A Musical and Artistic Glimpse Inside the Fenians…150 Years Later
Published June 1, 2016
By Barry Stapleton, Featured Blogger
One of the many fun parts of my job as director at the Ward Irish Music Archives is diving down the rabbit hole of research that a certain collection or item inspires. When this gorgeous sheet music cover of "Shan Van Vocht" came across my desk, I was drawn into the history of the Fenians right at the 150th anniversary of their failed Canadian raids of June 1, 1866.
“Fenian” is a term well known to students of Irish history, a term associated with rebelry in Ireland’s lengthy quest for independence. If there was a year that is most associated with the Fenians it would be 1866. This was the year they thought would be their greatest triumph, but instead received their ultimate demise. Yet the term has lived on with great pride among Irish republicans, although “Fenian” holds a different connotation to Canadians.
The Rising of 1848 and American Origins
The Fenians rose from the ashes of the 1848 Young Irelander Rebellion in Ireland. Shocked by the devastation of the great potato famine in the 1840s, An Gorta Mór, and the rise of other revolutions in Europe, The Young Irelanders formed to rebel against English rule in Ireland. The 1848 rebellion was small and failed, and the leaders were forced to leave Ireland. After a brief stay in Europe, one of the leaders, James Stephens, fled to the U.S.
Stephens formed the Fenian Brotherhood in 1858. Taking the name from the Irish mythical cycle of the hero Finn MacCool, its goal was an armed rebellion in Ireland to remove British rule. Later that year Stephens returned to Ireland and formed the Irish counterpart to the Fenians, The Irish Republican Brotherhood.
The timing was fortuitous as an enormous number of Irish emigrated to the U.S. during the famines, and America was entering the Civil War. The Fenians felt they would exit the American civil war with a well-trained Irish and Irish American army that could finally gain Ireland’s independence.
Fenian Raids of Canada
Instead of a full scale rebellion in Ireland, The Fenian Brotherhood devised a plan to invade Canada and hold areas hostage until Britain gave Ireland its independence. There were five raids on Canada and all failed. The most notable of these raids was the Battle of Ridgeway which took place on June 1, 1866.
The failed Fenian raids in Canada had many effects. They created Canadian skepticism towards America’s intentions as a neighbor. The raids were one of the reasons that one year later, in 1867, Canadian provinces unified into the Confederation of Canada. In fact, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a staunch supporter of Canadian confederation and himself a part of the Young Ireland movement, was assassinated in 1868 by a suspected Fenian plot.
The 1866 raids in Canada divided The Fenians. American support for the cause was now diminished. In Ireland the Irish Republican Brotherhood chose to create a new partner in the U.S. with the creation of Clan na Gael thus more or less ending the Fenians role in politics. They formally disbanded in 1880.
At the Ward Irish Music Archives we have four pieces of sheet music about the Fenian movement. Significantly three were published in 1866, the year of the Fenian raids.
"Shan Van Vocht"
Shan Van Vocht
Fenian War Echoes No. 5
Oh, the French are on the sea, says the Shan Van Vocht,
First Line of Chorus:
Oh, the French are in the Bay, They'll be here by break of day,
Irish Fest Collection
IF SL 03-491
John J. Daly
New York, NY
The song is number 5 of what looks to be at least 12 versions of the Fenian War Echoes series.
The artist of this piece is John McNevin who was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1821. His obituary in the Brooklyn Eagle on March 1, 1894 reads as follows:
McNevin began his study of Art at the Royal Hibernian Academy and at the age of 19 won both gold and silver medals for the best historical cartoons. In 1851 he painted for the Royal Cyclorama, Regent’s Park, London, a series of pictures from the first crystal palace exhibitions. During the Crimean War he was war artist on the staff of the London News. During the civil war in this country (U.S.) Mr. McNevin was employed in the same capacity by the publishers of the Harper’s Weekly. His best known pictures were “The Dream of a Secessionist” and “No foreign Intervention.” His first work in this country was the illustration of “Irving’s Life of Washington” which he did under direction of the author, of whose friendship the artist was always very proud. His Later efforts were a collection of Irish historical pictures of large size, not yet exhibited, and a painting of “The Battle of Long Island.” A son of the deceased is James McNevin, the well known rifleman from the Thirteenth regiment.
In 1853 General Montgomery Cunningham Meigs considered McNevin for creating the artwork in the new U.S. Capitol which included the new wings and dome. He thought that McNevins work was “full of spirit and energy, but I fear he would be careless in his drawing” so Meigs decided against McNevin. In 1859 McNevin exhibited 24 drawings of American Revolutionary War scenes in New York City.
It is very likely that McNevin’s two Fenian works of art (view "The Green Above the Red [an imaginary incident during the Fenian Raids of 1866]" from the Library and Archives of Canada) were born out of his youth in Ireland when the Young Irelanders rebelled in 1848. The art by McNevin on the Fenian War Echoes series is quite fantastic and is steeped in the mythology of the Fenian Cycle. High battle drama in a cloudlike setting with Finn MacCool and the Fianna dressed in ancient battle armor returning to defend Ireland, ready to finish off the Lion who represents the British Empire. All floating above what looks to be a battlement draped in the Fenian and American flags, battle horns, and the Irish Harp. The Fenians adopted the golden rising sun on a green field as their flag in the 1840s. Quite glorious!
The lyrics are by Michael Doheny who was born in Tipperary, Ireland in 1805. He was a member of the Young Ireland movement and participated in the 1848 rebellion. He escaped to New York and was involved in establishing the Fenian Brotherhood in the U.S. He was a poet and a writer who also practiced law in the U.S.
In the notes at the bottom of the first page you’ll notice the asterisk referring to the title and states “Poor old woman, (meaning Ireland in distress.).” Using the metaphor of an old woman for Ireland was common in art, song, theatre, and poetry. Kathleen Ni Houlihan and of course Tommy Makem’s song “Four Green Fields” are prime examples of this.
"Our Own Little Isle" and "When Fenians Fight For Freedom"
The above two pieces are very similar. “Our Own Little Isle” is typical of Irish rebel music where past grievances with the British are notated, then on to promote the idea that now is the time to rebel. This piece takes a further dig at the Irish with the lines “Ho! Pat! who made such a lamb of you? Life to your soul, boy, and strength to your blade!” …all in the effort to get the Irish to fight lest they be called cowards.
“When Fenians Fight For Freedom” takes an extremely direct approach and is more of a historical piece of its time. The line “Now the cruel war is over here, Let Ireland strike the blow” is a direct reference to the end of the American civil war. Once again these pieces were written in 1866.
A clue of how famous or noted the Fenians were at this time is “When Fenians Fight For Freedom” authors. Henry Tucker was a fairly famous songwriter who had a big hit in the civil war with “Weeping, Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War Is Over” (1863).
"The Fenian Galop"
Fenian Galop, The
First Line of Chorus:
Irish Fest Collection
IF SL 01-373
London, Sinclair & Company
Our last piece is a real beauty but from a later period. We don’t have an actual date but our guess is the middle to late 1880s. It’s classic British music hall. It’s called The Fenian Galop and has great cover art by M. Clancey and written by Charley Skedaddle. A Galop was a lively country dance and considered a forerunner to the polka.
There are no lyrics so that leaves us with the artwork as our only interpretation. Since it’s published in London and from its estimated date, we are fairly certain the art is a reference to the Fenian dynamite campaign which took place in London from 1881-1885. The targets were infrastructure, government, military or police. In the artwork you can see the London police chasing the Fenians. The Fenians are depicted in a simian nature, apelike, which was not an uncommon view of the Irish into the early twentieth century. The lead Fenian and others have guns and some have sticks. The artwork is set in a rough drawn shamrock with the lead Fenian also having a shamrock on his shirt. We can only assume that the name Charley Skedaddle is a fictitious name associated with the Fenians on the run.
You can view all these pieces of sheet music as part of our Songs of Irish Freedom gallery on our Irish Sheet Music Archives digital collection website.
Fenian Raids at the Canadian Encyclopedia
Wars, Rebellions, and Uprisings at the Canadian Encyclopedia