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Chapter XII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


State of Ireland in 1865 - The Fenian Conspiracy: Origin of the Brotherhood: Its rapid Development after the Cessation of the American War: Its Constitution and Laws: Measures of Lord Wodehouse: Arrest of Stephens, the Head Centre; His Escape from Richmond Bridewell: Fenian Prisoners tried by Special Commission: Case of Thomas Luby - Reflections on Irish Disaffection.
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Among the results of the American War, that which came home most rapidly and strikingly to the English mind was the organisation of the Fenian conspiracy. Ireland has suffered for centuries from chronic discontent, the effect of many causes, which may, perhaps, be summed up in one - that of a radical incompatibility of temper between the ruler and the ruled, the Saxon and the Celt. Often, as is well known, this chronic disease has become acute; discontent has flamed out into civil war, fanned by some favouring breeze of circumstance. Sometimes the occasion has been trouble in England, as in Cromwell's day, - for, according to the often quoted maxim, " England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity; " sometimes, as in 1798, and partly in 1848, it has been the re valence of revolutionary doctrine abroad; sometimes it has been misfortune at home, as was partly the case in 848; and now, in 1865, it was the sudden cessation of a long war across the Atlantic. Every American knows well the extent of the " Irish element " in the United States.. For years the stream of Irish emigration has flowed westward, and emptied itself into the Hudson river. In 1871, there were close upon five millions of Irish Catholics in the United States, the bulk of whom had fled from home as a plague, and bitterly attributed their expatriation to British misgovernment. Of the discontented Irish, the most discontented have long looked on New York as their home - or rather, not as their home, but as a convenient base of operations from which to sail back again to the conquest of Ireland. The end of the war threw hundreds of Irishmen out of work. It mattered little whether they had fought for North or South; hatred of " the Saxon," and the chance of making a display in the cause of Erin, were strong bonds of union. Hence arose the Fenian Brotherhood - a military conspiracy, with civil branches, having for its object " the overthrow of the Queen's government in Ireland, and the establishment of the Irish Republic." No one seems to know quite certainly the origin of the name " Fenian;" but the commonest explanation, and a very suitable one, is that it is derived from Fingal, or Finn, or Froinn, one of the heroes of Irish legend, and well known from the relics of his name in the north of Ireland and from the part he plays in Macpherson's " Ossian." At all events, it is now notorious that the name of the organisation, was suggested by John O'Mahony, of New York, a Celtic scholar of some repute, who had to fly from Ireland, with his life in his hand, in " '48," for an abortive attempt to excite the Tipperary peasantry to armed resistance. Whether or not the Fenians claim kindred with Fingal, their object was to bring back Ireland under the rule of its own people; and this, not by lawful means, not by Home Rule agitation and pressure on Parliament and public opinion, but by force. " There is no time to be lost," wrote one of the leaders (John O'Leary, afterwards putative editor of the Irish People); " this year - and let there be no mistake about it - must be the year of action.... The flag of Ireland, of the Irish Republic, must this year be raised." " I was told," said a witness at one of the Fenian trials, "that arms were to be given to carry out those objects.... They told me that the Fenians in Ireland were to be officered by French officers; and since the war was over in America, that they were to be officered by Federal officers." Again, a Thomas Mooney wrote, " We have an Irish leader in John O'Mahony, backed by 50,000 veteran Irish soldiers in America ready for the word." These are a few indications, taken at random from many documents which were produced at the trial of various prisoners. But the most striking of all, that which illustrates most vividly the nature and extent of the organisation and the intensity of the feeling underlying it, is that which was called an "Address to the Brotherhood all over the world." The principal portions of it are as follows: -

"Brothers! We deem it prudent to withhold, for the present, from publication in the newspapers certain important resolutions, having special reference to the revolutionary movement in Ireland, which have been submitted to this Convention by the Head Centre of the Fenian Brotherhood in America, and unanimously adopted. Printed copies of these resolutions will be placed before the different circles of our organisation in this country, and will also be transmitted, at the earliest fitting opportunity, to our friends at home. In the meantime, we do not wish to septate without addressing to you a few guarded words, such as we can afford to have read by all whom it may concern, respecting the present aspect of our cause. We are solemnly pledged to labour earnestly and continuously for the regeneration of our beloved Ireland. That pledge, with the blessing of Divine Providence, we shall redeem; and when the wished-for hour will have arrived, we shall be prepared, with you, to meet the implacable persecutors of our race in battle array, to put an end for ever to the accursed system under which our unhappy people have suffered such cruel tortures, or die like men in the attempt. And in what holier cause has man ever died? How much Irish blood has fallen upon the battle-fields of the world P Alas! how much Irish blood has been shed in the service of our country's oppressor - the plunderer and murderer of her people - the fell enemy of her faith? Over this subject, and others connected with it, we have pondered long and bitterly. But our resolve is fixed and irrevocable; the foul stigma which attaches to our name must be wiped out. We do not ask, will you be ready? We know you are ready; nine-tenths of the Irish people have at all times been ready in the heart and will to dispute with armed hands the invader's right to enslave and exterminate them. But this is not enough, We must be 'skilled to do' as well as 'ready to dare.' We are thoroughly convinced of the utter futility of legal and constitutional agitations, parliamentary 'policies,' and all similar delusions. These things have brought more suffering upon our people than would be caused by the most protracted and devastating war. The best of them would but expose the ardent and the brave to the vengeance of cruel despots, and, be it remembered, that such sacrifices beget no noble aspirations. No enslaved people ever regained their independence, or became formidable to their enslaver, without illegal (in the enslaved sense) pre-organisation.... Here we have soldiers armed and trained (thousands of them trained in the tented field, and amid the smoke and thunders of battle), with able and experienced generals to lead them. Let the cities and towns and parishes of Ireland have their brigades, regiments, battalions, and companies of partially disciplined soldiers of liberty silently enrolled. Above all things, let every man be pledged to obey the commands of his superior, and pledged also never to move -without such commands, for obedience to command is the first and the most important requisite to the soldier; all the rest is secondary. Thus you will not only be prepared to strike with effect, but all rash attempts at insurrection will be prevented. Without such an organisation as we contemplate, partial uprisings of the people will be sure to occur, having no results but the sacrifice of brave men, and perhaps the ruin of our cause. When we strike, let us strike home; and are there not strong arms within the enemy's own shores to second the blow? Circumstances are in our favour such as Providence never before vouchsafed to an enslaved people. We have but to act as becomes brave and reasoning men, and ours shall be the pride and the glory of lifting our sorrowing Erin of the streams to her place among the nations. Brothers, rely upon us. We rely upon you.

" James Gibbons, Pennsylvania, Chairman; John O'Mahony, New York, President and Head Centre of the Fenian Brotherhood; Richard O'Doherty, Indiana, Daniel Grady, District of Columbia, and Daniel Carmody, Wisconsin, Vice - Presidents; Henry O'C. McCarthy, Illinois, and John A. Stuart, Indiana, Secretaries." (These names show the extent to which the organisation has reached in the Western states - a dangerous symptom, for those s pates are certainly not " centres of corruption," as New York city is sometimes said to be.)

In the possession of one of the convicted prisoners, by name Moore, a blacksmith, was found a pamphlet containing the rules and bye-laws of the Fenian Brotherhood, from which the following passages are extracted. They are sufficient to show that the Fenian movement is or was a thing undertaken in earnest by serious men. "constitution and bye-laws.

  1. "The Fenian Brotherhood. - The Fenian Brotherhood is a distinct and independent organisation. It is composed, in the first place, of citizens of the United States of America, of Irish birth and lineage; and in the second place, of Irishmen, and of friends of Ireland, living elsewhere on the American continent, and in the provinces of the British Empire wherever situated. Its head-quarters are, and shall be, within the limits of the United States of America. Its members are bound together by the following general pledge: -
  2. "General Pledge. - I [...] solemnly pledge my sacred word of honour as a truthful and honest man, that I will labour with earnest zeal for the liberation of Ireland from the yoke of England, and for the establishment of a free and independent Government on the Irish soil; that I will implicitly obey the commands of my superior officers in the Fenian Brotherhood; that I will faithfully discharge my duties of membership as laid down in the constitution and bye-laws thereof; that I will do my utmost to promote feelings of love, harmony, and kindly forbearance among all Irishmen; and that I will foster, defend, and propagate the aforesaid Fenian Brotherhood to the utmost of my power.
  3. "Form of Organisation. - The Fenian Brotherhood shall be subdivided into state organisations, circles, and sub-circles. It shall be directed and governed by a Head Centre, to direct the whole organisation; State Centres, to direct state organisations; Centres, to direct circles; and Sub-Centres, to direct sub-circles. The Head Centre shall be assisted by a central council of five; by a Central Treasurer, and Assistant Treasurer; by a Central Corresponding Secretary, and a Central Recording Secretary; and by such intermediate officers as the Head Centre may from time to time deem necessary for the efficient working of the organisation.
  4. "The Head Centre shall be elected annually by a general congress of representatives of the Fenian Brotherhood, which congress shall be composed of the State Centres and the Centres, together with elected delegates from the several circles of the organisation- each circle in good standing being entitled to elect one delegate."

These two documents are sufficient to show the kind of organisation, and the nature of the designs of the brotherhood. Although a prosecution had been resolved upon before either of them came into the hands of the authorities, enough was known to make severe measures not only justifiable, but necessary, if Ireland was to be saved from civil war. Lord Wodehouse (soon afterwards created Earl of Kimberley) was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time, and the credit or responsibility of most of the measures taken rests with him. The blow of authority first fell on the Press. A paper called The Irish People had for some time been published in Dublin, and widely circulated, which made no secret that its design was to incite the people of Ireland to insurrection and to a forcible severance of the union with England. A Privy Council was held at the Castle on the evening of the 15th of September; Mr. Stronge, the Chief Magistrate, was instructed to draw out warrants; a strong body of police was told off for sudden duty. None had known till that moment that anything was to be done. The warrants were given to the police, and they were marched to Parliament Street, to the office of the Irish People. The usual tactics were observed; bodies of police were placed at every point of egress, and the door was forced. Ten persons were arrested in the house, the principal of whom was the famous Mr. O'Donovan Rossa; and an immense amount of letters, printed papers, type and numerous important lists of Fenians were seize and carried off to the Castle yard. Very little disturbance, and absolutely no resistance, ensued. The prisoners hardly protested; the crowds which collected together and followed the police on their return attempted no rescue. Nor was any greater difficulty encountered by the Cork police, who made a descent upon the Fenians in that city at the same time. Indeed, the Irish police in general showed themselves very active at this juncture, and many of the southern towns were the scene of interesting captures. Each important arrest led to more, or gave a direction to the search, from the discovery of papers compromising other people. One person, for instance, who gave his name as Charles O'Connell, but whose real name was " Rafferty," was arrested as he entered Queenstown harbour in a steamer from New York. He had been an American captain; and his papers gave an illustration of the aid which Fenian agents had received from officers of high rank on the Federal side - a kind of set-off against the conduct of England towards blockade-runners and Confederate cruisers. O'Connell had numerous " passes " signed by American generals and others; one, a very significant one, may be given: - " Executive Department, Indianopolis.
"May 6, 1864.

" The bearer hereof, J. Daly, wishes to visit the army of the Cumberland and the Mississippi departments. He requests he may be permitted for the purpose of visiting the Irish soldiers therein.
" Morton, Governor of Indiana."

The document given above shows what was meant by the term " Head Centre." There were at this time two Head Centres - one in the United States (John O'Mahony), and one in Ireland (James Stephens). This latter - a personage of the highest importance in the brotherhood - was known under many names; his commonest designations being "J. Powell," and " James Stephens; " though he occupied his comfortable house in the neighbourhood of Dublin under the name of James Corbett. Stephens, it ought to be related, had passed three years in the country previous to the establishment of the Irish People. He had traversed and re-traversed the country in a variety of disguises, and under a cloud of aliases, sounding the peasantry as to their readiness for rebellion, and succeeding even in corrupting the loyalty of small portions of the Irish regiments. He went so far as to try his capacity for " organisation " by making overtures to the Orangemen of the North; but his advances were coldly repelled, and he found it useful to confine his ill- directed efforts to the other provinces. In these his fiery eloquence and bland persuasiveness prevailed with the lower part of the population. It is historically probable that, if the funds which afterwards poured in in such abundance from America had arrived in time, or had even been utilised when they did arrive, for the purpose for which they were contributed, there might have been a darker end to the disloyal conspiracy. But the movement was doomed to failure almost from its inception. When the long-threatened blow was on the eve of being struck, discontent broke out amongst the rank and file of the insurrectionary battalions. Hundreds of men who had worn the American uniform, and won their epaulettes on the battle-field, were starving in the garrets and kennels of Dublin and London; whilst the great Head Centre and financial fountain himself was living in an extravagant manner, and denying himself no indulgence. Disgusted at their treatment, about fifty of the immigrants proposed to end the matter promptly by shooting him, and precipitating a rebellion on their own responsibility. Stephens was warned of the plot, and took steps to pacify! his infuriated subordinates. He distributed money amongst them freely, and to this sudden outburst of judicious liberality he probably owed his life. This generosity came too late, for America unexpectedly ceased to send supplies, and the old murmurings broke out again with redoubled vehemence. This it was which broke the back-bone of the conspiracy and saved Ireland, let us trust for the last time, from the horrors of civil war. The police discovered that this James Corbett was the man they were in search of, and accordingly surrounded his house early one morning. They met with little resistance, though Stephens and his friends were well supplied with arms. In the same house with Stephens three other prominent Fenians were arrested, one of them being the " Charles J. Kickham " who had been looked for ever since the razzia upon the Irish People newspaper. When the prisoners were brought up for examination, Stephens protested most indignantly against the very existence of the law under which he was to be tried; he refused to take measures for his defence, and defied punishment. As it happened, and as perhapp he had guessed beforehand, he never came in want of legal assistance or in danger of punishment. " Bolts and bars could not hold him." He escaped from Richmond Bridewell on the night of November 24, and no amount of police activity or Government reward could secure his recapture. The naked truth is, that at a meeting of the Fenian Secret Council, held in Townsend Street, in Dublin, on the morning of November 22, it was decided to spend 250 in rescuing the imprisoned chief. The service had been offered, the reward was punctually paid, and the " General," as his followers called him, was rescued from his gaolers. The deliverance was effected in the middle of a night of rain and storm. Stephens' cowardice on this occasion dealt the first blow at his supremacy. Irish-American soldiers could not conceal their contempt for a man who, in his nervous panic, dropped the revolver with which he was furnished to fight his way, if necessary. It was plainly impossible that an escape of the kind, managed simply by unlocking seven of the prison doors one after another, could have been effected without collusion with some official or other. So the Government thought, and suspended the Governor of the gaol, and got Byrne, the turnkey, committed for trial. But Stephens never came back. It was not without reason that he had defied English punishments.

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