The Fenian Brotherhood – Irish to the Core Blog 10

by | Aug 25, 2021 | Irish to the Core


The Battle of Ridgeway, 1866

In Blog #8 I wrote briefly about the Irish republican John O’Mahony, fugitive from the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 who emigrated to the USA in the 1850s to establish the secret Emmet Monument Association (EMA) chartered to support the expulsion of Britain from Ireland by force. He believed that Irish Americans, angered by the British oppression in the Great Hunger and earlier atrocities, would band together in the cause for Irish freedom. This land of new-found wealth would provide the funds for this crusade.

Why that EMA name you ask? Robert Emmet, a nationalist Irish leader who led an abortive rebellion in 1803 and was executed, said from the docket,
  ‘ Let no man write my epitaph . . . When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not until then, let my epitaph be written.’

Centered in New York and Philadelphia, this association grew in numbers in the sympathetic Irish communities throughout the USA.

In the early 1850s, their efforts were founded on a belief that Russia would go to war with Britain and that they would support an Irish Revolution to weaken their enemy. This Crimean war over religious beliefs and therefore territory in the Ottoman Empire resulted in Russia’s defeat in 1856, ending the possibility of their military support for Irish Revolution.

The EMA disbanded but retained a thirteen-man committee for future revolutionary activities if and when they became feasible.

Impatient for freedom for Ireland, O’Mahony formed a new organization two years later named the Fenian Brotherhood. At the second secret National Congress held in Philadelphia in 1865 the brotherhood established a president, O’Mahony and senate republican structure. They issued bonds in the name of the Irish Republic and hundreds of thousands of Irish Americans subscribed. These bonds were to be redeemed immediately after Ireland was independent.

They concocted the idea that they could invade British Canada, a set of provinces not yet confederated as a Dominion, and force Britain to relinquish their hold over Ireland. Weapons were bought and Irish American soldiers who had distinguished themselves fighting for the North in the American Civil War were enlisted to the cause.

The USA government, angered by Britain’s lack of support during the American Civil War, initially turned a blind eye toward the somewhat-clandestine Fenian movement. Raids across the northern border into Canada were attempted in 1866 from Maine, O’Mahony and from Niagara Falls, O’Neill where Fenians briefly captured Fort Erie from Ridgeway and control of the Welland Canal. There was some concern that Toronto might be attacked. These attacks were swiftly put down by Canadian forces when significant Canadian Fenian support failed to materialize. This motivated the USA government to step in and confiscate weapons and disperse Fenian troops.

Under the new leadership  of John O’Neill, the Fenians regrouped in 1867. Emboldened by the Clerkenwell explosion in England carried out by Irish Fenians, they planned another assault on Canada. In the meantime, and perhaps partially because of the Fenian threat, Canada had formed a confederate Dominion, granted by Britain.

Leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland, James Stephens came to America to stir up finances and support for a Rising in Ireland. A Fenian Rising in Ireland led by Irish American Fenians landed at Cork in 1867. It was handily defeated. Britain jailed the ringleaders. Stephens was ousted from his position in the IRB.

The raids in 1870 from Vermont and in 1871 from Dakota Territory into Manitoba were also dismal failures. Although they never occurred, planned raids into British Columbia from Washington and Oregon in the 1880s were thwarted by British warships lying offshore at the Canadian Pacific Railway railhead in the Pacific.

The IRB, discouraged by the Fenian movement’s failure in the USA, chose to promote a new organization with new leadership and new purpose in America, the Clan na Gael.

Stephen’s novel series “The Irish Clans” can be purchased at


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