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Ireland 1852-1868

In 1852 about 50 Irish MPs were pledged to oppose any government which would not grant tenant right. The Conservatives under Derby made some attempt to meet their wishes by introducing a Bill recognising the principle of retrospective compensation and offering loans for improvement. The tenant-right group introduced a measure of its own which Derby refused to accept, so the 50 voted against him. Since it was a minority government, their action delayed settlement for 20 years and broke up the tenant-right organisation because the leaders quarrelled among themselves.

Between 1854 and 1858, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny occupied the attentions of the various governments, and Ireland was all but forgotten. Agrarian outrages continued in Ireland, but no-one in England noticed. After the tenant right societies collapsed, secret societies continued to stir up resistance.

In 1856 James Stephens, the ablest of the young leaders and who had been wounded in the troubles of 1848, took advantage of the unconditional pardon given by Britain. He returned to Ireland and began organising rebellion. The conspiracy was uncovered and was broken up, but in 1858: the Fenian Brotherhood was founded in America and spread throughout the USA. The name "Fenian" comes from the Gaelic word "Fianna" meaning 'armed force', which had been used to defend Ireland in legendary times. The oath of the Fenians was as follows:

I, A.B., do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will do my utmost, at any risk, while life lasts, to make Ireland an Independent Democratic Republic; that I will yield implicit obedience, in all things not contrary to the law of God, to the commands of my superior officers; and that I shall preserve inviolable secrecy regarding all transactions of the secret society that may be confided to me. So help me God! Amen. (J. O’Leary, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (1896) I p. 120)

In 1860, Cardwell, the Irish Secretary in Palmerston's ministry introduced two Bills for Ireland:

  1. to give tenants the right to compensation for improvements carried out with the landlord's consent. This proposal was so complicated that few people used it
  2. to simplify the assignment of tenancies. This assumed that the landlord and tenant could bargain on equal terms over rents: they could not and did not, because landlords could easily find tenants, but land was not so easily come by.

Both of them failed to have any effect in Ireland.

In 1865, at the end of the American Civil War, there were several thousands of men in America trained in modern warfare and with money, who wanted to fight for Irish independence. They were led by James Stephens (who had fled to America after the failure of his conspiracy in 1856) and O'Donovan Rossa. In May 1866, 1,200 Fenians 'invaded' Canada. The Canadian government broke up the raiders and shot six of the leaders. Stephens was deposed as the leader of the Fenians and wilder men took over. In 1867, the Fenians transferred their activities to England.

The sentences caused outrage in Ireland and the men became known as the "Manchester Martyrs" and national heroes. As a result of the hangings, demonstrations against Britain occurred.

This outrage ruined the Fenian movement as such:

It might still have been possible for the Irish question to be solved, if agrarian reform and the religious problem had been solved.

Fenianism drew the attention of people in England to the grievances of the Irish - including Gladstone, who feared that delay in bringing about reform was dangerous. However, between 1866 and 1867, parliament was concerned with and was occupied by the new Reform Bills.

In 1868, Gladstone became Prime Minister for the first time and turned his attention to the "Irish Question".

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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