Fenians and Fenianism in North Kildare

By Michael Kenny

“… in Devoy, Roantree and Kenny, Kildare produced not only three of the most significant but also three of the most tireless, dogged and unbreakable figures in the entire Fenian movement. Their cause was not a failure. They did not understand the meaning of the word.”

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day 1858. The founder and chief driving force was James Stephens, who had escaped to France after the collapse of the attempted rising of 1848. Before setting up the organisation, Stephens had embarked on a secret three thousand mile walking tour of Ireland, that earned him the nick-name ‘An Seabhac Siúlach’, the Wandering Hawk, as he met old rebel friends and gained new recruits. The organisation that he set up was secret and oath-bound, organised in cells or ‘circles’ to minimise the danger of infiltration by the police. At the same time his old 1848 colleague, John O’Mahony,      set up a sister organisation, the Fenian Brotherhood, in New York, which provided military and financial support to the home organisation. The name was taken from that of the warriors of Celtic mythology Na Fianna and the name Fenians soon came to be used on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Fenians were dedicated to the achievement of Irish independence by force of arms, believing that Britain would ‘never concede self-government to the force of argument but only to the argument of force’. In Ireland they were to find their greatest support among the lower and middle ranks of society; artisans, mill workers, shop assistants, building workers and, to a lesser extent, teachers. In America they drew their support from the bitter and angry masses of people who had been displaced by the Famine. In rural Ireland they took over, to a large degree, the secret agrarian society of the Ribbonmen, which was already engaged in a violent struggle for tenants’ rights. Despite the disastrous collapse of the attempted rebellion of 1867, the Fenian movement was to endure for the following half century, surviving defeat, imprisonment, ridicule and religious condemnation. Its members joined the Land League, the Gaelic League, the GAA and Sinn Féin and provided the leadership and planning for the 1916 Rising.

The Fenians, in their political views, varied from conservative nationalists to radical reformers. Some, such as Charles Kickham and John O’Leary, clung fiercely to the aim of removing the British presence from Ireland by force and looked upon land reform and social issues as distractions. Others, such as Michael Davitt, took a wider view, regarding social issues and the question of land ownership as being of vital importance in themselves. Straddling both wings was the towering presence of John Devoy, ‘the greatest of all the Fenians’, who was willing to countenance any movement, military, political or social – or indeed all three – in order to achieve the establishment of a republic.

Throughout the entire period between 1867 and 1916, the Fenians watched and waited for an opportunity to strike. In the late 1870s, when it appeared that Britain and Russia might go to war, Clan na Gael, the American Fenian organisation, sought Russian support for an Irish rising, but in vain. During the same period the Spanish government was approached with a Fenian offer to capture Gibraltar for Spain. The Spanish refused. There was even a suggestion at one point that guns, or money for guns, might be smuggled to the Zulus in South Africa, in their fight against British colonial expansion. There was also, it must be remembered, no less than three attempts by the American Fenians to invade Canada, in 1866, 1870 and 1871. The rise of the Home Rule movement under Parnell gave the Fenians another avenue to advance their aims, as did the growth of the Land League. It was John Devoy who took the line, in the late 1870s that it was time to come out of the ‘rat-holes of conspiracy’, as he put it, and push forward on all fronts. Finally, the founding of the Irish Volunteers to defend Home Rule and the outbreak of the First World War gave the Fenians that they had dreamed of for over half a century – a major foreign war to distract Britain and a substantial armed force to further their aims. The direct result was the 1916 Rebellion.

As noted already, one of the central figures in the entire Fenian story was John Devoy, which brings us to the main subject matter of tonight’s talk, Fenians and Fenianism in North Kildare. Described as ‘pugnacious and bitter-tongued, ruthless and tireless’, Devoy devoted his entire life to the cause of a republic and was a truly remarkable figure. Born on half an acre of land at Kill in 1842, he had a rebellious streak that manifested itself at an early stage. He was only nine or ten years old when he was expelled from primary school in Marlborough Street in Dublin for refusing to sing ‘God Save the Queen’. In 1861 he joined the growing I.R.B. organisation and promptly joined the French Foreign Legion for a year in order to gain military experience. When he returned to Ireland James Stephens appointed him organiser for the Naas area and from this point forward he threw himself into the activities of the revolutionary movement. His district included Straffan, Kill, Naas, Kilcullen and Ballymore Eustace. It was probably around this time that he met another restless Kildareman, William Roantree from Leixlip and they were both to play a major part in the subsequent history of the Fenian movement. Roantree’s story was even more exotic than Devoy’s. He had gone to America in 1853, as a restless twenty four old, in search of adventure. He joined the forces of the American mercenary, General William Walker and fought in Nicaragua. Walker, a soldier of fortune from Nashville, was involved in the civil wars in that country between 1855and 1860. At one point he proclaimed himself President but was deposed in 1857. At a later stage he tried to re-enter the country through Honduras but was captured by the British, handed over to his enemies and executed in 1860. According to Devoy, Roantree took part in all the fighting, alongside another Irishman, Hugh Byrne from Tinahely, County Wicklow, later a prominent Fenian himself. One of the obituaries to Roantree in 1918, refers to his involvement with another mercenary, ’Fighting Bob’ Ellis but it is difficult to separate fact from fiction and it is possible that Roantree himself, in his later years, told the occasional tall tale. According to Devoy, Roantree then served in the American navy for a time before returning to Ireland in 1860 or 1861. He joined the IRB and, in the words of Devoy, ‘full of energy and hope, threw himself actively into the work and became one of the best organisers’. Devoy described him as ‘a man of fine physique and military appearance…no better selection could have been made’. Both men now set to work in recruiting members and the Leixlip unit or ‘circle’ soon became one of the largest in the country, with over 2,000 members. It took in much of North Kildare and adjoining parts of Dublin and had strong support in Maynooth, Celbridge and Lucan. Another important figure in the rapidly growing movement was William Hampson of Celbridge, whose activities were noted by Devoy. A watch-maker by trade, he was a trusted friend of Devoy and was later arrested with him when the latter was captured in February 1866. Further south, Dan Byrne of Ballitore was also an important organiser and since he worked at the military canteen in the Curragh Barracks he was a very useful source of information. Around Kildare town the senior organiser was a man called Edward Hall. One of the principal areas of recruitment was the British army, a high proportion of which was Irish-born. The importance of Devoy and Roantree in this area can be judged by the frequency with which their names come up in the trials of soldiers charged with Fenian membership in 1866 and 1867. Public houses frequented by soldiers were particularly targeted, especially in Dublin, including the Bleeding Horse in Camden Street, Bergin’s in Thomas Street and Pilsworth’s in James’s Street. Pilsworth’s was a particularly useful meeting place as it was owned by an active Fenian, Edward Pilsworth and it was here that Devoy, Hampson and Pilsworth himself were tracked down and arrested in 1866. Shaughnessy’s public house in Newbridge was also an important meeting place. It was Roantree who introduced Devoy to this dangerous underground activity and the younger man developed a high regard for his energy. Indeed it is through the pages of Devoy’s later book, ‘Recollections of an Irish Rebel’ that we know about Roantree’s activities, as Roantree himself does not appear to have left any written records. It is hard to assess the merit of what they were doing since soldiers sworn in under the influence of alcohol rather than ideology were unlikely to be the most reliable recruits and so it proved. While there were many thousands of Fenians in the British army by 1865 they were almost all from the lower ranks and needed the sort of military leadership that the Fenians were unable to supply. The work continued, however, and when Patrick O’Learywho was in overall charge of recruitment in the army, was arrested, Roantree took his place and the drive towards rebellion intensified. The Curragh Camp was singled out for particular attention as were social occasions such as Punchestown Races. It was here, in April 1865, that Devoy, Roantree and Roantree’s brother-in-law from Leixlip, Artur Casey, met Colonel Tom Kelly, a senior member of the Fenian Brotherhood in America, who had been sent over to assess the strength of the IRB. As they advanced their plans, however, the organisation was infiltrated by informers, something that was inevitable, given the huge numbers being sworn in. With the ending of the American Civil War, the Fenians had a hard core of war veterans available, who now turned their full attention to Ireland and demanded action from IRB leader James Stephens. An increasingly worried government decided to act and in September moved to arrest most of the IRB leaders, including Roantree, who was picked up in Dame Street. This was followed by the wholesale arrests of lesser figures and suspects, over 3000 in all. Kildare was particularly hard hit by the arrests and Roantree’s younger brother was captured and lodged in Naas jail. The canteens at the Curragh camp were closed for a time and the most ‘contaminated’ regiments were shipped out of the country. Devoy, with a crew of ‘hard men’ around him, avoided capture and helped in the dramatic escape of James Stephens from jail that same November but his luck ran out in February 1866 when he was finally captured, as was William Hampson.

The trials of civilian and military Fenians took up much of 1866 and some of the following year. Roantree was sentenced to 10 years. His case was not helped when he told a long-winded judge to hurry up and pass the sentence. Devoy, almost a year later, was sentenced to 15 years. Their fellow Fenians were sentenced to various terms and were to spend the next several years in a number of Irish and English jails. Most were held initially in Dublin, at Richmond and Kilmainham and were then sent to Pentonville, Portland, Chatham and other English prisons. Roantree went first to Pentonville, then on to Portland, where he and several other Fenians were put to work in the huge stone quarries, hacking out stone with blunt pick-axes. Conditions were horrific, food was poor and the prisoners suffered accordingly. Roantree’s health deteriorated and he was later moved to a prison hospital at Woking in Surrey, where he made a number of complaints against the way in which he was treated.

Devoy began his imprisonment in Millbank, London, followed by a term in Portland and ended up in Chatham. The regime was brutal and punishment for any misdemeanour was vicious. Prisoners were allowed a bath once a fortnight but the word ‘bath’ is probably not the correct word to use. Prisoners were made to wash, four at a time, in huge troughs. The last four in sat in the same water as the first four. They were allowed one letter every six months and one visit every six months. Devoy made a number of attempts to escape from Millbank. In one instance he wrestled a warder to the ground for his keys, in another he smashed a guard over the head with a broom handle. For his efforts he spent several months in isolation, on bread and water. He was only twelve weeks in Portland when he led a protest against the bread and water punishment and was sent back to Millbank. Amazingly both men and their fellow Kildare-man Hampson survived. Not all were so lucky. By April 1869, 17 Fenians had died in English jails. Some committed suicide, some went insane. Others were released to die outside in order to avoid bad publicity for the government.

A major amnesty campaign soon got under way, in Ireland, Britain and America. The ill-treatment suffered by prisoners such as O’Donovan Rossa, who at one stage spent 35 days in handcuffs, shocked international opinion. The government reluctantly began to consider amnesty but the initial list drawn up excluded prisoners deemed to be ‘deserving of no clemency’ and who ‘should not on any account be released at present’. Prominent on this list were the names of Roantree and Devoy. The authorities relented, however, in the face of a growing amnesty movement, in which, it should be noted, William Roantree’s wife Isabel was very active. Devoy and four other prominent Fenians, including Henry Mulleda, who had connections with Naas, were put on the steamship Cuba in Liverpool on 7th January 1871, bound for New York and exile. A week later Roantree and eight others followed them, sailing on the steamship Russia.

Around the time that the Fenians were released and exiled, another interesting Kildareman turned up in New York. John Kenny was a native of Branganstown, Kilcock. A Fenian who had spent some time in Australia, his early movements and activities are unclear. What is clear, however, is that upon his arrival in America he threw himself enthusiastically into the work of organising Irish republicans and republicanism in his new country and became a staunch ally of Devoy.

The newly freed IRB men sought to end the feuding that had been a feature of the early Fenian movement in America. A new republican organisation, Clan na Gael, had been set up and John Devoy was to be the driving force behind it for over half a century. His two fellow Kildaremen also joined, Kenny in New York and Roantree in Philadelphia. William Hampson of Celbridge may also have been a member but I have been unable to track his movements in America. According to Devoy, he moved from America to Cuba and died there of yellow fever, while laying telegraph wires, in the 1870s. Henry Mulleda was also involved in Irish republican activity for a time, before his death in 1876.

Devoy, Roantree and Kenny all played important roles in an event that was to galvanise and encourage Irish and Irish-American Fenians, after the disasters of the late 1860’s. This was the famous Freemantle mission of 1875-76, one of the most dramatic rescue stories of the nineteenth century.  When the Fenian leaders had been released in 1871, one group had been excluded. These were the ‘soldier Fenians’, members of the British army, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. Branded with the letter D for deserter – carved into their chests with an awl and the wound painted with Indian ink for permanency – they were transported to penal servitude in Freemantle, Australia. One of them, describing himself as ‘a voice from the tomb’, managed to get a message out to John Devoy , pleading for help to escape. Devoy set about organising a daring rescue plan which involved the purchase of a whaling ship. A great fund-raising drive was launched across America and Devoy’s two Kildare friends were to the fore in financing the project. Kenny worked under Devoy in New York, while Roantree was on the committee set up to raise money in Philadelphia. A whaling ship, the Catalpa , was bought and fitted out and in April 1875, under a reliable sea captain, George Anthony, set sail on an epic journey half way around the world, to the coast of Western Australia. In order to recoup some of the money spent on the project, Anthony and his crew whaled as they went and the Catalpa only arrived off the Australian coast in April 1876. Devoy already had a team on the ground and help from local ex-prisoners. The six soldier Fenians were successfully rescued and the Catalpa made its long journey back to America, arriving in New York on 19 August 1876. It was a morale-boosting victory for the Fenian movement and further established John Devoy as the most powerful figure in Irish-American politics.

The next event that threw three men together was the funeral of the Fenian founder, John O’Mahony in 1877. O’Mahony had died in poverty in a New York tenement and his old friends in Ireland and America came together to bring his remains back to Ireland. John Devoy, the great organiser, used the occasion to put on a show of strength on both sides of the Atlantic. A body of old Fenians and Clan na Gael activists travelled with the remains to Ireland, among them William Roantree, who represented Philadelphia on the official six-man delegation. The cortege was met by huge crowds, demonstrations and torch-light processions.  In Dublin, Cardinal Cullen refused to let the remains into the Pro-Cathedral but the massive funeral procession to Glasnevin was a significant propaganda coup for the republican movement. Roantree marshalled the funeral. Ever the one for the dramatic gesture, he led the procession, mounted on a white horse. He had come back to bury his old leader in style. It is not recorded whether or not he visited Leixlip but since he still had relatives in the area, it is likely that he did so.

The next great event that threw the three Kildare-men together was the so-called ‘New Departure’ of 1878/80. Michael Davitt toured America in 1878, following his release from prison. His discussions with Clan na Gael and the increased push for Home Rule in Ireland under Charles Stewart Parnell, convinced Devoy that it was time to ‘come out of the rat-holes of conspiracy’ as he himself put it. Devoy and Davitt travelled to France where they met Parnell. As a result an informal pact was agreed, which, with the foundation of the Land League in 1879, saw the three strands of nationalism – agrarian, constitutional and republican – pull together in a campaign that was to spell the end of the landlord system in Ireland. It is also worth noting that the first venue on Davitts 1878 tour was Philadelphia where the formal address of welcome was delivered by none other than William Roantree.

Davitt now threw Irish-American efforts behind Parnell and his friend John Kenny, by now a successful businessman, was to become an important player, assisting in raising funds for the Land League and the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was also Kenny who swore a young Tom Clarke into Clan na Gael in 1881. Their paths would continue to cross over the decades and both would play major roles in the 1916 Rising. In 1885 Kenny moved back to Ireland with his wife and family and set up as a gentleman farmer in Kilcock. According to a descendant, Fran Christ, who has come up with a considerable body of biographical material on her elusive great grandfather, Kenny used his Kilcock stud-farm to ‘launder’ money for the Land League, money which was coming, at least in part, from Devoy. He returned to America in 1890.

The period 1890 to 1900 saw the Republican movement in the doldrums. The Land War was gradually won but the death of Parnell and the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party meant that political progress was minimal. William Roantree, ageing and possibly fallen on hard times, appears to have disappeared from the scene and he returned to Ireland in 1900 when he was over seventy years old. John Kenny was dealing with personal issues, including the fall-out from a failed marriage. Devoy, however, watched and waited. The 1798 centenary celebrations and the Boer War helped to keep the republican dream alive but it was the outbreak of the World War that was to finally provide the opportunity for which John Devoy had waited – a major international conflict involving Britain. He set to work immediately, seeking out German aid and raising funds for the IRB in Ireland. Once again the quiet man from Kilcock, John Kenny, was to play a major part in Devoy’s plans Kenny set sail for Europe in August 1914 to put Clan na Gael’s proposals to the German authorities. He met the German ambassador in Rome and received a travel pass that allowed him to travel in Germany. For the next ten days, according to his biographer and great grand-daughter Fran Christ, he ‘crisscrossed Europe in the midst of the mobilisation of millions of men. The Imperial Pass allowed him to ride on troop trains where he was often the only civilian. The rest of the time he walked, foraged for food and slept outdoors when necessary.’ He was then sixty seven years of age. He did not manage to meet the Kaiser but did meet senior German officials, to whom he put Devoy’s proposals. He returned to America via Ireland, where he briefed Clarke, Pearse and MacDiarmada. In November he was on the move again, this time bound for Ireland with a considerable sum of money. The money was passed on to The O’Rahilly to purchase guns. Kenny met with most of those who were to lead the Rising and reported back faithfully to Devoy in New York.

Thus the two Kildaremen played their important parts in arming the Volunteers of 1916. Devoy’s role has always been acknowledged by historians but that of Kenny has only come to attention in recent times. Both men continued to work tirelessly for Ireland during the War of Independence. By a further twist of history, 1916 was also to witness what might be termed a ‘cameo appearance’ or ‘last hurrah’ for another irrepressible Kildareman. William Roantree was about eighty seven years old when the Rising broke out. He was then living in Gardiner Street. According to the historian T.P. O’Neill, he hobbled across into O’Connell Street and down to the GPO, where he shouted encouragement and advice to the Volunteers barricaded inside. 

William Hampson, the forgotten Fenian, died of yellow fever in the 1870s and is buried somewhere in Cuba. William Roantree, the flamboyant Fenian, died penniless in 1918 and is buried in a plot belonging to his in-laws in Glasnevin. John Kenny, the quiet Fenian, was attempting to get into a nursing home when he died of pneumonia in 1924. He is buried in New York. John Devoy, ’the greatest of all the Fenians’, died in 1928 and was brought back to Glasnevin. As the old Fenian ballad says, ‘Some died by the glen-side, some died mid the stranger and wise men have told us their cause was a failure’. The wise men were wrong. Like so many other Fenians, the people discussed here made huge sacrifices throughout their lives for the cause in which they believed and it took a huge toll on their health, on their financial affairs and on their families. It can truly be said that in Devoy, Roantree and Kenny, Kildare produced not only three of the most significant but also three of the most tireless, dogged and unbreakable figures in the entire Fenian movement. Their cause was not a failure. They did not understand the meaning of the word.




One thought on “Fenians and Fenianism in North Kildare

  1. Excellent piece and a fitting tribute to those three doughty Kildare men who played such an important part in achieving Irish independence. I have always had a particular interest in John Devoy, who truly devoted his life to that cause. Was glad to help, in a very small way, in getting statue of Devoy erected in Naas last year.

    Brian Mc Cabe (Kill)

    Liked by 1 person

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