The Fenian Movement
The Fenians were members of the so-called Fenian movement in Ireland and elsewhere, though primarily America and England
. The Fenians wanted one simple desire for Ireland - independence from British rule. The Great Famine had a massive impact
on Ireland. Some in Ireland believed that the government in London - to solve the 'Irish Problem' - had deliberately done
as little as possible to aid the people of Ireland – a form of genocide – and these people concluded that the
only hope Ireland had for its future was a complete separation from Great Britain. If London was unwilling to grant this,
then the Fenians would fight for it.
Anger against the British government spilled over in 1848. In this year a group of revolutionaries known as Young Ireland
launched an ill-prepared uprising against the government. It was a failure.
Two of the members of Young Ireland were James Stephens and John O'Mahony. In the eyes of the authorities both had committed
a very serious crime. To escape punishment both fled to Paris. Though near to Britain, both men were relatively safe in Paris.
In 1853, O'Mahony went to America. Here he tried to gain support for another uprising from those who had left Ireland
during the Great Famine. Stephens returned to Ireland in 1856. In Dublin in March 1858, he formed a secret society that became
known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Its aim was Independence for Ireland. In America O'Mahony became the leader of
a new organization called the Fenian Brotherhood. It took its name from the Fianna who were a band of Irish warriors of the
2nd and 3rd centuries. The name ‘Fenians’ became an umbrella term to cover all the groups associated with wanting
independence for Ireland. By the very nature of what they wanted, those elements within the Fenian movement who were prepared
to use violence to advance their cause, had to remain secret.
The Fenian movement quickly attracted thousands of young supporters both in Ireland itself and America. When one
of the 1848 Young Ireland rebels, Terence Bellew McManus, died in America in 1861, his funeral in Ireland was attended by
thousands of people. However as the Fenian movement grew, so did the difficulties of keeping it organised. This had proved
difficult because of the Irish-American geographic split and the problems of communications. But the two founders –
O’Mahony and Stephens – disagreed on how the movement should develop. In 1863, Stephens founded a newspaper called
the ‘Irish People’. He wanted to make as many people as was possible aware of what the Fenians stood for. O’Mahony
did not approve of this move as he felt such a paper would attract even more attention to the movement from the British government
based in Dublin. He preferred the movement to develop in secrecy.
Another problem faced by the Fenians was that the Roman Catholic Church was generally not supportive of them. The power
of the local priests was great and their influence within a local community, and especially among the older members of such
communities, meant that they could undermine whatever influence the Fenians tried to establish.
The Fenians always faced the possibility of being infiltrated by British spies. An uprising in Ireland had been planned
for 1866 but it never took place because the government knew about it. In September 1866, the ‘Irish People’ was
shut down by the government and Stephens was arrested and sent to prison. He escaped from jail and went to America. Anyone
suspected of being involved with the Fenians was arrested. Money sent from America for the Fenians was seized. The government
also believed that some units of the British Army based in Ireland were sympathetic to the Fenians. These units were moved
out of Ireland.
There was an attempted uprising in 1867, though it was a failure. The ‘uprising’ was led by Thomas Kelly
who had fought in the American Civil War. Kelly did not base himself in Ireland but in London. Here he gained support from
the large Irish community that had come to the city during the Great Famine.
Kelly and other Fenians attempted to attack Chester Castle to gain weapons and ammunition. This was not a success and
Kelly and another Fenian were arrested. In September 1867, Kelly was being taken to Manchester to be tried when he was rescued
by other Fenians. During the rescue, a policeman was killed. Three of the Fenians were caught and after a trial were hanged
for murder. To the Fenians, they became known as the "Manchester Martyrs". To many in Ireland, the sentence was considered
far too harsh for what they saw as an accidental killing.
In December 1867, several Londoners were killed when a bomb planted by the Fenians exploded at Clerkenwell Prison. This
caused a wave of anti-Irish feeling in London and elsewhere in England.
The activities of the Fenians were partly responsible for spurring William Gladstone into his stated mission –
"to pacify Ireland". This led to the rise of Home Rule and the issues surrounding it. The Fenian movement became seemingly
dormant for a number of decades – though it still existed as a movement. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was the most
famous of the parts that made up the Fenian movement. However, politics now took a role in Ireland’s history. The murders
of Lord Cavendish and T Burke in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882 showed the government in London that there were elements in
Ireland who worked outside of the political arena even while Home Rule was being discussed. This murder was carried out by
a group that called itself "The Invincibles".
The 1916 Easter Rising
The Easter Uprising took place in April 1916 in Dublin and is one of the pivotal events in modern Irish history. At the
end of the Easter Uprising, 15 men identified as leaders were executed at Kilmainham Jail. To some, these men were traitors,
to others they became heroes. Why did a small group of people try to take on the military might of what was then one of the
world’s major powers?
The IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) had been formed in 1858. It was a secret organisation and it is thought that
it never had more than 2,000 members in it. It had one simple desire – Irish independence. In 1910, the IRB started
its own publication – the ‘Irish Freedom’ – and all those men who signed the proclamation of an Irish
Republic in Easter 1916 were members of the IRB.
By the start of the war, Irish politics had become very complicated.
The issue of Home Rule had led to the creation of the Ulster Volunteers in November 1913. This group was against any
lessening of the rule that London had over the whole of Ireland. The Ulster Volunteers had no problems flying the Union Jack.
In response, those in the south had founded the Irish Volunteers in 1914. Possibly as many as 200,000 joined the Irish Volunteers
but only a few thousands were ever trained in a military manner. Even if the Irish Volunteers had wanted to arm those who
joined it, sheer logistics meant that this was impossible. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the leader of
the Irish Nationalist Party, John Redmond, accepted that the whole issue of Home Rule would have to be postponed until the
war had finished. Many in the Irish Volunteers accepted this and men from all over Ireland rallied to the cause and fought
in the British Army against the Germans.
However, such views were not shared by those in the IRB. As early as August 1914, the month war was declared, the IRB
supreme council decided that the British involvement in the war would give them the opportunity to overthrow British rule
in Ireland. The logic was that the actions of the government in London would be driven by what went on in Flanders –
and the vast bulk of Britain’s military might was either abroad or in the stages of being sent abroad to fight. Therefore,
British military presence would be sparse in Ireland.
The IRB spent many months planning the rebellion. The organisation
had money – most from Irish Americans – and capable leaders but little else. As a secret organisation it could
not act like a political party going out to meet the people to persuade them to support their cause.
Therefore, the numbers in it were small. Also, many in Ireland were willing to support the decision to postpone Home
Rule – and some were doing well out of the war itself. Therefore, though many may have sympathised with the IRB with
regards to its desires, these people did not offer the IRB any practical help.
Also, if an uprising was to take place, the IRB would need access to weapons – and the only obvious source
would be Germany.
The IRB was not the only organisation involved in the movement against the British. Others were:
The Irish Citizen’s Army founded in 1913 by James Connolly. This organisation was founded as a citizens guard
to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The ITGWU had organised a strike in 1913, which was harshly broken
up using force. The Irish Citizens Army was created in response and it was led by a former British Army officer – Jack
White. It was meant to have been a highly disciplined force but it only numbered about 250 men. The ‘Fianna Boys’
were youths who were to act as messengers and runners during the actual uprising. Some women’s movements had republican
sympathies. The most famous female of the Uprising was the Countess Markievicz who was a member of the Irish Civilian Army.
Clearly, when all actual support was counted, the planned uprising could not count on that many people. What would it
be up against?
There was not a huge army presence in Ireland. Most of the law enforcement was done by the Royal Irish Constabulary
(RIC). There were about 10,000 police officers in the RIC. At a time when employment opportunities were reasonably limited,
the RIC seemed to offer a sound career and, in general, those in it were loyal to Britain and the government. Members of the
RIC invariably worked in or near the district they lived in, the theory being that they would pick up on any information that
could prove useful to the authorities in Dublin. British intelligence, based at Dublin Castle, gained a great deal of its
information from the RIC. 1000 members of the RIC were based in Dublin itself.
The IRB and other movements were woefully short of weapons. The RIC in Dublin did not carry arms but it had easy
access to them. The British Army in Ireland had as many weapons as it needed – including armed personnel carriers, tanks
and artillery guns. The Ulster Volunteers had gained 35,000 rifles by August 1914; the Irish Volunteers had just 1000, and
there were those in the Irish Volunteers who did not support what the IRB wanted. An attempt by Sir Roger Casement to land
German guns also failed as the British Navy intercepted the ship (the 'Aud') carrying weapons. Casement was arrested and hanged
as a traitor.
However, to the authorities both in Dublin and London, this proved just how untrustworthy the republican movement
was. In April 1916, the war in Europe was not going well for the British and French. The French, our allies, were taking a
desperate hammering at Verdun and wanted Britain to launch an attack across the Somme to take pressure off of the French.
What Casement did provoked a very negative response at a time when Britain needed unity throughout its lands.
The men in Ireland who represented the government in London were:Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary Sir Matthew Nathan,
Assistant Secretary Major-General Field, commanding officer of the British army in Ireland. Lord Wimborne, Lord-Lieutenant
What seemed to link all four men was their failure to grasp what was going on in Ireland. Wimborne had an extensive
knowledge of what might be termed the Irish psyche, but he seemingly failed to recognise what was happening. This could have
been a failure of the security agencies based at the Castle. Special Branch had infiltrated the IRB but either they had not
done this too well, or the information sent through to Dublin Castle simply was not being acted on.
The intelligence service at Dublin Castle knew that a rising was planned fairly quickly after Casement's arrest. As Casement
landed on April 21st, those in charge in Dublin knew that something was about to take place. On April 23rd, Wimborne demanded
that Nathan issue arrest warrants for between 60 and 100 known republican leaders. Nathan managed to persuade Wimborne that
there was no need for action as there was no immediate crisis to worry about. Birrell, as was often the case, was in London
and took no part in this decision.
Why did Nathan take this decision? It seems that British spies in the Irish Volunteers had informed him that Eoin
MacNeill, the accepted leader of the Irish Volunteers, had decided not to go ahead with the uprising because of the failure
of Casement to get the required German weapons into Ireland. What Nathan almost certainly did not know was that Patrick Pearse,
a young lawyer and member of the
IRB, did not agree with him and decided that the rising should go ahead regardless. There
were others who also agreed with Pearse.
This dispute split the Irish Volunteers and meant the end of it as a major player
in Irish politics. After the uprising, those who followed Pearse and had been members of the IRB joined the Irish Republican
Army; those with a political bent joined Sinn Fein. There were those, of course, who did both.
MacNeill further hindered Pearse by getting the cancellation of the uprising advertised in newspapers. Young boys
were even used to cycle round Ireland with the information. Therefore, it seems completely untenable to accept that the authorities
in Dublin did not know that something had been planned even if it appeared to have been cancelled. At the very least, the
authorities should have been on the alert. In fact, Nathan had concluded that if anyone did participate in the uprising, the
numbers would be small and those involved would be hopelessly disunited. With the Irish Volunteers split and with no weapons,
what did the British have to fear? On the morning of the uprising, many British army officers were at the races!
Ireland 1919 to 1922
John Redmond had agreed to suspend the introduction of Home Rule to Ireland until World War One had ended. This approach
had been accepted by many in Ireland and tens of thousands had joined the British Army and fought in Europe. Some refused
to accept it and fought the British in the Easter Rising of 1916. Few people were willing to support the rebels in Dublin
and when they were arrested and paraded through the streets of Dublin prior to being sent to prison, they were jeered at by
many Dubliners who had seen part of their city destroyed by the fighting that took place. However the execution of fifteen
of the leaders, including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, shocked many in Ireland - especially as they did not receive
a formal and public trial and their executions were announced after they had been carried out. From the ‘villains’
of the piece, the rebel leaders suddenly became heroes to the Irish cause. After war ended in November 1918, the Irish question
was to rear its head again.
In the 1918 ‘Coupon’ Election, Sinn Fein had done well in the south. Sinn Fein was considered to be an
extreme nationalist party - much more so than the Irish Nationalist Party led by John Redmond. In this election, the Irish
Nationalists won only 6 seats while Sinn Fein won 73. Whereas John Redmond had been willing to work with the British government,
Sinn Fein wanted an Ireland out of the British Empire - independent and self-governing. Its speedy rise to prominence is an
indication of the anger that the British created with the execution of the rebel leaders - especially when the details leaked
out of Connolly’s execution. In 1914, Sinn Fein was a minor political force in Ireland; by the end of 1918, it was the
leading nationalist force. For Sinn Fein, the whole issue of Home Rule was a non-starter. The rise of Sinn Fein also polarised
the relationship between the north and with the south. By 1919, Ulster simply
did not listen to Dublin.
The government responded to this by admitting that the 1912 bill was out-of-date and devised a new Home Rule bill for
1919. This stated that Ireland would govern itself within the Empire but in two separate parts - the south, and the six counties
of the north (which was most, though not all, of the old province of Ulster). Each of the two parts would have a parliament
in Dublin and Belfast and Ireland as a whole would still have MP’s representing them in Westminster. The bill also proposed
a Council of Ireland which would have representatives in it from both parliaments in Belfast and Dublin. The bill Became an
act in 1920. The north accepted the act and in 1921, the king opened the parliament of the six counties at Stormont.
However, the south did not accept one part of the act. Those members of Sinn Fein who had been elected MP’s
in the ‘Coupon’ Election in 1918, had refused to take up their seats at Westminster. Instead, in 1919, they established
their own parliament (the Dail) in Dublin. They also declared an independent Ireland. It was around this time that the Irish
Republican Army (founded from what had been the Irish Volunteers) started their campaign against any form of the British government
in Ireland - be it in the south or north. This campaign was led by Michael Collins, who had fought in the Easter Rising. The
IRA targeted anyone who was seen to be a symbol of British power in Ireland.
The government in London, responded by declaring both the Dail and Sinn Fein illegal. They also tolerated ‘reinforcements’
going to Ireland to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary. These ‘reinforcements’ were the Auxiliary Division (the
‘Auxis’) and the ‘Black and Tans’. The ‘Black and Tans’ was made up of former soldiers,
many of whom had experienced fighting in World War One. The ‘Auxis’ was exclusively made up of ex-army officers.
Both units were involved in acts of extreme brutality against civilians which only served to make those who wanted independence
even more keen on it. Violence led to more violence and it was clear that a political solution was needed if the escalating
violence was to end. This came with the so-called ‘Treaty with Sinn Fein’ of 1921.
The Black and Tans
The Black and Tans as a subject still arouses controversy in Ireland. The Black and Tans were mostly former soldiers
brought into Ireland by the government in London after 1918 to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in their work.
For a number of years, the RIC had been a target for the IRB and then the IRA. RIC barracks were frequently attacked
and members of the RIC were murdered. Therefore, recruitment to the RIC started to be hit and the RIC found it difficult
to carry out its duties effectively, especially in the remote rural areas of southern Ireland. Never knowing if you
were going to be the next target did a great deal to undermine morale in the RIC.
In 1919, the British government advertised for men who were willing to "face a rough and dangerous task". Many former
British army soldiers had come back from Western Europe and did not find a land fit for heroes. They came back to unemployment
and few firms needed men whose primary skill was fighting in war. Therefore, there were plenty of ex-servicemen who were willing
to reply to the government’s advert. For many the sole attraction was not political or national pride – it was
simply money. The men got paid ten shillings a day. They got three months training before being sent to Ireland. The first
unit arrived in Ireland in March 1920. Once in Ireland it quickly became apparent that there were not enough uniforms
for all those who had joined up. Therefore they wore a mixture of uniforms – some military, some RIC. This mixture gave
them the appearance of being in khaki and dark police uniform. As a result, these men got the nickname "Black and Tans", and
it stuck. Some say that the nickname came from a pack of hunting hounds known as the 'Black and Tans'.
The Black and Tans did not act as a supplement to the RIC. Though some men were experienced in trench warfare, they lacked
the self-discipline that would have been found in the Western Front. Many Black and Tan units all but terrorised local communities.
Community policing was the preserve of the RIC. For the Black and Tans, their primary task was to make Ireland "hell
for the rebels to live in". Over 8000 Black and Tans went to Ireland and while they found it difficult to cope with men who
used classic guerrilla tactics against them, those who lived in areas where the Black and Tans were based, paid the price.
The attitude of the Black and Tans is best summed up by one of their divisional commanders: "If a police barracks
is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered,
the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there – the more the merrier. Should the order ("Hands Up") not be
immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with
effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets,
or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot,
but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will
like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."
The most infamous attack on the public came in November 1920. Many people had packed into Croke Park, Dublin, to watch
a football match. In retaliation for the murder of fourteen undercover detectives by the IRA, the Black and Tans
opened fire on the crowd, killing twelve people. In retaliation for this attack, eighteen members of the ‘Auxies’
(a separate part of the Black and Tans) were killed in Kilmichael, County Cork. The ‘Auxies’ took their revenge
for this by burning down the centre of Cork and parading around after this event with burnt cork in their caps. Violence,
it appeared, only led to even more violence on both sides.
The Black and Tans were not regular troops. There were many examples of them shooting indiscriminately at civilians as
opposed to republican guerrillas.
Creameries were also destroyed by the Black and Tans – almost as a way of
economically punishing those who may have been helping the IRA. Those experienced in trench warfare fighting a seen enemy,
were of little use in Ireland. The Black and Tans were so poorly disciplined and trained for Ireland that their casualty rate
was far higher than could have been imagined when the government first advertised for them. The government in Westminster
realised that they were a liability as even public opinion in mainland Britain was appalled by a lot of what they
What did the Black and Tans achieve? They served no purpose for the British government as they simply failed to stop
what the IRA was doing. However, they did succeed in getting the republican cause a great deal of civilian support simply
because of their acts – people may not have joined the IRA, but they were supporters of it and gave what financial help
they could to the movement. The Black and Tans were pulled out of Ireland in ignominy.