On this day…22 March

On 22 March 1907 Joyce’s article ‘Il Fenianismo’ was published.

Joyce’s article ‘Il Fenianismo: L’ultimo Feniano’ (‘Fenianism: The Last Fenian’) was published in the Trieste newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera on 22 March 1907. The immediate occasion for the article was the death of John O’Leary, the ‘last Fenian’ of the title.

Born in 1830, John O’Leary had studied law and medicine. As a student he associated with the leaders of the Young Ireland movement and was involved in the aftermath of the 1848 rebellion. O’Leary joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the ‘Fenians’) and became editor of its newspaper, the Irish People, in 1863.

After plans for a rebellion were discovered by the police, O’Leary and several other Fenian leaders were arrested in September 1865. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, O’Leary spent five years in jail in England before being sent into exile in 1871. He returned to Ireland in 1885 and died in Dublin on 16 March 1907. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The Piccolo della Sera newspaper supported the nationalist aspirations of the Italians in Trieste. The editor of the paper, Roberto Prezioso, was also a student of Joyce’s and invited Joyce to submit articles to the paper. Both Joyce and Prezioso felt that the Irish struggle against England would be of interest to Triestine Italians, and nine articles by Joyce appeared in the Piccolo della Sera between 1907 and 1912 on subjects ranging from Fenianism to Aran fishermen to Oscar Wilde.

In his ‘Il Fenianismo’ article, Joyce sees Fenianism as different from the physical force movements of the United Irishmen in 1798 and Young Ireland in 1848. The Fenians were carefully organised into cells to prevent the possibility of betrayal, and yet Joyce claims that it was betrayal by an informer that led to the arrest of O’Leary and others in 1865.

Joyce also claims that the concessions made by England over the years, along with mass emigration and the growing authority of the Catholic church, changed the Irish political scene completely in the aftermath of Fenianism. Joyce sees the ‘new’ Fenianism embodied in the Sinn Féin movement (founded in 1905) and the Fenianism of O’Leary as being part of history.

The article ends with an impression of O’Leary as the returned exile, an unhappy and unknown old man, and Joyce sarcastically points out that even when the Irish betray their countrymen, they never fail to show respect for them once they’re dead.


Sources & Further Reading:

Bourke, Marcus: John O’Leary – A Study in Separatism, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1968

Joyce, James: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. O’Leary, John: Recollections of Fenians & Fenianism, London: Downey & Co., 1896.


For information about Glasnevin Cemetery click here.