From The United Irishman, 8th April, 1899. The author, going by the pseudonym ‘Rapparee’ is most likely The O’Rahilly. ‘Rapparee’ was used by The O’Rahilly in later contributions to Irish Freedom, the organ of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1913. The O’Rahilly was also known to have contributed to The United Irishman and Sinn Féin.
Let us take Fenianism at close quarters.
Ireland still has her old, old cause, and what is Fenianism if not a formidable expression of that? It has started many trains of thought, but the first question with which people – I mean those who think about it all – trouble themselves is – ‘When had it beginning?’
Trying to answer that would be vain and profitless work. To fix exactly the date when Fenianism originated is impossible; but, while that is so, there is something to be said about its age, which might prove worth attending to. Fenianism is an expression of the old cause of Ireland. It is the antithesis to content in subjection, or it is meaningless; consequently, in span of time it reaches, as may easily be ascertained by the unprejudiced, far above the Sixties, the years to which it has hitherto been confined in popular intelligence. A few lines by ‘Speranza’ will, I think, throw a sufficiently strong first light on this phase of the question. She writes, in her own soul-firing way: –
Pass the word that bands together-
Word of mystic conjuration-
And, as fire consumes the heather,
So the young hearts of the nation
Fierce will blaze up, quick and scathing,
‘Gainst the stranger and the foe.
Fenianism, then, is not a mushroom-growth by any means. The word was passed, and young hearts blazed up, ‘quick and scathing ‘gainst the stranger,’ long before Lady Wilde had learned how to pen a stanza, or James Stephens had administered an oath. The history of Fenianism is as old in Irish archives as its features are ineradicably imprinted on tower and cromlech. The mystic letters, ‘I.R.B.,’ no more than head a chapter of the story. Briefly, and in truth, Fenianism is patriotism militant, patriotism voiced by ring of steel rather than by a chord of harp. It existed in the far-off times pitched on by the Munster bard when he lamented: –
O, my peace of soul is fled,
I lie outstretched like one half dead,
To see our chieftains, old and young,
Thus trod by the churls of the dismal tongue!
No, Fenianism (otherwise, patriotism militant) is not the dwarf of a day which Crown Prosecutors and West Britons have been trying to put out of sight for five-and-twenty years and more. Neither is it the blood-besprent infamy, for which the lenient statesmen of England have, by fair means and foul, in season and out of season, bespoken the execration of the universe. It is a fact worth repeating – one, indeed, which should never be forgotten – that those who upheld its principles most staunchly were invariably men of sterling character. Tried on known fields, social, political, or other, and never found wanting, best beloved of home circles, whose virtues would shed lustre on any Christian nation, there was no thing ignoble in them at any time; consequently as apostles of Fenianism, they were actuated only by sense of justice, and so they sought only (as opportunity offered) to have removed or modified the centuried wrongs which oppressed their country.
So far, the Fenian patriots themselves. What, now, of the means which they found at hand, of their methods in the work of redemption which they had at heart? Differences in these there were, to be sure, but they were merely differences of degree in patriotic ardour, or of accident incidental – to advancing time. Fenianism (otherwise patriotism militant), the great inspiring cause, was never absent. Thus, it was Fenianism which Wolfe Tone preached when he pleaded the cause of Ireland in France, and it was because he was a patriot of the Fenian stamp, not because he was an officer of the French Army, that he was refused afterwards, by the English in Ireland, a military execution and sentenced to die ‘the death of a traitor’ within forty-eight hours of his conviction. It was Fenianism William Orr confessed when, with the gallows staring him in the face, he prayed that his five children might love their country as he had done, ‘and die for it if needful.’ It was by Fenianism Robert Emmet was inspired when he wished that his memory and name might animate those who survived him – and Meagher, when he protested against the ignoble doctrine that ‘The liberty of the world is not worth the shedding of one drop of human blood’ – and Mitchel, when he declared the purpose of the United Irishman to be the resumption of ‘the Holy War to sweep this island clear of the English name and nation.’ It was Fenianism all along – the same spirit riding the wave of time, now, perhaps, serene as a river in summer, now darkled over like the river in winter’s gloom. It was there rejoicing when the Dane was driven from Clontarf, and it has not forsaken Ireland ever since. It wept and groaned amid the ruins of Waterford at Eva’s ill-starred marriage. It nerved the wounded Mageoghegan’s hand at Dunboy. It brought Owen Roe O’Neill with his ‘company of veterans’ and his ‘100 officers’ to the service of Ireland. It fathered the American Navy with ‘saucy’ Jack Barry, ‘half-Irishman and half-Yankee’ that he was. It braved the tortures and hypocrisies of Pentonville, and it bore to Heaven the last prayer of the martyred Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien – ‘God save Ireland.’
That was Fenianism in the times gone by. That is Fenianism now, and, viewed either way, it should appeal to the minds of thinking Irishmen as a subject worthy of their best attention. Now, has it ever had that? I do not think so, except from the few. The many who have invariably regarded the patriots of the past as fools who had loved their country ‘not wisely, but too well,’ evoluted into fierce, relentless hunters of the patriots of the Sixties. No; the Fenians, as they are called, and will be called to the end of time, have had little mercy shewn them. They have been classed with the Carbonari and the Illuminati, and all placed beyond the pale of reasonable consideration under the pall-title, ‘Secret Society.’ There they have lain for many a year bound and helpless, a target for any miserable sham who so desired, to bespatter them. Surely, it is time now to give the matter some little thought from another side. I have said that the letters ‘I.R.B.’ head no more than a chapter in the story of Fenianism with which I am dealing. I now say similarly as regards the term ‘Secret Society.’ I say in addition: Developments outside the range of ordinary calculation are no less incidental to revolutionary bodies than they are to established governments, and, simply, because expediency, always imperious, attends the councils of all. It is not uncommon, therefore, not surprising, to find information of some patriotic body, whose existence may or may not have received sanction in law, knitting its forces in the interests of human liberty, and, at the same time to find, running through the same channels, information as to some secret treaty or compact entered into, or in course of incubation, between fixed governments. It would thus appear that the title, ‘Secret Society,’ is due equally to governments and revolutionary bodies. But, since a government must from its very nature be functionally capable of rising to more than a secret utilisation of power, so, also, it may be claimed that for Fenianism (otherwise, patriotism militant) that the power of expansion, of extending its operations into realms of light and knowledge, has not been denied a place among the essentials upon which it stands. In a word, the ‘resources of civilisation’ are not, in justice, more available, for either secret or open using to ruling tyrants than they are to intending liberators.
But Fenianism should not be considered only as a secret society. It should be raised above the blue fogs of foreign enmity, through which it looms a distorted skulking thing of evil, so that all may see it as it is – the bold expression of a nation’s unconquerable spirit. To honourable men it presents nothing at all repugnant to the finer feelings, although its relationships are numerous enough. Let us take it in four aspects, viz, – (1) as a sentiment; (2) as a practicality; (3) as to how it is hindered; (4) in its propagandism.
As one cannot bind down Fenianism to the Sixties, or the Forties, or the Thirties, without violating preconceived ideas on patriotism, neither can one trace it back through 1798 and times anterior without becoming sentimental. In fact, it would be something akin to sacrilege to attempt to do so. Really, this Fenianism gives form and grace to sentiment of a beautiful order. From decade to decade, throughout Ireland’s term of subjection, it has been the fairy bond linking one with another the racial distinctions of the Irish people, and he or she of Irish birth who fails to perceive that much must be de-nationalised indeed.
To give a definition of it in harmony with this idea, it is patriotism animate with poetic spirit – the vivified evidence of Gaelic indestructibility, appearing sometimes grand, majestic, awe-inspiring; sometimes prone, veiled, never suppliant, even when presenting a nation’s rosary of sorrows. But, no matter how we view it, we must ever cherish it in grateful sense as an inherited treasure. It lives in the very air we breathe, it sends ennobling messages to our souls, through the throbbing of our hot Irish hearts. And yet there are Irish people who would drown all thought of it, because, indeed in their estimation it is only a mere sentiment. So be it, so far as such poor creatures are concerned. There are still amongst us a few who, closing their eyes to the present, its embroilments and its hypocrisies, can go back in spirit and grieve among the tombs of old without numbering hope with the dead; who can sing with the heart’s glad laughter in ancient halls, yet not forget the calls of the present; or, better still, join some umbered warrior host, striving sword to sword for beloved motherland. Aye, let them be, they are but delvers of unhonoured graves, and their tracks shall be blotted from the face of Ireland as completely as rime of winter is swept away when summer comes.
Ireland, feud-vexed Ireland, owes her racial vitality to the existence of this sentiment. That it is which has made the past sacred for her and for us, which has given us so many bardic, thoughtful, and soldier spirits to light us over gloomy places, which has given us memories of cell and cromlech, of town and rath, of sacrifice and glory, to lead us safely upward and onward on the rugged path of duty to motherland.
This mere sentiment of ours is a glorious possession, real as intangible, true as the mask under which the mean-spirited would hide it is false. Need more be said? No; good men, while proclaiming the truth and the faith animating them, may return the liars’ tribute marked ‘Slander.’
Whose edge is sharper than the sword; whose tongue
Outvenoms all the worms of Nile.
So far, Fenianism as a sentiment, I take leave of it reverently, only, however, to bring it back again as a practicality which stands on every road, a rugged reminder that Irishmen are still subject (albeit unwillingly) to the usurping foreigner.
From this unsentimental point of view, Fenianism is the Irish incarnation of the stern old Roman’s conception in the words, Delenda est Carthago. Read ‘Britannia’ for ‘Carthago;’ bear in mind that the change carries justice for injustice as well as difference in scene and time, and Fenianism as a practicality stands described, if not according to Blackstone and Edward III, certainly as ingrained on every true Irish heart. But how, it may be asked, can this come practically home to the people? While Carthage flourished the dread sentence never ceased from filling the Roman ear, and it cannot be denied that Fenianism (otherwise, patriotism militant) has given promise of co-existence with usurper rule in Ireland to the end. From this bed-rock of vitality it has already sent forth agencies of influence to keep the Irish heart ‘quick and scathing ‘gainst the stranger and the foe.’ These agencies are active to-day, and they come home to the people through every avenue of civilisation. In other words, if Fenianism has militated in the past towards the preservation and development of the racial individuality of the Irish people, so also has it braced it for conflict with other individualities on the cosmopolitan stage. And, as in the past, so now, too, let us hope, for the future. And there is every need that this should be so. The British Carthage still frowns and defies. Nevertheless, and even though the watchdogs of freedom may be, for the time, leashed in Ireland, there is yet no need to despair. For, while the potentialities of civilisation may have languished to mere wayside pretensions in this land of ours, they are not so weakened but that some day they shall bring forth a worthy Irish interpreter of the Romans’ faith. But that means the old cause soaring in distant skies, Fenianism in action and in action all along a constantly lengthening front. Nothing more serious than this view of our subject could engage the attention of patriotic Irishmen. Listen to D’Arcy McGee more than thirty years ago – ‘Without the egotism,’ said he, winding up his booklet on Irish Writers, ‘and the agencies of nationality, the mind of Ireland can never assume its prominence among the aggregated minds of civilised states. Never! Never! It is useless to conceal the whole evil from ourselves – we not only suffer politically, but in literature, in art, in science, in the tenderest recesses of character, and in the most sensitive stages of intellect, by being, as a kingdom, struck out from the map of the earth.’
That is a sort of thing (and it reaches other than ‘sensitive stages of intellect’) against which Fenianism has as a practicality to stand unceasingly. It is appalling to think of, especially when we recollect that the very same Irish-born people who scoff at Fenianism as a sentiment, regard it as a practicality with enmity real and fierce, as well because of its impregnability when passive, as because it can be aggressive when opportunity favours. They see artisan and scholar, labourer, and professional man attacked, and yet their eyes never weary looking towards the East for more waves of invasion. Phalanx on phalanx of deadliest antagonisms to everything Irish pass before them, linked and massed for the complete subjugation of their brothers, but it only gives them pleasure. Seemingly the cardinal virtue of their apostacy lies in the belief, which passes with them for conviction, that the people of Ireland need not look for success in trade, profession, literature, or art unless they first cast off their Irish airs and ape the stranger.
From The United Irishman, 15th April, 1899.
The Irish writer must go to London to win applause, or half-starve at home writing down to English standards. The Irish doctor must follow, or, if he stay at home, purge himself of his Irishism in the fires of West British society. The Irish trader must trouble about nothing but foreign agencies and the intricacies of sharp practice. The Irish youth must never touch the sword, must not even look in books for its Irish record – the scabbard alone, for him, unless he flash the blade for alien interests and learn to scorn his native land. The Irish maiden must not blush with the wonted modesty of Inisfail, the glare of the sun that rises and sets in London should chase away all that.
So on, they would have us go, until at last the spirit of Fenianism no longer dwelt amongst us, either as a sentiment in our breasts or with shields racial protecting us from dangers in the world utilitarian. Hence, it is manifest that were Fenianism removed from Ireland loss incalculable must ensue to the Irish people. No seed, no fruit – that is the order of nature – and Ireland without Fenianism cannot have autonomy. For that reason Fenianism must remain, also because if slow in fruiting it is quick and generous in flowering – yes, it must remain, and be protected by all the skill of the Irish mind, and warmed and nurtured deep in the Irish heart.
Ireland has already been well-served by this Fenianism. That it is which has marked the professional talent of her children, their literary or artistic genius, their business acumen, so that all might be known as distinctively Irish; and it has proved their prowess on the battle-field. Thus – while Owen Roe O’Neill was bracing for the struggle in Ireland he, at the same time, was winning laurels as a commander in the armies of Spain. And who won Fontenoy for France? Who, after Lafeyette, helped mostly in gaining for America her freedom? Who were boldest to keep the light of learning burning throughout the eclipsing horrors of the Middle Ages? Irishmen, Irishmen all, with Fenianism ardent and active in their breasts. Indeed the practicality of Fenianism needs little proof, as little the value of it when earnestly advanced. Both are proven home in the fact that all the greatness, all the glory, whether in war or in peace, in the quiet cloister or in the forum, won by exiled sons of Ireland, resulted to those chiefly who were most intensely Irish.
But if this Fenianism cannot be uprooted from the land, it can be, and it has been, suppressed and hindered in many ways from its natural development. In former days the means employed for the removal of Fenianism were drastic indeed. Physical suffering, treachery, forfeiture, deprivation of education, were well-known weapons then. All official classes, lay and clerical, joined in the murderous game whenever it became that, and it did often. That is the story of Fenianism, its trials, its deathlessness, as told by archaeologist and historian, and as illustrated by antiquities now, I am sorry to say, in custody more British than Irish. It is told in a sense international with equal vividness. Witness the action of the military in Ireland, who on arresting Wolfe Tone, insulted his French uniform by attempting to place him in fetters – witness, also, the conduct of the brutes who flung the mutilated bodies of Teeling and Matthew Tone into the ‘Croppy Hole’ behind Arbour-hill. These indignities were, I believe, designed and carried out for the set purpose of intimidating those Irish hirelings as well, were ever capable of countenancing worse. They would stamp out Fenianism abroad and at home, but they had to learn that it could be deathless anywhere. When they buried it with the remains of Tone and Teeling in that ‘Croppy Hole’ they only helped to root it, as happened long before when their butcher predecessors drove it over the Shannon.
Many, indeed, were the methods adopted for killing Fenianism. If our patriots were sought out for destruction, so also were our Brehon law-books, our hagiologies, our croziers, our torcs, and our pikes. It was the same destroying spirit that inscribed the statutes which gave us English names and garments, that cut away our glib, that banned our tongue, that made State wards of our young nobility, that banished the schoolmaster and the bard. And the hatred for, and jealousy of, Fenianism are as fierce and false to-day as ever they were. The official of the hour can smile with a very angry ‘No’ on his lips, and the shouldering, obtrusive patriotism of unprincipled politicians is quite capable of thrusting even an Emmet aside. There is something peculiarly melancholy in this, for it cannot be denied that Fenianism, as a consequence, is at a very low ebb, indeed. There is no time apparently for anything but provincialising politics; no time to go for more than political scalps. How the great ollamhs of old would stare could they step down the ages just now and see the poor cosmopolites by whom they would be displaced before the generations!
Why are authorities responsible for the systems of education now prevailing amongst us permitted to repress all ardour in Irish study unquestioned? Is it forgotten that ‘the best inheritance of a people is a true history;’ that ‘while they possess that and value it, they can never lose their country or their liberty’? Why are friends of the working-class constantly praying for the extension of State control into quarters where Irish workingmen can now labour, faithful still to country? Do they not know that that would be but to deprive artisans of their independence and Ireland of much of her muscular strength, just as through the Civil-Service she has been shorn of much of her brain-power? So on, the thinking-man might go for hours, and yet his queries would not be exhausted.
This is a bad state of affairs, so bad that it comes dangerously near killing all hope for the future of our country. One remedy, however, still remains, and that is to be found only in counteraction. Of course, I do not mean that sort of counteraction which I would here, paradoxically it may be, set down as passive. I leave that to those who, have skins to save, if they have not souls, whose kindergarten intellects think it soaring to the sublime when they waddle in the mire, whose patriotism consists in building up a monument to some dead Nationalist to-day, and toasting Her Majesty among the enemies of the country to-morrow.
How to advance Fenianism (otherwise, patriotism militant) that is the question. For the purpose of this article it is enough to say – Hold no parley with the denationaliser, no matter how richly he may be provided. Martyrs’ blood flowed freely in the past to keep the germ of Fenianism living, and yet with what result? Loss, because of subsequent yielding to the denationaliser. He, always following the hero, uprooted the fructifying seed – and then, worse. That is a lesson we should take from history. O’Neill was followed by Ormond, Ormond by Cromwell. It is a lesson which should be taken to heart and never forgotten, for even if there be not machinery for advancement in the words, ‘No Compromise,’ there is, at least, solid ground to stand upon. Let there be no compromising with carpet-bag Anglicisers, or with the imbeciles who would have all believe that Ireland is a partner equal with England in Disraeli’s Imperial Valhalla. Then, too, we can advance a little. Start say, Reading-rooms, where books of Irish interests will stand on every shelf, and Literary Societies; whose programmes will cover more than memories of the past, and Gymnasiums, and Gaelic Clubs, and Theatrical Companies, and Trade Guilds, and Agencies, and Boys’ Brigades, and classes for children, where Irish may be learned and the history and the songs of native land and the truth that Ireland should be free. Teach members of Parliament that they form only a portion of the army of Ireland which should ever move straight on towards autonomy. Spread by all means available Irish ideas, let it be in song or in story, by newspapers, periodicals, lectures, private converse – no matter how, only spread them. But mind the children – above all, mind the children. They will make the next generation; and if we can do no more than keep the banner of the old cause flying, the sublime spirit of Fenianism living, they may yet thank us for that, and reverence our memories. Nay, more, becoming stronger than our sires were, it may be their privilege to fan the flame of Irish Patriotism to the glorious and glorifying light of victory.