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Old February 22nd, 2012, 01:47 PM   #1

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The Morality of Fenianism


The Penal Laws in Ireland were self-evidently outrageous measures (in a comparative European sense and specifically) foisted upon a thoroughly subjugated and defeated people and were adopted to buttress the power of a mainly imported and culturally alien oligarchy (the influential Old English preferring to retain their Catholicism and thus also excluded from power and patronage); which consisted of post-Tudor Cromwellian mercenaries, zealous Protestant reformers and land speculators of every ilk who cared not a farthing for the indigenous culture and who proceeded to turn the screw on the native majority in such impressive fashion during the 18th century that after the Napoleonic era, and in between the potato harvest, famine-like conditions were the regular lot of up to 2 million Irish smallholders, cottiers and landless labourers - a situation which pertained uncorrected and unameliorated right up until the (retrospectively, we can now say, man-made) catastrophe of Black 47, despite let it be said, countless government reports and inquiries which forewarned of the vulnerabilities (Devon Commission etc).

The re-emergence, dominance and eventual success of the physical force tradition (ie Fenianism in the form of the Irish Republican Brotherhood) in the midst of the third and highly predicted scuttling of the Home Rule Bill (chased bewilderingly to the exclusion of all else by the virtually innocuous post-Parnellian Redmondites) and culminating in the sacrifices of the Easter Rising - is just about the only historical development that could've saved the majority of latter-day Irishmen from the corrosive, identity denuding self-analysis that dwelling on the ignominy of their shared subjugated past would inevitably entail, a nation of drones and sheep robbed of collective pride otherwise - and few Irishmen to boot with any shred of dignity could fail to be swept up in the tide of nationalist feeling which this fateful event spawned; which is why particularly, present day squawkers, begrudgers and decontextualisers as in sundry Indo and academic revisionists make me wish to reach for the nearest available bucket and hurl my day's ingestion therein.

The north only became the statelet it has become because it's boundaries were circumscribed thus so as to admit a majority loyalist consent to stay within the Union. Were the entire country canvassed, which should have been the natural and logical expedient we would today have an undivided Ireland. In fact, I often think Unionist bluster should have been met at the time with a two-pronged war - one against the presiding British authority, the other against Carson's loyalists; but alas we can only inhabit the land history has bequeathed us and if any section of this country has been royally screwed by that history it is the Northern Catholics who suffered almost fifty years of second class citizenship and virtual apartheid within their own country until some of them took up the gun and defended violence with violence - hence today's power-sharing executive, presided over in majority on the nationalist side not by the accommodation-seeking SDLP of John Hume but by the political branch of the Provisionals; today's physical force tradition.

It is an unfortunate fact that the most concrete progress achieved towards independent nationhood happened to occur under the behest of the men of violence. That's simply what has happened historically - even the last act of Catholic Emancipation getting O' Connell into Westminster in 1832 was done under the threat of a mass revolt which Peel and Wellington did wise to counsel. After 1798 the stomach for armed rebellion was sorely lacking and there's every reason to expect that O'Connell was not alone in his generation as never wishing to see the brutality of that era repeated which is why the more radical elements within the Repeal movement on the eve of the famine were the younger generation of Smith O' Brien and Mitchell - they had the fire in their belly for the enterprise that needed to be carried out but the O'Connellite pacifism which was fully endorsed (as always) by the Church deprived the movement of the necessary populist support. Meanwhile, what did Repeal ever achieve after the reorientation of O' Connell's politics in the 1830's? Absolutely nothing.

The advances of the Land League during the Parnell era relied on aggressive agrarian secret societies which threatened landlords into compliance and these were the greatest gains on the nationalist front right up until the Easter Rising - where it took nothing short of a blood sacrifice to mobilise the consciousness of the majority. Most of the nationalist leaders during the 19th century were Protestant (Parnell, Davis, Mitchell etc.) and their priority was for concrete political gains with Irish language preservation always a seemingly remote concern until the Gaelic League and the cultural revival - again spearheaded by Protestants.

The Phoenix Society which grew out of the famine and which eventually became the backbone of the IRB is the true lineage for the physical force tradition and O' Donovan Rossa and others connected to it were native Irish speakers - it's no coincidence I think that it was this strand in Irish nationalism (and which Pearse consciously tapped into) which eventually predominated when the necessary conditions were in place - not the pacifist parliamentary strand supported by the sympathetic sections by the Protestant gentry.

It is often argued that Irish people going to the polls in 1918 hadn’t yet seen the methods that would later be employed by the Irish Republican Army (formerly the Irish Volunteers) to gain independence and that had they known beforehand they would have voted alternatively for the pacifist methods of the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond. However, I think people knew exactly what they were voting for. They wanted a party who would deliver independence; by peaceful means if possible and by violence if necessary. Sinn Fein's electoral campaign for 1918 had a clearly defined four point programme;

(1) withdrawal from Westminster
(2) establishment of a constituent assembly that would have 'supreme national authority'
(3) an appeal to the (Paris) Peace Conference 'for the establishment of Ireland as an independent nation'

and

(4) 'making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise'

It's pretty hard not to interpret this as a mandate to prosecute a war if necessary and I don't think that anything like the eventually secured dominion status (Free State) could have been achieved in any way other than through the tactics adopted. DeValera for instance was completely divorced from this reality while in America and many of the other Sinn Fein notables clearly kept their head down and their mouth shut when it came to them. It was a nasty business, no mistake about it, and some were so good at it you may ask whether some disposition in their nature was being satisfied by the exigencies of the times. My grandfather's brother was, by my own father's account, 'a vicious bastard' who had to be pulled screaming and roaring from the Four Courts after Collins had it pulverised. Before the Anglo-Irish Treaty, his gang, in order to spare their bullets, used to take out RIC, Tans, Auxies (and anyone else who happened to get in their way I suppose) by cracking their heads between door posts and railings. Clearly, some of this stuff wasn't for the faint-hearted and most people I'd imagine would sooner elect to keep their heads under the blankets and just wish it would all go away.

Then again, you had others who were for the most part not naturally disposed to violence - I would count Ernie O' Malley and Tom Barry in this bracket - who held fast to certain principles of engagement and had their own (generally, very clearly evolved) ideas of the purpose and tactics of guerrilla war. This is where Collins role is all the more remarkable being at the epicentre not just of the myriad forms by which the violence manifested itself (and the various types of characters that were under his command) but to manage to keep himself sufficiently human and not lose contact with the opportunity for disengagement when it presented itself.

But the violence wasn't the whole of the story - the local government reforms and the acceptance of the Dail courts, the successful raising of loans, all indicated an increasingly permanent feel to the new regime. What was offered as Home Rule was a desultory terminus to over eighty years of campaigning with control of finance and foreign affairs ceded to Westminster and this prospect couldn't sustain itself in comparison to the Republic of the Proclamation. I see the Irish nationalist body politic at this period as a type of biological organelle with different functions allotted each of the players - everyone appeared to have something to do and to be able to contribute in some fashion - Cumann na Mban and the ex - Gaelic Leaguers despite their proscription (or maybe even because of it) were invited into the drama and these pre-existing networks were used as “sure” channels to bypass the Castle spy network.

By the time the Dail was outlawed no man had a right to remain in the Royal Irish Constabulary and expect himself not to be fair game; it's common knowledge that given their embeddedness in the community the RIC would be the principle channel through which counter-revolutionary intelligence would be gathered. Knowing this of course many of them resigned in their droves and this explains one dimension at least of the recruitment surge which brought the Tans and Auxillaries. Kevin Myers and other commentators of the revisionist stamp can call them 'sectarian' assassinations of course - as they are ideologically predisposed to view the notion of armed revolt against British rule in Ireland as reprehensible (for whatever reason) and this designation ably undermines the motives of nationalists by imputing a crass religious/tribal divisionalism but the vast majority of murders that took place didn't follow the us/them schematic of Catholic vs. Protestant but the us/them schematic of Crown vs. Republic.

This doesn't make the murders any less grisly or even provide any greater consolation to the families affected but it more accurately conveys the realities of the times and the emotions which propelled people into the Volunteers in the first place. Many people today seem to have a difficulty getting their heads around the fact that many in Ireland back then genuinely believed that an independent Irish Republic (and particularly the one proclaimed in 1916) was not only worth dying for, but was actually worth becoming something even worse in order to achieve it - a “blood thirsty” killer reduced to ambushes and cold-blooded assassinations.

We were a deeply religious people back then and invocations from the pulpit, such as the many calls from the Bishops that continuance of the policy of ambushes would lead to excommunication led to much soul-searching. Tom Barry gave all the men in his brigade the option of giving up the struggle there and then but none of them did. And I don't blame the physical force tradition (the hardliners in the IRB) for what I would certainly view as the necessity of that transformation but rather the general mode of British administration in Ireland which consistently misread all the signs of the nationalist awakening.


The OP question can be formulated as follows;

Was Fenianism, that is to say the physical force approach to resolving Ireland's difficulties, the morally correct political action to take under the circumstances?

Or do we discount morals altogether and simply assert that might (the Empire) or cunning (the resistance) is right as the case may be?

Last edited by Gile na Gile; February 22nd, 2012 at 01:56 PM.
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Old February 22nd, 2012, 03:00 PM   #2

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You could have just sent a letter. Well physical force seems to be the only way the British undersatand. If King George III had ignored our Declaration of Independence,or Westminister the 1916 Easter up rising, would we have found a way to be our own countries? We didn't win our revolution by playing nice. I don't see how you could have won yours that way, oh you didn't get you Repubic by the way of force now did you? You only got Dominion Status, with no real way of breaking away at the time. But I guess it was better than Home Rule? Your Republic came though politial cunning,and the Statue of Westministher act. Which made it possible to dismantled the treaty, getting almost there to your Republic. So was it moral what was done to get you almost there to your Republic? Well was it any less moral then how we got our Republic?
P.S. you are an AWESOME WRITER.

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Old February 22nd, 2012, 03:13 PM   #3

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Declaration of Independence - Text Transcript
Here is the letter our Coloneies sent to King George.
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Old February 22nd, 2012, 03:17 PM   #4

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Quote:
Originally Posted by annelouise17 View Post
Declaration of Independence - Text Transcript
Here is the letter our Coloneies sent to King George.
Wonderful words and its one of the basic texts of human rights but its just rhetoric, a certain groups are left out whatever those fine words say.

If the British only understand violence where were the Australian/Canadian/New Zealand wars?
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Old February 22nd, 2012, 03:28 PM   #5

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Politics are amoral by their nature. There is one and only one principle: the ends justify the means.

Terrorism cannot be morally justified. BUT it ALWAYS works on at least one level (it terrorises) and has always been used in war by all sides.

Once a war has been accepted as the means to the desired end,all that matters is winning.

To speak of morality in war is,in my opinion, naive and/or disingenuous.

If you insist on arguing morality,the British far more for which to atone the Irish ever will.---My Irish-Catholic family has not yet forgiven the Brits for Cromwell
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Old February 22nd, 2012, 03:30 PM   #6

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kevinmeath View Post
Wonderful words and its one of the basic texts of human rights but its just rhetoric, a certain groups are left out whatever those fine words say.

If the British only understand violence where were the Australian/Canadian/New Zealand wars?
I would use the words "Pretensions load of crap" but I'm giving up sarcasm fot Lent.
Austrlian/ Canada and New Zealand are still Dominion,who where to far away to govern.
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Old February 22nd, 2012, 11:00 PM   #7
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There is one and only one principle: the ends justify the means.
Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.
Click the image to open in full size.
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Old February 23rd, 2012, 07:44 AM   #8

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Originally Posted by AndraCavanagh View Post
There is one and only one principle: the ends justify the means.
Click the image to open in full size.Click the image to open in full size.
Click the image to open in full size.
Sometimes the means are only way to ends.
Maybe the means produce the best results?
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Old February 23rd, 2012, 11:13 AM   #9

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Originally Posted by bunyip View Post
If you insist on arguing morality,the British far more for which to atone the Irish ever will.---My Irish-Catholic family has not yet forgiven the Brits for Cromwell
Here we go again. What, exactly did Cromwell do? Oh, I know about the siege of Drogheda, but most of those who died there were not Irish.

So, I ask again what did he do? Remember he was physically present in Ireland for less than nine months.
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Old February 23rd, 2012, 01:57 PM   #10

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Originally Posted by annelouise17 View Post
I would use the words "Pretensions load of crap" but I'm giving up sarcasm fot Lent.
Austrlian/ Canada and New Zealand are still Dominion,who where to far away to govern.
They are only Dominion in so far as they still have our Queen as Monarch. And they have every right to end that if they so wish. And Canada isn't really any further away than the US.
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