THE ORIGINS OF THE IRA
John William Tuohy
As the English imposed starvation of the Irish people increased, a group of young men arose in Ireland. Their legend, combined with the dreams for Irish freedom planted by Daniel O'Connell, would build the basis for the Irish Nationalist movement in America.
Called The Young Irelanders, the core of the group consisted of Thomas Davis, James Fintan Lalor, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Mitchel, Protestants one and all. What they sought to create, or to recreate, was the Ireland of old, the Ireland of the Celt. Each learned Gaelic and busied themselves translating ancient text into English. Unlike O'Connell, a devout Catholic, they sought an Ireland without religion, Catholic or Protestant.
Slowly, the group began to take on an extremist outlook in the matter of Irish freedom. The time seemed ripe for it. The famine was setting in and by 1847, 16 landlords had been shot to death by local farmers. For the idealistic, but completely oblivious Young Irelanders, it seemed that all that they had to do was to ignite an agrarian revolution. They would start by organizing a nationwide plan to refuse to pay rents and by setting up local chapters in every village in the country.
Both plans failed miserably. The rural Irish were starving to death and had no interest in joining yet another organization that seemed doomed to another failure. Furthermore, a refusal to pay rents would mean eviction and an end to the limited but dearly needed public relief from the English.
One of the group’s founders, John Mitchel called for a violent overthrow of the English government. The others in the organizations leadership disagreed and Mitchel left the group to start his own radical newspaper, the United Irishman.
In 1848, all of Europe was thrown into revolt, there were a popular rising in Sicily, Paris and Vienna, and even though Ireland herself showed no signs of revolt, the Young Icelanders reconsidered their nonviolent position and they rejoined the radical John Mitchel and openly advocated that the people arm themselves.
As a result the government arrested three of the leaders, tried them for sedation, sentenced them to fourteen years at hard labor and sent them off to Australia's labor camps.
Enrollment in the Young Ireland organization tripled after that and the group was taken over by the Protestant William Smith O'Brien, a descendant of Brian Boru.
O'Brien, tried to raise the county in insurrection, but few joined. With less than 50 followers and a few handguns the group attacked a police outpost in the rural countryside but were beaten off and eventually arrested. All of its members were rounded up and sentenced to death but later had their sentences commuted to life in Prison in concentration camps in New Zealand.
James Stephans and John O'Mahony had been with the Young Irelanders at the raid of the Police barracks. During the battle Stephans was shot in the leg, and although he escaped, he was forced to live in the high mountains while his wounds healed.
A short while later he was smuggled out of the country to the safety of France, where he once again met up with O'Mahony. They planned their strategy again and decided to try again.
While O'Mahony busied himself in Paris, and later the United States, Stephans returned to Ireland and formed the Irish branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, although, Ireland, being less direct in its descriptions then the Americans, would refer to the group as the Fenian Society.
Stephans brought in several pro-violence radical groups already existing into his own organization and despite a few set back posted by informants, the scourge of Ireland, the organization built itself up steadily, although the advent of the American civil war which resulted in a drop in funds, caused something of a delay in its plans to launch one final revolution inside of Ireland.
The branch brought some new practices into Irelands struggle; one was the massive amounts of money it received from America. Before this, the Irish rebels had always relied on the other Catholic European countries for assistance. But then again, the Fenian's leaders knew their history. They understood that in the past, Europe had always let them down. That mistake would not be repeated. This would be a revolution for and by Irishmen. Whatever money and weapons they took, they would take it from Irishmen the world over.
It was also the first time that there was a merging of the old rural based revolutionary and the city born rebels.
The influx of the city Irish into what had otherwise been the sole domain of the rural Irish worried the country Priests, and was soundly denounced by the Churchmen. But there was nothing new in that. The first scheduled time for the planned armed uprising in Ireland, which was to include simultaneously in uprisings in Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary, was postponed by 18 months by the American branch due to a glitch in providing the weapons to Ireland.
The I.R.B in Ireland did try to overrun Chester Castle in England with 1,200 men who intended to take over the Castle by infiltration, but the attack was foiled.
English agents working through paid informants learned that something was going to happen and acted first. Gun boats were placed on alert along the Irish coast in the event that the American Irish should try an invasion by sea. The Americans did send a ship called Erin’s Hope, filled with civil war veterans to Ireland, but the ship was captured and all aboard were arrested along with 88 other Americans in Ireland.
The Brotherhoods newspaper was closed down, its leadership locked up for years and Stephans was chased across the country and ended up back in New York.
On September the 18th, a Police van carrying two Fenian leaders back to Jail after a court hearing was stopped by armed IRB gunmen. One of the gunmen fired a round at the lock on the back of the van and the bullet ricocheted and killed a Police Sergeant.
Some of the gunmen were recaptured and three of them were placed on trial for the Police officers death, even though no one knew who had actually fired the fatal shot.
When their death sentences were read to them one of the accused stood and said "I do not say this for the sake of mercy. I want no mercy. I'll have no mercy. I'll die as many thousands have died for the sake of the beloved country or in defense of it"
All three men were hung by the neck four weeks later and for all given effects, the Fenian movement in Ireland died with them, if only temporarily.
For the American branch of the Fenian's there was nothing else worth waiting for. It was clear to them, as it had become clear to even O'Connell, that British simply wouldn't leave Ireland without bloodshed.
In 1857 O'Mahony and Michael Doheny, another escaped rebels under sentence of death in Britain were in hiding in North America and sent Owen Considine to Ireland with a secret letter to James Stephens which encouraged him to start the over throw of England’s Government in Ireland, assuring him that the Irish Americans will underwrite the efforts. He was to start by organizing a tightly knit rebel organization, first in Ireland and then in the United States.
With several hundred thousand dollars in Irish American funds, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was formed by James Stephans in Dublin on March the 17th in Peter Lanigan’s lumber yard. That organization, or a semblance of it, would remain intact for one hundred and fifty years.
Seven months later Stephans arrived in America in search of more funds and to establish the American wing of the planned insurrection. At a meeting held in New York’s Tammany hall he installed John O'Mahony as "supreme organizer and director of the Irish revolutionary Brotherhood in America"
O'Mahony, a scholar in Irish history who perhaps had a better feel for the Irish American frame of mind in regard to the fact that they were a people searching for respect within their own cultural identity, decided that Stephans name for the American wing of the organization should be changed to the Fenian Brotherhood of the United States, a name taken from the Fenian's of ancient Irish lore.