The Fenians

From 1848 until 1867, writes E.R.R. Green, the romantic nationalists of Ireland, with strong backing from the Irish-Americans, conspired in vain to make their country an “Independent Democratic Republic.”

The Ireland of a century ago provided most of the conditions necessary for the creation of a revolutionary movement. The fabric of society had been torn asunder by the Potato Famine of 1846-7, the worst disaster experienced by a European country in modern times. The potato crop had been the only resource of thousands of Irish people.

For seventy years the country had maintained a rate of population-growth roughly equivalent to that of industrial Britain by subdividing holdings and living on potatoes. When the blight came, there was no alternative to flight or starvation, so that by 1851 the population had fallen from the eight million of 1841 to six-and-a-quarter million. During those ten years nearly a million people had emigrated to the United States, and probably about a third of that number had gone to Great Britain.

As a result, large Irish communities were created in American and British cities, the biggest being in New York, which had an Irish-born population of 133,000 in 1850. Lacking capital or skill, the emigrants were everywhere forced into the worst paid and least secure employment. Apart from their great numbers and abject poverty, religion was a further powerful barrier against their rapid absorption in either America or Britain.

The economic realities of the situation were not very well understood either in Britain or Ireland. Self-confident Victorian Englishmen, assuming that equal opportunities existed for all parts of the United Kingdom, concluded that Irish poverty resulted from some inferiority in the people, and from the fact of their being Roman Catholics. Irishmen, pointing to the simple fact that England had grown richer and Ireland poorer since 1800, were satisfied that the Act of Union was the source of all their misfortunes.

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