Stephen Coyle reviews Irish Republicanism In Scotland 1858-1916: Fenians in exile by Mairtin Sean O'Cathain Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 2858 6, €24.95/£19.95 pbk
THIS IS the first study of the Fenian movement in Scotland and comes under the category of 'hidden history'. It is extremely well researched and the author has produced ample evidence to support his thesis in this sympathetic work.
The author argues that Irish republicanism in Scotland had vigour and integrity more than equal to any displayed among the Irish in America about whom so much has been written.
The steady rise in the Irish immigrant population was overtaken as a result of the Great Hunger by an inrush of people who were overwhelmingly poor, mainly Catholic and recognisably alien. They were left only with their bitter anger at an avoidable past and an uncertain future. The immigrants created 'little Irelands' to maintain the comforts and security of identity in a hostile and rapidly changing society.
Irish republicanism was able to exploit this alienation and combine it with Irish folk history driven by the tradition of resistance to British rule, and incorporated it into the movement which became Fenianism.
The author argues that the social, economic and political contours of the Fenian movement in Scotland marked it out as a more radical and intransigent body than the home organisation. Its members were overwhelmingly employed as labourers in the heavy industries, in dock work and in the building trades.
Through their organisations in Scotland the Fenians demonstrated a clear and continuous belief in the Irish republican physical force tradition as embodied in the United Irishmen and the Young Irelanders. They regarded themselves as the inheritors and guardians of this tradition, especially in exile, and they gave it a political shape.
A key element of this study is with why the Fenians in Scotland should differ in a number of significant ways not only from the Fenians in Ireland but also with their compatriots in other parts of the Irish diaspora.
Indeed one of the author's main contentions is that present thinking on the Fenian movement is dominated by an Ireland-centred perspective which has largely decided that the Fenians were young urban males 'seeking a place' in a rapidly changing country rather than ideologically driven revolutionaries. The evidence of the revolutionary movement in Scotland challenges this assumption and highlights the importance of context and exile.
The book covers the many activities, places and personalities associated with the Fenian movement in Scotland, including John Torley, the talented leader of the IRB from Duntocher.
In addition to addressing a badly neglected topic, the author has added a new and challenging perspective to Fenian historiography. For this he deserves our utmost gratitude.
Glasgow book launch
ON 15 December the Irish in Scotland History Group held a very successful launch of Dr Mairtin O'Cathain's book Irish Republicanism in Scotland 1858-1916 in the Langside Hall in the south side of Glasgow.
Thanks to advanced publicity in The Irish Post a large turnout was guaranteed and all available copies of the book were sold. The local Irish community were well represented and included members of Conradh Na Gaeilige, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, Sinn Fein Poblachtach and the Connolly Association.
Dr O'Cathain gave a very illuminating talk about the many personalities and incidents associated with the Fenian Movement in Scotland. He also made comparisons with Fenianism in Ireland and the rest of the Irish diaspora. Following his talk there was a rapid succession of questions from the floor and a lively discussion ensued.
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Copyright © 2007 Stephen Coyle