The origins of the modern Irish republican movement

UCC lecturer,  Gabriel Doherty, examines the origins of the modern Irish republican movement.
The origins of the modern Irish republican movement

The origins of the modern Irish republican movement are generally traced back to the creation of the Society of United Irishmen during the ideological ferment generated in the late 18th century by the Enlightenment and French revolution.

The later Fenian movement certainly regarded itself as the inheritor of that tradition. It is worth noting in passing, however, that (as demonstrated by the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich) discussions of republicanism in Ireland (which took as their models the polities of classical Greece and Rome), and its potential as the basis for political separation from Britain, predated the United Irishmen by a century or more.

And, of course, the Irish experience of the Cromwellian republic of the mid-17th century had been, to put it very mildly, decidedly negative.

These historical precedents notwithstanding, this new iteration achieved a number of successes; albeit, arguably its greatest one — achieving a mass following from the downtrodden Catholic population (drawn by its egalitarian premise) — was registered at the expense of its original inter-denominational intent, and at the cost of support from the Presbyterian community that had provided its original impetus.

The resulting tradition was a curious mixture of inspiring rhetoric and failed rebellions: 1798, 1803 and 1848, of which only the first had assumed menacing proportions.

These were rebellions of aristocratic or gentlemanly leadership, predominantly drawn from the small, ‘patriotic’ section of the Protestant community, and a following among the labouring, artisan, and plebeian classes, almost exclusively Catholic in their religious profession.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (the official name for the organisation popularly known as the Fenians) was formed in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day, 1858.

While in certain respects it represented continuity with the tradition dating back through Thomas Davis and Robert Emmet to Wolfe Tone (its initial cadre was drawn largely from those who had been members of the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s), it also embodied novel elements.

These were particularly evident in its cellular structure (although this had limited success in constraining the damage done by informers) and in its leadership.

The leadership was more broadly based than that of previous republican groups, with both Catholics and those from lower down the social scale were more evident than in the past.

Whether the latter feature or others (such as its oath-bound nature) were the prime cause of a hostility evinced towards it by the Catholic hierarchy (and all other denominations) is hard to say, but the animus was deep-seated and enduring.

For the vast majority of the rank and file of the movement (which included a small number of priests) the hierarchy’s hostility to them (or more specifically their leaders) was not reciprocated.

Most took the view that the political future of the country was a case of rendering unto Caesar, and that, in taking such a hard-line oppositional stance on an exclusively political question, the hierarchy had over-stepped its legitimate sphere of influence.

The movement developed along a number of lines, sometimes acting in concert with its American counterpart (Clan na Gael), sometimes independent of it; at times highly active, while at others virtually dormant.

Some advocated terror tactics, some conventional military actions (especially after an influx of Irish veterans of the 1861-1865 American Civil War), and others a policy of ‘wait and see.’

Its early promise as a revolutionary agent (or threat, depending on one’s viewpoint), as manifested in such actions as the ‘invasion’ of Canada and a poorly-executed uprising in Ireland in the mid-1860s, was not fully realised for many decades.

This was partly a consequence of judiciously-timed arrests of its leadership, and partly a result of a more general shift away from revolutionary activities towards the land question, home rule, and cultural revival from the late 1870s onwards.

The short-lived, and highly controversial, ‘dynamite campaign’ of the 1880s sundered any immediate prospect of unity.

Prominent critics such as James Stephens (the IRB’s progenitor) vehemently criticised Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, its best-known figure following a brutal period of imprisonment in the late 1860s, for having alienated swathes of middle-ground opinion as a result of his sponsorship of attacks on civilian targets in British cities.

The centenary commemoration of the United Irishmen Rising in 1898, and the Boer War that followed soon afterwards, did, however, offer the movement the opportunity to remember past glories; and, through the creation of an Irish Brigade to fight against the British in South Africa, to create new ones.

A generational shift in the early years of the 20th century saw a new, more vigorous leadership emerge, with Belfast the centre of the revival. The release from prision in 1898 if dynamite campaign veteran Thomas Clarke, and his subsequent return to Ireland, helped to form a bond between this new upper echelon and the older traditions of the movement.

Over the following years, this leadership put in place the organisational, ideological, and personnel infrastructure that planned, and carried through, the 1916 Easter Rising.

It was, first and foremost, a Fenian rising, and - although it seemed initially doomed to imitate the preceding failures - was ultimately the most successful of all.

Gabriel Doherty lectures at University College Cork’s school of history, and is a member of the Expert Advisory Group to the Ireland 2016 Centenary.

Enjoyed this? Then check out our dedicated micro-site, developed in collaboration with UCC, to mark the revolutionary period HERE 

For regular updates on news and features (as well as twitter action action as it may have happened 100 years ago) to mark the revolutionary period follow @theirishrev HERE

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