Were the Fenians terrorists?


Sir, – Diarmaid Ferriter (“How do you prefer our Fenian dead – revered or reviled?”, August 15th) writing about attitudes to Fenians like O’Donovan Rossa and the leaders of the 1916 Rising illustrates the ambivalence of attitudes towards what has come to be referred to as the physical force republican element and its part in bringing about independence for the greater part of Ireland.

Historically, of course, when imperial powers have been faced with insurgency or physical resistance of any kind their opponents have been classified as terrorists.

When British forces were dealing with what became our War of Independence, their opponents were called thugs and terrorists.

During that period an element of Irish society went along with that characterisation and even in contemporary Ireland that same attitude is not entirely absent.

One outstanding exception to attitudes to physical force resistance to colonial domination is that of the US. Physical force was the method used to bring an end to British colonial domination in 1776. I have never heard the term “terrorist” being used in referring to the rebels who achieved American independence.

That achievement is proudly commemorated every July 4th with a complete absence of the misgivings regularly expressed by certain elements in connection with our 1916 commemorations.

The French Resistance, the maquis, during the second World War were, no doubt, referred to as terrorists by the Nazi occupiers but nowhere else have the French maquis been referred to as terrorists.

Empires, throughout history, not content with enjoying independence in their own territories, invaded others and murdered, pillaged and initiated ruthless domination.

Intoxicated with their own power in comparison to that of their victims they universally regarded the native peoples as inferior species, untermenschen as the Nazis would later say.

The plain fact of the matter is that empires in their expansionary manner used their military forces as terrorists. They terrorised indigenous populations ruthlessly and yet historians seem too polite to describe them as they really were.

– Yours, etc,