The origins of "Sinn Féin"

The origins of "Sinn Féin"

[Cleary, Thomas Stanislaus (1851 -- 1898)]. Shin Fain; or Ourselves Alone: A Drama of the Exhibition, by Tom Telephone, pseud. Dublin: James Duffy and Sons, 1882. First (and only) edition. 32 p.; 18 cm. Original printed wrappers, lightly foxed. The fragile covers have been lined with Japanese tissue. Housed in a custom chemise and slipcase.

     The first published use of the phrase "Sinn Féin" to express separatist sentiments, predating by a decade its broad adoption as a political slogan.

     Tim Healy MP was the first Irish politician on record to use "Sinn Féin" as catchphrase, in the election of 1892. The Gaelic League, Conradh na Gaeilge, the primary vehicle for Irish cultural nationalism after 1893, adopted the words as its slogan. The Sinn Féin party was organized in 1905.

      The phrase had been used as early as 1845 by members of the Young Ireland movement, and appears several times both in English and in Irish in poems published in the movement's newspaper, The Nation. A volume of collected verse from the Nation edited by Thomas Davis was first published in 1845, and reprinted repeatedly through the early 1900s. But as Brian Feeney notes, this play by Thomas Stanislaus Cleary is the earliest printed reference to Sinn Féin as a separatist political slogan. "By the end of the nineteenth century," Feeney says, "the words 'Sinn Féin' had become shorthand for describing a way of thinking, an outlook, a set of ideas, a particular mindset in Ireland."

     Born in Dublin, Cleary became editor of the Clare Independent in 1878. An advocate of nationalist politics, he was an ardent participant in the Land War, which sought rights for tenant farmers laboring under what Irish MP Isaac Butt called the "yoke of feudal servitude." Cleary earned a reputation for extremist rhetoric that excited people to violence. His pamphlet, A bond to save from bondage (1879), advocating the formation of a Clare Tenants' Association, was one of the earliest salvos of that conflict. Two volumes of poetry, Twitterings at twilight (1883) and Songs of the Irish Land War (1888), featured verse that was reprinted as leaflets.

      Shin Fain is an allegorical play in iambic pentameter featuring such characters as Erin, the Spirits of Self-Reliance, Patriotism, Industry, Faith, etc., and the Shoddyites. The play was issued by the firm founded by James Duffy (1809-1871), one of the leading publishers of Irish nationalist books. There are frequent comic passages and occasional songs. In a satirical self-reference, Cleary makes clear that there is a serious message behind the burlesque:


I'll sing a lay, altho' 'tis not my own, 

'Twas writ by one they call Tom Telephone; 

A meddlesome fellow whose desire might be 

To preach a lesson in this parody.


The peculiar pseudonym adopted by the author may suggest that the play -- and its lessons were intended primarily for oral transmission.
     The struggles over land tenure and national sovereignty are at the center of Shin Fain, which criticizes absentee landlords and their local enablers while expressing confidence in the Irish people. Of the British, Erin says:


                                 Them I know

Whose work seems e'er the overthrow 

Of every patriotic hope, 

To crush the bud where'er it ope; 

Whose earnest aim and sole endeavour 

Is to retain us slaves for ever.


The play concludes with a successful campaign for independence:


The alien Parliament has just decreed

That those in durance, from this day be freed!

And further has appeared, by Proclamation

That now we stand -- a free, self-governed nation!


     Of particular interest is the song sung by the Chorus entitled "Shin Fain."  A note by the author defines the phrase as "Literally, ourselves alone -- a substantial dependence for mankind in general, and Irishmen in particular." The first verse reads:


Ourselves alone! Ourselves alone!

O! this henceforth shall be our cry;

And with the craven ages flown

Let all dependent miseries fly;

By this at last we'll take our stand,

By this our ancient right maintain,

For Ireland's sake this day we make

Our watchword this -- Shin Fain! Shin Fain!


And from the third verse:


No more we bow to kiss the rod,

But to this health a cup we drain;

Our native sod, our trust in God,

And under Him, Shin Fain! Shin Fain!


     The play is very rare. We count eight recorded copies, two in the United States (NYPL, Seaton Hall), four in Ireland (NLI, UCD, QUB, Trinity College), one in Canada (U. Guelph), and one in Germany (BU-Wuppertal). Some libraries hold microfilm copies, but the text has not yet been digitized. This copy was acquired by a private collector at Bloomsbury Auctions in 2008, and has since been professionally conserved.


Select References

  • Cleary, Thomas S. A bond to save from bondage: a few suggestions for a Clare Tenants' Defence Association. Ennis: Clare Independent Office, 1879.
  • -----. Twitterings at twilight. Dublin: M. H. GIll, 1883.
  • -----. Songs of the Irish land war. Dublin: W. P. Swan, 1888.
  • Davis, Thomas. The Spirit of the nation. Ballads and songs by the writers of "The Nation," with original and ancient music, arranged for the voice and piano forte. Dublin: James Duffy, 1845.
  • Feeney, Brian. Sinn Féin: a hundred turbulent years. Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 2003.
  • Legg, Marie-Louise. "Cleary, Thomas Stanislaus." Oxford DNB, 2004.

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