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Fenian Brotherhood

The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish-American revolutionary secret society, founded in the United States by John O'Mahony in 1858. O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named his organization after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhail.

After the collapse of William Smith O'Brien's attempted rising in 1848, O'Mahony, who was involved in it, escaped abroad, and since 1852 had been living in New York. James Stephens, another of the "Men of 1848," had established himself in Paris, and was in correspondence with O'Mahony and other radical nationalists home and abroad. A club called the Phoenix National and Literary Society, with Jeremiah Donovan (afterwards known as O'Donovan Rossa) among its more prominent members, had recently been formed at Skibbereen. Stephens visited it in May 1858 and made it the centre of preparations for armed rebellion. About the same time in the United States, O'Mahony established the "Fenian Brotherhood," whose members bound themselves by an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic and swore to take up arms when called upon and to yield implicit obedience to the commands of their superior officers.

The object of Stephens, O'Mahony, and other leaders of the movement was to form a league of Irishmen in all parts of the world against British rule in Ireland. The organization was modelled on that of the Jacobins of the French Revolution; they even formed a "Committee of Public Safety" in Paris, with a number of subsidiary committees and affiliated clubs. The Fenians were soon found in Australia, South America, Canada, and above all in the United States, as well as in the large cities of Great Britain such as London, Manchester, and Glasgow. However, the Fenians never gained much hold on the tenant-farmers or agricultural labourers in Ireland, the movement was denounced by the Catholic Church.

It was a few years after its foundation before the Fenian Brotherhood made much headway among radical nationalists. The Phoenix Club conspiracy in Kerry was betrayed by an informer and was crushed by the government. Some twenty ringleaders were put on trial, including Donovan, and when they pleaded guilty were, with a single exception, treated with leniency. But after a convention held at Chicago under O'Mahony's presidency in November 1863 the movement began to become effective.

About the same time the Irish People, a revolutionary journal of extreme violence, was started in Dublin by Stephens, and for two years advocated armed rebellion and appealed for aid to Irishmen who had had military training in the American Civil War. At the close of that war in 1865, numbers of Irish who had borne arms flocked to Ireland, and the plans for a rising were worked on. The government, well served as usual by informers, now took action. In September 1865 the Irish People was suppressed, and several of the more prominent Fenians were sentenced to terms of penal servitude; Stephens, through the connivance of a prison warder, escaped to France. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended in the beginning of 1866, and a considerable number of persons were arrested. Stephens issued a bombastic proclamation in America announcing an imminent general rising in Ireland; but he was himself soon afterwards deposed by his confederates, among whom dissension had broken out. A few Irish-American officers, who landed at Cork in the expectation of commanding an army against England, were locked up in gaol; some petty disturbances in Limerick and Kerry were easily suppressed by the police.

Table of contents
1 Fenian Raids
2 Additional Reading

Fenian Raids

In the United States, however, the Fenian Brotherhood, now under the presidency of W.R. Roberts, continued plotting. They raised money by the issue of bonds in the name of the "Irish Republic," which were bought by the credulous in the expectation of their being honoured when Ireland should be "a nation once again." A large quantity of arms was purchased, and preparations were openly made for a raid into Canada, which the United States government took no steps to prevent. It was indeed believed that President of the United States Andrew Johnson was not indisposed to turn the movement to account in the settlement of the Alabama Claims. The Fenian "Secretary for War" was General T.W. Sweeny, who was struck off the American army list from January 1865 to November 1866.

The command of the expedition was entrusted to John O'Neill, who crossed the Niagara River at the head of some 800 men on June 1, 1866, and captured Fort Erie. Despite large numbers of desertions, at Ridgeway the Fenians routed the first two battalions of Canadian volunteers they engaged. However, the Fenians withdrew in disarray as overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces converged on the area. On June 3 the remnant surrendered to the American side-wheeled iron-hulled barkentine Michigan; and the tardy issue of President Johnson's proclamation enforcing the laws of neutrality brought the raid to an ignominious end; the prisoners were released, and the arms taken from the raiders were returned to the Fenian organization, only to be used for the same purpose some four years later.

In December 1867, John O'Neill became president of the Brotherhood in America, which in the following year held a great convention in Philadelphia attended by over 400 properly accredited delegates, while 6000 Fenian soldiers, armed and in uniform, paraded the streets. At this convention a second invasion of Canada was determined upon; while the news of the Clerkenwell explosion in London (see below) was a strong incentive to a vigorous policy. Henri Le Caron, who, while acting as a secret agent of the English government, held the position of "Inspector-General of the Irish Republican Army," asserts that he distributed fifteen thousand stands of arms and almost three million rounds of ammunition in the care of the many trusted men stationed between Ogdensburg, New York and St. Albans, Vermont, in preparation for the intended raid. It took place in April 1870, and proved a failure just as rapid and complete as the attempt of 1866. The Fenians under O'Neill's command crossed the Canadian frontier near Franklin, Vermont, but were dispersed by a single volley from Canadian volunteers; while O'Neill himself was promptly arrested by the United States authorities acting under the orders of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Meantime in Ireland, after the suppression of the Irish People, disaffection among radical nationalists had continued to smoulder, and during the latter part of 1866 Stephens endeavoured to raise funds in America for a fresh rising planned for the following year. However the Fenian Rising (1867) proved to be a "doomed rebellion"1;, poorly organised and with minimal public support. In concert with the Irish rebellion, a bold move on the part of the Fenian circles in Lancashire had been concerted in co-operation with the movement in Ireland. An attack was to be made on Chester, the arms stored in the castle were to be seized, the telegraph wires cut, the rolling stock on the railway to be appropriated for transport to Holyhead, where shipping was to be seized and a descent made on Dublin before the authorities should have time to interfere. This scheme was frustrated by information given to the government by the informer John Joseph Corydon, one of Stephens's most trusted agents. Some insignificant outbreaks in the south and west of Ireland brought the rebellion of 1867 to an ignominious close. Most of the ringleaders were arrested, but although some of them were sentenced to death none was executed.

On September 11, 1867, Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, "Deputy Central Organizer of the Irish Republic," was arrested in Manchester, whither he had gone from Dublin to attend a council of the English centres, together with a companion, Captain Deasy. A plot to rescue these prisoners was hatched by Edward O'Meaher Condon with other Manchester Fenians; on September 18, while Kelly and Deasy were being conveyed through the city from the courthouse, the prison van was attacked by Fenians armed with revolvers, and in the scuffle police-sergeant Brett, who was seated inside the van, was shot dead.

The rescued prisoners, Kelly and Deasy, escaped to the United States, but Condon, Allen, Larkin, Maguire, and O'Brien were arrested and sentenced to death. Condon, who was an American citizen, was respited at the request of the United States government, his sentence being commuted to penal servitude for life, and Maguire was granted a pardon. Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien were hanged on November 23 for the murder of Brett. Many considered the sentences unjust among radical nationalists for two reasons: firstly, as political offenders they should not have been treated as ordinary murderers; and, secondly, given the undisputed fact that the shot that caused the policeman's death had been fired for the purpose of breaking open the lock of the van, they had no intent to kill and so the crime was at worst that of manslaughter. The executed Irishmen are remembered among nationalists in Ireland and America as the "Manchester martyrs."

In the same month, November 1867, Richard Burke, who had been employed by the Fenians to purchase arms in Birmingham, was arrested and lodged in Clerkenwell prison in London. While he was awaiting trial a wall of the prison was blown down by gunpowder, the explosion causing the death of twelve persons, and the maiming of some hundred and twenty others. This outrage, for which Michael Barrett suffered the death penalty, powerfully influenced William Ewart Gladstone in deciding that the Anglican Church of Ireland should be disestablished as a concession to Irish disaffection.

In 1870, Michael Davitt was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude for participation in the Fenian conspiracy; and before he was released on ticket of leave the name "Fenian" was believed to have become practically obsolete. However, the "Irish Republican Brotherhood" and other organizations in Ireland and abroad carried on the same tradition and pursued the same policy in later years. In 1879, John Devoy, a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, promoted a "new departure" in America, by which the "physical force party" allied itself with the "constitutional movement" under the political leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, MP; and the political conspiracy of the Fenians was combined with the agrarian revolution inaugurated by the Land League. In 1881, the submarine Fenian Ram, designed by John Philip Holland for use by the Brotherhood against the British, was launched by the Delamater Iron Company in New York.

Fenianism was one of the most important movements in modern Irish history. Its radicalism influenced later leaders like Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera. However, though influential in radical nationalism, it never gained widespread popular support and its attempts to stage rebellions in Ireland failed dismally. Its impact was through rebellion through the ideas it developed among radical Irish nationalists.

(from an old encyclopedia, moderately edited)

Note: this account is complete only up to the 1880s -- material from the 20th century needs to be added!


1 Quote from 'fenianism' by R. V. Comerford in W. J. McCormack, The Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture p.221.

Additional Reading