How much in life is determined purely by a vantage point? That is a perennial question one might be inclined to ask whenever one is exposed to speech or print. Historians are naturally disposed to ask such questions on a particularly regular basis. I have rarely had the honour of being a part of a collective historical work, the principal exception being a couple of occasions, about a decade ago, when I was able to make a small contribution to the quite wonderful Dictionary of Irish Biography. Irrespective of the authors, behind every entry in that dictionary could be said to be the worldview of each of its subjects. That is a lot of different vantage points (about 9,000 to be exact, across countless generations). Historians will try (or, at least, should try) to understand as many as they can, but that is a considerable challenge. The principal editor of the dictionary wrote many entries on mid-nineteenth century Irish nationalists and later produced the first study in a few generations of the Young Ireland movement, which also gave rise to many of the first Fenian activists, particularly in the United States. A remarkable fact about these men is that most of them became newspaper editors. Some may associate such men with songs such as ‘the bold fenian men’ but they might better have been described as the progenitors of a ‘bold fenian pen’ and the worldview they championed is not necessarily one that is familiar today.
The first point that can be made is that these men had become American republicans that were inclined, as Irish exiles, to champion what might be described as an international republican perspective. As an example, Thomas Devin Reilly championed European republican figures such as Mazzini and Garibaldi but argued that they were mistaken to identify their cause with that of English liberalism. Instead, he argued, they should look to the cause of the United States. Associated newspaper editors such as John Mitchel or John Savage evidently reasoned likewise and encouraged Joseph Brenan to do the same. This was the type of vantage point that Irish-born founders of the American Fenian Brotherhood such as John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny came to adopt, although their initiative soon took second place to the American civil war in more ways than one. With the encouragement of figures in the government of the state of New York, another one-time newspaper editor Thomas J. Kelly took over their movement and together with Gustave Cluseret, a French adventurer who had fought under Garibaldi and later in the Union Army, made the grandiose gesture of drafting an Irish republican proclamation in London and staging an abortive one-day (5 March) protest rebellion in Ireland. Why on earth did they do this? Although they identified themselves as American patriots with an internationalist republican mentality, their motive would seem to have been primarily to find some means of annoying Britain in return for the latter’s perceived actions during the American civil war. When amnestied from prison with some encouragement from the American government, these would be Fenian rebels (with the exception of Cluseret, who returned to France, still declaring himself an enemy of all aristocracies in every country) were given jobs in the civil administration of New York. Savage, a one-time president of the American Fenian Brotherhood, even received an honorary doctorate for his services to American literature, although by the time of his death in 1888 the notion of an international radicalism had begun to acquire more socialist than republican overtones, even if the essential stimulus for this trend may have been the same: the communications revolution of trans-continental, or trans-Atlantic, telegraphic, postage and public transport networks. During the Land League era, many would-be Irish republican radicals, in common with those in 1867, also identified themselves in internationalist terms.
What, therefore, was the meaning, or punch line, of the ‘bold fenian pen’ that these men practiced? The easy assumption is the starting point that most Irish writers adopt: these were men who were prepared to contemplate an Irish nationalist rebellion. It would seem, however, that the story is much more complex and essentially quite different to that. As much as men like Mitchel resented their status as Irish exiles, they soon became determined primarily to apply the vantage point they acquired abroad to Ireland and international affairs generally. The ‘fenian story’ was defined not least by men who acquired an alternative experience of the wider world than the sole one that was supposed to be open to Irishmen of the time, which was service in the British imperial administration. How they were to apply that alternative vantage point was the essential question that preoccupied them. Not all came up with the same answer, but the perpetual proliferation of hangers-on who became associated with Fenian circles over each decade, from would-be artists to writers of various hues, testified to the existence of this particular contemporary counterculture. This was not necessarily an underground phenomenon either, even if this world often included a few members of that most murky and well-travelled guild of contemporary adventurers: that of war-correspondent journalists. This experience evidently served to politicise ex-French Foreign Legionnaires in the fenian movement, such as John Devoy and especially James O’Kelly, and it was also a feature of the careers of some ‘purely American’ fenian figures, such as John Finerty, who travelled in Central America and whose contemporary account of his travels with the US army in its campaign against the Sioux Indians has, it seems, been in print ever since.
Of late, there appears to have been fresh studies, the first in many years, of men like Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher, the latter being the designer of the Irish tricolour who ended up dying in mysterious circumstances as the governor of Montana. I have come across colourful stories of other less well-known figures, who founded Texan Land Leagues and Californian trade unions, long before such American states were truly on their feet, or else cavorted with strange eccentrics on the back-streets of Paris, long before old friends of these men back in Ireland had the means to travel even a few miles from their birthplaces. It is no wonder that art historians such as Niamh O’Sullivan have typified the trajectory of careers of men like James O’Kelly as being worthy of some boys-own-adventure-story-books-of-yore; an almost cinematic and potentially juvenile picture of ‘fenian’ activity. Perhaps one might say that such an idea is a variation of the notion of ‘bold fenian men’: the story of some remarkable and, at least potentially, daring individuals. My own inkling, however, is that it would be well for historians to focus instead on the idea of a ‘bold fenian pen’. What these men offered was an alternative way of seeing the world and, quite often, Ireland’s place within it, to what was familiar or acceptable to most others. If this phenomenon is seen as the story of many separate individuals, it becomes impossible to separate their vantage point purely from their own individual experience. However, if a common cultural or political vantage point can be read into many of these individual experiences we may come much closer to understanding what was the true meaning or parameters of the ‘bold fenian pen’.