HST2046: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-85

20 credits (semester 1)

Module Leader: Dr Colin Reid



Pass in at least two of the Level One modules History Units HST112-121.


Module Summary

Britain’s ‘Irish problem’ has long roots. This document module examines one of the most important violent Irish organisations that challenged British sovereignty in Ireland. Founded in 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) (or the Fenian movement, as it was also known) was a transatlantic movement dedicated to the overthrow of the British state in Ireland. Fuelled by hatred for the British after the dreadful Famine in Ireland of the 1840s, the Fenians constructed a sophisticated organisation that was part secret society, terrorist cell and propaganda machine. It was the early forerunner of the Irish Republican Army. Despite its secretive nature, the IRB published its own newspaper, the Irish People, which provides insights into the Fenian mind. In 1867, the movement staged a failed rebellion, which saw an outpour of popular support for the patriotic virtue, if not the methods, of the Fenians. During the 1870s, the Fenians gave support to constitutional movements acting to restore a self-government in Ireland, but violence returned the following decade. In 1881, the IRB launched a bombing campaign in Britain; the following year, two prominent British officials were brutally murdered by a faction of the IRB. The dynamite campaign was called off in 1885, with the constitutional struggle for Home Rule seemingly in the ascendance.

Fenianism was never static, but showed a remarkable ability to change with the times. This document option investigates aspects of Fenianism from a range of angles, such as the rationale for violence, the fraternal impulses of the movement and its relationship with constitutional movements. Using sources written and produced by contemporaries, from within the IRB and outside of it, we will consider the dynamics of Fenianism and its place within nineteenth-century Ireland.



The module uses the rich source material concerning the the Irish Republican Brotherhood to analyse the political, social and cultural environment in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century. Students will explore various aspects of the IRB to gain a rounded appreciation of its political, military and cultural impulses. Fenian ideology, organisation and violence will be examined, and students will be encouraged to ask broader questions about Irish political cultures and the nature of the union between Ireland and Britain. This will be achieved through critical engagement with a variety of sources, including the Fenians’ newspaper, the Irish People, contemporary pamphlets, memoirs, and official state papers. The IRB infiltrated other organisations (such as the Gaelic Athletic Association), ensuring that the influence of the movement was expansive within everyday Irish life. Students will gain an appreciation for this form of Fenian activity. The module will provide students with the opportunity to develop their confidence in analysis, group work, and in expressing their ideas.


Teaching and Assessment

Weekly lecture-workshops provide students with an outline of events, and a place where they can start to understand the problems of some of the Fenian sources and the broad historiographical tradition that covers the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Weekly seminars will then explore these sources (and broader historiographical issues) in more detail. The seminars will permit student-led discussion, and class participation together with group presentations will allow students to develop their skills in debating ideas.

Students are assessed through three five-hundred-word source responses on which they will receive written feedback (33%). Group presentations and class participation contribute toward an overall oral mark worth 17%. An unseen examination testing awareness and command of the source material and wider scholarly literature provides the summative assessment (50%).

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level2


Selected Reading

  • R. V. Comerford, The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society, 1848-82 (Dublin, 1985).
  • Brian Jenkins, The Fenian Problem: Insurrgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-74 (Montreal, 2008).
  • M. J. Kelly, The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism, 1882-1916 (Woodbridge, 2008).
  • James McConnel and Fearghal McGarry (eds), The Black Hand of Republicanism: Fenianism in Modern Ireland (Dublin, 2008).
  • Owen McGee, The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, from the Land League to Sinn Fein (Dublin, 2007).
  • Marta Ramón, A Provisional Dicator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement (Dublin, 2007).
  • Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge, 2012).


Intended Learning Outcomes
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