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*Migration Histories > Irish > Politics
* The Republican Movement 
 
The term *Fenian, was employed to describe Irish activists fighting against British rule in the 19th century. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in 1858 to establish an Irish republic by force Irish people living in mainland Britain, like Michael Davitt joined too, and by 1865 there were an estimated , 18,000 members of the IRB in mainland Britain.

The great majority of the Irish labourers in this town [Liverpool], London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, as well as those residing in towns of less note through this country, if not actually enrolled members of the brotherhood, are strongly impressed with the spirit of fenianism.
Such reports, this one by an Irish policeman named McHale, abound in this Home Office file but seem to have been based on little more than pub gossip and so cannot be regarded as reliable sources of information. James Sexton recalled, as a youth, recruiting members near Liverpool with his father and grandfather.

...doing 'missionary work for the IRB, going to the shanties in which the men [railway navvies] were housed and hearing the oath administered. I forget its exact words, but to me it seemed a fearsome pledge, with death swift and sure for the man who broke it. Members were instructed to join the local volunteer corps [a 19th century equivalent to the Territorial Army] for the purpose of becoming proficient in the use of firearms.
James Sexton, The Life of Sir James Sexton, Agitator (1936)

Others were sympathetic to the aims of the movement but the Catholic Church was hostile, as it had been to *Chartism.

We were greatly excited by the news of the blowing up of Clerkenwell prison. We lamented the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs, and our English neighbours danced and rejoiced. What wonder? Some priest said hell was not hot enough for the Fenians.
Tom Barclay, Memories and medleys: the autobiography of a bottle-washer
(Leicester, 1934)
Source : BL

This violent strand of republicanism disappeared almost entirely between 1922 and the mainland bombing campaign of 1939. Incidents continued to be few and far between right up to 1970, and were mostly small scale and ineffective.

Nonetheless, the story of Brendan Behan illustrates how even boys who were too young to be sent to prison could become involved in armed republicanism.

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In this letter of 1954 Behan asks the British Home Secretary to suspend the outstanding expulsion order against him - the application was successful and Behan was allowed unrestricted access to England.
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In this letter of 1954 Behan asks the British Home Secretary to suspend the outstanding expulsion order against him - the application was successful and Behan was allowed unrestricted access to England.
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) HO 45/25068
Behan, the future playwright, was arrested in Liverpool for bringing explosives into England for the IRA's bombing campaign of 1939. As he was only 16, he was sent to Borstal, a young offenders' institution, later the subject of his book Borstal Boy. Released in November 1941, he was expelled to Ireland but the expulsion order, the subject of this Home Office file, was lifted in 1954.

He did not see himself primarily as a political prisoner but rather identified with his fellow imates' feelings of hostility towards authority.

...it was not really the length of sentence that worried me - for I had always believed that if a fellow went into the IRA at all he should be prepared to throw the handle after the hatchet ... but that I'd sooner be with Charlie and Ginger and Browny in Borstal than with my own comrades and countrymen any place else. It seemed a bit disloyal to me, that I should prefer to be with boys from English cities than with my own countrymen and comrades from Ireland's hills and glens."
Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy (1958)

On his return to Ireland, in 1942, he was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for the attempted murder of two detectives but was released under a general amnesty in 1946. He was imprisoned again in Manchester in 1947 for helping an IRA prisoner to escape. When in prison, Behan started to write short stories. Books and plays arising from his experiences followed. The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan later remarked of Behan's play The Hostage, originally written in *Gaelic under the title An Giall and set around the execution of an eighteen-year-old IRA member in a Belfast jail, that it was "an example of Ireland's function every twenty years or so to provide a playwright who will kick English drama from the past into the present".


Creators: Aidan Lawes

 
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