Did you ever hear that proverb, “There are none so blind as they who do not wish to see?”John Rea, 1864
This essay is a preliminary reassessment of the Fenian movement in Ulster, especially in Belfast and its hinterland, during the 1860s. It is based largely on contemporary published sources, with Frank Roney’s neglected memoir, which inspired the inquiry, as a central focus. One key contention is that certain claims in Roney’s memoir—for example, about the numerical strength, military efficacy, and denominational composition of northern Fenian circles—which have caused many historians to dismiss it as exaggerated or unreliable, are corroborated by other contemporary printed sources, some of which are well known and widely available. Similarly, some initial probing of newspapers and extensive manuscript collections, notably the Chief [End Page 23] Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (hereafter cited as CSORP) in the National Archives of Ireland, suggests that further research will significantly change historians’ understanding of northern Fenianism. The presentation here of our preliminary findings and conclusions is intended to encourage such research on Fenianism not only in the North but also elsewhere in the country.
In 1904 Ira Cross, California’s pioneer working-class historian, first met Frank Roney, age sixty-three, the impoverished and largely forgotten elder statesman of organized labor in the San Francisco Bay area. “I felt myself,” Cross later wrote, “in the presence of one who had found the world filled with misery, poverty, and selfishness, and had tried unsuccessfully to shape it more nearly to his ideals of what it ought to be.” Over the next several decades Cross interviewed Roney many times, and the two men corresponded regularly. Roney, Cross discovered, was “a veritable mine of data concerning [the California] labor movement during the period 1876–86, in which he had played . . . a leading part.”1 Equally important, Roney was also a mine of information about the Irish Republican Brotherhood—the IRB or Fenian movement—in the Ireland and especially the Belfast and Ulster of his youth. Surprisingly, however, few Irish historians have used, or considered reliable, the long memoir that Cross persuaded Roney to write in his last decades.
Cross minimally edited Roney’s memoir and published it in 1931, six years after its author’s demise, as Frank Roney, Irish Rebel and California Labor Leader: An Autobiography. In the introduction Cross described Roney as a “born leader” and a meticulous organizer whose life had been fired by a hatred of poverty and injustice. This hatred was based partly on his youthful religious beliefs but primarily on the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals that had inspired the United Irishmen and the early British trade-union, Chartist, and antislavery movements. Cross also marveled at what he called Roney’s “remarkable memory,” which, without records or notes “to guide him, could recall so many events so accurately” and even “place dates with such uncanny exactness.” Roney himself attributed his powers [End Page 24] of memory to his early habit of avoiding written records owing to the absolute secrecy required by his Fenian activities.2
Francis or Frank Roney was born in 1841, the eldest of eight children. His father William was a self-educated and highly respected master carpenter, builder, and trade-union leader. He was also a devout Catholic and a member of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association; like O’Connell, William Roney was loyal to the crown and hence hostile to Young Ireland and to physical-force nationalism generally.3 By contrast, Roney’s mother was a staunch Irish republican. Although a convert from Presbyterianism to her husband’s religion, she was a “hereditary Covenanter,” and her forebears were unrepentant United Irishmen.4 Her father, later a wealthy tobacco merchant, had fought under Henry Munro at Saintfield and Ballynahinch in 1798 and always regarded the Orange Order “as the foulest blot upon the country.” Likewise, her aunt, who lived in the family home at Saul, near Downpatrick, Co. Down, never rose in the morning or retired at night without praying for the...