Musings on the origins

Musings on the origins

of the

Clan na Gael


Original Research updated 12-5-2007

by Michael Ruddy


Should anyone be interested in exact sources of statements made in this article contact me at

    In Ireland 1801, after the defeat of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, England decided to make Ireland a part of the Kingdom of England and removed the Irish Parliament and instead all Irish Members would attend the English Parliament in London. A charismatic Irishman named Daniel O’Connell attempted through legal agitation to “Repeal the act of Union” and acquired a significant amount of support at mass rallies in Ireland. At one point younger members of his following began to feel that if Repeal was not attainable by legal means then resorting to arms must still be considered an option. This did not set well with O’Connell, who did not want to introduce anything into his agitation for Repeal that could bring the British authorities down on him. O’Connell disparagingly labeled these dissidents “Young Ireland”.

    Young Ireland was booted out of the movement and began to form its own organization, “the Irish Confederation” , and at one point chartered instructional clubs to educate Irishmen and make them politically aware of the effects of the Act of Union. One of the members, John Mitchel, was much more strident and wrote rebellious diatribes against England. Mitchel was arrested and deported. The rest of Young Ireland still affirming their right to bear arms if necessary to achieve home rule, were suddenly thrown into a turmoil, when the English revoked habeas corpus and set out to arrest the leaders. Some men from this group, who were later to become involved in a scheme to foment an Irish rebellion against British rule from America, were Michael Doheny, John O’Mahony and Thomas Francis Meagher, and, from France, James Stephens returned to Ireland in 1856 and joined other 1848 veterans who still dreamed of freeing Ireland.

    The British captured many leading Young Irelanders, John Mitchel, Thomas Francis Meagher, Terence Belew McManus, etc., who reached America after serving or escaping prison sentences; and there were many others, like John O'Mahony, Michael Doheny and Joseph Denieffe, who managed to elude capture and fled to America, principally to New York. Those Young Irelanders who reached America found a freedom of activity  they didn't have in Ireland and some initiated or joined small clubs that either trained as militia with an avowed purpose of returning to Ireland to help in a rising, or held meetings where blustering against Britain and devising plans to set Ireland free were standard fare. In this time frame, according to O’Shea in his history of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), John O’Mahony and other ex-Young Irelanders were also members of the AOH.

    In the mid 1850s Michael Doheny was chairman of the Emmet Monument Association (EMA) in New York, a group that intended to attack England during the Crimean war, but when the war ended with nothing accomplished the EMA suspended its meetings to wait for another English difficulty to become another Irish opportunity. EMA members Michael Doheny and John O’Mahony, Michael Corcoran, Owen Considine, Joseph Denieffe and others decided to send out feelers to Ireland to see if there was the chance a rebellion could be generated by the arrival of Irish-American troops on Irish soil. They contacted James Stephens, who agreed to prepare Irishmen in Ireland for a rebellion. Although in concept it was to be a united organization as the outgrowth of the Emmet Monument Association, two distinct organizations grew out of the agreement: the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland founded by Stephens and the Fenian Brotherhood (FB) founded by O'Mahony in the United States. The Fenian Brotherhood chose John O’Mahony as its leader and began to collect money and train men. The Civil war interfered with Fenian plans when many Irish-Americans in the Fenian militias joined the two opposing armies. But war brought many young Irish soldiers together, leading to the formation of Fenian cadres in both the Union and Confederate armies. They met to break the monotony of camp, wrote Fenian soldier Thomas Galwey, of the 8th OVI, and to plan for the day they could use their military experience to help Ireland defeat England. As the war drew to a close James Stephens came to America and promised that in 1865 he would lead a rebellion in Ireland. The Fenian leadership began to collect funds to pull it off. The campaign was called “the final call” and as subscriptions to the Fenians grew, serious money began to flow into Fenian coffers.

    In September of 1865 before Irish-America could set sail and rescue Ireland, Britain struck and arrested all the IRB leaders including, in November, James Stephens. Stephens escaped from jail immediately, but the arrests insured the insurrection would not succeed. The IRB was left a shambles. Under leadership of Irish-American Civil War veterans, the IRB/Fenians did manage to initiate scattered skirmishes with the Royal Irish Constabulary but in general the IRB was impotent to welcome any crusading Irish-Americans. The Fenian Brotherhood in America was unprepared for the arrests and, in reality, no thought-through plan of action existed as to how the FB was going to supply their brothers in arms. The FB purchased a ship, the Jacmel Packet, christened her "Erin's Hope" and sailed for Ireland with arms and men aboard. Erin's Hope arrived with too little, too late, her landing party arrested coming ashore. Erin's Hope returned to America leaving Irish nationalists without support. With the decimation of the Irish connection, the Fenians began to feud amongst themselves with two main factions emerging. Those under John O’Mahony (O’Mahony Wing) wanted to wait while Ireland reorganized and got ready for another attempt; while followers of Fenian Senate leader, W. R. Roberts (Senate Wing) wanted to attack Canada and perhaps pull the United States into a war with the British. John O’Mahony in a futile bid to head off the takeover of the Fenian coffers by the Senate Wing, decided to attack Campobello Island in Canada near Eastport, Maine. The history of what happened at this point is told on this website under the title “Here Comes That Damn Green Flag Again!”


    The aftermath of the 3rd attack on Canada in 1870, led by John O’Neill over the objections of the Senate Wing left the Fenians in total disarray and the Fenian factions continued to assault each other in the press, much to the amusement of  American journalism. One man began an organization which would change Irish-American nationalism and provide a real foundation for Irish independence which was acheived fifty years later.

Early in 1867, a civil engineer, Jerome Collins, operating on his own and, although he was not a member of the IRB, planned a rescue prisoner of IRB prisoners held in Pentonville prison in London. Before Collins could pull it off British authorities discovered the plot as a result of the loose tongue of a member of Collin's group. Collins fled to New York where he joined the Fenian Brotherhood. Collins wanted to bring the two Wings together for anti-British actions for which purpose he founded a secretive organization called the Napper Tandy Club. The group was designed to enlist both Wings of the FB together to plan “operations” against the British. Gradually other branches formed and in the 1870s these loosely attached clubs began to be known collectively as the Clan Na Gael Association.

    The Clan-na-Gael at its inception was a more middle to upper class composition in its constituency than the FB had been. Both W. R. Roberts and John O'Mahony joined Collins’ new club at the beginning. As the Clan-na-Gael grew, the membership included upper and middle class Protestants such as Dr. William Carroll, a Philadelphia physician and George Pepper, a Protestant minister, as well as other respected men in the community. The Clan-na-Gael could boast of Irish Americans who had risen to prominence in American political life like Judges James W. Fitzgerald of Cincinnati,  and James Fitzgerald and John Goff of New York. The Clan-na-Gael also could count on elected congressmen and senators, men well known outside the Irish-American community. The Clan-na-Gael allowed members into its ranks whether or not they belonged to other nationalist groups: both FB Wings, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and other clubs not affiliated to the Fenian movement.

    In the Fall of 1870, responding to a letter from the grand "Old Man" of Fenianism, James Gibbons, who had invited all Irish nationalist groups to Cincinnati, the Senate Wing faction, along with a few random circles of the O'Mahony Wing and various clubs with other affiliations assembled at a convention designed to bring unity to Irish nationalism. This convention (I believe from my research) indicates collusion, if not spoken, then, unspoken, between some Senate Wing moderates who were also members of the Clan-na-Gael, and the Clan-na-Gael organization itself.

    The Clan-na-Gael constitution forbade divulging any member’s name to the public. That rule restricted the Clan-na-Gael Association from sending delegates to the Cincinnati convention. However there was another option, the Clan-na-Gael when it wished to hold picnics, dances, or open club meetings would often set up a front club outside the actual organizational structure  which allowed the names of the members of the front club to be publicized. Having such a front also facilitated recruitment into the Clan. I postulate that the "Irish National Brotherhood" a club constituted ad hoc just before the Cincinnati convention in St Louis was a front organization of the Clan-na-Gael. The INB appeared for the convention then, after the convention adjourned, disappeared from public view . The St Louis INB under Daniel O'Madigan had known Clan members on its executive council. It is significant to note that this newly formed club under O’Madigan was allowed a seat on the proposed unity council at the convention. John O'Neill railed against the Clan-na-Gael in an address from jail in Windsor, Vermont where he was incarcerated after his abortive 1870 attack on Canada, adds further weight to the theory that the Clan-na-Gael took part in the Convention.

    The name chosen for the unity organization that was formed during the Cincinnati convention was the “United Irishmen” hearkening back to the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. In the Irish-American, a Senate Wing New York newspaper, there is significant newspaper space donated to the formation and constitution of the United Irishmen. Unfortunately as far as the objective of unity the United Irishmen failed to gain traction. The position of John Savage (president of the O'Mahony FB Wing) and General John O'Neill (president of his own breakaway group) vis-à-vis the United Irishmen is aptly portrayed in the O'Neill Windsor, Vermont jail speech.

    In 1871 the arrival of the "Exiles" a group of IRB prisoners recently released from English prisons including John Devoy and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, gave the floundering United Irishmen an exit. The United Irishmen formally turned their entire organization over to  the Exiles with the hope that these men would be a catalyst for unity. Men from the Clan-na-Gael held the top posts in the United Irishmen (W.J. Nicholson, John W. Goff, Timothy Hanly, Thomas Sheedy, etc.). The Exiles renamed the organization “The Irish Confederation.” One might suppose that the Irish Confederation was formally connected to the Clan-na-Gael with the inclusion of the Irish National Brotherhood club into the United Irishmen at the Cincinnati convention; but that this was not the case is shown in documents from NLI: in the minutes of a meeting of the Irish Confederation, the Exiles are shown planning to make an offer to the Clan-na-Gael to join the Irish Confederation in a plan to begin sending money to the IRB. The Irish National Brotherhood evaporated itself when the United Irishmen failed to unify Irish Nationalism.

    When the Irish Confederation didn't do any better than its predecessors, the Exiles threw up their hands and began to infiltrate the existing Irish-American nationalist societies from within (either consciously or subconsciously – for my part it is hard to imagine such political worthies as O’Kelly, McClure, Devoy, Bourke, Luby, O’Leary, Rossa etc. not having an actual strategy, as opposed to a scenario that they just randomly joined these various organizations). Rossa joined the O'Mahony (now called "Savage") Wing and, in 1877, was elected president of the organization. The Savage Wing was from the beginning the real rock in the road to unity -- the Exiles Thomas Clarke Luby and James J. O'Kelly, also joined the Savage Wing . The Senate was already well represented in the Clan-na-Gael, and, according to Devoy, most of the Exiles also joined the Clan-na-Gael. As the Irish Confederation disintegrated, it is safe to assume the affiliated clubs either had their members sworn into the Clan-na-Gael, joined the Savage Wing, became independent clubs, or disbanded. By 1877 the Exiles, moving up through the ranks, were represented in hierarchical positions in the Fenian factions as well as in the Clan-na-Gael. I suspect that James W. Fitzgerald (Cincinnati Judge and Senate Wing member) and I know that John Goff, Tim Hanly and W. J. Nicholson were Clan-na-Gael members, and maybe even “Old Man” James Gibbons of Philadelphia (although Gibbons by 1870 was sixty-five and may have remained aloof from all the turmoil). The Clan-na-Gael engineered a successful rescue of the IRB military prisoners from Australia aboard the whaling vessel Catalpa and furnished proof  that the Clan-na-Gael was capable of executing a filibuster against the British without botching it up. Membership increased significantly as other factions of Irish nationalism in America drifted towards irrelevance. The Clan-na-Gael rose in power but generally remained in the background out of the newspapers except for annual picnics and grand balls organized as fund-raisers.

    In 1876, a money-collecting scheme named the “Skirmishing Fund” was organized to support terrorist actions under the auspices of John Ford's Irish nationalist newspaper, the Irish World. Fund activity was published each week in the Irish World and the money was managed by O’Donovan Rossa and a council of well known Irishmen. The fund later was taken from Rossa by the Clan-na-Gael who threatened to disclose his sloppy bookkeeping. When Rossa let the fund go to the Clan-na-Gael there were a lot of non-Clan-na-Gael subscribers to the fund who were really ticked off. The vituperation over the skirmishing fund went on and on in Irish-American newspapers until 1880 when Rossa tried to start up a new organization with an old name, the "United Irishmen." An unwanted result of Rossa’s effort was that most of the skirmishing fund subscribers who attended the convention focused the convention single-mindedly on "who has all the Skirmishing money?" Rossa was disgusted and his effort to form a new organization quickly came to naught — as a result of this escapade Rossa was booted out of the Clan-na-Gael.

    In 1879, Devoy realized that the Irish population did not fully support radical nationalism and he convinced the Clan-na-Gael to launch the "New Departure," a scheme whereby the Clan-na-Gael and the IRB (reluctantly) agreed to assist the Irish Land League. Cooperation between the Land League and the IRB disintegrated when the Land Leaguers were put in jail and the IRB, never in favor of political action over revolution, opted out of supporting what they termed non-republican goals. Devoy and Dr. Carroll had presided over 6 years of relative inaction by the Clan-na-Gael against British interests. Seen as too moderate by many, Devoy and Carroll lost their grip on the the Clan-na-Gael Executive Body  the council that was charged with accomplishing the agenda of the Clan-na-Gael. Members within the Clan-na-Gael began demanding some “real action” against the British. A more radical element now took control of the Clan-na-Gael led by three men (who became known as “The Triangle”) Alexander Sullivan of Chicago, Michael Boland of Louisville, and, a weak sister, Denis Feeley of Chicago.  During the 1882 Chicago United Brotherhood convention (the Clan-na-Gael in internal correspondence called itself the United Brotherhood) the convention, packed delegates in favor of Chicago's Alexander Sullivan, shoved Devoy and Dr. Carroll to the side and began an era of Clan-na-Gael terrorist activity.

    The "Triangle"  took over the Revolutionary Directory and began to use directory funds for their own ends, not informing the IRB Supreme Council what they were doing. Sullivan and Boland also hid Clan-na-Gael internal operations from view of rank and file members. The Clan hierarchy, principally under Michael Boland, began a dynamiting campaign against British targets in England. At this point Alexander Sullivan made a great error in judgment and brought British spy Henri Le Caron into the Clan-na-Gael -- no hint exists that Alexander Sullivan was in contact with British authorities but there is strong evidence that the Executive Body Chairman, Michael Boland, was on the British payroll. Rossa, at this same time, apparently on his own hook and outside the Clan, contributed to the chaos and began sending bombers of his own to attack targets in England using funds from his subscription journal, The United Irishman.

    Meanwhile, Devoy, never in agreement with the dynamite operations, joined Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, an opponent of Sullivan in local Chicago politics, and together they waged a campaign expose the operations of Sullivan and Boland. Sullivan wasn't actually a Clan Executive member at the time, and it is probable that Cronin was trying to destroy Sullivan for his own political ends in Chicago. Devoy was happy to join Cronin because it fit with Devoy's desire to refocus the Clan-na-Gael on political objectives in Ireland and effect a reunification with the IRB. In 1889 a public-relations disaster occurred that nearly destroyed the Clan-na-Gael’s viability as an instrument for Irish Independence. Alexander Sullivan's loyalists from Chicago's Clan-na-Gael Camp 20 murdered Dr. Cronin and stuffed his naked body into a drainage flume. The trial of the assassination squad created a media circus that was followed closely by all the major newspapers across the country. Investigations by the court and newspaper reporter exposés allowed light to be shed on the inner workings of the Clan as investigators probed Clan Camps and members in major cities across the U.S..

It took ten years to wash away the recriminations and public name calling between the various factions of the Clan-na-Gael. Finally, in 1900, a reunification of sorts took place when John Devoy, with the help of Luke Dillon and others, patched up the break. Clan-na-Gael history from 1880 forward can be found covered in Owen McGee's  recently published book, The Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood.


Books of interest:
Chicago’s Irish Nationalists by Michael Funchion (Ayer Publishing)
The History of the 69th NY Militia by O’Flaherty (ProQuest dissertation)
The Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood by Owen McGee (Four Courts Press)
The Clan na Gael and the Murder of Dr. Cronin by John McEnnis (JW Iliff Chicago)
A Provisional Dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement by Marta Ramón (UCD Press)
John Devoy's Catalpa Expedition by Philip and Marie Fennell (NYU Press)


Newspapers and Journals:
The Irish-American (New York)
The Gaelic American (New York) especially Devoy’ articles: 'The Story of the Clan Na Gael' and 'The Story of the Catalpa Rescue'
The Chicago Tribune (Chicago)
The New York Herald (New York)
The Fenian papers at Catholic University of America
The Fenian papers at the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese Archives
Brian J Sayers: John O’Mahony’s Emmet Monument Association: The O’Mahony Journal #26 2003
Brian J Sayers: Outbreak - September 1849' in Tipperary Historical Journal, Autumn 2007
Brian J Sayers: The Insurrection of 1848' in Tipperary Historical Journal, Autumn 2006
Brian J Sayers: Attempted Rising - July 1848' in Tipperary Historical Journal, Autumn 2005