1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fenians

FENIANS, or Fenian Brotherhood, the name of a modern Irish-American revolutionary secret society, founded in America by John O’Mahony (1816–1877) in 1858. The name was derived from an anglicized version of fiann, féinne, the legendary band of warriors in Ireland led by the hero Find Mac Cumaill (see Finn Mac Cool; and Celt: Celtic Literature: Irish); and it was given to his organization of conspirators by O’Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar and had translated Keating’s History of Ireland in 1857. After the collapse of William Smith O’Brien’s attempted rising in 1848, O’Mahony, who was concerned 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 disaffected Irishmen at 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; and under the influence of Stephens, who visited it in May 1858, it became the centre of preparations for armed rebellion. About the same time O’Mahony in the United States established the “Fenian Brotherhood,” whose members bound themselves by an oath of “allegiance to the Irish Republic, now virtually established,” 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 great league of Irishmen in all parts of the world against British rule in Ireland. The organization was modelled on that of the French Jacobins at the Revolution; there was a “Committee of Public Safety” in Paris, with a number of subsidiary committees, and affiliated clubs; its operations were conducted secretly by unknown and irresponsible leaders; and it had ramifications in every part of the world, the “Fenians,” as they soon came to be generally called, being found in Australia, South America, Canada, and above all in the United States, as well as in the large centres of population in Great Britain such as London, Manchester and Glasgow. It is, however, noteworthy that Fenianism never gained much hold on the tenant-farmers or agricultural labourers in Ireland, although the scurrilous press by which it was supported preached a savage vendetta against the landowners, who were to be shot down “as we shoot robbers and rats.”[1] The movement was denounced by the priests of the Catholic Church.

It was, however, some few years after the foundation of the Fenian Brotherhood before it made much headway, or at all events before much was heard of it outside the organization itself, though it is probable that large numbers of recruits had enrolled themselves in its “circles.” The Phoenix Club conspiracy in Kerry was easily crushed by the government, who had accurate knowledge from an informer of what was going on. Some twenty ringleaders were put on trial, including Donovan, and when they pleaded guilty were, with a single exception, treated with conspicuous leniency. But after a convention held at Chicago under O’Mahony’s presidency in November 1863 the movement began to show signs of life. About the same time the Irish People, a revolutionary journal of extreme violence, was started in Dublin by Stephens, and for two years was allowed without molestation by the government to advocate armed rebellion, and to appeal 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 matured. 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.

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 credulous in the expectation of their being honoured when Ireland should be “a nation once again.” A large quantity of arms was purchased, and preparations were openly made for a raid into Canada, which the United States government took no steps to prevent. It was indeed believed that President 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 (1820–1892), who temporarily (Jan. 1865–Nov. 1866) was struck off the American army list. The command of the expedition was entrusted to John O’Neill, who crossed the Niagara river at the head of some 800 men on the 1st of June 1866, and captured Fort Erie. But large numbers of his men deserted, and at Ridgeway the Fenians were routed by a battalion of Canadian volunteers. On the 3rd of June the remnant surrendered to the American warship “Michigan”; and the tardy issue of President Johnson’s proclamation enforcing the laws of neutrality brought the raid to an ignominious end; the prisoners were released, and the arms taken from the raiders were, according to Henri Le Caron, “returned to the Fenian organization, only to be used for the same purpose some four years later.” In December 1867, John O’Neill became president of the 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. Le Caron (q.v.), 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 and St Albans,” in preparation for the intended raid. It took place in April 1870, and proved a failure not less rapid or complete than the attempt of 1866. The Fenians under O’Neill’s command crossed the Canadian frontier near Franklin, Vt., 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 Grant.

Meantime in Ireland, after the suppression of the Irish People, disaffection 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. 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 the 11th of September 1867, Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, “deputy central organizer of the Irish Republic,” one of the most dangerous of the Fenian conspirators, 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 effect the rescue of these prisoners was hatched by Edward O’Meaher Condon with other Manchester Fenians; and on the 18th of September, while Kelly and Deasy were being conveyed through the city from the court-house, 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. Condon, Allen, Larkin, Maguire and O’Brien, who had taken a prominent part in the rescue, were arrested. All five were sentenced to death; but 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 the 23rd of November for the murder of Brett. Attempts were made at the time, and have since been repeated, to show that these men were unjustly sentenced, the contention of their sympathizers being, first, that as “political offenders” they should not have been treated as ordinary murderers; and, secondly, that as they had no deliberate intention to kill the police-sergeant, the shot that caused his death having been fired for the purpose of breaking open the lock of the van, the crime was at worst that of manslaughter. But even if these pleas rest on a correct statement of the facts they have no legal validity, and they afford no warrant for the title of the “Manchester martyrs” by which these criminals are remembered among the more extreme nationalists in Ireland and America. Kelly and Deasy escaped to the United States, where the former obtained employment in the New York custom-house.

In the same month, November 1867, one 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 W. E. Gladstone in deciding that the Protestant Church of Ireland should be disestablished as a concession to Irish disaffection. In 1870, Michael Davitt (q.v.) 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 had become practically obsolete, though 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 leadership of C. S. Parnell (q.v.); and the political conspiracy of the Fenians was combined with the agrarian revolution inaugurated by the Land League.

See William O’Connor Morris, Ireland from 1798 to 1898 (London, 1898); Two Centuries of Irish History, 1601–1870, edited by R. Barry O’Brien (London, 1907); Henri Le Caron, Twenty-five Years in the Secret Service (London, 1892); Patrick J. P. Tynan, The Irish National Invincibles and their Times (London, 1896); Justin M‘Carthy, A History of our own Times (4 vols., London, 1880). (R. J. M.) 

  1. William O’Connor Morris, Ireland 1798–1898, p. 195.