Ireland’s Other Proclamation

This St. Patrick's Day we remember the 1867 Fenian uprising — and its radical vision of an Irish Republic.

A Fenian flag modeled on the stars and stripes alongside a rifle used in the rising and a reproduction of its proclamation. (Pádraig Ó Ruairc)

Last year marked the centenary of the 1916 Proclamation, a declaration of self-government signed by the leaders of the Easter Rising. Its words, issued on behalf of the long-pursued Irish Republic, became lore:

In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom…

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible…

The Republic… declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

But the 1916 Proclamation was far from the most radical in Irish history. It offered a basis for women’s rights and guaranteed universal suffrage — progressive positions for their time — but was also limited by its tradition’s narrower aspects. Claiming its authority from God and wrapped in the language of mysticism, the proclamation crucially fell short in offering only a vague claim of possession over Ireland’s resources to its people.

Class was omitted entirely, something that was especially striking given the popularity of socialist politics in Europe at the time. As Connolly biographer Samuel Levenson wrote, the politics of the 1916 Proclamation were to the right of even the Fabians, “it says nothing about the need for overthrowing capitalism or for seizing the means of production from the ruling class. It does not even promise the ten-hour day, old-age pensions, or the end of child labour.”

However, 150 years ago this month, another proclamation was published in the London Times by the same Irish Republican Brotherhood referred to in 1916. Written “on behalf of proletarian Ireland” it contrasted notably with its successor:

We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.

The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored.

We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State…

Republicans of the entire world, our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy. Let your hearts be with us. As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms. Remember the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour.

Sharply secular and republican, this 1867 proclamation was also class conscious: agitating against the property rights of an economic oligarchy; contrasting “aristocratic leeches” with the popular classes, the “real owners of the soil”; and even referring to the “oppression” of the working-class and promising the people of Ireland the “intrinsic value of their labour.”

More striking still, for a proclamation of national liberation, was its internationalism. Much of this can be explained by the context of its progenitor, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians. Its founder was James Stephens, a man steeped in European revolutionary politics.

Exiled to France after the failed Young Ireland uprising he witnessed the 1848 Revolution and moved among what one contemporary described as “the ablest masters of revolutionary science.” So taken was he by their politics that nationalist publication The Irishman wrote at the time:

He saw that the Irish question was no longer a question of religion; his common sense was too large to permit him to consider it a question of race even; he felt it was the old struggle which agitated France at the end of last century, transferred to new ground; the opposing forces were the same, with this difference, that in Ireland the people had not the consolation in all cases of saluting their tyrants as their countrymen.

A year before the 1867 uprising, Stephens was enrolled in Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association by Italian radical Cesare Orsini. Although he would never become an active member, and even went so far as to distance himself from “European socialism,” James Connolly would write that Stephens’ Fenianism was “a responsive throb in the Irish heart to those pulsations in the heart of the European working class which elsewhere produced the International.”

But by the time of the Fenian Uprising in 1867 James Stephens was in exile in Paris. His Fenian army, estimated to be tens of thousands strong, had been preparing for an uprising in 1865. Within such a mass body, however, secrecy proved impossible and in September the mass arrests of Fenian leaders and the suppression of The Irish People newspaper devastated the organizational ability of the body.

With the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, a new leadership emerged which was in many ways spearheaded by Irish-American officers and veterans. This was the first time an Irish movement had drawn so heavily on the support, funding and military expertise of Irish America.

The likely author of the 1867 Proclamation was Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, a Union civil war veteran who had emigrated to America as an eighteen-year-old from Galway. As a printer in Tennessee when the war broke out he had been “the last man to fly the starry flag in Nashville” before leaving to join the 10th Ohio, an Irish regiment, as a private.

During the war he was seriously wounded — a bullet destroyed part of his jaw before lodging in his neck — and then promoted for his gallantry, eventually reaching the rank of colonel. On leaving the service he became active with the Fenians, first in America and then in Ireland itself, rising to be James Stephens’ righthand man.

He worked with Stephens for months — masterminding his escape from prison and travelling with him to exile — continuously debating the prospects of insurrection. While the former was still reeling from the repression of 1865, Kelly grew more emboldened and determined to strike as soon as possible. Eventually, Stephens’ caution drew the ire of other Fenians and Kelly usurped him, becoming Organizer of the Irish Republic in his place and coordinating plans for an uprising in March 1867.

The Ireland he aimed to liberate was less than twenty years removed from the devastating Great Famine. Its population was largely disenfranchised — even after the 1850 Reform Act, which had broadened the electorate to every man with property worth over 12 pounds. While one-third of English men had been granted the vote as a result, fewer than one in six in Ireland could say the same.

Accordingly, the Fenian movement was largely drawn from the popular classes: rank-and-file artisans and urban workers. As Karl Marx remarked, Fenianism was “characterised by a socialistic tendency and by being a lower orders movement… the movement took root (and is still really rooted) only in the mass of the people.”

Two years previously it had been an impressive organization, even managing major infiltration into the British Army in Ireland. At one point prominent Fenian John Devoy estimated that as many as 8,000 of the 26,000 troops stationed on the island were loyal to the Brotherhood. But word of this infiltration reached the upper echelons of the army and a simple solution was found, many units populated by Irish soldiers were moved abroad.

This, along with the crackdown in 1865, had seriously weakened the Fenians, and by the time the 1867 uprising occurred the Brotherhood was a shadow of its former self. Only about 10,000 men took part in skirmishes in Leinster and Munster, with the largest being in Tallaght in the hills to the south-west of the capital. A day later the rebellion in Ireland, which the Irish Times dubbed a “wretched conspiracy,” was defeated.

But Fenianism also struck blows in North America, where a number of raids were launched across the border into Canada. The largest of the so-called “Fenian Raids” resulted in the Battle of Ridgeway, when a force of approximately 850 Canadian soldiers engaged Fenian forces. It was notable as the first time the name Irish Republican Army (IRA) was carried into battle.

A popular contemporary song joked:

We are a Fenian Brotherhood

Skilled in the art of war.

And we’re going to fight for Ireland.

The land that we adore.

Many battles we have won.

Along with the boys in blue.

And we’ll go and capture Canada,

For we’ve nothing else to do.

In a letter to Paris-based magazine Liberté Colonel Kelly defended the Fenian uprising, despite its failures:

The national soil, the abolition of salaries, and the Republican form based on universal suffrage, such is what is desired by the Ireland of 1867, regenerated by the stay of its exiles in America…

We are a people and a principle — that is to say, the eternal and the absolute. Can a principle be vanquished? Why, therefore, do you say we are vanquished? Did not Christianity commence by defeats? Did it not, like us, water the ground with the blood of its martyrs…

Our movement is only commencing, and is not about to finish.

Kelly himself was arrested twice during 1867 — his second escape, in Manchester, became known as “the Smashing of the Van” and resulted in the death of a local policeman. Three Fenians arrested for this endeavour were later executed, becoming the legendary “Manchester Martyrs.”

Marx and Engels had been strong supporters of their cause before the execution, with the former pushing the First International to organize a public meeting on the Irish question that November. The meeting expressed its solidarity with the Irish liberation struggle and criticized conservative leaderships in British trade unions which refused to support the cause.

Although privately critical of the Fenians’ tactics — particularly as they descended into aimless bombing campaigns after the failed uprising — Marx and Engels never uttered a word against them in public, insisting that to do so would harm the unity of the international working class and encourage chauvinist tendencies in the labor movement.

This was evidence of their developing position on the anti-colonial struggle, one which would progress to see it as central to the cause of socialism. As Engels wrote in 1869, two years after the Fenian uprising:

For a long time I believed that it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.