The Fenians: Failed Rebellion & Lasting Legacy

Throughout the course of Irish history, the regular drumbeat of violent revolt against British rule on the island was omnipresent, from the fruitless uprising of the United Irishmen to the IRB’s blood sacrifice of 1916. One of these beats, that of the Fenian movement, was described by D. George Boyce as “a connecting link that bound together the 1798 rebellion, the Young Ireland revolutionary gesture of 1848, and, in the future, 1916.”[1] This essay will examine the key reasons for its unsuccessful uprising of 1867 and will explain how the rising was doomed even before a bullet was fired. It will also delve into some detail on the Fenians’ legacy, discussing the immediate fallout and going as far into the future as the final years of the nineteenth century.

In order to gain an appropriate understanding of the Fenian movement as a whole, it is important to exemplify the key reasons for both its inception and its exponential growth throughout the 1860s. Boyce explains how its creation in 1858 as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was not specifically born out of any significant event or organisation, but rather “from the disgust felt by more advanced and idealistic nationalists at what they regarded as the corruption and futility of Irish politicians in Westminster.”[1] These nationalists, the majority of whom were working class tenant farmers in rural Ireland, were the subject of founding member James Stephens’s tour of Ireland to gauge public opinion of revolutionary nationalism, with the failed Young Ireland adventure of 1848 still fresh in the memory. Theodore K. Hoppen states that “Stephens had at first been struck by ‘the apathy of the farmers, [and] the pig-headedness of the bourgeoisie,’”[2] which could hardly be seen as a rousing vote of confidence for Irish rebellion.

Regarding Stephens himself, his leadership, although credited as being “responsible for the fact that some 50,000 men joined a secret oath-bound organisation, dedicated to securing Irish freedom,”[3] has been cited as a major cause for the failure of the 1867 rising, due mainly to his stubbornness and heightened sense of authority. His regular quarrels with other senior members of the IRB were infamous and highlighted the obvious disunity and lack of a shared vision that had come to dominate its upper echelons. R.F. Foster, in his book Modern Ireland 1600–1972, outlines the personalities who clashed, “Stephens, the inspirational megalomaniac, Kickham the puritan ruralist, and Luby, the déclassé Protestant nationalist,”[4] which shows how the incompatibility of these men had a direct hand in the ultimate failure of the 1867 rising.

One aspect adversely affected by Stephens’s authoritarian leadership was that of communication, which created the serious issue of the IRB becoming stuck in the catch-22 situation described by Boyce: “Fenianism… was centralised enough to be broken up by police agents, yet not centralised enough to be effectively co-ordinated.”[5] This infiltration dogged the IRB from its inception, as police had been suspicious of Stephens as early as his aforementioned 1858 tour of Ireland, and F.S.L. Lyons states that the movement “was honeycombed with government agents… and that this, combined with the lack of arms, money and organisation, would be fatal to any attempt.”[6] A key source of this ammunition and funding was to come from the US, where the Fenian Brotherhood had staged a miniature rebellion in 1866 against American forces; they had been expected to supply arms to the IRB prior to the date of insurrection, but the delay in delivery of arms, coupled with the unwillingness of “many of the American officers who were to lead the men of Ireland into battle,”[7] doomed a rebellion which had already faced stratospheric odds of success.

Although the sheer number of men openly receptive to the Fenian cause was quite impressive, it proved quite difficult for the leadership to inspire the entire island into active rebellion. Lyons tackles this issue, explaining that on top of the problem of sporadically distributed men, there was the difficulty of “extending the movement in Ireland not only by secret organisation, but by public propaganda aimed both at stating the movement’s case and at refuting the charges of atheism and socialism levelled against it by an alarmed and largely hostile Church.”[8] The Catholic Church had always been a thorn in the path of Fenianism, with its parochial hierarchy uneasy with what it perceived to be a direct challenge to its authority over Irish society, as Strauss describes: “The support of the Church was, of course, withheld unless the prelates felt that the agitation would be in the interests of the Church as well as in that of its secular leaders.”[9]

Moving now towards a discussion of the effects of the Fenian movement, it can certainly be argued that the legacy of the IRB’s failed rebellion even overlapped with the fizzling out of the rising itself. Immediately after the murder of a policeman in Manchester, large swathes of the British public saw the Fenians as a threat to their daily life, as “rumour, fear of further violence, fear of instability — all kept the British government and large sections of the Irish and British public in a state of alarm.”[10] Indeed, the Fenian rising was undoubtedly the primary cause of the reawakening of the Irish question in the hearts and minds of British politicians, not least of these was W.E. Gladstone who, upon his election as Prime Minister in 1868, declared it his mission to ‘pacify Ireland.’ Mirroring what was happening in England, Irish constitutional nationalism returned to the fore, with Boyce explaining how the Fenian insurgence had “enabled Irish politicians… to emerge and combine national fervour with practical politics.”[11] A key proponent of this re-emergence of constitutional nationalism was Protestant lawyer Isaac Butt, whose amnesty movement in the aftermath of the 1867 rising “was to constitute the most widespread and powerful political phenomenon in Ireland.”[12] Although sympathy for the Fenian cause was limited as the rising was taking place, the success of the amnesty movement proved beyond question how public opinion had shifted in favour of the revolutionaries, a legacy which was to remain constant, albeit by and large dormant, into the distant future.

Coupled with the positive steps made by Gladstone regarding Ireland, such as the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the growth of Irish parliamentary politics, and how it soon became inescapably interwoven with Fenianism, allowed the discourse of the Irish question to approach its late-nineteenth century zenith. R.F. Foster describes one such thread through which the Fenians became constitutionalised: “Land agitation provided the basis of a Fenian alliance with the constitutionalists. This situation… was the background to the… so-called ‘New Departure’ of co-operation between Fenians, parliamentarians and ‘advanced’ nationalists.”[13] The land question had become a particular point of interest for some Fenians, simply due to their being merely agrarian farmers whose lack of tenant rights provided the incentive to become involved with constitutional politics. Their activity continued well into the 1880s when the land issue reached its climax, and Hoppen articulates that the New Departure “helped to produce an interlude during which agrarianism, constitutionalism, Catholicism, and modified republicanism were able to coalesce and thus briefly overcome the normal particularism of Irish politics as a whole.”[14]

In addition to changes in the political tide, the Fenian name came into close association with the new movement given the umbrella title of ‘cultural nationalism.’ The most obvious aspect infiltrated by Fenian members and ideology was the Gaelic Athletic Association, which from its inception in 1884 was heavily influenced by “the potentially revolutionary spirit that permeated this outwardly innocent association.”[15] The GAA became the most famous example of the renaissance of cultural ‘Irishness’ and yet more specifically restored the local pride the everyday nationalist felt towards his county. Moreover, the foundation of the Gaelic League, an organisation which placed heavy emphasis on the revival of the Irish language and various other outlets of projecting national identity, provided old Fenians with another means of promoting their extreme nationalist aims. Labelled by Lyons as the Gaelic League’s “most persuasive apostle,”[16] Douglas Hyde spoke highly of James Stephens, having “declared that ‘every speech we make throughout this country makes bullets to fire at the enemy’ and spoke of Stephens’s great example in breathing national spirit back into the land.”[17] Whilst it is important to note how both the birth and end goals of organisations like the GAA and Gaelic League were largely independent of Fenian influence, it is equally fair to argue that their growth and long-term survival was due, significantly, to the persistent invigoration of Fenian ideas and leverage within their senior ranks.

In summary, this essay has detailed how the far from ideal events leading up to 1867 did a considerable deal of damage to what was at best an already uphill struggle for the Fenians in the quest for Irish freedom. The primary successes of the Fenian movement, however, grew from the seeds sown by its abject failure of a rebellion, as F.S.L. Lyons so succinctly described: “In the long run Fenianism was probably most significant… simply for its refusal to die. For forty years after its brief moment of rebellion, it languished indeed, but it never disappeared.”[18] At this point in the discussion it is not unreasonable to consider the significance of the ghost of Fenianism on the revolutionaries of the post-1916 period; sadly, though, this matters warrants a far deeper analysis than is appropriate within the epilogue to this essay.

[1] Boyce, 19th Century Ireland, p. 151.

[2] Hoppen, T.K., Ireland Since 1800: Conflict & Conformity, Addison Wesley Longman, 1999, p. 121.

[3] Ó Concubhair, P., The Fenians Were Dreadful Men: The 1867 Rising, Mercier Press, 2011, p. 185.

[4] Foster, R.F., Modern Ireland 1600–1972, Penguin, 1988, pp. 391–392.

[5] Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, p. 157.

[6] Lyons, F.S.L., Ireland Since The Famine, Fontana Press, 1973, p. 136.

[7] Ó Concubhair, The Fenians, p. 185.

[8] Lyons, Ireland Since The Famine, p. 127.

[9] Strauss, E., Irish Nationalism & British Democracy, Greenwood Press, 1951, p. 147.

[10] Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, p. 158.

[11] Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland, pp. 158–159.

[12] Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800, pp. 121–122.

[13] Foster, Modern Ireland, p. 403.

[14] Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800, p. 122.

[15] Lyons, Ireland Since The Famine, p. 226.

[16] Lyons, Ireland Since The Famine, p. 227.

[17] Foster, Modern Ireland, p. 454.

[18] Lyons, Ireland Since The Famine, p. 28.


Boyce, G.B., Nineteenth Century Ireland, 2005, Gill & Macmillan.

Foster, R.F., Modern Ireland 1600–1972, 1988, Penguin.

Hoppen, K.T., Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity, 1999, Longman.

Litton, H., Irish Rebellions 1798–1916: An Illustrated History, 1998, Wolfhound.

Lyons, F.S.L., Ireland Since The Famine, 1973, Fontana.

Ó Concubhair, P., ‘The Fenians Were Dreadful Men’: The 1867 Rising, 2011, Mercier.

Strauss, E., Irish Nationalism and British Democracy, 1951, Greenwood Press.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.