The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1858. It rapidly established a world-wide presence, with members on every continent. Its aim was to free Ireland from British occupation by force of arms. Across the globe 300, 000, 000 men, women and children lived under British rule. The IRB planned the democratisation or the overthrow of the Empire on which the sun never set.
The seeds of the revolutionary movement were sown a decade earlier when the Great Famine left Ireland’s population depleted. Over a million died of hunger and disease. Another million fled Ireland and settled in Irish communities in Britain and in North America. Mass emigration became a constant and there were Irish settlements in South America, Australia, India and Asia.
The IRB, a secret, oath-bound organisation, was hierarchical, with a Supreme Council, the government of the Irish Republic, now ‘virtually established’. Members took an oath of allegiance, binding unto death:
In the presence of God, I … do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the national independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republic and government of the Irish Republic and implicitly obey the constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and all my superior officers and that I will preserve inviolate the secrets of the organisation.
The structure was cellular and organised in circles. A Circle had 820 men. The Centre was known as ‘A’ or the Colonel. Nine captains, ‘B’s, answered to the Centre. Nine sergeants, ‘C’s, answered to the captain and 9 privates served under a sergeant.
Political machines were established in the UK, Canada, the United States and Australia. The policy was to make the English feel the presence of the Irish everywhere. Alliances were forged with like-minded groups. The Catholic Church, Radical Liberals, Quakers, Indian Nationalists and the South African Boers were among those who made common cause. England’s difficulties were not only Ireland’s opportunities. In 1892, Dudubhoy Naoroji, a Parsi, was elected to the Finsbury Central Westminster seat with the support of the Irish vote. India now had a voice in Parliament. Edward Blake, a lawyer of Irish descent and former leader of the Canadian Liberal party, stood as an anti-Parnellite in 1892 and won a seat in South Longford. Blake raised large sums of money for the Irish Parliamentary Party. A few months later, the Second Home Rule Bill would pass through the House of Commons.
In the early 1870s, emphasis had moved to co-operation and building on the movement’s unquestionable strengths.
Common sense would also point out the advisability of giving the preference to our friends in all our dealings. We should thus make it the interest of many at present half-hearted or indifferent to openly join the national ranks.
Address of the IRB Council to the people of Ireland, January 1870
… [the IRB] shall confine itself in time of peace to the exercise of moral influences – the cultivation of union and brotherly love amongst Irishmen, the propagation of republican principles and the spreading of the knowledge of the national rights of Ireland.
Amended constitution of the IRB and the Supreme Council, 17 March, 1873.
The sad fact that a great number of our brothers are constantly emigrating to America and Australia having been touched upon, the convention most strongly advised the immediate formation of branches of our organisation in every place where the Irish emigrant plants his foot, in order to preserve his services to his country. Such branches would be of great use in developing a spirit of brotherly kindness among our people in those countries, and would be of great benefit to those whom circumstances may compel to tear themselves from our beloved country.
Address of the IRB Supreme Council to the officers and men of the IRA, 17 March 1873.
In 1898, Irish nationalist Charles Russell of Killowen, the first Catholic to hold the office of Lord Chief Justice since the Reformation, declared in an after-dinner speech, ‘Ireland is about the only country in the world where English is spoken where the Irish don’t rule.’*
For many years the history of the IRB , with its perceived commitment to violence, was neglected, its narrative distorted. However, since 9/11, the horrific attack on New York’s iconic Twin Towers, there has been a growing interest in the IRB, its rise and reach. Fenianism’ s ethnic and religious roots, its transnational character and its strategic use of force, moral and physical, to achieve its objectives, invite comparison with terrorism in our time.
*See That Irishman, p.77