The Fenian Movement

IN 1848, a small group of revolutionaries known as Young Ireland launched an ill-prepared uprising which was quickly quelled. Among them were James Stephens and John O'Mahony, who both sought refuge in Paris, a city which harboured plotters exiled from many countries. In 1853, O'Mahony sailed to America in the hope of encouraging Irish emigrants to support a new rising. Stephens returned to Ireland in 1856, tramping throughout the country to assess the people's mood. On 17 March 1858, he formed in Dublin the secret society which became known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Later in theThe Femine Movement year he sailed to America, where O'Mahony became leader of a new organisation called the Fenian Brotherhood. It took its name from band of warriors led by the legendary Gaelic hero, Finn Mac Cool, and the name Fenians came to be used for the whole body of revolutionary conspirators.

The Fenian movement, which sought a revolution "sooner or never", quickly attracted thousands of young supporters. When one of the 1848 rebels, Terence Bellew McManus, died in America in 1861, his enormous funeral procession through Cork and Dublin showed how widespread was the sympathy for the Young Ireland ideas which Fenianism now embodied. However, Stephens came in conflict with other nationalist organisations which sought to end the Union by constitutional methods, and the Catholic Church was generally hostile. In 1863 his decision to found a weekly newspaper, the Irish People, was criticised by O'Mahony, who preferred secrecy.

Fenianism was strongly supported by Irish emigrants in America. Many gained military experience in the American Civil War, and when this ended in April 1865 Stephens promised an Irish rising later in the year. However, the government had been alerted by its spies, and in September the Irish People was suppressed. Stephens and his closest associates were arrested, but he escaped from prison and reached America. The government quickly took the offensive, arresting suspects and confiscating arms. Some army units, thought to include Fenian sympathisers, were moved from Ireland.

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From A Little History of Ireland by Martin Wallace with illustrations by Ian McCullough. Click here for more information on the book.