Irish Republican Brotherhood : America and Canada

Irish Republican Brotherhood : American and Canada

The word Fenian is derived from the old Irish ‘féne’ the name of an ancient Irish people. Fenians were members of the most important nineteenth century covert revolutionary nationalist organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  It derived some of its inspiration from the United Irishmen of the 1790s. It was founded in 1858, in part to perpetrate the militant ideals of the Young Ireland movement and its failed Rising in 1848. The IRB staged an unsuccessful revolt in Ireland in 1867 and were responsible for isolated revolutionary acts against the British until the early twentieth century when they were gradually eclipsed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). An informal or derogatory term Fenian is used, chiefly in Northern Ireland, as a Protestant name for a Catholic.

Also known to some of its members as the ‘Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood’, or more popularly as Fenians, the IRB arose in the context of the failure of the Independent Opposition movement by Irish members in the British Parliament in the 1850s. Some of the most intriguing characters of the Irish social scene were amongst its members.  Its first successful operation was their attendance under its cover organisation, the Brotherhood of St Patrick, at the funeral in Dublin in November 1861, of Terence Bellew MacManus, one of the minor figures of the Young Ireland Rising.

Propagating its views through its newspaper the Irish People, the movement caught the imagination of revolutionaries and romantics in Ireland.  Its suppression in 1865 represented a great blow to the movement and the failure of the 1867 Rising caused the movement to fracture into constitutional and pro-violence parties the same year.  It was non-sectarian but most of its members were more or less practising Catholics. The IRB was roundly opposed by the Catholic Church and attracted a papal condemnation in 1870. The movement was overshadowed by the success of Home Rule in Ireland when the IRB joined the Land League to form the ‘New Departure’ of 1879, linking land reform to the nationalist movement, pursuing incremental and agrarian, rather than strictly revolutionary goals.

America and Fenian Invasion of Canada

The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York in 1858 by John O’Mahony, a veteran of the Young Ireland Rising in 1848, as a sister organisation of the ‘Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood’ organised by James Stephens in Dublin the same year. Its aim was to rid Ireland of English rule by providing American money and manpower to encourage insurrection. By 1865 it had attracted at least 50,000 followers, many of them Civil War veterans (from both the Union and Confederate sides).

An Irish Republican government in exile, based on the American model of executive and legislature, was set up in Philadelphia. While Fenianism in both America and Ireland had as its primary goal to ferment rebellion in Ireland, an American faction led by William V Roberts, an Irish born merchant in New York, favoured an indirect method for achieving this aim. A Fenian invasion of Canada might provoke an Anglo-American conflict, perhaps even a war, allowing Ireland to strike for its independence while Britain’s attention was deflected elsewhere.

Thus began one of the more outlandish episodes not only in Irish nationalist and Irish-American history but in American history as a whole.  On 12 April 1866 the Fenians attempted to seize the Canadian island of Campobello in the Bay of Fundy, only to be thwarted by the British and American navies at Eastport, Maine. The US navy intercepted a shipment of arms, and American soldiers under Major-General George Meade, forced the Fenians at Eastport to disperse. Then on 1 June a force of 600 Fenians, led by Colonel John 0’Neill, entered Canada by land, defeating an unsuspecting Canadian militia company before returning to Buffalo.

Meantime James Stephens had arrived in New York on 10 May 1866, fleeing from arrest in Ireland. Denouncing the attacks on Canada he ousted O’Mahony from the leadership of the movement and reasserted the goal of insurrection on Irish soil alone. A final foray into Canada on 25 May 1870 led once again by O’Neill was easily repelled. Fenianism collapsed both in Ireland and in America, to be replaced in the United States by the sterner and secretive national organisation Clan na Gael (family of the Gaels) under the leadership of the redoubtable John Devoy. Partly as a result of the Fenian efforts Irish nationalism had acquired an irrevocable American dimension. The organisation was a rallying point for the thousands of working-class Irish Americans.

In Canada the incursions divided its Catholic Irish population, many of whom were torn between loyalty to their new home and sympathy for the aims of the Fenians. The Protestant Irish were generally loyal to the British and fought with the anti-Catholic Orange Order against the Fenians. There are monuments in Canada related to the Fenian incursions. One is located in Queen’s Park facing the campus of the University of Toronto in honour of the Canadian militia. A General Service Medal displaying Queen Victoria was issued for service in the Canadian militia related to the Fenian incursions in 1870. In June 2006 Ontario’s heritage agency dedicated a plaque at Ridgeway in commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the battle.  Places are also designated as national historical sites. The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada return to the Ridgeway battle site each year on the weekend closest to the 2 June anniversary for a bicycle tour of the battle sites. The Battle of Ridgeway has the distinction of being the first battle for the cause of Irish independence since the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and is the subject of historical literature, films and other publications.

Seven years after the Bill passed as Act of the Union (1800) Ireland was then said to be “distracted, disloyal and impoverished”.  A drawing in 1887 by the Cork born political cartoonist, John Fergus O’Hea (1838-1922), marks the occasion of Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrating the 50th anniversary of her reign. The image ‘Cell for Miss Erin’ depicts a woman in a long drab garb who is shown with heavy metal attachments on her wrists with a chain attached to the metal belt around her waist. She has a forlorn sideways gaze towards the statue of a seated Queen Victoria.  The contrasting scripts in the drawing read ’50 years of Prosperity and Gentle Rule’ and ‘Jubilee Coercion Bill – Evictions, Closure, Poverty’ Weekly Freeman, July 1887.

Ita Marguet, November 2020


Note : Acknowledgement is given to encyclopaedic and other sources used in preparation of this text. They provide information of places, battles, and political, cultural and sociological events prominent in Irish history including several archival illustrations and colourful pictorial of the Fenians and Canada. It follows my earlier texts with a focus on Ireland and connections to the wider world.