The Rebirth of Nationalism
The Irish Nationalist movement rose out of the anger people felt about the famine and the continuing economic disparities of their island. It first manifested itself in agrarian secret societies — groups of farmers and laborers who secretly gathered in the countryside to enforce their own views of justice, usually against landowners and their agents. Groups like this had existed for over a century, but in the 1850s their campaigns of rural terrorism and economic sanctions became more aggressive and targeted specifically the English. The most powerful of these secret societies was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), known commonly as the Fenians.
The name “Fenian” referred to Finn MacCool's legendary band of warriors, the Fianna, who defended Ireland in the distant past. (See Chapter 3 for the stories of Finn's legendary exploits.)
The principal mover behind the Fenians was James Stephens, a fiery orator with a gift for organization and a vague notion of an independent Irish nation. John O'Mahoney, the head of the powerful U.S. Fenian chapter, was his ally. Stephens and O'Mahoney built the Fenian Brotherhood into a secret, semirevolutionary society with thousands of members. They founded the newspaper
Fenians in Ireland were mostly Catholic farmers and shopkeepers who had little political power. So the Fenian leaders decided that their greatest chance for success lay not in politics but in armed revolt, just like Wolfe Tone had envisioned in 1798. Working with O'Mahoney, Stephens actively recruited Irish-American Civil War veterans to come fight for Ireland.
The 1867 Uprising and the Manchester Martyrs
In 1867 the Fenians took action. They didn't have enough weapons to pose any real threat to British military power, but they hoped that an act of armed defiance would encourage the people to rise up against England. They launched several raids to steal weapons from police and coast guard stations; unfortunately for them, the people did not rally to their aid as they had hoped, and most of their fighters got caught. The English quickly broke up the Fenian military organization and imprisoned its leaders. They executed Fenian leaders William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien on dubious legal grounds. These men became known as the “Manchester Martyrs.”
The 1867 Uprising didn't have much of a material impact. But the Fenians and the Manchester Martyrs had planted Nationalist ideas in the minds of the Irish people, and these ideas gradually transformed themselves into action.