Fenians propose a “New Departure,” an alliance with the Parnellites, on October 27, 1878. The term New Departure is used to describe several initiatives in the late 19th century by which Irish republicans, who are committed to independence from Britain by physical force, attempt to find a common ground for co-operation with groups committed to Irish Home Rule by constitutional means. The term refers to the fact that Fenians are to some extent departing from their orthodox doctrine of noninvolvement with constitutional politics, especially the British parliament.
In January 1877, James Joseph O’Kelly, a journalist with the New York Herald persuades John Devoy to meet with Irish parliamentarians. In January 1878, Devoy meets with Charles Stewart Parnell in Dublin. In March the exiled senior Irish Republican Brotherhood member John O’Leary and Supreme Council secretary John O’Connor meet secretly in London with MPs Charles Stewart Parnell, Frank Hugh O’Donnell, William Henry O’Sullivan and O’Kelly. The meeting is sought by Parnell or by William Carroll of Clan na Gael to consider co-operation between the IRB and Parnell. Parnell apparently merely listens and does not commit himself.
John O’Connor and Dr. Mark Ryan, both members of the IRB’s Supreme Council, believe O’Connor Power has some hand in the new departure. John O’Connor suspects that Michael Davitt of the IRB has been influenced by O’Connor Power, and that the new departure proposals conceal some sinister scheme of Power’s devising, assumptions that Davitt hotly rejects. The precedent for constitutional agitation set by Power is not lost on orthodox Fenians such as Dr. Ryan, who sees behind the new departure the nefarious influence of the member for Mayo.
In late 1878 Michael Davitt makes a fund-raising political lecture tour of the United States, promoted by William Carroll and John Devoy of Clan na Gael. On October 13 in Brooklyn, New York, Davitt first presents, in a lecture titled “Ireland in parliament from a nationalist’s point of view,” a doctrine that Irish republicans can not prevent Irishmen voting or being elected to the British parliament, but they can influence who is sent to that parliament. He states that the Home Rule League, especially Isaac Butt and John O’Connor Power, are failing to prevent Ireland from being “imperialised” or “West Britainised.” Davitt however believes that Parnell and Joseph Biggar are acceptable Irish MPs, and Irish republicans should ensure that more such strong nationalists are voted in. John Devoy follows and points out that if Irish republicans are to gain the support of Britain’s potential enemies, such as Russia, they need to provide far stronger opposition to Britain both inside and outside parliament. He points out that Russia has not yet seen the Irish as providing any such meaningful opposition, in fact to Russia they appear loyal to Britain. Hence it is necessary to replace representatives in all Irish public bodies with suitable committed nationalists. Both Davitt and Devoy at this meeting stress that resolution of the Irish land question by transfer of ownership to the farmers themselves is integral to Irish demands on Britain.
On October 27, 1878, Devoy, without first consulting Davitt, summarises these ideas in what he terms a “new departure” in the New York Herald, and it is reported in Ireland on November 11. He also states that Irish participation in the British parliament is to be temporary, and that at a suitable time Irish nationalist MPs will withdraw to Dublin and form an independent Irish legislature. Davitt is at first worried that perceived connections to the Fenians will threaten Parnell in parliament, but Devoy convinces him that Parnell will not be affected. IRB leaders John O’Leary and Charles Kickham reject the overture to constitutionalists and Parnell gives no comment. He does however adopt the militant rhetoric of land ownership to be transferred to the Irish farmers themselves in various public speeches in Ireland. Hence the stage is set for the successful collaboration in 1879 over the Land War.
(Pictured: John Devoy)