Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Fenian Brotherhood

The years of famine had seen the growth of a party in Ireland, which went much further than O'Connell in demanding freedom. While he would not defend the rights of the nation by physical force, they held that sheer violence was sometimes necessary. They held the view that actions were more potent than words, though they numbered many eloquent orators and used the "Nation" newspaper as the means of spreading their opinions through the country.

The Young Ireland party was headed by William Smith O'Brien, member for County Limerick and a descendant of Brian Boromna. It led to the formation of a still more violent party, headed by Mitchell, a man who held the same ideas as Wolfe Tone and Emmet, and aimed at the independence of Ireland. Steps were taken by both parties to prepare for revolution, but, before the time was ripe, the plot was discovered by government, and all the leaders punished.

Discontent had not died down with the emigration of Irishmen to America. Landlords still continued to evict tenants from their huts, often removing the roof in order to prevent return. Food was scarce and rents hard to pay. The Irish peasant began to believe that only the landlord had any rights, or was benefited by laws. He was tempted to take vengeance on his oppressor, and societies known as Ribbon Lodges encouraged attacks on proprietors of land, which ended in murder and other crimes. Nobody has ever discovered the real aims of these Ribbon societies, but they were thought to exist as a protection for the serf from the landlord. In 1850, a less formidable society was founded for the same purposes. This was known as the Tenant League.

In 1852, certain members were elected to Parliament, that they might look after the interests of tenants. Among them were honourable and patriotic men, such as Charles Gavan Duffy, who suffered for his cause. Unfortunately, there were four men of the most desperate character in the league—James and John Sadleir, William Keogh and O'Flaherty. From their loud demands and bold speeches, these were known as the Brass Band.

The Brass Band started a newspaper for their party, pretending to consult the good of the Irish peasant in everything. In reality they were swindlers, and suffered exposure when they had received high offices under government. Half Ireland had been ruined by John Sadleir's fraudulent bank. He had also converted public money to private uses, taking advantage of his position as Lord of the Treasury. He is said to have taken his life when the frauds were discovered, but some people whispered strange stories of his adventures in other countries, after a body was found on Hampstead Heath and secretly buried as John Sadleir. His brother James suffered the disgrace of formal expulsion from the House of Commons. Keogh managed to evade justice and was even made a judge, while O'Flaherty fled to New York, and became quite famous, under another name, as a witty society man.

The rising of the Young Ireland party had failed, the Brass Band was silenced, yet the Irish were still determined to achieve reform. From the ashes of the Young Ireland Society another rose, which was appropriately named the Phoenix. It met under a leader known as the Hawk, in reality one James Stephens, a man of great ability. In December 1858, the government issued a proclamation, which showed what serious alarm had been caused by the Phoenix Society. Raids were made on suspected houses and several prisoners were taken, but very little was discovered of the true nature of the society's proceedings. The Phoenix conspiracy was not important in itself. It is chiefly of note because it gave the first warning of the Fenian Brotherhood.

Stephens, or the Hawk, went on with his efforts for Ireland, and in America a similar leader, O'Mahony, was also plotting to rise against the English government. In olden times there had been a band of heroes—warriors and poets—the legendary Feni or companions of Fion, son of Coul. The exploits of these heroes had never died to Ireland. They were the pride and glory of the nation's history, and their very name roused a thrill of patriotism. Some of the first Fenians were poets—their name soon became as widely known as that of the original Feni.

The Fenian movement was not of rapid development. It was helped by the death of a patriot M'Manus, banished for political offences, and much beloved by his countrymen. The remains of M'Manus were brought from America to Ireland and carried in state through the streets of Dublin. The procession stopped solemnly at various places on the route which had some association with national leaders,—Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone—and a vengeful spirit was excited in the people by the memory of the exiled M'Manus, thus brought before them. Americans had come over to act as an escort to the funeral procession. They were able to join the Irish Fenians in new schemes that were then made.

Thousands of Irishmen fought in the American civil war, in the ranks of North and South. Once two regiments were drawn up in battle-line with Irishmen on either side, who recognized each other and refused to fight, passing onwards to the cry of "God save Ireland." Irish soldiers in America were trained for warfare and Irish-American officers went over to Ireland to head the Fenian rebellion. They found nothing ready, and the rising was a failure because government suspicions were aroused too soon.

In 1865, the Fenians' best opportunity was lost. A spy betrayed the plans of the Fenian leaders, and this led to a raid on the offices of the "Irish People," a newspaper of the brotherhood. All the chief men were captured except Stephens, who lived in disguise near Dublin for some time. This arrest caused wild excitement through Ireland. Still greater excitement was caused when he escaped from Richmond prison within a fortnight of his capture. The way of his escape was mysterious, for he was strongly guarded, but in all likelihood two of his warders sympathized with the Fenian rising, though they were in the service of government. Stephens was never recaptured, in spite of the hue and cry. He made his way to France, and it was considered a triumph for his party that he was still free.

The scare was still at its height in England when the Fenians invaded Canada a year later. This was only successful for a few hours. The Fenians captured a government fort and ran up their own green banner, but the United States then interfered and arrested many prominent Fenians.

An attempt was made to capture Chester Castle, to take possession of the steamboats plying from Holyhead, and to cut off telegraphic communication before invading Ireland. An informer betrayed this plan and the rising was a failure.

In 1867, the great rebellion was to take place in Ireland, but heavy falls of snow "practically buried the rising in its white shrouds." The last struggle of the Fenians had at least the good effect of drawing public attention to the grievances of Ireland.

Two members of the Brotherhood were being conveyed from the police court at Manchester to the prison; other members had resolved to set them free, and, therefore, came to surround the van in a body. The police-sergeant, who refused to unlock the door of the van, was injured fatally when the Fenian leader blew off the lock. The prisoners escaped, but the arrests of five men followed, three of whom were hanged for the accidental death of the police-officer. Many efforts were made to win mercy for the condemned. John Bright and John Stuart Mill pleaded for them eloquently, the poet Swinburne made an appeal in verse. The English had suffered such alarm that they were not inclined to be lenient, and there was a general outcry for the death of the Fenian ringleaders.

The three men suffered the utmost penalty, yet the general attention roused was of future advantage to Ireland. Statesmen, such as William Ewart Gladstone, began to examine the conditions of their country more narrowly. They saw that wrongs must be serious, to lead men to suffer death boldly, rather than submit to oppressive conditions of life,