Fenian movement

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Fenian movement (fē´nēən) or Fenians, secret revolutionary society organized c.1858 in Ireland and the United States to achieve Irish independence from England by force. It was known variously as the Fenian Brotherhood, Fenian Society, Irish Republican Brotherhood, and Irish-American Brotherhood. The name derives from the ancient Irish Fenians, a professional military corps that roamed over ancient Ireland (c.3d cent.) in the service of the high kings. They figure in the legends that developed around Finn mac Cumhail and Ossian.


The famine of the 1840s brought to a crisis Irish discontent with English rule, culminating in the abortive Young Ireland uprising of 1848, led by William Smith O'Brien. Vast numbers of embittered Irishmen emigrated to the United States, Australia, South America, and Canada, where they redoubled their agitation against England. John O'Mahony, one of those revolutionists driven abroad in 1848, was the organizer of the movement in the United States, and it was he who gave the society its name.


In Ireland

In Ireland the movement was led by James Stephens (1825–1901), who founded the party organ, the Irish People, in Dublin in 1863. The movement made its chief appeal to artisans and shop assistants rather than to the agrarian population. The opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to the society doubtless kept many potential members from joining its ranks. As the movement became stronger and rumors of actual plots arose, the British government took steps to crush it. In 1865 the Irish People was suppressed and Stephens was arrested, although he escaped to America. In 1866 the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended in Ireland, and many Fenians were imprisoned. Initiative shifted to America, where a huge store of arms and money had been accumulated by the Fenians, and where many Irish-American Civil War veterans were eager to strike a blow against England. In 1867 a ship, renamed Erin's Hope, was outfitted and sailed to Ireland, but the Fenians aboard were captured in their attempt to land. In the same year there were several small-scale risings in Ireland. Repeated attempts by the revolutionists to free their imprisoned comrades by force resulted in the execution of several Fenians. Agitation continued, and terrorism was condoned by many as a result of the anger aroused by the executions. The long-range effect of the Fenian movement was to draw the attention of the English Parliament to Irish problems. The Fenian movement continued until World War I, but its influence was largely drawn off into new organizations, notably Sinn Féin, founded by Arthur Griffith, a former Fenian.

In the United States

The Fenian movement in America had a career of its own. In 1865 a convention at Cincinnati determined upon an invasion of Canada. In June, 1866, Gen. John O'Neill (1834–78) with about 800 men crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. His force was soon cut off by U.S. troops, and he was obliged to retreat toward Buffalo. Some 700 men were arrested. An attack on Campobello island (off Maine) was also frustrated. O'Neill became president of the society and prepared raids from Vermont in 1870. These, too, were unsuccessful, and O'Neill and many other participants were arrested.


See studies by J. O'Leary (1896, repr. 1969), W. D'Arcy (1947, repr. 1971), and B. Jenkins (1969).

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FENIAN MOVEMENT was an Irish-American organization created by John O'Mahony in 1858. The movement raised money, supplied equipment, and trained leaders to help the Irish Republican, or Revolutionary, Brotherhood uprising against Great Britain. Fenian membership rose to 250,000, and in 1865 the movement established an "Irish Republic" in New York and issued bonds to finance its activities. The group focused much of its attention on the Irish cause in Canada. In 1866, for example, a dissatisfied Fenian faction broke from the organization, crossed the border at Fort Erie, defeated Canadian troops, and returned to Buffalo, New York. U.S. officials halted reinforcements and arrested the raiders, but eventually released the captives. American troops checked similar invasions from Saint Albans, Vermont, and Malone, New York.

After failing in an earlier attempt against New Brunswick, Canada, the Fenians participated in the republican revolutionary movement in Ireland and sent a vessel loaded with arms and men across the Atlantic in 1867. Fenian involvement in British affairs complicated American foreign policy during the 1860s and 1870s. The Canadian government, for example, treated imprisoned American Fenians as British subjects, which strained relations between the United States and Great Britain. Fenians captured by the British also tried to use their American citizenship to draw their adopted country into a naturalization controversy. Unsuccessful in their objectives, and under growing pressure from the federal government and the Roman Catholic church, many Fenians left the movement and joined the Land League and Home Rule movements. The Fenians held their last congress in 1876 and the movement collapsed following O'Mahony's death in 1877.


Comerford, R. V. The Fenians in Context. Dublin, Ireland: Wolf-hound Press, 1985.

Neidhardt, Wilfried. Fenianism in North America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.

Senior, Hereward. The Last Invasion of Canada: The Fenian Raids, 1866–1870. Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1991.

Ezra H.Pieper/e. m.

See alsoCanada, Relations with ; Great Britain, Relations with ; Immigration ; Ireland, Relations with ; Irish Americans .

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Fenian movement Secret Irish-American revolutionary society. The Great Potato Famine (1845–49) spurred the Young Ireland Uprising (1848), the failure of which prompted many revolutionaries to emigrate. In the USA, John O'Mahoney founded (1848) the Fenian Brotherhood. In Ireland, James Stephens formed (1858) the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The growing strength of the transatlantic movement led the British government to arrest the leaders of the IRB. In 1867, James Kelly led the abortive Fenian Rising. The Fenians split into factions: the Home Rule and Land League movements led by Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt; and Sinn Féin led by Arthur Griffith. Patrick Pearse led the IRB in the abortive Easter Rising (1916). In 1919, Michael Collins formed the Irish Republican Army (IRA).