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Updated on June 8, 2013


While the country was in the depths of the Famine, a group of men still schemed to break Ireland’s chains from Britain. Coming from the well-to-do classes, Protestant and Catholic, they had been able to escape the desolation all around them. Known to history as the Young Ireland movement, their names would soon join the Irish pantheon of heroes and martyrs, though once more in a losing cause: William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Davis, Charles Cavan Duffy, John Mitchel, and Thomas Meagher. Newspaper editors, writers, poets, and lawyers by trade, they, unfortunately, were not the hard men needed to carry out such an endeavor. Those would appear several generations later. As was said of Smith O’Brien- “A vicious man with the talents and prestige of O’Brien’s name would have overthrown English dominion in Ireland.”- Patrick O’Donohue.

The spirit was willing- “Now, indeed, are the men of Ireland cowards if this moment for retribution, combat, and victory, was to pass by unemployed.”- Margaret Callan, 1848. Alas, the flesh was understandably weak, so the rebellion of 1848 never really got off the ground: “The Rising misnamed. No rising. No plans or order- no leader.”- Eva, Marie Anne Kelly, 1848. The rebels, listed above, such as they were, ended up in prison, to be put on trial by the British. The ever friendly London Times mocked the captives- “In no other country have men talked of treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging for sympathy from their oppressors.” Some of the would-be revolutionaries, like John Mitchel, gave eloquent pleas from the dock during their trials: “I have shown that her Majesty’s government sustains itself in Ireland by packed juries, by partisan judges, by perjured sheriffs.”

Not surprisingly, the Young Irelanders were found guilty of treason, but maybe because constant death hovered over the island, most were sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) or Australia. Two places favored by the British for banishing Irish “criminals” since the early 1800’s. Several years after their departure, a group of the exiles excited the world by making a daring escape from captivity. Mitchel and Thomas Meagher found their way to the United States, where they were treated as celebrities. The two did not forget their homeland, however, and its struggle. “I mean to make use of the freedom granted me as a citizen of America to help and to stimulate the movement of European democracy, and especially of Irish independence.”- John Mitchel, 1853.

Meagher, who led the famed Irish brigade during the American Civil War, thought that conflict would prove invaluable to Irish patriots looking one day to return home. “I hold it that if only one in ten come back when this war is over, the military experience gained by that one will be of more service to Ireland’s fight for freedom than would be that of the entire ten as they are now.” Thomas Meagher, who died in Montana in 1868, and John Mitchel, who incidentally supported the South during the Civil War, never made it back to the Emerald Isle. There were, however, thousands of Irish veterans who wanted to use their martial skills against England when the war ended in 1865.

Some returned to Ireland to fan the flames of revolt there. Others remained in the U.S., but turned their eyes towards America’s northern neighbor- a blow against Canada would be an indirect strike at Britain. These new rebels called themselves Fenians, after the fabled Finn MacCool and his Fianna warriors from the Celtic past. “We’re slaves, my boys, and slaves we’ll be. Till maddened by our chains we’ll raise the flag of liberty, and muster on the plains, and sweep the Saxons from our shore, as once we did the Dane.”- Fenian Song, 1860’s. Sadly, similar to 1848, a planned rising in Ireland fizzled out before ever getting started. The nation was just not ready for it.

Across the pond, the Fenians prepared eagerly for an invasion of Canada. “We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war, and we are going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore. Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue, and we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do.”- Fenian Invasion Song, 1866. When the U.S. government got wind of the plan, and let it be known it did not look too kindly on the Fenians’ purported venture, ardor among Irish-Americans deflated. A small army did cross the border into Canada from upstate New York, won a pitched battle against a British force sent to intercept them, before retreating back to the States after running out of supplies. The armed struggle for Ireland’s independence had ground to a halt.

In the late 1800’s, for the most part, the fight shifted to land agitation to reform the corrupt landlord system, and the political arena, to strive for Home Rule. Striding to center-stage would be Ireland’s greatest political leader since Daniel O’Connell. The war-cry was temporarily put on the shelf.

As your fears are false and hollow,

Slaves and dastards stand aside,

Knaves and traitors, Faugh-a-Ballagh

“Faugh-a-Ballagh!”- Clear the Way!- Charles Cavan Duffy


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