This month marks the 152nd anniversary of the Fenian rising of 1867. The rising on March 5th was a relatively minor affair with small clashes and incidents in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. The most significant of these occurred in County Dublin and was known as the Battle of Tallaght.
On a bleak winter’s day, thousands of members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, colloquially known as Fenians, gathered near Tallaght Hill. After a brief skirmish with the Irish Constabulary – who earned the title ‘Royal’ for their activities in suppressing the rising – the Fenians were dispersed.
In truth, the Rising had been thwarted in advance due to the arrest of key Fenian leaders. In 1865, the offices of the influential Fenian newspaper, the Irish People, on Parliament Street in Dublin were raided. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the Protestant Fenian Thomas Clarke Luby, and John O’Leary were detained during the raid. Later, in 1866, the British government suspended habeas corpus in Ireland in response to the growth of Fenianism. Mass arrests followed, and the movement was further weakened.
The attempt at a rising in 1867 had also been undermined by the work of spies and informants among both the Fenian rank and file as well as the leadership. Figures such as Pierce Nagle and F.F. Millen had fed information to Dublin Castle and the Dublin Metropolitan Police since the mid-1860s. With the odds stacked against them, the Fenian Rising was doomed from the outset.
It was events before and after the 1867 rising which were ultimately of more historical importance.
In 1858, the IRB was founded simultaneously in Dublin and New York. Growth was slow in the initial years. In 1861, Fenian chief James Stephens utilised the funeral of Young Irelander, Terrence Bellew McManus to promote the organisation. The IRB also managed to infiltrate the National Brotherhood of St. Patrick (a recreational nationalist society), and then found the Irish People in 1863. By 1864, the “organisation”, as it was known among members, had grown into a mass working-class movement with Circles (local branches) in towns and parishes throughout the country.
These activities introduced thousands of young Irishmen – both in Ireland and among the diaspora in the US and Britain – to radical republican ideology and activism for the first time. Women were important within the movement too. During the critical months when the male leaders were imprisoned, the wives and sisters of Fenians raised finances, petitioned on behalf of those imprisoned, and kept the IRB organisation running.
In a period when priests, police and landlords maintained strict social hierarchy at the local level, the Fenians were not afraid to break down old bonds of control and promote a radical agenda.
This anti-establishment mentality was perhaps best encapsulated in the Fenian Proclamation of 1867. The proclamation appealed to the English working class for support. It also demanded the separation of church and state. It was visionary in its demands, and in many ways more radical than the 1916 Proclamation which came after it:
“We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.”
Following the suppression of the 1867 rising, the incident known as the “smashing of the van” in Manchester led to an outpouring of sympathy for the Fenians. Larkin, Allen and O’Brien – “The Manchester Martyrs” – were hanged for a daring rescue of Fenian leaders in which a police constable died. Irish public opinion shifted and the Fenians became heroes in the eyes of many. They would be remembered as “The Bold Fenian Men” and generations of republicans would aspire to their heroism.