Friday, 26 June 2015

The Phoenix Flame

The Phoenix Flame – A Study of Fenianism and John Devoy. By Desmond Ryan. Arthur Barker, London, 1937.

This review was written on August 5th 2004

I did not have a very high opinion of Ryan’s writing and I found his early chapters dealing with the origins and growth of the Fenians to be rather confusing and poorly structured, as indeed were the first chapter or two dealing with John Devoy. However, I found the later chapters dealing with Devoy and his huge and long lasting influence on the progress of Irish nationalism to be better written and more absorbing. They gave me a better appreciation of the worth of Desmond Ryan’s work. His book is as much a short biographical note on John Devoy as it is an account of Fenianism, but perhaps this is a logical consequence in view of Devoy’s seminal contribution to Ireland’s political evolution during Fenianism and later, and the long years of Devoy’s life.

John Devoy
I had never read much about the Fenians nor about the New Irelanders who preceded them. I was therefore interested in this work. It is divided into two sections, the first seven chapters dealing with the origins and history of the Fenians and the last with the life and influence of John Devoy. It was an organic nationalistic movement which was the logical successor to Daniel O’Connell and the subsequent less pacifist movement supported by the New Irelanders. Fenianism started after O’Connell had failed to gain Repeal (of the Irish parliament) by constitutional means. That and the failure of the Irish Ireland movement of the 1840s, led to disappointment and disillusionment, particularly among the more ardent nationalists. The emphasis was now on military revolution, a policy which was to end with a return to the more pacific policies in the late 19th century of the Irish Parliamentary Party lead by Butt and later by Parnell, and of Davitt’s Land League. The spirit of Fenianism survived only through the continuous existence of the IRB, dormant until its reorganisation early in the second decade of the twentieth century. My uncle-in-law and godfather, Denis McCullough of Belfast and a few of his colleagues had an important role in its revival.

The Fenians had a huge influence, not only in Ireland but also in Britain and in the British Army. It had critical support among the Irish Americans and the Fenian leaders who had escaped or been deported to the United States and who lead the highly influential Clan na nGaedheal there. Support from America was in terms of money and of ex-American Civil War veterans who came to Ireland to organise and to assist in the proposed revolution. Such American support would have been vital to the success of a rebellion but a serious split in Clan na nGaedheal, added to the problems at home, had a disastrous effect on the prospects of success. The Fenians in Ireland were lead by James Stephens who was an outstanding organiser but he was hopelessly incompetent as a revolutionary because of his caution and indecision, his proneness to self-deception, his poor judgement, his lack of diplomacy and his unwillingness to accept advice from his many supporters. While the Fenian movement was basically a movement of violence and committed to revolutionary methods, the Fenian leaders were totally against unnecessary killings and terrorism, but poor organisation and the independent activities of extremists lead to such events as the murder of policeman Brett by the Fenians in Manchester and the subsequent dynamiting of the walls of Clerkenwell prison which led to the deaths of seven innocent people and of many wounded. These and the subsequent Phoenix Park murders were condemned by the Fenian leadership and were carried out without their authority.

James Stephens
The movement had its complement of spies and, because of the information supplied by them to the British authorities in Ireland and in Britain, and the indecision of Stephens and his lieutenants to plan and launch a nationwide rebellion, the movement was to lose all its efficacy and to lose the sympathy which it might have received from the people of Ireland and from those in Britain who had moderate views about the justice of Irish nationalism. Nevertheless the Fenian movement was highly effective in furthering the whole cause of Irish nationalism if only because, instead of attempting military victory, the Fenians did achieve some bungling heroism. While Stephens was resisting a decision to initiate a widespread rebellion, the British authorities were gradually arresting, imprisoning and transporting leaders and activists, thanks to information they were receiving from spies within the organisation. The imprisoning and deportation of so many hundreds of Fenians, as John Devoy said with heads erect and defiance on their lips, made a huge contribution to the ultimate goal of Irish independence and, like the influence of the 1916 signatories, the Fenians found victory in defeat. In Desmond Ryan’s word, Fenianism in chains above all proved more powerful than Fenianism in the field.

The Fenians were badly treated in British jails but their generally courageous response to maltreatment and their vigorous reaction to the unnecessary hardships and cruelties imposed by the prison authorities led to considerable public sympathy and to the success of the movement, despite its military failures. The movement was made up of a wide variety of people with varying views on the question of military intervention but, apart from the occasional extremist who acted independently of the leadership, there was a general horror of terrorism or the killing of innocent people. The Irish American veterans were among the more impatient to be involved in direct action.  Even their reluctance to kill the enemy must have played a part in their indecision to revolt, a reminder of my father’s statement to me about his own reluctance during the War of Independence to even cause the unnecessary killing of enemy soldiers. The entire Fenian movement was dogged by divisions, disagreements and personal antagonisms which added to the sense of anarchy within it.

Fenianism, through the influence of the better known leaders, was, after the failed rebellion of 1867, to lend considerable support to Butt and Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party, and to John Mitchel’s moderate policies and to Michael Davitt’s successful Land League. John Devoy and some others of Clan na nGaedheal in the United States were also supporters in bringing the more extreme elements of Fenianism behind the policies of Davitt and Parnell. Butt had been a constitutional nationalist who had defended the Fenians in court. He preceded Parnell in supporting and organising the more constitutional policies of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster.

Desmond Ryan states Thanks to Devoy the old Phoenix Flame burned still in the new movement, and thanks to him the rank and file of the Fenians stood behind the Land League until the Land War was won. And to the end Devoy backed Parnell until his fall, and he backed Davitt and the Land League. Later still he backed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and, although now at an advanced aged, he did his best to influence the anti-treatyites to accept the agreement with Britain. Devoy was fully supportive of military revolution but was opposed to any form of terrorism or anarchy and unnecessary loss of life, and he was mature enough as a patriot and a nationalist to know when more constitutional methods were likely to succeed in achieving self-determination. After all, there were other equally important changes taking place in Ireland as well as the political movements of the time – the changing policies of Westminster to kill the Irish discontent by kindness, the widening of the electorate, the gradual taking over of local government by the plain people of Ireland and the vitally important advances in the education of the Catholic population. The religious orders who played such a seminal part in educating the Catholic people of Ireland during the nineteenth and early twenty centuries can surely claim to have done as much to progress the cause of Irish independence as the politicians and the soldiers. Nor should one too easily forget the huge apolitical progress of the Irish cultural revival which was being led and supported by all sections of the community, Protestant as well as Catholic.  

It was Devoy’s mature approach to the solution of Ireland’s woes which made him such an important and revered historical figure to such of his successors as my father and my father’s colleagues who supported the Treaty, despite their initial willingness to take part in the military resistance to British intransigence. To understand Fenianism and to learn the true greatness of Devoy, it is necessary to read his narrative Recollections of an Irish Rebel, published posthumously by Charles P. Young, New York, in 1929. Writing of him in the introduction to his autobiography, Judge Danial F. Cahalan said For more than sixty years, in storm and sunshine, in sickness and in health, he dreamed and toiled and worked for the cause of Ireland.

It was reading this book that I first realised that the 1916 Rebellion, heroic as it may have been, was a disaster when combined with de Valera’s failure as our national  leader to support the Anglo-Irish Treaty and to precipitate the country into the ‘compound  disaster’ (my father’s words) of a civil war.

As an aside to this book, I should say that my mother, Min Ryan, was sent by Cumann na mBan to America in late May or early June 1916 to inform Devoy of the circumstances of the Rising. The Rising was kept completely secret by the British from the outside world during the Great War and little was known about it by Devoy and the American people as late as six weeks later until my mother arrived with her account. Devoy mentions her arrival in volume II of his autobiographical Devoy’s Post Bag.

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