The Bold Fenian Men

 

'Twas down by the glenside, I met an old woman

A-plucking young nettles, she ne’er saw me coming

I listened a while to the song she was humming

Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men

 

'Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming

On strong manly forms, on eyes with hope gleaming

I see them again, sure, in all my sad dreaming

Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.

 

When I was a young girl, their marching and drilling

Awoke in the glenside sounds awesome and thrilling

They loved poor old Ireland, to die they were willing

Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.

 

Tis nearly a hundred years since Peadar Kearney wrote those words about The Bold Fenian Men, and a century-and-a-half since seven Irish exiles, in New York City, got together to do something which was revolutionary from the start.  Revolutionary from the start in that recent, previous Irish risings against English rule had begun as reform movements, and had developed into physical force revolution only after reform was frustrated and/or the English occupation government had, often intentionally, provoked such action, in order to be able to chose the time of action.  The United Irishmen of 1798 had begun as such reformers.  Though the Irish Parliament which had sat at College Green in Dublin was achieved without revolution in Ireland, it was the result of intimidation by the Irish Volunteers during the American War for Independence.  Even this reform was corrupted and done away with by English bribery and intrigue, in the same manner as the Scottish Parliament in 1707 (“Such a parcel of rogues in a nation,” poet Robert Burns would later call them).  Daniel O’Connell’s movement to Repeal the “Act of Union,” though inherently, and emphatically, non-violent, was confronted by the threat of military action to visit slaughter upon those unarmed Irish people who might show up at his “Monster Meeting” at Clontarf.  The Young Ireland movement, which took up arms in 1848, had its roots in reform.  After the failure of the Rising in 1848, the locus of Irish revolutionary activity had shifted from Dublin to New York.  For the men who gathered in the law office of Michael Doheny of Tipperary (Chairman, Emmet Monument Association), as it would later be articulated by Brian O’Higgins in the Wolfe Tone Annual, the lesson of history was clear: Ireland had made progress toward freedom only through physical force, or the threat of physical force.  This was the cornerstone of the purpose of The Bold Fenian Men – The Fenian Faith.  

An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger of mid-19th century Ireland, which saw the population reduced by a half, was proof positive of the necessity, as Wolfe Tone had said in the 18th century, to break the connection with England.  John Mitchel would make the case in a most compelling manner that England had encouraged and aggravated the famine for the purpose of thinning the Irish population.  The “Famine” period would take on, for the Irish of the mid-19th century, the same psychological significance as the Nazi period has for the Jews of the 20th and 21st.

A conspiratorial élite of Irish exiles would seek to organize and train the Irish for the purpose of the future liberation of their homeland.  In part through the agency of the Emmet Monument Association, the 69th Regiment of New York had been brought into existence on 12th October 1851 (with Michael Doheny as its first Lieutenant Colonel) for the purpose training Irish exiles for the future liberation of Ireland.  Nor was the 69th the only such Irish regiment in the organized militias of the several States.  Realizing that any activity in America would be futile without cooperation in Ireland, these exiles, Michael Doheny, John O’Mahony, Michael Corcoran, Thomas J. Kelly, James Roche, Oliver Byrne and Patrick O’Rourke, meeting in New York, reached out to their former comrades-in-arms at home, with the result that Joseph Denieffe, Thomas Clark Luby and James Stephens brought the Irish Revolutionary/Republican Brotherhood (the IRB) into existence in Dublin on Saint Patrick's Day 1858. 

The IRB, which brought about the Rising in Dublin and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during Easter Week 1916, can trace its origin to this band of 1848 exiles, meeting first at 6 Centre Street, and then often in the Hibernian Hall managed by Michael Corcoran (of the 69th NYSM), near Saint Patrick's old Cathedral on Prince Street in New York City. 

James Stephens became the Head Center of the IRB in Ireland (later succeeded by Thomas Kelly in 1867), and the scholar John O’Mahony was appointed Head Center of the organization in America.  O’Mahony (who would command the 99th New York, another “Fenian” regiment, during the American Civil War – the “Phoenix Brigade”) had just finished translating Keating’s History of Ireland from Irish into English and was inspired by the example of na fianna, the élite national guard of third century Ireland.  He coined the word Fenian for the brotherhood in America.  Soon the terms Fenian and IRB became interchangeable.  The Fenian Brotherhood grew exponentially after the refusal of Colonel Michael Corcoran to parade the 69th for the visiting (so-called) “Prince of Wales,” 11th October 1860, and the multiple (recruiting) ceremonies en route of the ’48 man, Terrence Bellew M’Manus, who died in San Francisco in 1861, and was eventually buried in Ireland.  This growth was compounded in both armies during the American Civil War, as well as among Irish in the British Army.  By the summer of 1865, John Devoy was convinced that the time was ripe for a rising.  Professor Eoin McKiernan, former Editor of J.J. McGarrity’s The Irish Republic, and later founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute, agreed that Ireland’s best chance for freedom was probably the Fenians of the 1860s – The Bold Fenian Men.  At the grave of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, Pádraig Pearse would say,

“They have left us our Fenian dead,...”

 

Some died on the glenside, some died near a stranger

And wise men have told us their cause was a failure

But they fought for old Ireland and never feared danger

Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men

 

I passed on my way, God be praised that I met her

Be life long or short, sure I'll never forget her

We may have brave men, but we'll never have better

Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men

 

 

Contributed by: Liam Murphy and Charlie Laverty


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