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Fenian Days

Cover: Edward P. Monck. Fenian Days. Words by Jos. McGarrity. Philadelphia: Jos. McGarrity, 1909. [Digital Library]

Edward P. Monck (1861-1940) was a teacher, curator of Independence Hall, and an organist of St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania.


Letter from Edward P Monck to Joseph McGarrity (March 11 1909) Receipt for muscial composition of Fenian Days

Letter to Joseph McGarrity, from Edward P. Monck, March 11, 1909.  [Digital Library]

Receipt issued to Joseph McGarrity from Edward P. Monck for payment for musical composition of "Fenian Days," March 9, 1909. [Digital Library]


Signed typescript of Fenian Days by Joseph McGarrity
Signed typescript of Fenian Days by Joseph McGarrity

Signed typescript poem, "Fenian Days," by Joseph McGarrity.  [Digital Library]

Old days: we'll soon be fighting,

Head to the storm as we faced it before.

While there are Irish there's bound to be fighting

As long as the Saxon remains on our shore.

--Joseph McGarrity, "Old Days," Celtic Moods and Memories.

Joseph McGarrity was born on March 28, 1874, on the outskirts of the Irish village of Carrickmore, county Tyrone, an area of Ulster with a centuries-long history of republican resistance to English rule. Despite growing up quite poor, McGarrity, in his unpublished memoirs, characterizes his childhood household as "a happy one," filled with fiddle music and singing, folk tales of fairies, leprechauns and banshees, and spirited conversation. As a child McGarrity would have overheard his father and other adults discussing the pressing Irish political issues of the day including land reform, the exploits of Charles Stewart Parnell, and the long-simmering debates over Home Rule. By age 17 McGarrity was already taking, as he describes it, "considerable interest in the political life of the country, going to meetings and listening to tales of the Fenians in the Penal days, the executions etc."[1] These stories of heroic Fenian rebels captured the young McGarrity's imagination and would continue to shape and nourish his dedication to a Fenian ideal of Irish nationhood throughout his life.

The Fenians, also known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), were a secret organization dedicated to the liberation of Ireland through armed revolution. Formed in the 1850's, they staged an insurrection in 1867 that was quickly crushed. Despite its failure, the Fenian Uprising led to a renewal of the Irish revolutionary tradition and engendered a new generation of nationalist martyrs to inspire young Irish republicans some of whom, like Jospeh McGarrity, carried their politics with them when they left Ireland to begin a new life in America. After arriving in Philadelphia, McGarrity remained active in his support of the Irish nationalist cause. In 1893 he joined the Clan-na- Gael, the US counterpart of the IRB, and in the decades that followed McGarrity would rise to become chairman of the Executive of the organization and widely recognized as one of the most powerful leaders of the Irish separatist movement in the United States.

McGarrity’s Fenian temperament was characterized by a combination of an historical imagination steeped in nostalgia for the heroic actions and figures of the Irish past, and an uncompromising commitment to the core Fenian political doctrine that the ultimate goal of a free and united Ireland could only be achieved through physical force. The spirit of Irish nationhood, for McGarrity, was not reducible to a devolved parliament, a constitutional question or even the ownership of the land; rather it survived embodied in the history of the armed struggle for Irish independence. The appeal and power which the romantic-heroic mythology of Irish republican nationalism held for McGarrity is clear in poems like “Fenian Days,” which McGarrity commissioned to be set to music, and in the vivid rhetorical style that animates many of his speeches and letters. 

A firm believer in the power of myth and memory to rouse patriotic sentiment, McGarrity regularly invokes the names of nationalist heroes and martyrs in his poetry, from Wolf Tone, William Orr, and Robert Emmet to Padraig Pearce, Roger Casement, and James Connolly. Characteristically, McGarrity celebrates an ideal of heroic sacrifice in "Fenian Days," grounding his Fenian convictions in redemptive terms that draw on his Roman Catholic faith:

Blood of Irish hero ages

Spirits of our saints and sages

Help us pay the despot's wages,

Speed our sword to strike the blow.

McGarrity was particularly proud of "Fenian Days" and, as Marie Tarpey notes, expressed in a letter to his good friend and fellow Carrickmore man Patrick McCartan how heartened he was to hear that his old schoolmaster, Master Marshall, had approved of the poem.[2]



[1] Joseph McGarrity, "Memoirs of Joseph McGarrity," May, 1939 (MS, Joseph McGarrity Collection, Villanova University Library, Villanova, PA), 14. [Digital Library]

[2] Marie Veronica Tarpley, The Role of Joseph McGarrity in the Struggle for Irish Independence (New York, NY: Arno Press, 1976), 29.