The Fenian Brotherhood reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Apr-2004
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Fenian Brotherhood

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Table of contents
1 Founding of The Fenian Brotherhood
2 Fenian Raids from the United States
3 Meantime in Ireland
4 Additional Reading

Founding of The 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.

Fenian Raids from the United States

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 faithful in the expectation of their being honoured when Ireland should be "a nation once again." These bonds were to be redeemed "six months after the recognition of the independence of Ireland" and were issued by both the O'Mahoney and Roberts factions.

A large quantity of arms was purchased, and preparations were openly made for a co-ordinated series of raids into Canada, which the United States government took no major 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 1866 to November 1866. The purpose of these raids was to seize the transportation network of Canada, with the idea that this would force the British to exchange Irelands freedom for posession of their Province of Canada.

The command of the expedition in Buffalo, New York, was entrusted to Colonel John O'Neill, who crossed the Niagara River (the Niagara is the international border) at the head of at least 800 [typically reported as up to 1500] men on the night and morning of May 31/June 1, 1866, and captured Fort Erie. Most of these men were battle hardened veterans of the American Civil War.

Up to 3000 more remained in the US, some of them being late arrivals while others had been prevented from crossing the river by the return of the US gunboat USS Michigan. Fenian units involved in the Buffalo crossing were the 7th Buffalo (NY), 18th Ohio, 13th Tennessee, and 17th Kentucky Fenian Regiments, and an independent Company from Indiana. Under the command of Colonel John OÒNeill, later General and President of the Fenian Brotherhood, the Irish fought a battle near Ridgeway, Canada West (now Ontario) on June 2nd 1866.

The Canadian militia, while engaged with the Fenians, mistook a few Fenian horsemen for cavalry. The soon countermanded commands to defend against an anticipated cavalry charge led to chaos in their ranks, and they were ordered to withdraw. The Canadian militia (including the Queens Own Rifles and the 13th Hamilton) retreated to Port Colborne at the Lake Erie end of the Welland Canal, while the Fenians rested at Ridgeway before themselves returning to Fort Erie. Another fight followed that saw the surrender of a small group of Canadian militia from the Dunnville Naval Brigade that had moved into the Fenian rear at Fort Erie. After considering both the inability of reinforcements to cross the river and the approach of large numbers of Canadian militia and British regulars, the Fenians attempted a return to Buffalo but were intercepted by the American side-wheeled iron-hulled barkentine USS Michigan, and interned by the US Navy.

President of the United States Johnson's proclamation requiring enforcment of the laws of neutrality was not issued untill five days after the beginning of the invasion. Both US General Ulysses S. Grant and US General George Meade went to Buffalo, New York to assess the situation. In the meantime, following instructions from General Grant, General Meade issued strict orders to prevent anyone from further violating the border. General Grant then proceeded to St. Louis while General Meade, finding that the battle at Ridgeway was over and the Fenian army interned in Buffalo, proceeded to Ogdensburg NY to oversee the situation in the St. Lawrence River area. The US army was then instructed to seize Fenian weapons and ammunition, and to prevent more border crossings. Further instructions on June 7th 1866 were to arrest anyone who looked like they might be a Fenian.

Other Fenian attempts to invade occurred throughout the next week in the St. Lawrence valley. As many of the weapons had in the meantime been confiscated by the US army, relatively few of these men actually became involved in the fighting. There even was a small Fenian raid on a storage building that successfully got back some weapons that had been seized by the US Army.

To get the Fenians out of the area, both in the St. Lawrence and Buffalo, the US government purchased rail tickets for the Fenians to return to their homes if the individuals involved would promise not to invade any more countries from the United States! Many of the arms were returned later if the person claiming them could post bond that they were not going to be used to invade Canada again. Some were probably used in the raids that followed over the next few years.

There are a few references to the Fenian troops who crossed the Niagara River near Buffalo calling themselves the ÓIrish Republican ArmyÔ including a painting of the battle in the National Archives of Canada showing a green flag with the letters IRA over a gold harp.

[aside] Many members of todayÒs Canadian Army Regiment "The Queens Own Rifles of Canada" return to the Ridgeway battle site each year on the weekend closest to the June 2nd anniversary for a bicycle tour of the battle sites, and to toast their fallen comrades at the tavern located in the center of their former lines at the corner of Garrison and Ridge Roads.

In December 1867, John O'Neill became president of the Fenian 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. Yet another attempt and failure would take place in 1871 near the Red River in Manitoba.

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

Hereward, Senior. Canadian Battle Series No. 10: The Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie, 1866. Toronto: Balmuir Book Publishing, 1993.

Hereward, Senior. The Fenians and Canada. Toronto: MacMillan, 1978.

Hereworth, Senior. The Last Invasion of Canada. Toronto and Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

Owen, David. The Year of the Fenians. Buffalo: Western New York Heritage Institute, 1990.