The Fenians Place in Irish History

"With the reduction of Montreal, a demand will be made upon the United States for a formal recognition of Canada, whose name will be changed at once to New Ireland."
Fenian Manifesto

During the middle of the 19th Century, a series of factors combined to create a new Irish patriotic movement. This organization was a revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. It had its roots in both the United States and Ireland and was popularly known as The Fenian Movement, in honour of the Fianna, the ancient Irish warriors.

The origin of the term Fenian comes from Irish folklore. It described an ancient group of Knights who were self-reliant and had a passion for Irish land. So great was their passion according to the legend, they gave up a chance for world dominion to keep Ireland. This fit very closely with the beliefs of the modern movement and was taken as the organization name.

Times were hard for the Irish, and had been since England took control of the land. In the middle of the 1840's, however, things got much worse. The potato famine of 1845-1848 was a great disaster to the Irish population. In the space of three short years, the inhabitants of the country declined by over two million souls. Some of these two million people immigrated to America while most starved to death or died of disease.

After the famine ended, times remained very hard for the Irish. They never completely recovered from the disaster and many more Irish immigrated to America during the 1850's. Most of these people were of a very strong patriotic belief in their home country, and only left because they had to survive.

On St. Patrick's Day, 1858, James Stephens and Thomas Clark Luby started the Fenian organization in Ireland as the Irish Republican Brotherhood when they swore each other in as members. James had been a participant in the Young Ireland Movement of 1848. A friend of James Stephens, John O'Mahoney (also of the Young Ireland movement) started the Fenian Movement in the United States at about the same time. Both portions of the movement gained supporters rapidly, especially during 1861. This influx was largely contributed to the death of Terrance Bellew MacManus, a hero of the Young Ireland movement who died in this year. Upon his request, his body was shipped from San Francisco to Ireland for burial, and all along the route patriotic Irish paid their respects.

In Ireland the movement was largely unsuccessful, as the British clamped down on it quickly in a successful effort to stop the problem. They did, however, manage to get the attention of Parliament to focus for a short time on the "Irish problems".

In the United States however, the organization continued to grow quickly. Many of the American members gained military experience during the American Civil War and therefore were becoming a force to be feared. Rumors spread that the American Fenians were going to invade what is now Canada. The rumours were not unfounded, as the American group was quickly gaining arms, money, and various other kinds of support including that of the US government.

According to Donald MacKay, author of Flight from Famine, the Fenians planned three separate invasions:

"The one aimed at Campobello Island in New Brunswick never materialized; that at Fort Erie and Ridgeway in Upper Canada was driven back after some initial success; and the effort to invade Quebec's Eastern Townships near Frelighsburg was thwarted by Montreal militia, among them Patrick Devlin, president of the St. Patrick's Society, and other Catholics of the sort the Fenians had hoped to recruit."

The goal of the invasion was to attain control of what is now Canada and hold it in ransom for the freedom of Ireland. Their initial efforts were somewhat successful, but were quickly tempered by the American government, which stepped in to stop the raids.

Seumas McManus, author of The Story of the Irish Race, says the withdrawal of American governmental support for the Fenians dealt a serious blow to the movement:

"The invasion of Canada, which would undoubtedly have been a successful move, and a severe blow to England, was stopped by the unexpected action of the American Government, which, having tacitly encouraged the scheme, and permitted the plans to be ripened, stepped in at the last moment to prevent it."

Had it not been for this American assistance to the British cause, the raids might have been successful and the history of Canada could have been quite different. The raids continued through 1871, although the organization was now full of spies, which reported and therefore spoiled all remaining efforts.

The organization remained active for quite some time, and even sponsored John Holland to build them a submarine. The Fenian Ram was launched in 1881 and later stolen from John Holland in 1883 by the Fenians in a disagreement over money. But their financing of the project help him to continue his research and in later years he built the first 'modern' submarine of the United States Navy.

It has been suggested that the threat of the Fenians was a major cause for the union of provinces into the confederation that became Canada. This appears to be at least partially true. While the Fenian Brotherhoods did not actually achieve their goal of a Free Ireland, they did successfully pass the flame of liberty to the next generation. It was this generation, including Michael Collins and many more, which actually achieved the goal so long striven for: the freedom and independence of Ireland.