Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) Grandfathers of Our 1919 Irish Republic

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The Irish Republican Brotherhood

The Irish Republican Brotherhood,otherwise known as the I.R.B., Fenian Brotherhood,The Organisation,Irish Revolutionary Organization, or Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann (Gaelic)was a secret society founded in 1858 by James Stephens.The purpose of the I.R.B. was to establish an independent Irish Republic that was free of British rule or tampering.Though this group was originally organized in Dublin, there was a strong connection with America and the Fenian Brotherhood in New York.

The early years for the I.R.B. were filled with“action” but very little organization. The I.R.B. recognized that unless they were able to radicalize the majority of Irishmen,their policies would not matter. A lot of their early problems were due to the actions by the British in alienating the Catholic hierarchy from the I.R.B.The British frightened Catholics enough for the clergy in all the counties of Ireland to announce that it was the parishioners’ religious duty to inform the British authorities of any members of secret societies; and reinforcing that good Catholics would not associate with these societies. This hostility from the clergy made a majority of the I.R.B. leadership anti-clerical.

The I.R.B. was also frustrated with clerical policies of promoting the British imperialism. The Catholics believed that they would eventually be rewarded for their obedience to the crown and given independence due to this loyalty. I.R.B.members knew that this belief was encouraged by the British to keep Ireland a divided colony. Any movement towards a republic was seen as a threat to British rule and was portrayed as being an advance against Catholic teachings.

The secret nature of the I.R.B. combined with a huge lack of records, make membership numbers difficult to ascertain. However, “In 1911 the I.R.B. had, probably, not more than 2,000 members in Ireland and in a few of the English cities, but they were picked men, and most of them were active workers in other public organizations.”The most interesting point is about “picked men;” the I.R.B. was not in the habit of allowing anyone to join and in most cases selected those whom they thought would make excellent members. Similar to the Freemasons, no one asked to join rather they were asked to join.

I.R.B.members were involved in many organizations like the Gaelic League (G.L.) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.), which became recruiting grounds for the I.R.B. In order to maintain their secrecy,the I.R.B. constructed a specific policy in their constitution. The most important is the oath of allegiance:

“In the presence of God. I _____ do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the national independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Government of the Irish Republic and implicitly obey the Constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and all my superior officers and that I will preserve inviolable the secrets of the organization”.

This oath not only acknowledges the fact the I.R.B. is a secret society but it also acknowledges that a Supreme Council rules over the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Supreme Council kept their identity secret from the rest of the I.R.B. and set up their organization like the military.At the top was a colonel who appointed nine captains, these captains appointed nine sergeants who in turn appointed nine rank and file members.This structure allowed members to be acquainted with only those who had appointed them.

Only once was there a breach of procedure with the appointment of Joseph Biggar to the Supreme Council in 1868. Biggar had never been a member of the I.R.B. and had no interest in their objectives. This misstep caused conflict within the I.R.B.and provoked the leaders to work at cross-purposes.This structure proved essential during the 1880s when the British infiltrated the I.R.B. affiliated Clan na Gael of New York and attempted to direct operations of the I.R.B. Michael Boland, the leader of the Clan, had a working relationship with F.F. Millen, a British agent, and ignored many senior members directive that Millen should not be entrusted with anything of value in the organization.The two of them worked together to start the dynamite war of 1883-1885. The dynamite war is the launching point for British infiltration and repression of the I.R.B.; by using covert spies to monitor members’ every move and obtain enrollment in their organizations.

The British agents initiated plans that would cause resentment against the I.R.B. from both the English and Harlan Irish populace. These plans included bombings and assassinations which allowed Great Britain to increase monitoring of extremist organizations by implementing a new task force whose purpose was to hunt down all republicans that had “attacked” Great Britain. The success of the British spies in the 1880s killed a lot of the popular support of the I.R.B. Their membership and ideals were diminished.The following years were plagued with politicians who failed to obtain independence or at least self-government.

From these failures sprung anew type of nationalism that was no longer dependent on politicians or political ways in order to achieve what they demanded. The centennial of the 1798 rising in 1898 launched a renewed interest in the movement of the Volunteers and physical force that was not dependent on the politics. The politicians had continued to fail the Irish through the 1800s and were futile at obtaining anything except more laws against the Irish and a stronger presence of the British police. The Irish were not safe from British harassment and some of their most respected citizens were being arrested and tried under false charges. Yet the politicians continued on their course saying that eventually they might achieve something similar to Home Rule, but nothing close to independence.

The anniversary of 1798 Rising created a feeling of nostalgia for the Irish that renewed their interest in all things Irish. They had survived the great famine and were on the side of prosperity, yet were unable to see any of the rewards with the British tight grip on the wheel. These interesting factors were to the upmost advantage to the I.R.B. There were more clubs that were starting to connect with the Irish heritage of language and sports. The majority of the population who was knowledgeable in the Irish ways, specifically language, immigrated to America during the famine leaving a majority of people in Ireland with a lack of knowledge about the Irish culture. This need was filled by people like Patrick Pearse who started schools to teach Gaelic and Irish history to the youth of Ireland. Groups like the Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association also promoted Irish culture. This cultural revitalization was strongly supported and funded by the I.R.B. and their members.