Remember the Fenians

CM, Béal Feirste


On this day, 5 March 1867, one of Ireland’s overlooked rebellions broke out: The Fenian Rising.

The Fenians – comprised of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and U.S.-based Fenian Brotherhood – were first formed in 1858. In the years leading up to their rebellion their ranks numbered in the tens of thousands, including Irish veterans of the American Civil War. In Ireland, drilling and raiding for arms were commonplace to the point where habeas corpus was suspended in 1866, with suspected Fenians subject to the British tradition of interning Irish people without trial.

Thousands rose across the county; Tallaght, Drogheda, and Cork saw large-scale risings with police barracks torched, and skirmishes between the RIC and Fenians. However, despite this mass in revolt, it ultimately failed, with only a total of 12 killed across the whole of Ireland. Thousands returned to their homes after dumping arms, waiting for an order that never came.

Thousands rose in revolt around the country, from Dublin to Cork

In later years, the Fenians would oversee the Dynamite Campaign – a four year bombing campaign in the 1880s – and by 1916 they had largely passed the torch (and remaining rifles) onto the younger generation. The Fenian’s failure stuck in the mind of James Connolly, writing in his Days of March in 1916, that: “The Fenian Rising in March, 1867, was almost foredoomed to failure because […] the leaders had allowed the golden opportunity to slip away, and their attempt when it came was belated.”

However, he went on to say,

“Remember. It is easy for us now to be wise after the event, and to tell with unerring accuracy just when the blow might have been struck with the greatest probability of success. It is easy for us now because we know certain things which it was impossible for the Fenian leaders to know. If we know where they made a mistake it is not because our judgement is better than was theirs, but rather because we are judging a crisis that is past and whose happenings are all therefore familiar to us.”

A pertinent lesson to remember when reflecting on any strike for freedom.

Today though, the legacy of the Fenians has largely been lost, remembered almost exclusively by the republican movement, or by pop historians for their attempt to invade Canada as some sort of “fun” historical footnote.

Whilst the full legacy of the Fenians is a grand one, spanning everything from the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association to the actions of men like O’Donovan Rossa and Tom Clarke, it is important to avoid the simple glorification of the past. After all, Connolly also warned against, “stereotyping our historical studies into a worship of the past, or crystallising nationalism into a tradition”.

So what did the Fenians set to achieve? They were very clear in their own Proclamation of 1867:

“All men are born with equal rights, and in associating to protect one another and share public burdens, justice demands that such associations should rest upon a basis which maintains equality instead of destroying 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.

We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.

Not merely a national revolution, but in keeping with the fine Republican tradition of internationalism they declared:

“Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour. Remember the past, look well to the future, and avenge yourselves by giving liberty to your children in the coming struggle for human liberty.”

The aims which they set out to achieve have not yet been fulfilled.

‘The Cuba Five’, Irish rebels exiled to the United States following the failed rebellion. Their unfinished work inspired, and should continue to inspire generations of republicans

Far from the Fenian ideals of equality and shared burdens, the Ireland of today sees glaring inequality; the housing crisis – with corporations and landlords on one end, and the working-class on the other – is but one example.

Far from being free from monarchical government, six counties remain under direct occupation, maintained by a garrison of thousands of soldiers and police. Far from a Republic where all receive the value of their labour, we see an island with over one million people living in poverty, whilst multinational corporations make millions in profits.

Ireland remains owned by an oligarchy; divided up between the European Union, the UK, and United States. Far from controlling our destinies from the soil to the stars, Ireland is subject to the whims of Washington, London and Brussels.

Even today, after years of scandal, the Catholic Church still retains vast influence over Irish society; seen with its total monopoly over primary education in the Free State.

And remembering too that all the evils that ravage Ireland; homelessness, poverty, exploitation, and occupation continue to ravage billions of people the world over.

The best way to remember the Fenians – and every other republican – is to make their ambitions a reality. Fight against the apathy that is so prevalent; agitate for a better future. Educate people on what the cause of societies problems are and what can be done about them. Organise in your workplace, in your community, and in your college to make the Republican ideal a reality. Challenge at every step the attempts by the far-right to try and claim that Republicanism is anything other than a progressive, anti-imperialist and revolutionary ideology.

Their struggles and their aims are our struggle and our aims. The Republic they envisioned will be the Republic we build.

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