The Fenians were Irish revolutionaries of the 1860s who sought total independence from Great Britain. But in the decades after the failure of their 1867 uprising, the British and Anglo-Irish political establishments used the name to tar any kind of nationalist discontent—as Mr. Deasy does when he says to Stephen, "You fenians forget some things." In Proteus Stephen remembers how Kevin Egan, a fictionalized version of the fenian activist Joseph Casey, told him of the escape of "James Stephens," the organization's "head centre" or leader, and Stephen thinks of an attempt to free Casey himself and other fenian leaders from prison. Many chapters of the novel mention Stephens' escape, and many mention the Invincibles, an offshoot of the movement responsible for assassinating two British officials in 1882.

JH 2013

Cartoon by John Tenniel, published in Punch magazine on 28 December 1867, depicting a "Fenian Guy Fawkes", with the simian features typical of 19th century English caricatures of Irish men. The keg of gunpowder represents the means by which the wall of Clerkenwell Prison was blown up earlier in the month, killing and wounding dozens of nearby tenement-dwellers. Source: Wikipedia.

The 1867 attack on the prison van in Manchester. Source: abyss.indigo.ie.

Photograph of James Stephens, date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.