Who were the Fenians? Their legend stalked the Victorian imagination in much the way that the legend of Bin Laden stalks the world today. They were everywhere and nowhere, inspiring and terrifying.
In this provocative anthology Joe Ambrose brings together the friends and foes of Fenians and Fenianism such as Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, W. B. Yeats, Michael Collins, Dan Breen, and Tom Morello from agit rock superstars Rage Against the Machine.
The book pursues the Fenian ideal through the generations with ample space being given to those IRA leftists gathered around the charismatic Frank Ryan during the Spanish Civil War, a raw chunk of the Provo’s legendary Green Book, a once-illegal training manual for guerrilla fighters along with Ambrose’s own re-evaluations of enigmatic and controversial IRA icons like Cathal Goulding, Bobby Sands, and Seamus Costello. Socialist James Connolly vigorously conjures up the Manchester Martyrs, De Valera is represented by his legendary “comely maidens” speech.
A large part of the Fenian story is told here by the men who participated in the rise, fall, and rise again of that brotherhood. They talk of treacherous priests, wanton peasant women, arguments won at farmyard festivities, fallen women who wouldn’t inform on “the boys”. Their story is also told in batches of songs, some still popular, others obscure and intriguing. Ambrose briskly examines the controversy which often surrounds Ireland’s National Anthem, The Soldier’s Song
The Republican Congress, founded in 1934, came about when left wing republican intellectuals like Peadar O’Donnell and George Gilmore left the IRA which, with the emergence of Fianna Fail, was being consigned to the fringes of political life. The IRA was also, like many Thirties organisations, divided along left/right lines. The principal right-wing IRA leader, the divisive Sean Russell, steered the organisation into political irrelevance in the face of Fianna Fail’s remorseless rise and hegemony of the conservative republican high ground.
The Congress, a reaction against IRA intellectual inertia and a bleak economic environment, believed that a united Ireland could only be achieved through a struggle which uprooted capitalism. At the IRA’s 1934 Bodenstown rally, clashes occurred between Congress supporters and the IRA. Protestant Congress members from West Belfast, carrying a banner which proclaimed, "Unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter to break the connection with Capitalism", were attacked by certain IRA factions.
The Congress split at its first annual conference held in Rathmines Town Hall on Sept 8 and 9 1934. One group felt that a united front of leftist republicans could challenge the dominance of the mainstream political parties. Their Congress opponents believed that they should form a conventional political party which would seek a worker’s republic. This stance was supported by Peadar O'Donnell and the Communist Party of Ireland. The Republican Congress soon petered out, with its leading lights making their way to Spain where, as part of the Connolly Column, they fought against Franco’s fascist-supported Nationalist forces.
Patrick Byrne was, along with IRA left winger Frank Ryan and Frank Edwards (a Waterford-based Communist who rose to prominence during the Spanish Civil War), joint secretary of the Republican Congress.
Frank Ryan joined the East Limerick Brigade of the IRA in 1922. He fought on the Republican side in the Irish Civil War, and was wounded and interned. A UCD graduate, he became editor of An Phoblacht in 1929 and was appointed to the IRA Army Council.
In 1936 Ryan went to Spain to fight with the International Brigades. He was eventually captured and, in mysterious circumstances, fell into the hands of the Nazi government in Berlin. He died in the German capital. The circumstances surrounding his final years have lead to ongoing, and somewhat outlandish, efforts to portray Ryan as a fascist sympathiser. Given his consistent public and private opposition to fascism, his central role in the development of Irish socialism, his progressive position within Irish republicanism, and the recollections of comrades, claims that he had fascist inclinations have the whiff of blackguardism and fanatical revisionism about them.
He is immortalised in one of Shane McGowan’s best songs, The Sickbed of Cuchullin:
When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne,
And you heard the rattling death trains as you lay there all alone,
Frank Ryan brought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid,
And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids.