The Fenian Movement and the Inspiring Irish Rebels

Illustration of a Fenian attack on an English police van
Fenians attacking a British police van and freeing prisoners. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Fenian Movement was an Irish revolutionary campaign which sought to overthrow the British rule of Ireland in the last half of the 19th century. The Fenians planned an uprising in Ireland which was thwarted when plans for it were discovered by the British. Yet the movement continued to exert a sustained influence on Irish nationalists which extended into the early 20th century.

The Fenians broke new ground for Irish rebels by operating on both sides of the Atlantic. Exiled Irish patriots working against Britain could operate openly in the United States. And American Fenians went so far as to attempt an ill-advised invasion of Canada shortly after the Civil War.

American Fenians, for the most part, played an important role in raising money for the cause of Irish freedom. And some openly encouraged and directed a campaign of dynamite bombings in England.

The Fenians operating in New York City were so ambitious that they even financed the construction of an early submarine, which they hoped to use to attack British ships on the open ocean.

The various campaigns by the Fenians in the late 1800s did not secure freedom from Ireland. And many argued, both at the time and afterward, that Fenian efforts were counterproductive.

Yet the Fenians, for all their problems and misadventures, established a spirit of Irish rebellion which carried into the 20th century and inspired the men and women who would rise up against Britain in 1916. One of the particular events which inspired the Easter Rising was the 1915 Dublin funeral of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, an elderly Fenian who had died in America.

The Fenians constituted an important chapter in Irish history, coming between the Repeal Movement of Daniel O'Connell in the early 1800s and the Sinn Fein movement of the early 20th century.

The Founding of the Fenian Movement

The earliest hints of the Fenian Movement emerged from the Young Ireland revolutionary movement of the 1840s. The Young Ireland rebels began as an intellectual exercise that ultimately staged a rebellion which was quickly crushed.

A number of members of Young Ireland were imprisoned and transported to Australia. But some managed to go into exile, including James Stephens and John O'Mahony, two young rebels who had participated in the abortive uprising before fleeing to France.

Living in France in the early 1850s, Stephens and O'Mahony became familiar with conspiratorial revolutionary movements in Paris. In 1853 O'Mahony emigrated to America, where he began an organization devoted to Irish freedom (which ostensibly existed to construct a monument to an earlier Irish rebel, Robert Emmett).

James Stephens began to envision creating a secret movement in Ireland, and he returned to his homeland to assess the situation.

According to legend, Stephens traveled by foot throughout Ireland in 1856. He was said to have walked 3,000 miles, seeking out those who had participated in the rebellion of the 1840s but also trying to ascertain the feasibility of a new rebel movement.

In 1857 O'Mahony wrote to Stephens and advised him to set up an organization in Ireland. Stephens founded a new group, called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (often known as the I.R.B.) on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1858. The I.R.B. was conceived as a secret society, and members swore an oath.

Later in 1858, Stephens traveled to New York City, where he met the Irish exiles who had been loosely organized by O'Mahony. In America the organization would become known as the Fenian Brotherhood, taking its name from a band of ancient warriors in Irish mythology.

After returning to Ireland, James Stephens, with financial help flowing from the American Fenians, founded a newspaper in Dublin, The Irish People. Among the young rebels who congregated around the newspaper was O'Donovan Rossa.

Fenians In America

In America, it was perfectly legal to oppose Britain's rule of Ireland, and the Fenian Brotherhood, though ostensibly secret, developed a public profile. A Fenian convention was held in Chicago, Illinois, in November 1863. A report in the New York Times on November 12, 1863, under the headline "Fenian Convention," said:

""This is a secret assocation composed of Irishmen, and the business of the convention having been transacted with closed doors, is, of course, a 'sealed book' to the unitiated. Mr. John O'Mahony, of New York City, was chosen President, and made a brief opening address to a public audience. From this we gather the objects of the Fenian Society to be the achieving, in some way, the independence of Ireland."

The New York Times also reported:

"It is evident, from what the public were permitted to hear and see of the proceedings on this Convention, that the Fenian Societies have an extensive membership in all parts of the United States and in the British provinces. It is also evident that their plans and purposes are such, that should an attempt be made to carry them into execution, it would seriously compromise our relations with England."

The Chicago gathering of Fenians took place in the middle of the Civil War (during the same month as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address). And Irish-Americans were playing a notable role in the conflict, including in fighting units such as the Irish Brigade.

The British government had reason to be concerned. An organization devoted to Irish freedom was growing in America, and Irishmen were receiving valuable military training in the Union Army.

The organization in America continued to hold conventions and raise money. Arms were purchased, and a faction of the Fenian Brotherhood which broke away from O'Mahony began to plan military raids into Canada.

The Fenians ultimately mounted five raids into Canada, and they all ended in failure. They were a bizarre episode for several reasons, one of which is that the U.S. government didn't seem to do much to prevent them. It was assumed at the time that American diplomats were still outraged that Canada had allowed Confederate agents to operate in Canada during the Civil War. (Indeed, Confederates based in Canada had even attempted to burn New York City in November 1864.)

The Uprising in Ireland Thwarted

An uprising in Ireland planned for the summer of 1865 was thwarted when British agents became aware of the plot. A number of I.R.B. members were arrested and sentenced to prison or transportation to penal colonies in Australia.

The offices of the Irish People newspaper were raided, and individuals affiliated with the newspaper, including O'Donovan Rossa, were arrested. Rossa was convicted and sentenced to prison, and the hardships he faced in prison became legendary in Fenian circles.

James Stephens, the founder of the I.R.B., was caught and imprisoned but made a dramatic escape from British custody. He fled to France and would spend most of the rest of his life outside Ireland.

The Manchester Martyrs

After the disaster of the failed rising in 1865, the Fenians settled on a strategy of attacking Britain by setting off bombs on British soil. The bombing campaign was not successful.

In 1867, two Irish-American veterans of the American Civil War were arrested in Manchester on suspicion of Fenian activity. While being transported to prison, a group of Fenians attacked a police van, killing a Manchester policeman. The two Fenians escaped, but the killing of the policeman created a crisis.

British authorities began a series of raids on the Irish community in Manchester. The two Irish-Americans who were the prime targets of the search had fled and were on their way to New York. But a number of Irishmen were taken into custody on flimsy charges.

Three men, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien, were eventually hanged. Their executions on November 22, 1867, created a sensation. Thousands gathered outside the British prison while the hangings took place. In the days following, many thousands of people participated in funeral processions which amounted to protest marches in Ireland.

The executions of the three Fenians would awaken nationalistic feelings in Ireland. Charles Stewart Parnell, who became an eloquent advocate for the Irish cause in the late 19th century, acknowledged that the executions of the three men inspired his own political awakening.

O'Donovan Rossa and the Dynamite Campaign

One of the prominent I.R.B. men held prisoner by the British, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, was released in an amnesty and exiled to America in 1870. Setting up in New York City, Rossa published a newspaper devoted to Irish freedom and also openly raised money for a campaign of bombing in England.

The so-called "Dynamite Campaign" was, of course, controversial. One of the emerging leaders of the Irish people, Michael Davitt, denounced Rossa's activities, believing that open advocacy of violence would only be counterproductive.

Rossa raised money to purchase dynamite, and some of the bombers he dispatched to England did succeed in blowing up buildings. However, his organization was also riddled with informers, and it may have always been doomed to fail.

One of the men Rossa dispatched to Ireland, Thomas Clarke, was arrested by the British and spent 15 years in very harsh prison conditions. Clarke had joined the I.R.B. as a young man in Ireland, and he would later be one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising in Ireland.

The Fenian Attempt at Submarine Warfare

One of the more peculiar episodes in the story of the Fenians was the financing of a submarine built by John Holland, an Irish-born engineer, and inventor. Holland had been working on submarine technology, and the Fenians became involved with his project.

With money from a "skirmishing fund" of the American Fenians, Holland built a submarine in New York City in 1881. Remarkably, the involvement of the Fenians was not a closely kept secret, and even a front-page item in the New York Times on August 7, 1881, was headlined "That Remarkable Fenian Ram." Details of the story were wrong (the newspaper attributed the design to someone other than Holland), but the fact that the new submarine was a Fenian weapon was made plain.

Inventor Holland and the Fenians had disputes over payments, and when the Fenians essentially stole the submarine Holland stopped working with them. The submarine was moored in Connecticut for a decade, and a story in the New York Times in 1896 mentioned that Americans Fenians (having changed their name to the Clan na Gael) were hoping to put it into service to attack British ships. The plan never came to anything.

Holland's submarine, which never saw action, is now in a museum in Holland's adopted hometown of Paterson, New Jersey.

Legacy of the Fenians

Though O'Donovan Rossa's dynamite campaign did not gain Ireland's freedom, Rossa, in his old age in America, became something of a symbol to younger Irish patriots. The aging Fenian would be visited at his home on Staten Island, and his fiercely stubborn opposition to Britain was considered inspirational.

When Rossa died in 1915, Irish nationalists arranged for his body to be returned to Ireland. His body lay in repose in Dublin, and thousands passed by his coffin. And after a massive funeral procession through Dublin, he was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.

The crowd attending Rossa's funeral was treated to a speech by a rising young revolutionary, the scholarly Patrick Pearse. After extolling Rossa, and his Fenian colleagues, Pearse ended his fiery oration with a famous passage: "The Fools, the Fools, the Fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead – And while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” 

By involving the spirit of the Fenians, Pearse inspired the rebels of the early 20th century to emulate their devotion to the cause of Ireland's freedom.

The Fenians ultimately failed in their own time. But their efforts and even their dramatic failures were a profound inspiration.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Fenian Movement and the Inspiring Irish Rebels." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). The Fenian Movement and the Inspiring Irish Rebels. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Fenian Movement and the Inspiring Irish Rebels." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).