Fanning the flames of separatism: New book explores the Fenian movement from Munster to North America

Eva O’Cathaoir explores the origins of the Fenian movement in Munster and its spread throughout Ireland, Britain and North America

The unassuming but effective Captain William Mackey Lomasney, Fenian and dynamiter. Pictures: Courtesy of Dublin City Archive, and NLI.

My book contains mini-biographies of more than 1,000 activists, many of whom are now barely remembered in their Munster and Kilkenny home areas. But during the 19th century, they were pivotal figures who kept Irish separatism alive, ultimately culminating in the Easter Rising. There are fascinating, early photographs of suspects, commissioned by Dublin Castle for purposes of identification.

The Fenian movement developed in response to the Great Famine, the worst catastrophe of modern Irish history. Death and emigration decimated a population of eight to six million in less than a decade. The long-standing grievances of tenant farmers were ignored and emigration continued — by 1900 Ireland contained only four million inhabitants. Michael Doheny, John O’Mahony and James Stephens, who had fled abroad after the 1848 Rising, opposed prevalent contemporary ideas that an economic recovery depended on an acquiescent Ireland benefitting from the British Empire. Doheny and O’Mahony were passionate supporters of the Irish language and Gaelic culture, which was being decimated by the Famine, while a supremely self-confident Stephens persuaded his followers that a Republic was achievable with help from Irish-America. In 1858, he founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin, followed by its American auxiliary, the Fenian Brotherhood, under John O’Mahony in New York.

Among the earliest, life-long supporters were John Haltigan, a foreman printer of Kilkenny, James Cody and Edmund Coyne of Callan, Denis Mulcahy of Clonmel, his son Denis Dowling and daughter Catherine. In Cork, Brian Dillon, James Mountain, both now honoured by plaques in their native city, John Lynch, who was to die in jail in England, and James O’Mahony, a Bandon grocer and aficionado of Irish, soon joined. Initially, Fenianism was much stronger in Cork than in Dublin.

Organisers began swearing in young men in preparation for an insurrection, but there were problems: how was the Fenian expedition from America to be financed and could it evade the formidable Royal Navy? Disagreements on policy and personality clashes led to a disastrous split in the Fenian Brotherhood. Lacking self-confidence after the Famine, some members proclaimed their plans loudly rather than proceeding with “silent action”, as urged by the Irish People, the Dublin Fenian newspaper, edited by John O’Leary, future mentor of W.B. Yeats. Stephens’ followers drilled all over Ireland, but he depended on arms and officers to arrive with a Fenian expedition from the US.

At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, hundreds of demobbed soldiers crossed the Atlantic to support the Irish conspirators. Dublin Castle watched uneasily as veterans disembarked in Cobh with their weapons, including Capt. John McCafferty, a colourful character, who claimed to have fought for the Confederacy, the unassuming, but effective William Mackey Lomasney, “Capt. Mackey”, whose parents had emigrated from Co Cork during the Famine and the resourceful Col. John Byron of Clogheen, Co Tipperary. The authorities realised that the British Army had been infiltrated. Nightly meetings took place and some weapons were smuggled to J.J. Geary’s pub and grocery in Cork city, where American officers and organisers met with Sergeant Major Thomas Darragh of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, who had taken the Fenian oath and was scheduled to lead the Cork insurgents when the Rising broke out. Fenian fever seemed to seize the country.

Despite the arrest and trial of the Irish People staff and their supporters in September 1865 and the temporary detention of numerous American suspects in Ireland, including Mackey, Byron and McCafferty, the excitement continued. J.J. Geary escaped abroad, while his apprentice John Sarsfield Casey of Mitchelstown, a teenage organiser, was among those sentenced to imprisonment.

In February 1866, Dublin Castle suspended the Habeas Corpus to imprison hundreds of activists without trial. Important Munster men were transferred to Dublin prisons, which made access for relatives difficult and acted as a deterrent to the membership still at large. Families began petitioning Dublin Castle, citing innocence, ill health and the suffering of dependants, who had lost their breadwinners, as grounds for discharge. The endorsement of establishment figures for such petitions was eagerly sought. These arrests badly handicapped the movement, but the American officers, now based in England to evade arrest, were resolved on a Rising in March 1867.

Ellen O’Leary, sister of John, a poet and woman of independent means, helped to coordinate preparation from Dublin. Godfrey Massey was to lead in the initial stages, but his arrest at Limerick Junction, on foot of information received, made any success unlikely. In Cork, Dominick O’Mahony, a cooper, was the leader. In Midleton, James O’Sullivan, a clerk in the distillery, had constructed a model for a cannon, burying it in a field. Capt. Patrick Joseph Condon, an Irish-American, was to command in East Cork on 5 March, but his sudden arrest aborted effectiveness. Ultimately, 400 Midelton Fenians with contingents from Ballinacurra, Cloyne and Carrigtwohill under carpenter Timothy Daly failed to take Castlemartyr Constabulary Barrack. The insurgents fled when Daly was shot dead, but among them was sixteen year old Patrick Neville Fitzgerald, who would become a pivotal figure in the IRB and the GAA in Cork later.

Peter O’Neill Crowley of Ballymacoda, an idealistic farmer, led his Fenians to seize the rifles of Knockadoon Coastguard Station, for some of them carried only “sharpened rasps, fastened to rake handles with waxed hemp” as weapons. Grasping how isolated they were, O’Neill Crowley disbanded his followers and went on the run in Kilclooney Wood, where he was killed resisting arrest on 31 March 1867. In Cork city, 1,500 men turned out and marched northwards in search of arms. Led by Capt. Mackey they took Ballyknockane Constabulary Barracks near Mallow, but British Army arrests began soon afterwards. While the insurgents failed seize Kilmallock Constabulary Barracks in Co. Limerick and were dispersed at Ballyhurst, Co. Tipperary, Capt. Mackey went on the run, conducting arms raids in Co. Cork to the great annoyance of Dublin Castle until his arrest in February 1868.

Captain John McCafferty, a colourful character who claimed to have fought for the Confederacy.

Although the Rising failed, the Fenian movement continued through an amnesty campaign for the prisoners, which saw the incarcerated O’Donovan Rossa elected to Parliament. It drew international attention to Ireland’s grievances. Activists like Michael Davitt would become vital to resolve the land issue, others helped to found the GAA. Edmond O’Donovan, son of the great Gaelic scholar and a major activist during the 1860s, went on to a career as an explorer, travel writer and war correspondent, still quoted today. Aloysius O’Kelly, a rediscovered 19th-century painter, was also a Fenian alongside his better-known brother J.J. O’Kelly, who later numbered among Parnell’s M.P.s. In Cork, “Long” John O’Connor, an energetic, early IRB leader, promoted the Land League and finally became a Home Rule M.P.

The movement might well have collapsed, were it not for its female supporters, who remain largely hidden. Besides Ellen O’Leary, who highlighted the prisoners’ plight in the radical press, handsome Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa of Clonakilty (Rossa’s third wife) wrote poetry and toured America, giving patriotic readings. The women formed a Ladies’ Committee and assisted the dependants of detainees.

Some working-class women registered their opposition to the status quo. In Cork, Susan O’Connell, who had married Capt. Mackey on the run, became a local celebrity. Her sister Mary and Albina Mahony, a young dressmaker, who had been held and searched without privacy during Capt. Mackey’s trial, threatened the constabulary with exposure in the transatlantic press and won damages for unlawful imprisonment.

Women hid various activists on the run. In Lisronagh near Clonmel, Felix O’Neill, a leader, had created a dugout on his farm. His sister Margaret had assisted in preparations for the Rising and managed the rescue of Capt. Laurence O’Brien, a native of Cahir, from Clonmel Jail in 1867. O’Brien finally escaped to America, where he became a Clan na Gael leader in New Haven.

The Soldiers of Liberty. A Study of Fenianism, 1858 – 1908 by Eva O’Cathaoir, published by Lilliput Press. €60

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