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The Fenian Movement

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1335, p. 277-278.

September 23, 1865


Ireland is a singularly unlucky country. Her best opportunities scarcely ever have time to become visible and awaken hope before they are knocked over by some unexpected casualty. An evil sprite seems to dog her footsteps and watch for occasions of tripping her up as soon as her course is onward. She had already begun to prosper and take heart, after the fearful calamity of the potato blight, when she was thrown back again into trouble by three bad harvests in succession. She is just beginning to recover from the despondent mood into which they plunged her, and now she is infested with political boils and blains in the shape of Fenianism. There can be no doubt that this disease has been imported from the West, that it spreads by contagion, that it fastens upon the lowest class of the community, and that at present it defies all curative treatment. Unfortunate Ireland! She may have her shortcomings, but really want of good luck seems to be among the worst of them.

We should do Ireland and the Irish great injustice if we should deal otherwise than compassionately with her and hers, under this new infliction. The political malady, the ugly symptoms of which are now attracting attention to the sister isle, is by no means national. As it was not indigenous, so neither is susceptibility to it produced by what may be called native causes. Difference of race, of religion, of political party, of social standing, will sometimes explain the sudden appearance and presence of political epidemics; but to none of them is the phenomenon of Fenianism in Ireland fairly attributable. Celt and Saxon, Catholic and Protestant, priest and clergyman, Conservative and Liberal, residents in towns and farmers in the country, alike denounce and dread the fever, and are alike anxious to see it effectually stopped. It preys only upon ignorance, and a very moderate amount of knowledge is an almost certain prophylactic against it. It is in Ireland, but not of Ireland. It is not formidable; it is not even likely to become so; but its very existence is mischievous, And perhaps its chief power for mischief resides in its aptitude to divert public attention from the real and the removable disadvantages of which Irishmen may justly complain; and to lessen the sympathy between the two countries. For Ireland's sake, therefore, far more than for that of England, it behoves the Government to crush the evil in the egg.

No one can wonder at the extreme reluctance of Lord Wodehouse to grapple with sedition in so strangely ridiculous a form. Fenianism may be vigorous enough on the other side of the Atlantic, and, perhaps, has in view aims which if they are not recommended by good feeling are at any rate feasible. The hatred of England which there organises itself in a sort of open conspiracy might, possibly, if encouraged by President Johnson and Mr. Seward, leave its mark upon Canada; but over here, in Ireland, "the brotherhood" are simply pushing a number of silly young people into a dangerous position. It is not to be imagined, for a moment, that the rulers of the United Kingdom, any more than the rulers of the United States, will tamely witness a disintegration of the empire. It is not conceivable that the union which the all but illimitable resources of Great Britain are pledged to maintain is likely to be torn asunder by a mere transatlantic faction; or, if Ireland could be temporarily occupied by them, that they could permanently retain it. Nothing could be more farcical than the supposition that what would require an immense and well-organised force, acting in aid of strong national feeling, to effect, will be accomplished by a few secret societies, in each of which there is a traitor, and which can pretend to no better means of compassing their end than that of drilling the silliest of the peasantry by moonlight. Altogether, the swagger of Fenianism has been so loud, and its means so contemptible, that the Irish Government is really to be excused for having let it alone until now. Of course, it knew everything accurately enough; for conspiracy evermore breeds plenty of cowards who will vie with each other in selling information to the police. It may be pardoned, therefore, if it hesitated to interpose in so supremely ridiculous an affair. It was entitled to hope that

Page 278

the plot, if there was one, would be suffocated by its own absurdity. That hope having proved vain, it became a merciful Government to dissipate a delusion which could only injure its unhappy dupes by drawing them into closer connection with crime; and we trust that what it has done it has done so completely as to save the guiltiest from worse perils than any to which they are now exposed.

When Lord Wodehouse has made up his mind to move, he moved to some purpose. Having quietly taken full precautions against an outbreak, he committed the execution of his plans exclusively to the civil force. They were quite competent for the occasion. Simultaneously, or nearly so, they took complete possession of the centres of the confederation. They began their work on Friday, and by Saturday evening they had laid hands upon nearly everybody and everything connected with Fenianism in Ireland which may be said to have constituted its vitality. The Irish People--the representative journal of the brotherhood--together with the chief portion of its staff and effects, was cleverly captured in Dublin; the leading conspirators in Cork were at the same time noiselessly arrested. Here and there, in other districts, active officers of the confederacy were taken. After the braggart speeches addressed to Fenians in America, which hinted at the complete organisation of some half-million of enthusiastic brothers in Ireland, all waiting impatiently the signal for rending the Union in twain by irresistible force, the upshot of this sudden raid by the police is, as might have been anticipated, contemptible enough. One might be almost entitled, but for other evidence of the most decisive character, to imagine that the authorities had been misled as to the proper places for casting their nets, so utterly insignificant is the take which they have landed. If, indeed, they have not got hold of the brain and heart of Fenianism in Ireland, where are they? How is it that in this crisis they do not appear? How happens it that no trace of them can be discovered? What are the half million of sworn and organised conspirators about, that they suffer a few hundred police men to haul their brethren through the streets and securely lodge them in prison? Perhaps they were taken by surprise; but four or five days have since elapsed, and not a sign of their indignation is to be seen. On the contrary, the almost universal feeling of Ireland, so far at least as it has been displayed hitherto, is one of satisfaction. Now, this could not have been if the Irish population were to any appreciable extent mixed up with this burlesque of a national conspiracy. There would have been a visible show of sullenness on a somewhat extended scale, even if there were no movement; or, if not sullenness, then fear, arising from a consciousness of being compromised. But there is neither. Dublin and Cork go about their ordinary business as heretofore, and only think and talk of what has happened as they would of any other matter of public curiosity and gossip. We conclude, therefore, that all that there was of Fenianism which required to be put under restraint is already within the grasp of the Executive authority; and that the little bubble which has just burst really constituted the windy force which mystery and brag had exalted into a power capable of defying and dethroning the Queen of the United Kingdom.

Thus far, then, Ireland fairly claims congratulation that she has proved herself so slightly susceptible of the political virus which it was sought to infuse into her blood. There have been times in her history when the base attempt might have been more successful, although we are not aware that the Irish nature ever manifested any strong affinity to Republicanism. These times, happily, have passed away, and the number of Irishmen having anything to lose are few who can discern any promise of national prosperity and progress in separating the destiny of their country from that of England. We are convinced that their loyalty will, if possible, increase the desire of the Imperial Parliament to deal considerately, justly, and generously with Irish interests. We trust, moreover, that even in regard to this travesty of treason Government will unite lenity with firmness. The emissaries from America, who have so gratuitously striven to get up a rebellion, will not, we hope, be elevated into comparative dignity by having, on conviction, to suffer the penalty of death. A sufficient term of penal servitude will better become them, while their dupes may be even more indulgently treated. It is not always politic to render to crime when allied with excessive folly the full measure of its legal deserts, and we venture to believe it will not be thought so in this case. Hitherto, the affair has assumed all the features of a farce--it would be a great pity to convert it, by unnecessary rigour, into a tragedy.

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