Fenian movement

The Events: Series of violent, revolutionary, and ultimately unsuccessful struggles against British control of Ireland that were transatlantic in scope

Date: 1848-1867

Location: New York, Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain

Also known as: Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB)

Significance: The Fenians began a secular nationalistic revolutionary tradition in Ireland that aimed at freeing Ireland from British control. The armed Fenian risings were ultimately ineffective, but they helped to inspire later nationalists. Irish immigrants in America provided men, arms and money to fight in Ireland and some even launched an invasion of British Canada.

The Fenian movement was founded in Dublin, Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day in March, 1848. The American Fenian movement emerged one year later in New York City. The organization took its name from a legendary ancient Irish warrior. Two recent events inspired the movement: the failed rebellion of a group called Young Ireland in 1848 and the sufferings caused by the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s. Members of the movement, who were predominantly Roman Catholic, believed that only armed resistance could free Ireland from British rule. However, the Roman Catholic Church itself disapproved of the movement because of its reliance upon violence and because of its opposition to secret societies in general. Consequently, the movement began a secular tradition in Irish nationalist movements.

The movement operated clandestinely, drawing on Continental revolutionary models, with secret cells. Nevertheless, British-paid spies often penetrated the movement. The public side of the movement was aided by publication of a popular radical newspaper and large gatherings at important funerals in Ireland. By 1864, the Fenians had at least 50,000 members in Ireland and similar numbers in North America.

Fenians in the United States were asked to furnish money, arms, and men for the struggle in Ireland and to organize an attack on British Canada. After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, American Fenians were able to provide legions of experienced military officers and soldiers from recently demobilized Irish immigrant veterans of the war. However, the Fenian schemes were hampered by factional bickering that rose within the American movement. Many Fenian leaders shuttled between Ireland and New York. Almost one-half of the most prominent thirty-nine Fenian leaders emigrated to the United States, either permanently or temporarily.

Battle between Fenians and a Canadian militia unit near Ridgeway, Ontario, on June 2, 1866
Battle between Fenians and a Canadian militia unit near Ridgeway, Ontario, on June 2, 1866. (Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, relations between the governments of the United States and Canada had still not recovered from American anger at the Confederate incursions from Canada into New England during the Civil War. Consequently, when armed Fenians preparing to invade Canada massed along Vermont’s Canadian border and the Niagara Falls region in 1866, U.S. authorities were not firm in restraining them.

The grandiose plan of the Fenians was to use Irish veterans of the U.S. Civil War to seize all of Canada and hold it hostage until Great Britain recognized Irish independence. About 1,500 armed Irishmen actually did cross the Niagara River into Canada in June, 1866. They were met by Canadian militia, who gave battle before fleeing. This single battle left about twenty Canadians and Fenians dead. Soon, the Fenians themselves fled. Those who returned into New York State were promptly arrested. They were equally promptly released, as the Irish vote was important in New York politics.

The Fenians attempted several risings in Ireland that were aborted by informed British authorities. The most notable Fenian rising during the nineteenth century occurred in Ireland in 1867, but it failed when a ship bringing arms andmenfromthe United States arrived too late to assist rebels attempting to seize a cache of British arms. The Fenian leaders involved in the scheme were arrested. Afterward, only scattered guerrilla fighting broke out in Ireland.

During the twentieth century the Fenian devotion to violence and guerrilla warfare would serve as examples for the generation that did wrest Irish independence from Britain. The famous Easter Rebellion of 1916 has been cited as the Fenian underground surfacing once more.

Henry G. Weisser

Further Reading

  • Coohill, Joseph. Ireland: A Short History. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2008. 
  • Fry, Peter, and Fiona Somerset. A History of Ireland. New York: Routledge, 1991. 
  • Kee, Robert. The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. 
  • Welch, Richard F. “The Green and the Blue.” Civil War Times (October, 2006): 22-30. 

See also: Anti-Catholicism; Great Irish Famine; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Irish immigrants; Molly Maguires; New York City; New York State.

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