Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Church, the State and the Fenian Threat, 1861-75

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Church, the State and the Fenian Threat, 1861-75

Article excerpt

The Church, the State and the Fenian Threat, 1861-75. By Oliver P. Rafferty. (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1999. Pp. xvii, 229. $69.95.)

Between 1866 and 1870, an Irish nationalist organization popularly known as the Fenians orchestrated a rising in Ireland, invasions of Canada, and several outbreaks of violence in British cities. While most of these were smashingly unsuccessful, the Fenians still deserve a notable position in the histories of Anglo-Irish relations and Irish republicanism. Apart from biographies, however, they have received relatively little attention from historians. This may be due in part to the fact that the most prominent writer on the Fenians, R.V. Comerford, has consistently downplayed their importance, portraying them as a social, rather than a political or military, organization. Comerford's interpretation is not without its critics, most notably John Newsinger, and, with this concise study, Oliver P. Rafferty.

Making use of a wide assortment of archival materials in Britain, Ireland, America, and Rome, Rafferty presents the most detailed study yet made of relations between the Catholic Church, the Fenians, and the governments in Britain and North America. In contrast to Comerford, Rafferty argues that Fenianism must be taken seriously on its own terms, and that it presented a threat to the established religious and political order. He finds proof of the latter in the intensive intelligence-gathering operations spurred on by Fenianism as well as the re-evaluation of Irish policy at Westminster after the mid-1860's.

The bulk of the book, however, is concerned with Fenianism's spiritual danger. Unlike the British government, the Irish Catholic hierarchy led by Cardinal Paul Cullen, quickly realized the challenge the Fenians posed to the Church's view of Irish society and the "Irish Question. …

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