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.
After the twin disasters of the 1840s—the collapse of the Repeal movement, and the Great Hunger—Irish nationalists turned their energies to armed revolt. In 1846-47 William Smith O'Brien and some other members of Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association split off to pursue insurrection under the Young Ireland banner. Revolutionary uprisings broke out across Europe in 1848—Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Rome—and the Young Irelanders joined the fray. James Stephens played a role in their 1848 attack on a police garrison in County Tipperary.
After the failed 1848 rebellion, Stephens and a man named John O'Mahony fled to Paris. O'Mahony eventually emigrated to New York City, where in 1858 he founded an Irish republican organization inspired by the ancient Fianna, small bands of legendary Irish warriors who lived apart from society, described in the Fenian Cycle as followers of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill). Stephens returned to Ireland, and at about the same time he founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood or Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) in Dublin. The Fenians contributed volunteers to the IRB and followed its dictates, and the two groups were often referred to as one.
Together, they planned a Fenian Rising, drawing on Irish-American soldiers discharged from the armies of the American Civil War and Irish soldiers who would mutiny from within the ranks of the British Army and take over the many military barracks around Dublin. But the IRB was infiltrated by British informers, and many of its leaders were arrested in 1865. The insurrection was poorly planned; soon after it began in early 1867 it was suppressed and more leaders were arrested.
Afterward, small Fenian groups attempted to free imprisoned leaders in England, first (in September 1867) through an attack on a van carrying prisoners in Manchester, and then (in December) through the demolition by gunpowder of a wall of London's Clerkenwell Prison. One guard was killed in the van; the prison bombing killed 12 people and injured many dozens more. Four Fenians were executed for their roles in the two attacks.
Richard O'Sullivan Burke was one of the American Fenians, a former colonel in the United States Army. Gifford notes that he participated in the raid on the prison van, that he was arrested soon after, and that "he was among the Fenian leaders who were supposed to have been freed by the abortive gunpowder plot against Clerkenwell Prison." Joseph Casey was with Burke inside Clerkenwell at the time of the bombing. In Proteus Stephen imagines how "he prowled with colonel Richard Burke, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and, crouching, saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog." The plan was to blow up the wall of the prison's exercise yard while Burke and Casey huddled "crouching" against its base; but as Gifford notes, "the prison authorities, warned by informers that a rescue was to be attempted, changed Burke and Casey's exercise time and thus foiled the plot."
Septs, in ancient and medieval Ireland (and Scotland), were subclans. Gifford observes that, "Among the ancient Irish, a tanist was the heir apparent to the tribal chief, elected during the chief's lifetime. The implication here is that Burke was to be James Stephen's successor as Head Centre."
Egan's narration to Stephen of "how the head centre got away" introduces another strand of the Fenian story into the novel, this one from late 1866 and early 1867. James Stephens was betrayed by a spy, arrested, and convicted, but sympathizers within Dublin's Richmond Gaol effected his escape (in Lestrygonians, Bloom thinks it was the "Turnkey's daughter"). After a few months of hiding out in Dublin (Bloom thinks it was "in the Buckingham Palace hotel under their very noses") he made his way to the coast via "the road to Malahide," shipped over to America, and became Head Centre of the NYC organization. His opponents in the IRB circulated what Gifford calls "the apocryphal (and denigrating) story" that Stephens made his escape "Got up as a young bride, man, veil, orangeblossoms." His transformation into a woman suits the shapeshifting theme of Proteus.
Fantastic rumors about the people who effected Stephens' escape pervade the novel. In Calypso Bloom thinks of going to the Turkish baths: "Wonder have I time for a bath this morning. Tara street. Chap in the paybox there got away James Stephens, they say." In Cyclops Joe Hynes declares that the Citizen is "The man that got away James Stephens." As Bloom is being apotheosized as a civic hero in Circe, John Wyse Nolan proclaims the same distinction for Bloom: "There's the man that got away James Stephens." (A schoolboy yells "Bravo!" and an old man says, "You're a credit to your country, sir, that's what you are.")