when all seemed to be going well a profligate desertion of their own cause by several of the Irish members most loudly pledged to Tenant Right ended the struggle and shattered the League.

Three leading Members long suspected of insincerity by their compatriots, went over to the Government they had hitherto denounced, and accepted office, their example being followed by others. One of them, John Sadlier, who became a lord of the treasury, was later found to be a forger and swindler on a gigantic scale, and he ended his life by committing suicide on Hampstead Heath. Another, Judge Keogh, was made Solicitor-General for Ireland; later, he presided at the trials of the Fenian prisoners and pronounced their sentences; he closed a career in which he had made himself despised and hated by all parties by a miserable death. “It was one of the most dramatic and disgraceful desertions in political history.”[13]

Crawford withdrew his Bill after twenty years of contest, and Dr. McKnight, the strongest supporter of Tenant-right in Ulster, fell off. The League was denounced by Mitchel in the American journals and by a considerable body of the Catholic Bishops and leading clergy, led by the new Primate, Dr. (afterward Cardinal) Cullen, at home.

Twenty-five deserters had gone over to the Whigs. What was more ominous was that in the by-elections the country showed its preference for the discredited Members and returned them and their friends to Parliament. In this universal demoralization it is no wonder that Gavan Duffy despaired of the people and declared that “you can do little for a class that will do nothing for themselves.” One of the few bishops who remained independent wrote:

“There is no room for an honest politician in Ireland. All hope with me in Irish affairs is dead and buried.”[14]

Gavan Duffy himself served the Irish cause honourably in another land and rose to a position of responsibility as Prime Minister of Victoria, Australia.

It would certainly seem that the Irish electors used their newly won privileges at this time little for the advantage of their country. They were, in fact, too ignorant and dependent to take any initiative. They were accustomed to implicit obedience to their landlords’ behests, and when a powerful personality such as O’Connell presented himself, they obeyed him also with unquestioning fidelity.

The appeal of the Young Irelanders, which was to their reason rather than to their passions, failed to evoke any warm response; the masses would neither rise with them nor vote for them. They still clung with a blind devotion to the time-serving representatives that O’Connell had left behind him. Inclined by tradition to adhere implicitly to persons rather than to judge of causes, they were helpless in the hands of plausible agitators.

The minds of the Catholic electors were still further confused by the division of opinion in the ranks of the clergy brought about by Dr. Cullen’s uncompromising hostility to all national movements and his close association with the Whigs.

It had recently been proved that no Irish election could be won without the aid of the local clergy, and they had become the active directors of their flocks in regard to the way they should cast their vote. But the Primate, who came over with the added dignity of Papal legate, and who was ultramontane in his views, desired to exclude priests altogether from politics and to substitute for this the supreme authority of a few ecclesiastics. A Nationalist paper declared that his policy was:

“No priests in politics, except bishops. No bishops in politics, except archbishops. No archbishops, except the Apostolic Delegate.”[15]

His action broke up the National party and played into the hands of English politicians; it caused the delay of substantial efforts for reform. “Till all this be changed,” writes Gavan Duffy, in words constantly mis-quoted and mis-applied, “there seems to be no more hope for the Irish cause than for the corpse on the dissecting table. … The Irish party is reduced to a handful, the popular organization is deserted by those who created it, prelates of the Irish Church throng the ranks of our opponents, priest is arrayed against priest and parish against parish. A shameless political profligacy is openly defended and applauded … and the ultimate aim for which I laboured—to give back to Ireland her National existence—is forgotten or disdained.”[16]

From the decay of the Young Ireland movement sprang the far more formidable Fenian movement. The former had been largely a literary and educational impulse, appealing to young people who desired to reform their country from within. “Educate that you may be free.” “Liberty does not reside in institutions, but in habits of thought and action,” had been its watchwords. But the Fenian leaders had other views and other modes of action.

Meagher and Mitchel were agitating in America among the Irish emigrants, who had almost universally become American citizens, believing that in the institutions of the new country they had found the personal and political liberty they had in vain sought in their own country. At home, they had been sensible of no social influence and no political position; but in the States, where they were rapidly rising in numbers, they found themselves looked upon as a power, their vote courted and conciliated by rival political bodies, and their interest on behalf of the old land appealed to by agitators, who passed mysteriously backward and forward over the Atlantic.

The miserable conditions still existing in Ireland aided these efforts. Fresh bodies of emigrants, constantly arriving, brought tidings of renewed famine conditions and of wholesale evictions suffered by friends and neighbours of former days. Though many of the evictions were owing to the impecunious state of the landlords, this can hardly be said of the clearances on the larger estates.

In some districts a state of civil war prevailed, and cruel revenges were practised on both sides. Murders became frequent, and the murderers were concealed by their neighbours. The conditions under which the tenants were forced to live on many of the Irish estates gave the landlord and agent powers over them which were often used mercilessly against them or their children, and which made existence terrible to the helpless peasants in some parts of the country.

All these things were watched by the American settlers who had fled from similar conditions across the ocean and they formed the soil in which revenges flourish. Even such papers as the Times showed signs of discerning the underlying causes of the horrors which were now to befall in Ireland. In an article commenting on the murder of a Mr. Mauleverer, a land agent in Co. Londonderry, who was shot on May 23, 1850, the writer asks:

“If the proprietors of the soil … recklessly inflict misery, without stint, upon the helpless and unfortunate peasantry, … if they are to convert the country into a battlefield for the landlords and process-servers and sheriff’s officers on the one side, and for the furious peasantry and banded assassins on the other, then we say it is the bounden duty of the Legislature to interfere, and either to enforce upon the present landlords the duties while it maintains the rights of property, or to create a new landed proprietary, whose intelligence and wealth will enable them to secure the peace of society and thus lay the foundation of national prosperity. … In Ireland, murder is too often a proof of some great social disease. … It is the hideous result of some fearful wrong.”[17]

This was, in fact, the case, and the Fenian conspiracy was one outcome of this state of wrong, under which the country had suffered helplessly and which it had waited in vain for any English or Irish Government to step in and remedy.

The Fenian movement differed from most similar Irish conspiracies in that it arose without the aid of any single leader of importance to give it form or direction. It seemed to spring out of the soil, without orators or writers or men of proved ability to take the guidance of the forces it aroused.

The prosecutions for seditious writing and speaking in and after “the ’48” rising had driven agitation underground and led to the formation of secret societies in Ireland and America, which worked in concert.

In 1854 a group of men was formed in New York, of whom the leading spirits were John O’Mahony, the “head-centre” of the association in America, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and described by John O’Leary as “the manliest and handsomest man” he had ever seen, and “the soul of truth and honour”; James Stephens, a man of great energy and resource; and Jeremiah O’Donovan, soon to be known by the dreaded name of O’Donovan "Rossa," the ruthless advocate of secret and violent conspiracy, who had been sentenced to penal servitude for life by Judge Keogh, but was amnestied, and who now acted as editor of the United Irishman.

Outside of these were men of a different type, John O’Leary, who had become a Young Irelander through reading the poems of Thomas Davis; Charles Joseph Kickham, and Thomas Clarke Luby, the latter a supporter of Smith O’Brien. Together they edited their organ The Irish People. At the beginning O’Leary says that “a certain element of the ridiculous seemed to pierce through the whole business,”[18] but the movement soon became formidable.

On November 23, 1863, at a meeting in Chicago, it was announced as the policy of the organization known as the Fenian or Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, that open war should be made on Great Britain for the establishment of Irish national freedom, “no enslaved people having ever regained their independence” unless by efforts deemed “in the enslaver’s sense rebellious and illegal.”[19] They drew up a form of oath and began the work of propaganda in the States and at home. Other associations of even more pronounced views, such as the Phœnix and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, were purely American and largely agrarian. Behind all lay the dark and dread forces of assassination and crime, banded together under the name of “The Invincibles,” to whose initiative the terrible tragedy of Phœnix Park and many another deed of homicidal frenzy were afterwards to be traced.

This infamous association was founded while Forster was Chief Secretary. Its purpose, according to James Carey the informer, once the chief leader, was to “make history” by killing all the English officials in Ireland. The earlier associations had been suppressed in Ireland but the Fenians took their place. The name appealed to old tradition and speedily became popular. “This is a serious business now,” said an English literary man; “the Irish have got hold of a good name this time; the Fenians will last.”

The power of the organization lay largely in the fact that the management proceeded from only one or two heads, who alone knew toward what ends it was being directed. Those below knew only what was told them, and each man had to obey implicitly the member immediately above him. Thus the whole society was secret, not only to outside authorities, but to the members themselves.[20] They were not consulted and knew only vaguely what was going on. But the people were steadily prepared for insurrection. Irishmen who had fought in the American War began to arrive in considerable numbers in Ireland and manufactories of arms were discovered in Dublin.

The disbandment of several thousand Irishmen who had been trained to arms in the Civil War and who had nothing to turn to for a livelihood gave a great stimulus to the movement. Stephens proclaimed that the flag of the Irish Republic would be raised in Ireland in the year 1865. With large numbers of Americans on their side and sympathy shown by the United States Government, the project seemed not altogether a fantastic one. But the supporters in New York failed to fulfil their promises and the English authorities stepped in.

In 1865 Luby and O’Leary were seized and tried,[21] but Stephens escaped to France. Fresh repressive legislation was launched, the prominent Catholic clergy as a whole supporting the Government and vigorously denouncing secret societies and rebellious associations. This practically brought the efforts in Ireland to an end.

An attempt to capture Chester Castle in February, 1867, came to nothing, and an organized general rising in March of the same year was a total failure. Considerable interest was shown in England in the fate of the men brought to trial, and public opinion, voiced by Bright and John Stuart Mill was enlisted on the side of mercy, with the result that several sentences were commuted. But the attempt to rescue the Fenian prisoners Kelly and Deasy from the prison-van in Manchester, in the course of which a policeman was shot, as it appears accidentally, and the blowing up of a part of the wall of Clerkenwell Gaol shortly afterwards in the attempt to rescue other Fenian prisoners, excited an outburst of feeling in both countries.

Three of the five men tried for complicity in the rescue were executed. They became known as the “Manchester Martyrs.”[22] These attempts directed fresh attention to Irish affairs and hastened the passing of the Irish Church Act of 1869 and probably the later legislation relating to land.[23] In 1868 Lord Stanley had declared that “Ireland was the question of the hour.”