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Fenians in the North East of England during the 1890s.

[Note: This post was originally given as a paper entitled ‘An analysis of advanced nationalist activity amongst the Irish diaspora in the North East of England during the 1890s’ at ‘The Irish Diaspora and Revolution 1845-1945’ conference organised in 2012 by the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Some small changes have been made to the text.]

In his pioneering study of the Irish in Newcastle and County Durham in the mid-nineteenth century, Roger Cooter deals at length with what he describes as the ‘infusion of Fenianism’ in the 1870s, following the abortive rising in Ireland in 1867; and credits the political awakening of the Irish in the North East, and the development of the national movement in the region, to that infusion.[1]

Cooter, however, found little evidence for any actual Fenian activity, beyond wild stories in the local press; and refers only once to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), in relation to the National Brotherhood of St Patrick in Newcastle, and mentions only one Fenian by name.[2] This was John Walsh, an Irish-born iron worker on Teesside, who was the North of England’s representative on the IRB’s Supreme Council during the 1870s.[3] Cooter, however, did acknowledge that there was widespread support for Fenianism in the North East, and this support intensified with the deaths of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’; executions that provoked almost universal, and lasting, sympathy amongst the Irish in Britain.[4]

That the Irish Republican Brotherhood had a presence in the North of England is, however, not in doubt. In July 1874, an IRB conference in Manchester was informed that the organisation had a total strength in their North of England division of almost 4,000 members; with over 1400 assorted firearms; and £3,000 in funds.[5] And seven years later, in 1881, the division boasted seventy per cent of the total British strength, and almost twelve per cent of the entire IRB membership in Ireland and Britain.[6]

How many of these men lived on Tyneside or Teesside, or in the colliery villages of County Durham and Northumberland, rather than in Liverpool or Manchester, was, however, not recorded. And, sadly, few names of IRB members in the North East are known with any certainty from the 1870s and 1880s, though, along with John Walsh, the name of John Barry is prominent. Barry grew up in Newcastle, and was initially active there, before he moved to Manchester, and co-option to the Supreme Council.[7]

Walsh and Barry possibly met in Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute that had opened its doors in 1871 to revolutionaries and constitutionalists alike. Barry was a founding member and Walsh a regular visitor; and, during the 1870s, both men actively participated in the constitutional nationalist movement. Barry organised an Amnesty demonstration in Newcastle in 1872, and later became so involved in the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain that it led to his expulsion from the Supreme Council.[8]

Walsh was likewise constitutionally active, attending a joint Amnesty-Manchester Martyrs demonstration in Dublin in 1873, and was a Northern Land League organiser at the end of the decade.[9] Walsh, however, is better remembered as one of the Invincibles, who, though he possibly had no direct role in the Phoenix Park killings, fled to France, and then to exile in the United States to escape arrest.[10]

During the 1880s, as the Brotherhood’s fortunes waned in Britain, overshadowed by the growing strength of the home rule movement, the North of England’s division was represented by a Preston publican, William McGuinness, who had been elected to the Supreme Council in 1878, and who held that position until his death in 1905.[11] How the IRB fared in the North East during the 1880s is not known, but what is certain is that the constitutional movement, in its various manifestations, gradually prospered under Parnell’s leadership, and, by 1890, the Irish National League of Great Britain had branches in every centre of Irish population in the region.

In late November 1890, the revelations from the O’Shea’s divorce prompted a leader in Newcastle’s Irish Tribune to conclude: ‘What all the enemies of Ireland failed to do against Mr Parnell, he has done for himself’.[12] And in the succeeding months, the bitter arguments from Committee Room 15 reverberated across the North East as National League branches met to condemn Parnell’s actions, reject his leadership, and confirm their support for Justin M’Carthy.[13] This wave of anti-Parnell feeling had reached such proportions by January 1891 that, when the Tribune asked its readers if Parnell had the right ‘to pose as the Irish leader?’Of the 5,000 questionnaires returned, just seven per cent supported him.[14] 

On 21 March 1891, delegates from 70 of the North East’s National League branches met in Newcastle’s Irish Institute to discuss the crisis, and agreed overwhelmingly a resolution, moved by Charles Duggan from the Walker branch, condemning Parnell, and supporting M’Carthy. Only one delegate, a Mr Kelly from Blyth, opposed the resolution, declaring instead his ‘unbounded confidence’ in Parnell.[15]

Kelly’s, however, was not a lone voice on Tyneside, where, in late December 1890, at a meeting of the National League’s ‘No: 1’ branch in the Irish Institute, John Lavery and a small band of supporters walked out after failing to delay a no-confidence vote in Parnell’s leadership.[16] This group then formed the Newcastle and Tyneside Parnell Leadership Committee with Stephen Bannon, late president of Newcastle’s ‘No: 1’ branch, as chairman, and John Lavery as secretary.[17]

The first Parnell Leadership Committee had been formed in Dublin, on the IRB’s initiative, in early December 1890 – within days of the Catholic hierarchy’s condemnation of Parnell.[18] McGee has suggested that this support was forthcoming not because the IRB strongly identified with Parnell’s politics, but rather because they viewed his struggle as ‘simply another manifestation of a struggle that Irish republicans had been fighting for generations’.

In late January 1891, a Parnell Leadership Committee was established in London with the active support of the IRB’s Mark Ryan; and, in April, Dr Ryan joined the London executive of the National League’s Parnellite offshoot. He later explained: ‘I accepted office, not because I believed in Parliamentarianism, but because I felt that it would help the Cause with which I had been so long identified’.[19]

During the first half of 1891, both pro and anti Parnellites competed for support on Tyneside. And an interesting letter in The Nation illuminates the tactics allegedly employed by the Parnell Leadership Committee. In this letter Charles Duggan, after ritually insulting the Parnellites as ‘political soreheads and cranks’, relates how he had attended a meeting called by the Leadership Committee in Walker, his home town. This meeting, chaired by Stephen Bannon, had been packed, claimed Duggan, with ‘strangers’, drafted in to ensure that the resolution: ‘We the Irishmen of Walker give our earnest support to Mr Parnell’ was safely passed. News of this meeting was then sent to the local press to sow, asserted Duggan, ‘disunion and dissension amongst Irishmen’.[20]

At the end of May 1891, by whatever means, 40 delegates representing Parnellite ‘Independent’ branches from across the North East met in the Irish Institute, and agreed to establish new branches to pursue ‘the policy of independent opposition… to secure the final success of the Irish cause’.[21] Also on the agenda was the forthcoming visit to Newcastle of Parnell himself.

This visit, on Saturday 18 July, was not, however, the anticipated triumph, and it was lambasted by the Irish Tribune  as a fiasco.[22] Despite widespread publicity, Parnell’s name no longer had the power to fill Newcastle’s town hall; fewer than 2,000 were present, and one local newspaper estimated that, at least, one third of the audience was hostile.[23] This hostility was immediatley blamed by the Freeman’s Journal on the ‘Irish Literary Institute’ and ‘Liberal wire-pullers’, who had placed in the audience ‘a handful of Liberals or de-nationalised Irishmen’ to cause maximum disruption.[24]

Possibly more important, however, than Parnell’s speech – his last major speech in Britain – was a private conference he held in the County Hotel, opposite Newcastle’s main railway station.[25] There Parnell, accompanied by Joseph Nolan MP, met Stephen Bannon, Peter Bradley and John Lavery and ‘other officers of his Leadership Committees’ from across the North East.[26] What was discussed at this meeting is not known, but the names and home towns of the men who met Parnell are known, as they subsequently presented him with loyal messages. These were the executive officers of the ‘Independent Nationalists’ from Blyth, Jarrow, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Shildon, Sunderland, Walker, and Wallsend.[27]

Parnell’s escort in Newcastle, Joseph Nolan, has been shown to have had links to American Fenianism and had acted as Parnell’s ‘bridgehead’ to the IRB.[28] Nolan was also, along with Mark Ryan, on the executive of the National League’s Parnellite wing.[29]

So, was it possible that, as in London, the IRB had members embedded on Newcastle’s Parnell Leadership Committee, and amongst the executive officers of the North East’s Independent Nationalists? It’s impossible to say. But amongst those who met Parnell in Newcastle was Patrick Walsh from Middlesbrough, the brother of John Walsh, the North of England’s late representative on the Supreme Council.[30] And when William McGuinness died in 1905 his obituary noted that he had not taken ‘any part in Parliamentary agitation until the Parnell split’.[31]

Though few in numbers, the Parnellites in the North East of England, as in Ireland, survived the premature death of their leader, and found renewed vigour in advancing grassroots nationalist movements.

McGee has revealed that in the 1890s the IRB, weakened by informers, falling rolls, and a failing leadership, was in some disarray, and so was unable or unwilling to seize the initiative that the Parnell split had presented. And that disarray was demonstrated by the differences that developed between the Irish and British wings of the IRB over London’s greater enthusiasm for participation in the Amnesty movement.[32]

In March 1892, a branch of the Amnesty Association was formed in London, and, a few months later, the omnipresent Dr Ryan was invited to Dublin to join the new executive, comprised of both Parnellites and Fenians, of a re-organised Irish National Amnesty Association.[33] Back in Britain, following a conference in Liverpool, an Amnesty Association of Great Britain was formed to co-ordinate activity. Operating, however, from 55 Chancery Lane in London – the offices from where the IRB sought to control all Irish nationalist political and cultural organisations in Britain – the Amnesty Association was never free from IRB influence, if not direct control.[34] 

Even before Parnell’s death, however, a mass meeting in Middlesbrough in May 1891 had established a branch of the Amnesty Association in the town. Sitting on the platform that day with Joseph Nolan MP was Patrick Walsh and John Harrington – more of him later.[35]

No branches of the Association were initially formed on Tyneside, possibly because of the strength of the Parnellite Independent branches. In November 1893, however, an amnesty meeting in Newcastle chaired by Peter Bradley attracted a large paying audience to hear John Ferguson and John Redmond; but it was to be three years before the first Tyneside Amnesty Association branch was formed, when all shades of nationalist opinion in Wallsend met to hear the main speaker from Newcastle – Robert McDonough Mason – more of him later.[36] 

Meanwhile, Amnesty meetings, featuring inspirational nationalist figures, provided the North East’s nationalists with ‘patriotic entertainment’ – to use David Fitzpatrick’s memorable phrase.[37] On Teesside, the ex-prisoner, John Egan, spoke, as did Maude Gonne – both of them touring Britain on behalf of Mark Ryan’s Amnesty Association.[38] Jarrow welcomed O’Donovan Rossa.[39] And, most spectacularly, John Daley visited Newcastle in March 1897.[40] This visit was planned by a committee chaired by Robert Mason that included Lewis Barry, brother of John Barry. Following Daly’s visit, an Amnesty branch was set-up in Newcastle, with Mason as president.[41]

Again, there is no direct evidence of any involvement by paid-up or lapsed IRB members in the Amnesty movement in the North East, but the links with Ryan’s umbrella organisation, the quality of the travelling speakers, and the ensuing activities of key organisers, strongly suggests that there was that involvement.

Likewise, there is no direct evidence of IRB participation in the planning for the commemoration of the ‘98 Centenary in the North East, but there was clear IRB involvement from its very beginning in Ireland. And, in September 1897, a meeting of the main Centenary Committee in Dublin, chaired by the IRB’s president, John O’Leary, heard that committees had been established across Britain, including seven on Tyneside, and that others were still being formed.[42]

That same month, a ‘98 Association was formed in London at 55 Chancery Lane.[43] And in Manchester the following month, the ’98 Centennial Association of Great Britain and France met to co-ordinate plans for the commemoration, and to raise funds for a memorial in Dublin. Delegates included W. B. Yeats, who was elected president, Maude Gonne, and Mark Ryan, who was elected treasurer, and whose presence suggests that the ’98 Association in Britain was heavily influenced, if not controlled, by the IRB.[44]

There were also three North East representatives at the Manchester meeting, two of whom, John Harrington and Robert McDonough Mason, were then elected as North of England representatives to the executive committee. Their election strongly suggests that Harrington and Mason were members of the IRB.

By early 1898, however, constitutional nationalist leaders, from both the pro and anti Parnellite wings, seeing the growing enthusiasm for the anniversary both in Ireland and Britain, and recognising the centennial’s potential in bringing about the end of their division, seized control of the organising committees.[45] Thus on ‘Wolfe Tone Day’ – 15 August 1898 – the IRB’s president had to share his platform with John Dillon and John Redmond.

By that day, however, Newcastle’s ’98 dinner had already been eaten, bringing together, as Redmond had hoped, the leaders of the rival nationalist wings, and preparing the ground for reunion, and the creation of a single, popular, Irish nationalist organisation in the North East – the United Irish League of Great Britain.[46] There appears, however, to have been no room at Newcastle’s ’98 dinner table for men like John Harrington and Robert McDonough Mason, though John Lavery and Peter Bradley were present, perhaps showing that, like John Barry before them, constitutional politics, for them, had a greater appeal.

So, whilst it is almost certain that, during the 1890s, the IRB in the North East was active in the pro-Parnellite organisations, and in the Amnesty and ‘98 movements, there is, unfortunately, no direct evidence.

But what of the IRB in the region after 1900?

There are a few tantalising glimpses of their activities on Tyneside. Daniel Branniff – expelled from the Ancient Order of Hibernians for reading the United Irishman – set up a Dungannon Club in Newcastle, which was probably the only one in the North East.[47] And in 1905, Branniff arranged a public meeting for O’Donovan Rossa. Bulmer Hobson was there, plus ‘all the old Fenians in the North of England’. But how long this club remained active after Branniff left Tyneside is not known. And Branniff himself states that he did not join the IRB until moving to Glasgow in 1907.[48]

By 1914, Hart has estimated there were only 117 paid-up IRB members in England.[49] How many of these were active in the North East is unknown, but the health of the organisation in the region was probably not good, as twice external organisers were sent to Tyneside – Thomas Barry in 1910, and Patrick McCormack, the IRB’s organiser in Scotland, in 1912.[50] McCormack stayed in South Shields, and started new circles in Tyne Dock, Consett and Jarrow. Oddly he did not mention an IRB circle in South Shields. This circle is, however, mentioned in Gilbert Barrington’s memoir, though he scathingly described it as being ‘virtually dead’, and entirely composed of ‘old Fenians’, who even advertised their existence.[51] At the end of the Great War, the IRB revived in South Shields as a ‘semi-independent movement’, and survived until late 1920, when the circle was re-organised, on Dublin’s orders, with Barrington as Head Centre.[52] McCormack also made no mention of Newcastle, where Thomas Barry had worked in 1910, so either the circle there was thriving, which was unlikely, or, it too, had entered its dotage.

There is, though, an interesting postscript to the story.

In 1905, Robert McDonough Mason, who appears to have withdrawn from public involvement in nationalist politics after the ‘98 Centenary, married a Newcastle-born school-teacher. [53]After the Great War, Theresa Mason joined the Irish Self-Determination League and became the most important and influential female Irish nationalist in the North East of England – representing the region at the Race Conference in Paris; speaking at London conventions; sharing platforms with the Countess Markievicz; and finally, in 1924, tired of the inability of Republican organisations in Britain to form a united front, affiliating the ISDL rump in Newcastle to Sinn Féin.

Her husband might not have been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but it seems certain that only her sex precluded Theresa Mason from membership.


[1] Roger Cooter, When Paddy Met Geordie: The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle, 1840-1880 (Sunderland, 2005), p.157.

[2] Ibid, p.155.

[3] T.W. Moody & Leon Ó Broin, ‘The I.R.B. Supreme Council, 1868-78’, in Irish Historical Studies, vol. 19 (March 1975), pp.286-332.

[4] Owen McGee, The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood from the Land League to Sinn Féin (Dublin, 2005), pp. 36-37; also see Paul Rose, The Manchester Martyrs: the story of a Fenian tragedy (London, 1970).

[5] Moody & Ó Broin, ‘IRB Supreme Council’, p.332.

[6] McGee, The IRB, p.86.

[7] Moody & Ó Broin, ‘IRB Supreme Council’, pp.294-5.

[8] Ibid, p.328. 

[9] Freeman’s Journal, 24 November 1873.

[10] Moody & Ó Broin, ‘IRB Supreme Council’, p.326; also P.J.P. Tynan, The Irish National Invincibles and their times (London, 1894).

[11] From obituary of William McGuinness, Preston Guardian, 15 April 1905; see McGee, The IRB, pp.58, 180, 307.

[12] Irish Tribune, 22 November 1890.

[13] For example, at INLGB meetings in Bishop Auckland, Crook, Shildon, & Witton Park. Northern Echo, 16, 17, & 24 December 1890.

[14] Irish Tribune, 3 & 24 January 1891.

[15] Northern Echo, 23 March 1891.

[16] Irish Tribune, 20 December 1890.

[17] Newcastle Weekly Courant, 28 March 1891.

[18] McGee, The IRB, p.196.

[19] Dr Mark F. Ryan, Fenian Memories (Dublin, 1946), pp.151, 154

[20] The Nation, 2 May 1891.

[21] At Bishop Auckland, Gateshead, Hebburn, Howden, Shields, & Willington Quay. Freeman’s Journal, 1 June 1891.

[22] Irish Tribune, 25 July 1891.

[23] The audience was estimated at 1,500 by Northern Echo (20 July 1891), and 2,000 by Newcastle Weekly Courant (25 July 1891), which also claimed that ‘at least’ a third ‘were hostile’ to Parnell.

[24] Freeman’s Journal, 20 July 1891.

[25] Northern Echo, 20 July 1891. This was Parnell’s last major speech in Britain. Neil C. Fleming & Alan O’Day, Charles Stewart Parnell and his times (Oxford, 2011), p.xxii.

[26] Joseph Keating, ‘The Tyneside Irish Brigade’ in Lavery, Irish Heroes in the War, p.63.

[27] Freeman’s Journal, 20 July 1891.

[28] James McConnel, ‘Fenians at Westminster: The Edwardian Irish Parliamentary Party and the Legacy of the New Departure’, in Irish Historical Studies, 34, 133 (May, 2004), pp. 45, 60.

[29] Ryan, Fenian Memories, p.153.

[30] Patrick Walsh obituary. Northern Echo, 4 March 1892.

[31] William McGuinness obituary. Preston Guardian, 15 April 1905.

[32] McGee, The IRB, pp.220-221.

[33] Matthew Kelly, ‘Parnell’s Old Brigade: the Redmondite-Fenian Nexus in the 1890s’, in Irish Historical Studies, 33, 130 (November 2002), p.210.

[34] Ryan, Fenian Memories, pp. 172, 174.

[35] Northern Echo, 11 May 1891.

[36] Freeman’s Journal, 13 November 1893; The Nation, 1 August 1896.

[37] David Fitzpatrick, ‘The Irish in Britain, 1871-1921’, in W. E. Vaughan (ed.), A New History of Ireland; vol. VI; Ireland under the Union, 1870-1921 (Oxford, 2010), p.676.

[38] Northern Echo, 2 October 1893; also see McGee, The IRB, p.243.

[39] North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Monday 18 March 1895.

[40] The Nation, 30 Jan. 1897.

[41] The Nation, 7 & 20 February, 27 March 1897.

[42] At Jarrow, Newcastle, North & South Shields, Wallsend, Hebburn, & Tyne Dock. Freeman’s Journal, 7 September 1897.

[43] Ryan, Fenian Memories, pp.184-185.

[44] Freeman’s Journal, 4 October 1897. Ryan, Fenian Memories, p.172.

[45] Senia Paseta, ‘1798 in 1898: The Politics of Commemoration’, in The Irish Review, 22 (Summer 1998), p.48.

[46] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 11 May 1898.

[47] NAI, Bureau of Military History 1913-21, WS 222, Daniel Branniff (Dublin, 1948).

[48] Bulmer Hobson, Ireland: Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee, 1968), pp.8-9, 12, 21, 26. Also NAI, Bureau of Military History 1913-21, WS 82, Bulmer Hobson (Dublin, 1948).

[49] Peter Hart, The I.R.A. at War 1916-1923 (Oxford, 2003), p.145.

[50] NAI, Bureau of Military History 1913-21, WS 1, Thomas Barry (Dublin, 1947); NAI, Bureau of Military History 1913-21, WS 339, Patrick McCormack (Dublin, 1950).

[51] Mary A. Barrington (compiler), The Irish Independence Movement on Tyneside 1919-1921 (Dun Laoghaire, 1999), pp.9-10.

[52] NAI, Bureau of Military History 1913-21, WS 773, Gilbert Francis Barrington (Dublin, 1952).

[53] See my first blog: ‘Theresa Mason, Tyneside’s Irish republican activist’.

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