The Fenian rising of 1867 was the last of the rebellions against British rule in Ireland referenced in the Proclamation of 1916. In every generation the Irish people asserted their right to national freedom, the Proclamation declared, “six times during the past 300 years they have asserted it in arms”.
It was almost the last armed insurrection in Ireland, being so badly organised and executed as to convince even the most hardened Fenian that an open rebellion against British rule would never succeed in peacetime.
It was a rebellion, ostensibly begun with such promise, which ended in chaos and disappointment.
The Fenian movement, founded in 1858, was a popular movement based on nationalist and egalitarian principles. It could count on the support of tens of thousands of men, though not all of them had arms.
It could also draw on a degree of military expertise from the large cadre of Irishmen who fought on both sides during the American civil war.
However, the rebels were poorly armed and led. The American leadership was bitterly split between those who wanted to strike for Irish freedom in Ireland and those who believed, fanciful as it might seem in retrospect, that occupying British Canada would make the British see sense in Ireland.
The rebellion was doomed before it started. The Fenians were infiltrated from top to bottom, the most notorious traitor being JJ Corydon, a trusted confidant of the leadership who told the police everything.
Even the French-born general Paul Cluseret, who conceived the final iteration of the plan, had so little confidence that he left for Paris the month before.
The weather too was foul. John Devoy watched the freezing rain and snow hammer on the window of his prison cell and wondered, “God help the poor fellows who are out tonight without overcoats or warm clothing. And what are they to fight with?”
An ambitious plan to capture the arsenal at the barracks in Chester in February 1867 was undermined by an informer. Gen John McCafferty, a veteran of the Confederate side in the American civil war, intended to seize the trains running through Chester to Holyhead and the mail boat.
The actual rising itself on March 5th was a leaderless affair. McCafferty was picked up on his return to Ireland. Gen Godfrey Massey was arrested at Limerick Junction on the eve of the rebellion, and it was too late to change the plans.
The rebellion was centred on Tallaght, then a village 20km outside Dublin city centre. The site was chosen because of its proximity to Dublin and to the Tallaght Hills nearby, its dense copses and steep slopes perfect for concealment.
It was hoped to draw troops from Dublin to quell the rebellion, leaving the rebels in Dublin free to seize military barracks in the city.
A contingent of Fenians captured the police barracks at Dundrum, Stepaside and Glencullen, but the man chiefly responsible for stopping the rising was Sub-Inspector Dominic Burke.
He was charged with protecting Tallaght barracks, which lay in the path of the Fenians assembling on the Tallaght Hills.
Burke took 14 armed constables and formed them up across the road at a perpendicular angle to the barracks. Three contingents of Fenians dispersed when confronted by the armed group. The fourth appeared to be a more excitable crew, with a number of very young rebels.
He called on them to surrender in the name of the queen and read them, literally in this case, the Riot Act. The Fenians responded with a volley of shots. All missed their target. The constabulary met fire with fire and two rebels were killed. The rest fled the scene or gathered on the cold, snowy Tallaght Hills with thousands of other men, now leaderless and forlorn with no plan on how to proceed.
There were also rebellions in Cork, Limerick, Kerry and other parts of the country, but they quickly petered out. The death toll across the country was 12.
Wisely, the British refused to make martyrs of the ringleaders, a lesson forgotten almost a half century later. Indirectly though, the rebellion would create martyrs out of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien, the three men hanged after Thomas J Kelly and Timothy Deasy, two Fenian leaders, were freed from a prison van in Manchester.
The rebellion had unintended consequences. Paradoxically, it strengthened the constitutional case for reform and was a motivating factor in both William Gladstone’s stated ambition to pacify Ireland and the establishment of the Home Rule party in the 1870s by Isaac Butt, the lawyer who represented the Fenian leaders at their subsequent trials.
Militarily, the rebellion was a forgettable affair, but its lessons were never forgotten by Tom Clarke, the only leader of the Easter Rising alive at the time.
His mentor John Devoy concluded that an Irish rebellion could only succeed when “England is engaged in a desperate struggle with some great European power or European combination”.
Hence, the fateful decision in September 1914 by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) to use the opportunity created by the first World War to stage a rebellion against the British. The failure of the Fenian rebellion also explains the extreme secrecy employed by Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada in planning for the Easter Rising.
The Fenian rising’s greatest legacy was rhetorical not military. It was 150 years ago this week that the Provisional Government issued a Proclamation declaring an Irish Republic founded on the principles of equality and universal suffrage, sentiments echoed in its more famous 1916 successor.
An exhibition on the Battle of Tallaght can be viewed at the County Library, Tallaght, from March 2nd to March 31st.