The Fenian Brotherhood trace their origins back to 1798 and the United Irishmen, who had been an open political organization only to be suppressed and became a secret revolutionary organization, rose in rebellion, seeking an end to British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Republic. The rebellion was suppressed, but the principles of the United Irishmen were to have a powerful influence on the course of Irish history.
Following the collapse of the rebellion, the British Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a bill to abolish the Irish parliament and manufactured a Union between Ireland and Britain. Opposition from the Protestant oligarchy that controlled the parliament was countered by the widespread and open use of bribery. The Act of Union was passed, and became law on 1 January 1801. The Catholics, who had been excluded from the Irish parliament, were promised emancipation under the Union. This promise was never kept, and caused a protracted and bitter struggle for civil liberties. It was not until 1829 that the British government reluctantly conceded Catholic emancipation. Though leading to general emancipation, this process simultaneously disenfranchised the small tenants, known as ‘forty shilling freeholders’, who were mainly Catholics.
Daniel O’Connell, who had led the emancipation campaign, then attempted the same methods in his campaign to have the Act of Union with Britain repealed. Despite the use of petitions and public meetings that attracted vast popular support, the government thought the Union was more important than Irish public opinion.
In the early 1840s, the younger members of the repeal movement became impatient with O’Connell’s over-cautious policies, and began to question his intentions. Later they were what became to known as the Young Ireland movement. In 1842 three of the Young Ireland leaders, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, launched the Nation newspaper. In the paper they set out to create a spirit of pride and an identity based on nationality rather than on social status or religion. Following the collapse of the Repeal Association and with the arrival of famine, the Young Irelanders broke away completely from O’Connell in 1846.
The blight that destroyed the potato harvest between 1845 and 1849 was an unprecedented human tragedy. An entire social class of small farmers and labourers were to be virtually wiped out by hunger, disease and emigration. The laissez –faire economic thinking of the government ensured that help was slow, hesitant and insufficient. Between 1845 and 1851 the population fell by almost two million.
That the people starved while livestock and grain continued to be exported, quite often under military escort, would leave a legacy of bitterness and resentment among the survivors. The waves of emigration because of the famine and in the years following also ensured that such feelings would not be confined to Ireland, but spread to England, the United States, Australia and every country where Irish emigrants gathered.
Shocked by the scenes of starvation and greatly influenced by the revolutions then sweeping Europe, the Young Irelanders moved from agitation to armed rebellion in 1848. The attempted rebellion failed after a small skirmish in Ballingary, Co Tipperary, coupled with a few minor incidents elsewhere. The reasons for the failure were obvious: the people were totally despondent after three years of famine, and being prompted to rise up early resulted in an inadequacy of military preparations, which caused disunity among the leaders.
The Government quickly rounded up many of the instigators. Those who could fled across the seas, and their followers dispersed. A last flicker of revolt in 1849, led by among others James Fintan Lalor, was equally unsuccessful.
John Mitchel, the most committed advocate of revolution, had been arrested early in 1848 and transported to Australia on the purposefully created charge of Treason-felony. He was to be joined by other leaders, such as William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher who had both been arrested after Ballingary. John Blake Dillon escaped to France, as did three of the younger members, James Stephens, John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny.
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