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The Politics of Irish Literature
by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats

by Malcolm Brown

Chapter Fourteen
The Agony of Fenianism

IN THE TWELVE since Stephens fled from Ireland, the balance of forces had altered radically in the Fenians' disfavor. The government was now alert and prepared. The garrison was reinforced. Corroborating Devoy's analysis of the disaffection of the Irish soldiers, the government had removed the Irish regiments and replaced them with safe English and Scottish units. Informers had been successfully planted inside the Fenian high command, both in Ireland and America, so that the English now controlled the element of surprise. Meanwhile the Fenians' absolute strength had diminished. Because of police raids and confiscations the number of available rifles was smaller than it had been a year earlier. The veteran American soldiers who were to provide expert field command were now jailed or deported. The army available to Fenian generals was reduced back to a mass of untrained irregulars, to "men who are insubordinate by temperament, without organization, without any framework," said General Cluseret, who added, "This sort of thing wears out life quickly."

All these facts were general knowledge. At one end of the spectrum, Dr. Cullen, recently made Ireland's first cardinal, wrote an American bishop just at this time: "The Fenians are not all so strong as they were last year." At the opposite end, Devoy, who to the end of his life thought it shameful not to have risen in February 1866, argued that a rising in February 1867 was "foredoomed." The new Fenian directory was not deterred by these judgments, but pressed forward toward immediate insurrection, come what might, and even with the certainty of losing. Devoy in jail got a message from the high command: "The fight will be in about three weeks, but we'll be badly beaten."

"The day" was set for February 12, 1867, then changed to March 5. The countermanding order was intercepted by the police at Cahirciveen, O'Connell's old home village in west Kerry, so that it failed to reach the local centers. There the Fenians rose on the wrong date, captured the police barracks, and in rummaging through the police records, discovered the order to delay action. So instructed, they then returned to their homes, leaving the terrorized gentry, most of them clansmen of the Liberator, barricaded with their silver plate behind sandbags in the hotel. A premature rising was also pressed forward in Chester. Captain MacCafferty had devised a plan to raid the Chester arsenal for rifles, then to seize the ships in the harbor and set sail across the Irish Sea to Dublin. On the incorrect date all his forces converged on Chester Castle as instructed, and MacCafferty set out by train from Manchester to take command of the raid. Along the way his train was sidetracked while one trainload after another filled with troops passed through, also headed for Chester. His adjutant, a long-time Fenian named Corydon, had been discovered by the police to be a homosexual and had been persuaded to turn informer.

On the eve of the correct day for the rising, a blizzard settled down over the British Isles, bringing the heaviest snowfall in memory. In the storm a general insurrection was unthinkable, and only here and there did the centers respond. At Cork four thousand men came out with their fifty rifles and their one American officer, attacked four police barracks, and were repulsed. In Dublin three thousand men attempted to converge at Tallaght, south of the city. A police ambush awaited them there; and as they fled back toward Dublin, hundreds were arrested at the bridges over the canal. Fenians in Limerick, Clare, Louth, and Waterford had local successes. The most vital single spot in the Fenian battle plan was at Limerick Junction near Tipperary. An American named Godfrey Massey was placed in charge of that sector. As he stepped off the train from Cork, he was arrested-by prior arrangement with the police, according to his military superiors. The charge was unproved, though Massey's claims to high rank in the Confederate army were shown to be fraudulent, and he did become the most cooperative witness for the government prosecutor in the Fenian trials that followed. Briefly told, the story of the Fenian insurrection of 1867 was defeat on all fronts and total collapse within forty-eight hours. The amateur Smith O'Brien had been four times longer in the field.


The surprise of the insurrection was not that it was so weak, but that it had occurred at all. Why did the leaders call the men out? Why did the men respond? Even if Massey was a provocateur, it seems doubtful that provocation was required to set the directory in motion. Captain MacCafferty, for one, needed no urging. He was made ofthe same stuff as Tolstoy's Dolokhov, a killer never quite himself unless he could smell burning gunpowder. But Kelly, the commander in chief, appears to have believed that the blow on Irish soil would open the way for some form of American diplomatic support. He had stationed men in Washington to call on President Andrew Johnson with a demand for recognition at the cabled news of the first shot, and he was crushed by the report that Johnson had discourteously turned them away.

Table of Contents
The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of
Irish Literature

From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown
Part I: The Peculiar Irish Setting
1. History and Poetry: Some Irish Paradoxes
2. Thomas Davis' Ireland
Part II: Young Ireland
3. O'Connell and Davis in Partnership
4. The Nation's First Year
5. The Retreat from Clontarf
6. Black '47
7. '48 and Insurrection
8. Beside the Sickbed: Carlyle, Duffy, Dr. Cullen
9. John Mitchel after '48
Part III: Fenianism
10. Mr. Shook
11. Fenianism Mobilizes
12. O'Leary and the Irish People
13. "The Year for Action"
14. The Agony of Fenianism
Part IV: Home Rule
15. The Ballot Box Once More: Isaac Butt
16. Parnell and Davitt
17. The Land War in Mayo
18. After Kilmainham: Bakhuninism in Phoenix Park
19. After Kilmainham: Davitt and Standish O'Grady Take Stock
20. The Irish Party in Maneuver
21. Enter: W. B. Yeats
22. Catastrophe
23. Poetry Defends the Gap: Yeats and Hyde
24. Literary Parnellism

Praise for
The Politics of Irish Literature
cover thumbnail for "The Politics of Irish Literature" by Malcolm Brown

"This brilliant study of the intersection of politics and literature in Ireland amounts to a dazzling portrait gallery. Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again."
-- Sean O'Faolain in the Manchester Guardian

"Mr. Brown's masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

"The author of the best book on George Moore now gives us what is in all likelihood the best book on the politics of modern Irish literature."
-- Virginia Quarterly Review

Professor Malcolm J. Brown with his son, Bruce Brown, Sumas, WA, July 1988

University of Washington Professor Malcolm J. Brown (1910 - 1992) with his son, Bruce Brown, in Sumas, WA, July 1988.

Additional reading -- Malcolm Brown's George Moore: A Reconsideration. Also see Bruce Brown's commentary on The History of the Corporation for Malcolm Brown's contribution to that work.

The dominant motive for the rising was more probably a feeling among the Fenians, both high and low, that the movement could not depart gracefully without some unequivocal gesture to honor its bold promises and to fix its defeated principles unmistakably in the record of history. Like Emmet and Rossa in Green Street Courthouse, they thought it unmanly to go down without a scene. Stephens had talked forevermore about the difference between the "spouters" and the doers, but the difference had never been acted out. Until it was, the Fenians were denounced by their own words as spouters of an especially contemptible breed. If Stephens was not sensitive to that logic, his successors were. Such at least was their reply to Cluseret when he pleaded with them to abandon an enterprise in which there was not one chance in a hundred, or in twenty hundred, of success. "My dear General," he reported them saying, "we are not under the smallest illusion as to what awaits us; but the word of an Irishman, once given, is sacred. Stephens has pledged us to this undertaking without consulting us, but we will keep our word, even though he may not keep his; and the people will know that, if there are some men who deceive them, there are others who know how to die for them."

This explanation might touch the sensibility of many Irishmen, but for Bishop Moriarty, it was only oil on the flames of his wrath. On the subject of his displeasure at the rising in Kerry he preached a sermon that immortalized him. He noted with surprise (and relief) that the rank-and-file revolutionists had observed the rights of persons and private property, leaving untouched all the big houses of the district and giving way to the sin of covetousness only in the single case of Dr. Barry's horse, which some irregular had commandeered and neglected to return. The fear of "rapine and plunder," spread abroad by the clergy - His Lordship of Kerry in the lead - on the authority of O'Keeffe's letter to the Irish People, was quite evidently unfounded. About the leaders, though, he could not be so charitable. He took note that they were what would be called today "foreign agitators," proving that even the most inapposite mutations of modern political warfare can be found in the Irish arena. "Thank God, they are not our people," said Moriarty. He was particularly disappointed that the lists of those arrested and awaiting trial for capital crimes did not contain the name of James Stephens, foremost of those "criminals of far deeper guilt - the men who, while they send their dupes into danger, are fattening on the spoil in Paris and New York - the execrable swindlers who care not how many are murdered by the rebel or hanged by the strong arm of the law, provided they can get a supply of dollars either for their pleasures or their wants."

The core of Bishop Moriarty's sermon centered upon the sin of the revolutionary gesture. The fixed policy of the Church, as I have explained, was to condemn all revolutions a priori on the postulated improbability of success. "We are not believers in the chances of rebellion," declared the bishop. But the success of the rising in his diocese was not just improbable, it was absolutely unthinkable. It was unforgivable. To describe the degree of its depravity, he coined the memorable hyperbole known to all readers of Joyce, Sean O'Casey, and Brendan Behan: "I preached to you last Sunday on the eternity of Hell's torments. Human reason is inclined to say-'it is a hard word, and who can bear it?' But when we look down into the fathomless depth of this infamy of the heads of the Fenian conspiracy we must acknowledge that eternity is not long enough nor hell hot enough to punish such miscreants." For these words Lord John Russell, the author of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act, expressed warmest appreciation on the floor of the House. The natural Irish response was anger, and even the anti-Fenians found objections in Moriarty's presuming to slam a theological door that, by first principles, must always remain open. The unkindest criticism came from the least expected source: Cardinal Cullen thought the sermon "foolish and exaggerated" and likely to cause mischief; and he wondered whether Moriarty ought not to be "called to an account for it."

The cardinal's unaccustomed tact and composure was founded in part on his discovery that the Fenians actually had succeeded in driving a wedge between the clergy and the Irish people, as O'Leary claimed. Moriarty's attempt to analyze the Fenian movement into swindlers and their dupes was wishful thinking; Stephens' fall showed the rank and file running ahead of their leaders. The Church would need to exercise diplomacy, understanding, and patience to repair the breach. Cullen also sensed that the Fenian military threat had spent itself, and that he could afford to relax and turn his energies elsewhere for the coming era of peace. If a person calculated according to the regular calendar of Irish rebellions-one every half-century-the next scheduled insurrection date did not fall due until 1917.


The obsequies for Fenianism were still somewhat premature. The myth of the American ironclad had never yet materialized, but now it did so. After the collapse of the March 1867 rising, Kelly wrote a frantic letter to New York, pleading for help of some sort, any sort: "What do our countrymen in America want? Will they wait until the last man shall be slaughtered before sending aid? . . . Fit out your privateers."' In response, the New York Fenians got possession through mysterious city-hall channels of a ship called the Jacmel Packet, not an ironclad but a brigantine of 138 tons that had been impounded by the port authorities. She was loaded with a great number of piano boxes bearing a Cuban destination but containing in actuality seven thousand rifles for Ireland, leftovers from the Canadian campaigns. Six weeks after the collapse of the March rising, fifty fighting men boarded her secretly at Sandy Hook and she slipped out to sea. She sailed due south for twenty-four hours, then changed her course to east. On Easter Sunday, after two weeks at sea, the captain rechristened the ship Erin's Hope and opened sealed orders directing him to proceed with his cargo to Sligo. He ran up the flag of the Republic of Ireland, a golden sunburst on an emerald field, the same flag that the Ulysses Sinn Fein "citizen" in a rapture of Joycean pedantry scorned as a historical solecism.

The Erin's Hope sailed into Sligo Bay six weeks out of New York. Colonel Burke, the Birmingham arms buyer, had been assigned to meet the ship and direct the unloading, but he failed to make contact. The ship sailed about for two days looking for Burke, and finally two men were put ashore to find him. He was located at last and came aboard with the message that there was no force available to unload the rifles or to use them if they could be unloaded. The crew then fell into dispute as to what should be done. One group recommended that they capture the town of Sligo, whose most famed poetic voice and holiday visitor, at age two, had just been removed by his parents to live at Regents Park, London. Burke was able to persuade the crew to abandon their commando project. Then half the crew decided to go ashore, scatter, and do what they might for Ireland, with the result that all but two were arrested within the day. The rest, after having sailed unmolested up and down the coast of Sligo and Donegal for a full week, turned westward with the seven thousand rifles still aboard and sailed back to New York.

The cruise of the Erin's Hope invites the commentator to light ironic effects, for the adventure did have the tone of musical-comedy piracy. It represented a picturesque example of the extravagant headlong squandering of Irish forces-by the leaders and the led with equal good cheer - that gave a certain point to Bishop Moriarty's strictures. But it is not hard to imagine the Erin's Hope in another setting where the comedy would vanish. The exploit proved it easy for a Fenian privateer to pass through the Royal Navy patrols off the Irish coast, carrying armament enough to have tipped the balance at some other stage of the war. Seven thousand rifles in hand would have made a great difference in September 1865, at the time of O'Leary's arrest, or after Stephens' jailbreak in November 1865. In 1867 the Cork Fenians were willing to make a try at insurrectionwith no more than fifty rifles. The Erin's Hope was two years too late, something of a marvel of mistiming.


Even after the failure of the Erin's Hope mission the Fenians were not silenced. While the organization in Ireland was being battered to pieces by the police, the stragglers retreated into the Irish ghettoes of the English industrial midlands. Kelly called a meeting of the survivors in Manchester in the late summer of 1867 and set about trying to rebuild the organization.

During the Manchester convention three hundred Fenians were able to meet and deliberate in safety; but shortly after it adjourned, Kelly and a companion, Michael Deasy, fell into the hands of the police. The Fenians in Manchester decided that they must attempt a rescue, and Ricard Burke was given the responsibility of devising a plan of attack. Kelly and Deasy had been taken from Manchester jail to court for arraignment, and on their return journey to jail, the police van was attacked at a railroad overpass. The Fenians shot the lead horse to halt the van and then attempted to break open the locked door to free the prisoners. One of the raiding party was supposed to have brought a crowbar but had forgotten, and the door could not be opened. At last another raider shot the lock off with his revolver. In smashing the lock, a bullet penetrated the door and killed a police guard inside, one Sergeant Brett. An infuriated English crowd, closing in around the van, was held off with pistol shots fired over their heads. In the commotion the van door opened, allowing Kelly and Deasy to escape. The Fenians then began to withdraw, the crowd in pursuit. The two prisoners vanished, but the crowd ran down a rear guard of three raiders who lagged behind to delay the hue and cry. At nightfall the streets of Manchester filled with mobs of anti-Irish rioters, and a posse of special constables roamed about arresting hundreds of Irishmen as suspects. The hundreds were in time reduced to twenty-eight, then to five who stood trial and were convicted of murder, and at last to the three of the rear guard-William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien-who were hanged on November 23, 1867, in front of Salford jail in Manchester.

These young men, the youngest nineteen, are the celebrated Manchester martyrs, one of the crowning exhibits of Irish patriotic symbology. Their apotheosis has puzzled some historians, who see their case as one of ordinary crime and ordinary criminals: the three were guilty of murder and were hanged, so who is to complain? Excellent English scholars put the word "martyrs" in inverted commas, just as they use the same typography for the word "betrayal" in discussions of Keogh and Sadleir. Their point would be, no doubt, that respect for the law is essential to the fabric of order, to preserve society from anarchy. As a matter of fact, Irish legal advocates were more zealous than anyone in their respect for English law, and they particularly honored its decorums and "technicalities" favoring a defendant.

The causes celebres of Irish justice arose when the crown prosecutor, under the pressure of advanced motives of statecraft, found a need to override the troublesome judicial guarantees in order to insure a verdict of guilty. jury rigging, as in the O'Connell and Mitchel trials, was a familiar experience. In the Manchester case there was a strong presumption that witnesses were suborned, for the defendants were apparently not involved in firing the fatal shot. The melee following the attack on the van confused the eyewitnesses, so that the prosecution found itself faced with a paucity of evidence, and treasured any it could get. In any event, the key witnesses were whores and jailbirds, and the prisoners who were convicted had been marked in the jail line-up, apparently for bounty seekers to spot them.

In their zeal for justice, the Manchester police built up a hanging case, also, against one Maguire, a marine of few words and no opinions who happened to possess an Irish name and to be in the neighborhood during the attack on the van. Newspapermen in the courtroom came to the conclusion that he could have had no conceivable connection either with the raid or with Fenianism. They made a representation to the home secretary that Maguire was an innocent man, that is, was convicted on perjured evidence. On their recommendation, he was immediately pardoned and released. Yet the evidence that convicted Maguire was precisely the same evidence that condemned Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien. The implied attitude in the home secretary's discrimination was that Maguire had shown no animosity to the authority of the queen and deserved to live, while the rest took pride in their Irish attitudes and deserved to die. From the home secretary's viewpoint, the defendants seemed to be unduly distressed about the state evidence being tainted, for they openly proclaimed the very treason to which the witnesses, perjured though they might be, had testified.

To be sure, the demeanor of the three condemned men in court was unapologetically Fenian. They sketched out before the courtroom the ethical anatomy of the principle by which one stood his ground: the morality of "the man in the gap," the man who refuses to "sell the gap," the ethic Yeats later formulated in the verses of "The Black Tower":

. . . he's a lying hound:
Stand we on guard oath-bound!

The first prisoner noted in his closing statement that by being forced to stand in police line-up in irons, he had been marked for the bounty hunters to identify and had therefore been unjustly condemned. But he added, in the Fenian style: "As for myself, I feel the righteousness of my every act with regard to what I have done in defense of my country. I fear not. I am fearless-fearless of the punishment that can be inflicted against me; and with that, my lords, I have done." Michael Larkin, the next man condemned, objected that all the witnesses against him were wanting in respectability, though there were more than a hundred persons present at the raid from whom honorable witnesses ought to have been available to the prosecution. But he was moved to add: "I believe as the old saying is a true one, what is decreed a man in the page of life he has to fulfill, either on the gallows, drowning, a fair death in bed, or on the battlefield." The last man took note that the government tempted witnesses with "blood money," cash rewards for testimony. However that might be, he said, "we have been found guilty, and, as a matter of course, we accept our death as gracefully as possible. We are not afraid to die-at least I am not." And his companions responded, "Nor I," and "Nor I." He concluded: "I have nothing to regret, or to retract, or take back. I can only say, God save Ireland." And again his companions responded, "God save Ireland." A scattering of Irish spectators took up the response and it ran to the back of the courtroom, followed by a second wave murmuring "Amen." The judge then put on his black cap, praised the fairness of the court, declared it his own sincere conviction that Sergeant Brett was murdered by premeditation of the prisoners, and passed sentence.


What Englishmen thought the most heinous of crimes - namely, treason - Irishmen looked upon as the loftiest of callings. Irish morality not only exonerated the Manchester three, for they had intended no harm to the unfortunate Sergeant Brett, but it exalted them to the highest glory, just as societies in all ages have honored above other men a rear guard doomed and destroyed. The terror of the Manchester hangings therefore taught Irishmen no lesson in loyalty. Lost on them was the pedagogic message Matthew Arnold sent across the Irish Sea, that "a government which dared not deal with a mob . . . simply opened the floodgates to anarchy." Popular outrage was magnified by the pageantry in which judge and hangman marched them through the ghastly stages to extermination. The day of execution, November 23, became a sort of Irish May Day. P. S. O'Hegarty's Sinn Fein sensibility could never pass that day on the calendar without visualizing the "three Irishmen swinging by their necks in Manchester prison." In seven centuries of the Englishman's rule in Ireland, the Manchester affair was the most damaging miscalculation of statecraft, bar one.

At first, Irishmen could not imagine the Manchester court giving out sentences of more than ten or fifteen years; or, when the death sentences were pronounced, that they would ever be carried out. Then Maguire, the marine, was released, leaving four men under death sentence. A couple of days before the scheduled executions, one of these - the same who had forgotten the crowbar - was reprieved by the intervention of Charles Francis Adams, the American ambassador. Only then did it suddenly occur to the onlookers that the other three could not be saved. On the morning of November 23, crowds stood about the Irish newspaper offices, waiting, as the dispatches came in by telegraph telling first of the arrival of the military with fixed bayonets; then of the gathering of the crowd of Manchester citizens, some curious, some in holiday mood and singing "Rule Britannia"; and at last the somber word itself, followed shortly by the report that the bodies had been buried in quicklime inside the jail yard, an action interpreted throughout Ireland as a calculated religious indignity.

According to the testimony of A. M. Sullivan: "I never knew Ireland to be more deeply moved by mingled.feelings of grief and anger." A fullorchestrated nationwide political wake began on the instant. Cardinal Cullen watched while his weeping priests were swept into the national mourning on the next Sunday after the executions. It was the MacManus affair all over again, he said. He dared not block the expression and compromised by issuing an order that all prayers and Masses for the Manchester three must be private in order, as the Sullivans put it, "to ensure that the sacred functions were sought and attended for spiritual considerations, not used merely for illegitimate political purposes."

All over Ireland there were mock funeral processions. In Limerick onefourth of the population turned out. In Dublin three empty black coffins were labeled "Allen," "Larkin," and "O'Brien" in large white lettering, and brass bands played the funeral march from Saul as the procession moved along the MacManus route to Glasnevin. Dr. George Sigerson, a witness, estimated that thirty thousand people marched in the procession. A. M. Sullivan put the number at sixty thousand, larger than the MacManus funeral itself. He was a witness too, and his estimate may have been inflated by self-importance, for at the head of the procession, beside John Martin the old Van Diemen's Land veteran, marched A. M. Sullivan himself. Four days later the viceroy issued a proclamation forbidding funeral processions in Ireland, having discovered, as Dr. Sigerson said, that the government's "strange belief" that the Manchester executions would have "a deterrent effect on the Irish people has not been justified by the result."


A popular ballad appeared, written by T. D. Sullivan, aiming to interpret the Manchester affair and mold it into permanent and universal shape. He took his tune from "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," as appropriate to the kinship between Fenianism and the American Union soldiers. To get the flavor, the reader must carry the tune:

Girt around with cruel foes, still their courage proudly rose,
For they thought of hearts that loved them, far and near,
Of the millions true and brave, o'er the ocean's swelling wave,
And the friends in holy Ireland, ever dear.

"God save Ireland," said they proudly; "God save Ireland," said they all. . . . Sullivan's ballad seemed to have everything. He had asserted the doctrinaire Fenian formula of the sainthood of the battle casualty. He had caught the running echo of the antiphonal response, "God save Ireland!" that had sent through the court during the prisoners' valedictory speeches "that strange sensation as though the hair of one's head stood up." He had sounded the motif of solidarity, uniting the victims to the millions at home and "o'er the ocean's swelling wave."

Sullivan had also borrowed Michael Larkin's courtroom thoughts about the "page of life." But at the heart of Larkin's words, in the observation that every man has his fate to fulfill "either on the gallows, drowning, a fair death in bed, or on the battlefield" - there Sullivan misconstrued his source. The list of the four chances he reduced back to only two, confusing Larkin's point with another idea alien to it. The refrain concluded:

. . . "God save Ireland," said they all,
"Whether on the scaffold high, or the battle-field we die,
Oh, what matter when for Erin dear we fall!"

Intentionally or from want of clarity, Sullivan's either-or appeared to make patriotic death mandatory. The purpose of the episode was no longer to protect the retreat of the main force at the railroad overpass in Manchester. Now the object was to die for Erin, and as for the forms that death could take, "what matter"? To some observers it seemed odd that the apotheosis of the virtues of physical force should be advanced by the most conspicuous spokesman of the Irish moral force party, and odd, too, that the Fenians' most dogged opponent should be combined in the same person with their poet laureate. But against the background of the Sullivans' intellectual history, his motive could readily be understood as a transformation of Fenian insurrection into a lost cause, most deeply lamented. The Fenians' poet laureate was, more properly speaking, their undertaker.

T. D. Sullivan's song was a full retreat back to the manner of Tom Moore, who "too much loves to weep," as Davis said. It threw a shadow of the death mystique backward over the whole Fenian movement, subduing its cheerful activism under a lugubrious pall. Anyone who reads extensively in the Sullivans' newspapers will sense a family weakness for necrology. A. M. Sullivan published a humorous weekly, called Zozimus, where even among the jokes the obituaries were irrepressible, sorrowing for Dickens, for the dead at Metz, for Robert E. Lee, for George Henry Moore, for Charles Lever - "light lie the turf on Lever's grave!" The Fenian dirge bespeaks the same fixation. The Sullivans naturally loved it dearly, and so did countless other Irishmen. It quickly became the most popular of all patriotic songs, and was considered the national hymn. It was congenial to the Fenians, too; they admired it uncritically as great poetry-or well intentioned, at least-and they sang it as earnestly as anybody else. It was not congenial to Fenianism itself, however, for the Fenians never regarded their cause as hopeless nor their military projects as a beautiful suicide, though they clearly understood them to be subject to the ordinary chances of war. Were they deluded in this? Here Sullivan's song breached an Irish historical conundrum: Did the Fenians ever really have a chance?

The automatic answer would seem to be: certainly not. The clergy, the Sullivans, and aging Young Ireland had plainly prognosticated the coming defeat of Fenianism; they told everybody so. In the week when Grant met Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, the Nation drew from the event a chilling moral lesson for Ireland, that eight millions with inferior resources can never defeat twenty millions with superior resources. To this argument the wisdom of tautology was added. The cause was lost, therefore it was a lost cause. Years after the event, Archbishop Croke of Cashel, MacHale's successor as the lone episcopal friend and protector of Irish radicals, told John Devoy in New York that the Fenians never "had a ghost of a chance" -although he was almost sorry to say it. From the same perspective, T. D. Sullivan still maintained in 1905 that any other opinion was worthy only "of Jules Verne or Baron Munchausen," that Fenianism was a lost cause, right enough, a mode of suicide, but thoughtful suicide for the poetic and moral enrichment of Ireland. This is the meaning he had concretized in "God Save Ireland." It was not the only formulation possible, for in an exactly parallel case the old-time Wobbly said, Don't mourn for me, organize.


It goes without saying that Yeats believed "God Save Ireland" unspeakable. In his first youthful battle with the "Irish politicians," he made a scandal by publishing an anthology of Irish nationalist verse from which that most essential of all patriotic effusions had been defiantly dumped. And yet, intent upon the "revolt of the soul against the intellect," he felt on his own part what Ulysses calls a "strong weakness" for the same ideal of the death mystique. He hunted it through numerous thematic variations: folkish, in The Land of Heart's Desire; philosophical, in Where There Is Nothing; historical, in Cathleen ni Houlihan. For this last, he suggested O'Leary as his source, for it was his understanding that if anyone had put to O'Leary the question, Did the Fenians ever really have a chance? he too would have replied, certainly not.

Yeats put no hedge about his testimony on O'Leary's devotion to lost causes. He had, said Yeats, "as we know" joined the Fenian movement "with no hope of success," but simply because he thought it "good for the moral character of the people."" It is not impossible that O'Leary may actually have confided such an opinion to him, though Yeats's witness on such matters was not absolutely trustworthy, especially if one of his emotional vagaries was at issue. Yet when O'Leary was editor of the Irish People, he plainly thought the Fenians' chances of success were excellent. After his imprisonment he had the fullest opportunity and motive to re-examine his earlier opinion and to change it if he was so minded. If he ever did, the alteration remained a private secret between himself and W. B. Yeats.

In O'Leary's memoirs these words do appear: ". . . I must candidly confess-judging long after the time, in the coolness of my study and not in the heat and turmoil of action-that I cannot prove that we had any great chance of wresting Ireland from the grasp of England. . . ." But this is not his full sentence; it is preceded by the word "if" and it continues: ". . . [nevertheless] I think I can give strong reasons to show that, under certain contingencies, we might have made a formidable fight, and that, even as it was, we made it manifest to England, or rather to the English ruling classes, that their power in Ireland rested upon somewhat insecure foundations." The discussion he appended to this prologue, running to several pages, consists of a close scrutiny of real contingencies: the possible healing of the Fenian split in America, growing Anglo-American friction over the Alabama dispute, and most important of all, the chance of mutiny by Irish soldiers in the British army, which he labeled as not a contingency at all, but an "absolute certainty." He tells us in every page or so of his book that he was not a sanguine man, yet he still appraised the chances and missed opportunities in about the same way as any other sort of Fenian.

The cult of the lost cause is, in fact, to be found in no Fenian utterance. Those Fenians who were expertly versed in the hard realities of their situation found the Nation's prudent Appomattox analogy inapplicable. Devoy, for example, insisted that the Fenians could not possibly have won in February 1867 and therefore should not have tried to; but in February 1866 he pleaded all night long to begin the rising next morning, not because he wanted to immolate himself in a lost cause for the enhancement of Irish spirituality, but because he thought they might just momentarily possess the right combination of forces to win. To the end of his life he regretted that it should have been left to the Boers to capitalize first on the incompetence of the nineteenth-century British army, when the Fenian probes had exposed its soft tissue thirty years earlier.

It cannot be said that the Fenians lacked emotional depth or sensitivity, yet not the slightest interest in the death mystique can be found among any of their statements of purpose. They possessed, not always but often, great courage, a powerful sense of code, a full awareness of mortal danger always near; but they were not addicted to the operatic effect. The Manchester martyrs themselves, addressing the court for the last time, occupied themselves but little in etherealizing their image for posterity, and instead devoted their precious waning life to lecturing judge and jury on the real facts of Irish history: on the misfortune of the American schism, on the ordinary Irishman's alienation from the English law, on Davis' proposition that Ireland ought to support three times its existing population. O'Leary's comment upon them to a lecture audience was grave and lofty: "We cannot all be heroes, but we can all be hero-worshippers. To few of you probably have been given the high heroic qualities of the Manchester Martyrs, and to none of you probably will ever be afforded the supreme opportunity of showing them, but I am happy to feel that you all cherish in your heart of hearts the memory of these simple but sublime men. . . . "This sounded very much like the martyrs themselves, simply stating the old Roman virtues of the man in the gap. "God Save Ireland" he could never stomach, and he was offended when the brass band played it to welcome him home to Tipperary after imprisonment and exile. He seems to have had the Sullivans particularly in mind in the wry twist he put upon his well-known comment on Irish political wakes: It was "clear as the sun at noonday that the heart of the country always goes out to the man who lives and dies an unrepentant rebel. The rebel can reckon upon nothing in life; he is sure to be calumniated, he is likely to be robbed, and may even be murdered, but let him once go out of life, and he is sure of a fine funeral."

There is no literal historical referent for Yeats's "romantic" death-loving Fenian, so that its source must be sought elsewhere. When Yeats assessed the literary work of Young Ireland and discovered in it what seemed to him the imagination of magpies and the rhythms of marching men, he blamed the poetic coarseness upon the poisonous influence of the "good citizen" in Davis' make-up. But as we noted, he had not perceived that his own disembodied Irish spirituality, his "red rose-bordered hem," was another invention of the same "good citizen." When he assessed the Fenian episode in the history of the Irish sensibility, his blind spot recurred. His foremost cultural, enemy was still the "good citizen"-positivistic, comfortable, prudent, timid, joyless, pious, and insensitive, the whipping boy of all his verse starting from his apprenticeship in the Irish mode with "The Madness of King Goll." Fifty years later, "The Statues" still carries on the theme, their "filthy modern tide" set against our "proper dark," set against his old affection, the Irish death mystique. But the poet who designed this portentous nebulosity and imprinted it indelibly on the modern Irish mind was of all people, T. D. Sullivan.

Yeats tells how an Irish M.P. once came to a meeting of the Literary Society and recited some kind of dreadful patriotic trash. One felt embarrassed, but was also humbled by the very moving affections of the speaker. It was not impossible that he could find "God Save Ireland" to be an intolerable sentimentalism and yet sense something in it of surpassing attraction. To seize it, to formulate it in his own language, he would naturally remove the blatancy and jingle, but he would hope to preserve the nub. The result would be very much like Cathleen ni Houlihan:

Do not make a great keening
When the graves have been dug tomorrow.
Do not call the white-scarfed riders
To the burying that shall be tomorrow,

and so on; or in philistine language, "what matter when for Erin dear we fall!" And suppose, feeling it unwise to lay on the lugubrious with Tom Moore's too-heavy hand, one had added a few dashing military symbols of proven reliability: " '98," "Killala," "There are ships in the Bay!" and

O! we'd have pulled down the gallows
Had it happened in Enniscrone!

These would show that one still kept verbal pace with the advanced men. But like the Sullivans in duress, one would be playing with fire, and if somebody took him at his word and substituted actual for literary death, he might well ask in perplexity:

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?

In what other imaginable context could those lines have any meaning?

For Yeats to seize upon the Sullivanite affection was a genuine choice, since he had another and considerably better model at hand. We know from the evidence of his borrowing that he had read William Morris' splendid treatment, approximately Fenian in outlook, of the identical theme in A Dream of John Ball. But to follow Morris, he would have had to repudiate as Morris did the death mystique; and he would have been left also deprived of his much-cherished theory of tragedy, taken from Axel, which insisted that for the tragic protagonist, extermination is simply a wonderful experience.


Unruffled by the tainted heredity of the Irish death mystique, Yeats handed it on down with his recommendation to the literary movement he founded. There it was admired, embraced, and feverishly practiced. Yeats and Lionel Johnson were alone able to whip it into poetry; for the rest it inspired an appalling number of bad poems, rivaling the output of Irish pepper-pot journalism itself. Here and there it even destroyed a promising talent - in Eva Gore-Booth, for example. Its downfall began one morning in Dublin when George Moore woke up with the feeling that he was about to have a nervous breakdown: in a nightmare he "saw Ireland as a god demanding human sacrifices, and everybody or nearly everybody, crying: Take me, Ireland, take me; I am unworthy, but accept me as a burnt offering." Afterward it disintegrated rapidly, as its substance was discovered to be a figment, a fabrication out of old tunes and wisps of words for oblique motives. O'Casey wrote a war-weary play, The Plough and the Stars, to bid it farewell. Most other post-Yeatsians rejected it in toto and succeeded in getting it committed as insane. In the end it survived only underground, producing occasional painful oddities like Pigeon Irish by Francis Stuart, Yeats's last protege.

Next chapter...

"The Politics of Irish Literature" © Copyright 1973 Malcolm Brown

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