A Brief History of the

A Brief History of the 


Picture of Fenian Headquarters in 1865
from a British newspaper

John O'Mahony
Fenian Brotherhood
James Stephens

In 1857 in New York at the law office of Michael Doheny, a group of veterans from the 1848 Rising in Ireland formed a secret organization to begin training and recruiting soldiers in America to drive the British out of Ireland. They sent a message to James Stephens in Ireland who agreed to join their cause. The leader of the American group, John O'Mahony, was chosen to lead the American organization which called itself the Fenian Brotherhood. James Stepens headed up the organization in Ireland called the Irish Republican Brotherhood or IRB. In both countries they began to drill and train for the coming battle. The Civil War threw a wrench into the plans of the Fenians. Many Irishmen, both North and South, joined up to fight in the units forming to decide if the United States were to remain a nation. The Fenians, helpless to prevent thousands of Irishmen from joining to serve in the Union and Confederate armies, changed their stance and began to praise the Civil War as a training ground for the coming battle in Ireland.

The Fenians and the IRB were secret organizations whose members swore an oath, before God, to take their orders from the Brotherhood. This led to problems with the Catholic Church who went so far as to excommunicate members who took such an oath. 

The Organization was made up of "Circles" with the leader being a "Centre" based on what O'Mahony and Stephens had seen formed in France during their exile after the aborted 1848 rebellion. The movement grew as the Civil War came to a close and peaked in 1866. Stephens foolishly promised the year of 1865 as the year the great rebellion would occur. Stephens and many were captured in the Fall of 1865 in a raid on the Irish People, an IRB newspaper in Ireland. Although Stephens escaped from British prison, he lost a lot of support.  A split occurred in the Brotherhood as William Randall Roberts led a splinter group called the "Senate Wing" in opposition to O'Mahony and Stephens. Roberts and a Civil War general, Thomas Sweeny, devised a plan to attack Canada. O'Mahony and Stephens wanted all efforts to be focused on an invasion of Ireland. In April of 1866 O'Mahony, desperate to outdo Roberts and maintain control of the Fenian Brotherhood,  changed tactics and launched his own Canadian attack which at Campobello an Island off the coast of Maine. The attack was a fiasco. The sole accomplishment was to capture a flag from an undefended Canadian custom house. The United States arrested the Fenian troops and the "attack" was over. James Stephens then accepted O'Mahony's resignation. The tide swung to Roberts who with Thomas Sweeny and Colonel John O'Neill, launched a two pronged attack into Canada in June of 1866. O'Neill was successful, routing a Canadian militia at Ridgeway, but the United States stepped in and cut off re-enforcements to O'Neill who was forced to retreat back into New York near Buffalo where all were arrested. The U. S. government then set the Fenians free with rail passage back to their homes. A second attack was less energetically launched at the same time at Pigeon Hill, Vermont but the Fenians did not stay in Canada long enough to greet the British Regulars headed in their direction. Ridgeway was hailed as a great Fenian victory. Three years later, in 1870, another attempt at entering Canada was made in a two pronged muddle from Eccles Hill at the Vermont-Quebec border and Holbrook Corners on the New York- Quebec border.  and the Fenian Movement began to vaporize. O'Mahony died a pauper in New York in 1877. Roberts became a politician. Stephens lived in poverty in France and died in 1901 after being allowed to return to Ireland. O'Neill, the hero of Ridgeway, led a farcical attack on a trading post near Pembina on the Minnesota border with Canada, where he was again captured. O'Neill mellowed and led an Irish migration of homesteaders into Nebraska where a town is named after him.

The embittered Irish who joined the Fenians in hope of freeing Ireland were deluded by their leaders and led on by the United States, emboldening them to attack Canada. With better preparation and leadership, it is, perhaps, just feasible such a movement might succeed. Divided and riddled with spies and charlatans it had no chance. John Devoy, not really a Fenian as he was a member of the IRB in Dublin in 1866 when arrested for recruiting British Irish-born soldiers into the IRB, was leader of the group which followed in the footsteps of the Fenian Brotherhood. Ultra secret and more formidable, known outwardly as the Clan Na Gael, "the Irish race," it met and corresponded as the United Brotherhood and became a force to be reckoned with whne it formed a close alliance with the remnants of the IRB in Ireland. The IRB later evolved into Sein Fein and the IRA whose constant harassment of the British, especially under Michael Collins, finally led to the freeing of the Southern Counties of Ireland which became the present Republic of Ireland..

A Select Bibliography

The Fenian Movement in America:

W. S. Neidhardt: Fenianism In North America

William D'Arcy: The Fenian Movement in The United States

Brian Jenkins: The Fenians and Anglo-American Relations During Reconstruction

John Savage: Fenian Heroes and Martyrs

John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel

Hereford Senior: The Last Invasion of Canada

Desmond Ryan: The Fenian Chief

Joseph Denieffe: Personal Narrative Of The Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood


Young Ireland and the Rebellion of 1848

Charles Gavin Duffy: Young Ireland and The League of North and South

Michael Doheny: Felon's Track

Denis Gwynn: Young Ireland and 1848


Fenians and The American Civil War

Michael Cavanagh: Memoirs of Thomas Francis Meagher  (contemporary source: Cavanagh was the Fenian secretary)

Thomas Galwey: Valiant Hours (Galwey was a Fenian in the 10th Ohio)

Paul Jones: The Irish Brigade (Discusses Fenian Influences)

Related books:

Robert Miller: The Shamrock and The Sword (The San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican war of 1848)

William Burton: Melting Pot Soldiers (focuses on the foreign born soldiers who served in the Civil War)

Robert Shaw: Dagger John (Archbishop John Hughes of New York who gave a solemn mass for Terence Belew McManus)

The Clan Na Gael or United Brotherhood

John T McEnnis: The Clan Na Gael and the Murder of Doctor Cronin

Michael Funchion: Irish Voluntary Organizations

Z W Pease: The Catalpa Expedition

Terry Golway: John Devoy - Irish Rebel