The Irish Republican Brotherhood is founded in Dublin by James Stephens in 1858. After the end of the American Civil War, the IRB hopes to recruit willing Irish veterans of that war for an insurrection in Ireland aimed at the foundation of an Irish Republic.
In 1865, the Fenians begin preparing for a rebellion by collecting firearms and recruiting men willing to fight. In September 1865, the British move to close down the Fenian newspaper The Irish People and arrest many of the leadership. In 1866, habeas corpus is suspended in Ireland and there are hundreds more arrests of Fenian activists.
In early 1867, prior to the March 5 rising, Thomas J. Kelly, Stephens’ successor as leader of the IRB, tries to launch an insurrection but it proves uncoordinated and fizzles in a series of skirmishes. In February 1867, there is an unsuccessful rising in County Kerry.
The largest of the March 5 engagements takes place at Tallaght, when several hundred Fenians, on their way to the meeting point at Tallaght Hill, are attacked by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) near the police barracks and are driven away after a firefight. A total of twelve people are killed across the country on this day. When it becomes apparent that the coordinated rising that had been planned is not transpiring, most rebels simply go home.
The rising fails as a result of lack of arms and planning, but also because of the British authorities’ effective use of informers. Most of the Fenian leadership is arrested before the rebellion takes place.
Though the Rising of 1867 is unsuccessful, they proclaim an Irish Republic, almost 50 years before the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in Easter 1916. This proclamation sheds some light on early Fenianism as it is centered with the ideas of republican democracy but is, however, flavoured with socialist ideals and a class revolution rather than a nationalist revolution per se. The proclamation claims that their war is “against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish” which denotes that their ideology at this time is in some way embedded in class differences against the landed aristocracy rather than merely against British rule.
The rising itself is a total military failure, but it does have some political benefits for the Fenian movement. There are large protests in Ireland against the execution of Fenian prisoners, many of whose death sentences are, as a result, reprieved. In 1873, the Irish Republican Brotherhood adopts a new constitution, which states that armed rebellion will not be pursued again until it has mass backing from the people. The Fenians cooperate with the Irish National Land League in the land agitation from the 1870s onwards and in the rise of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Not all Fenians agree with the new policy and several breakaway groups emerge that continue to believe in the use of political violence in pursuit of republican objectives.