The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish republican organization founded in the United States in 1858 by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny. It was a precursor to Clan na Gael, a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Members were commonly known as "Fenians". O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named his organization after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill.
The Fenian Brotherhood trace their origins back to 1798 and the United Irishmen, who had been an open political organization only to be suppressed and became a secret revolutionary organization, rose in rebellion, seeking an end to British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Republic. The rebellion was suppressed, but the principles of the United Irishmen were to have a powerful influence on the course of Irish history.
Following the collapse of the rebellion, the British Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a bill to abolish the Irish parliament and manufactured a Union between Ireland and Britain. Opposition from the Protestant oligarchy that controlled the parliament was countered by the widespread and open use of bribery. The Act of Union was passed, and became law on 1 January 1801. The Catholics, who had been excluded from the Irish parliament, were promised emancipation under the Union. This promise was never kept, and caused a protracted and bitter struggle for civil liberties. It was not until 1829 that the British government reluctantly conceded Catholic emancipation. Though leading to general emancipation, this process simultaneously disenfranchised the small tenants, known as ‘forty shilling freeholders’, who were mainly Catholics.
Daniel O’Connell, who had led the emancipation campaign, then attempted the same methods in his campaign, to have the Act of Union with Britain repealed. Despite the use of petitions and public meetings which attracted vast popular support, the government thought the Union was more important than Irish public opinion.
In the early 1840 the younger members of the repeal movement, became impatient with O’Connell’s over-cautious policies, and began to question his intentions. Later they were what became to known as the Young Ireland movement. In 1842 three of the Young Ireland leaders, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, launched the Nation newspaper. In the paper they set out to create a spirit of pride and an identity based on nationality rather than on social status or religion. Following the collapse of the Repeal Association and with the arrival of famine, the Young Irelanders broke away completely from O’Connell in 1846.
The blight that destroyed the potato harvest between 1845 and 1849 was an unprecedented human tragedy. An entire social class of small farmers and labourers were to be virtually wiped out by hunger, disease and emigration. The laissez –faire economic thinking of the government ensured that help was slow, hesitant and insufficient. Between 1845 and 1851 the population fell by almost two million.
That the people starved while livestock and grain continued to be exported, quite often under military escort, would leave a legacy of bitterness and resentment among the survivors. The waves of emigration because of the famine and in the years following also ensured that such feelings would not be confined to Ireland, but spread to England, the United States, Australia and every country where Irish emigrants gathered.
Shocked by the scenes of starvation and greatly influenced by the revolutions then sweeping Europe, the Young Irelanders moved from agitation to armed rebellion in 1848. The attempted rebellion failed after a small skirmish in Ballingary, Co Tipperary, coupled with a few minor incidents elsewhere. The reasons for the failure were obvious: the people were totally despondent after three years of famine, and being prompted to rise up early resulted in an inadequacy of military preparations, which caused disunity among the leaders.
The Government quickly rounded up many of the instigators. Those who could fled across the seas, and their followers dispersed. A last flicker of revolt in 1849, led by among others James Fintan Lalor, was equally unsuccessful.
John Mitchel, the most committed advocate of revolution, had been arrested early in 1848 and transported to Australia on the purposefully created charge of Treason-felony. He was to be joined by other leaders, such as William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher who had both been arrested after Ballingary. John Blake Dillon escaped to France, as did three of the younger members, James Stephens, John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny.
After the collapse of the '48 rebellion James Stephens and John O'Mahony went to the Continent to avoid arrest. In Paris they supported themselves by teaching and translation work and planned the next stage of "the fight to overthrow British rule in Ireland." In 1856 O'Mahony went to America and founded the Fenian Brotherhood in 1858. Stephens returned to Ireland and in Dublin on St. Patrick's Day 1858, following an organizing tour through the length and breadth of the country, founded the Irish counterpart of the American Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Fenian raids into Canada
In the United States, O'Mahony's presidency over the Fenian Brotherhood was being increasingly challenged by William R. Roberts. Both Fenian factions 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 honored when Ireland should be "a nation once again". These bonds were to be redeemed "six months after the recognition of the independence of Ireland." Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants subscribed.
Large quantities of arms were purchased, and preparations were openly made by the Roberts faction for a co-ordinated series of raids into Canada, which the United States government took no major steps to prevent. Many in the U.S. administration were not indisposed to the movement because of Britain's failure to support the Union during the civil war. Roberts' "Secretary for War" was General T. W. Sweeny, who was struck off the American army list from January 1866 to November 1866 to allow him to organize the raids. The purpose of these raids was to seize the transportation network of Canada, with the idea that this would force the British to exchange Ireland's freedom for possession of their Province of Canada. Before the invasion, the Fenians had received some intelligence from like-minded supporters within Canada but did not receive support from all Irish Catholics there who saw the invasions as threatening the emerging Canadian sovereignty.
The command of the expedition in Buffalo, New York, was entrusted by Roberts to Colonel John O'Neill, who crossed the Niagara River (the Niagara is the international border) at the head of at least 800 (O'Neill's figure; usually reported as up to 1,500 in Canadian sources) men on the night and morning of 31 May/1 June 1866, and briefly captured Fort Erie, defeating a Canadian force at Ridgeway. Many of these men, including O'Neill, were battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War. In the end the invasion had been broken by the US authorities’ subsequent interruption of Fenian supply lines across the Niagara River and the arrests of Fenian reinforcements attempting to cross the river into Canada. It is unlikely that with such a small force that they would have ever achieved their goal.
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. Many were eventually returned anyway by sympathetic officers.
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, although some were possibly used in the raids that followed.
In December 1867, O'Neill became president of the Roberts faction of the Fenian Brotherhood, which in the following year held a great convention in Philadelphia attended by over 400 properly accredited delegates, while 6,000 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 was a strong incentive to a vigorous policy. Henri Le Caron, who, while acting as a secret agent of the British 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.
The Fenian threat prompted calls for Canadian confederation. Confederation had been in the works for years but was only implemented in 1867, the year following the first raids. In 1868, a Fenian sympathizer assassinated Irish-Canadian politician Thomas D'Arcy McGee in Ottawa for his condemnation of the raids.
Fear of Fenian attack plagued the Lower Mainland of British Columbia during the 1880s, as the Fenian Brotherhood was actively organizing in Washington and Oregon, but raids never actually materialized . At the inauguration of the mainline of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, photos taken of the occasion show three large British warships sat in the harbor just off the railhead and its docks. Their presence was explicitly because of the threat of Fenian attack or terrorism, as were the large numbers of troops on the first train.
1867 and after
During the latter part of 1866 Stephens endeavored to raise funds in America for a fresh rising planned for the following year. He 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.
The Fenian Rising proved to be a "doomed rebellion," poorly organized and with minimal public support. Most of the Irish-American officers who landed at Cork, in the expectation of commanding an army against England, were imprisoned; sporadic disturbances around the country were easily suppressed by the police, army and local militias.
After the 1867 rising, IRB headquarters in Manchester opted to support neither of the dueling American factions, promoting instead a new organization in America, Clan na Gael. The Fenian Brotherhood itself, however, continued to exist until voting to disband in 1880.
In 1881, the submarine Fenian Ram, designed by John Philip Holland for use against the British, was launched by the Delamater Iron Company in New York.
Following the division of Clan na Gael in the late 1990's Sean Mc’Henney reformed the Fenian Brotherhood encompassing disaffected Irish Americans. Though small, the Fenian Brotherhood is growing in popularity and membership as a result of its defined goal of seeking "Social Justice". The Fenian Brotherhood is active in the prominently Irish American communities of the North east, and Mid-west. Membership in the Fenian Brotherhood is by invitation only and includes a rigorous vetting process. This process is intended to eliminate those that the membership view as undesirable, or untrustworthy.
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Initiation Ritual of the Fenian Brotherhood