Competing fenianisms: British, Irish, and American responses to a transatlantic movement
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This dissertation examines the Fenians, an Irish militant nationalist organization founded in 1858. The dissertation emphasizes the trans-Atlantic nature of Fenianism, examining the relationship between the Fenian Brotherhood, the United States branch of Fenianism, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), its Irish counterpart. From its inception, the existence of Fenianism was defined by the relationship between these two distinct groups. The IRB depended on funds, weapons, and officers sent to Ireland by the Fenian Brotherhood. Likewise, the Fenian Brotherhood depended on its link to the IRB, a secret society in Ireland intent on bringing about a military revolution and an Irish republic, for its legitimacy in the eyes of Irish-Americans. Starting in 1863, the founder of Fenianism, James Stephens, was able to publish a newspaper from Dublin to spread the Fenian nationalist program to adherents on both sides of the Atlantic. The message set forth in this newspaper, the Irish People, was unstintingly violent. The editors of the Irish People argued that only after British control of Ireland was thrown off through a military revolution would Ireland reach its true potential. The Irish People portrayed proponents of constitutional nationalism and peaceful reform in Ireland as emasculated dupes of the British establishment. Despite this violent rhetoric, the leaders of Fenianism delayed the promised revolution due to their belief in the futility of a military uprising during a period in which the British army was not engaged by an outside conflict. American Fenians, frustrated by these delays, and believing that their military strength would never be greater than it was in the period immediately following the American Civil War, ousted the original leaders of Fenianism in 1866. In their place were promoted individuals who resolved to go ahead with military attacks on the British, whatever the cost. The result was the Fenian raids on Canada in 1866 and the Fenian Rising in Ireland in 1867. These events were possible because the United States government did not hinder the Fenian Brotherhood as they armed and trained with the expressed purpose of attacking the British in both Canada and Ireland. Due to the importance of the Irish vote during the Reconstruction period and the unpopularity of the British diplomatic stance during the Civil War, American politicians of both political parties expressed support for the Fenians. Because of the strength of American Fenianism and the unwillingness of the United States Government to hinder their military activities, traditional British policing methods failed to eliminate incidents of Fenian violence in the United Kingdom. While the activities of the IRB were drastically curbed by the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland and the arrest and imprisonment of the editors of the Irish People in 1865, the activities of the Fenian Brotherhood in America continued unabated. The Liberal Government elected in December 1868, led by William Gladstone, attempted to address this problem by enacting a program of “justice for Ireland.” This consisted of measures designed to pull supporters away from radical, militant Fenianism in both Ireland and the United States. Specifically, disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the reform of the Irish Land Laws were designed to convince moderates in both Ireland and the United States that it was possible to gain concessions from the British government and that it was not necessary to resort to violent Fenianism. The use of remedial legislation to address the problem of Fenian violence was made necessary by the trans-Atlantic nature of the organization.