The doctrine of ‘physical force’ is the belief that Ireland’s political independence could only be achieved by military force. In the words of a later revolutionary, Patrick Pearse, in 1914: ‘nationhood is achieved’ only ‘by armed men’. This doctrine was well-rooted in the republicanism of the IRB since its foundation in 1858: armed rebellion was the path to freedom and ‘England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity’. It drew its inspiration from the Rebellion of 1798 and the Rebellion of Robert Emmet.
The issue of ‘physical’ as against ‘moral’ force became crucial in the conflict, within the Repeal Association, between the pacifist constitutionalists led by Daniel O’Connell, and the increasingly impatient nationalists, who became Young Ireland and who turned, spectacularly unsuccessfully, to military force. O’Connell’s Repeal movement, like all his campaigns, was based on the law, on the persuasive power of moral force, the self-evident rightness of the cause, and the mass support of the people. Ireland’s freedom, he declared, was not worth one drop of blood. The parliamentary Home Rule movement inherited this tradition of moral force.
The IRB doctrine of physical force remained that of the IRA, in its various manifestations and various guises, throughout the twentieth century.
Bibliography. John O’Leary, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (2 vols, London 1896). Desmond Ryan, The phoenix flame: a study of Fenianism and John Devoy (London 1937). Maurice Harmon (ed), Fenians and Fenianism : centenary essays (Dublin 1968). Robert Kee, The green flag: a history of Irish nationalism (London 1972). R. V. Comerford, Charles J. Kickham: a study in Irish nationalism and literature (Portmarnock 1979). Seán Cronin, Irish nationalism: a history of its roots and ideology (Dublin 1980). R. V. Comerford, The Fenians in context: Irish politics and society, 1848–82 (Dublin 1985). John Newsinger, Fenianism in mid-Victorian Britain (London 1994)