Fenian movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Fenians began a secular nationalistic revolutionary tradition in Ireland that aimed at freeing Ireland from British control. The armed Fenian risings were ultimately ineffective, but they helped to inspire later nationalists. Irish immigrants in America provided men, arms and money to fight in Ireland and some even launched an invasion of British Canada.

The Fenian movement was founded in Dublin, Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day in March, 1848. The American Fenian movement emerged one year later in New York State;Fenian movementNew York City. The organization took its name from a legendary ancient Irish warrior. Two recent events inspired the movement: the failed rebellion of a group called Young Ireland in 1848 and the sufferings caused by the Great Irish Famine;and Fenian movement[Fenian movement]Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s. Members of the movement, who were predominantly Roman Catholic, believed that only armed resistance could free Ireland from British rule. However, the Roman Catholics;and Fenians[Fenians]Roman Catholic Church itself disapproved of the movement because of its reliance upon violence and because of its opposition to secret societies in general. Consequently, the movement began a secular tradition in Irish nationalist movements.Irish immigrants;and Fenian movement[Fenian movement]Fenian movementSecretsocieties;IrishIrish immigrants;and Fenian movement[Fenian movement]Fenian movementSecret societies;Irish[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Fenian movement[01750][cat]VIOLENCE;Fenian movement[01750][cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Fenian movement[01750]

Battle between Fenians and a Canadian militia unit near Ridgeway, Ontario, on June 2, 1866.

(Library of Congress)

The movement operated clandestinely, drawing on Continental revolutionary models, with secret cells. Nevertheless, British-paid spies often penetrated the movement. The public side of the movement was aided by publication of a popular radical newspaper and large gatherings at important funerals in Ireland. By 1864, the Fenians had at least 50,000 members in Ireland and similar numbers in North America.

Fenians in the United States were asked to furnish money, arms, and men for the struggle in Ireland and to organize an attack on Canada;Fenian invasion ofBritish Canada. After the U.S. Civil War, U.S.;and Fenian movement[Fenian movement]Civil War ended in 1865, American Fenians were able to provide legions of experienced military officers and soldiers from recently demobilized Irish immigrant veterans of the war. However, the Fenian schemes were hampered by factional bickering that rose within the American movement. Many Fenian leaders shuttled between Ireland and New York State;Fenian movementNew York. Almost one-half of the most prominent thirty-nine Fenian leaders emigrated to the United States, either permanently or temporarily.

Meanwhile, relations between the governments of the United States and Canada had still not recovered from American anger at the Confederate incursions from Canada;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War]Canada into New England during the Civil War. Consequently, when armed Fenians preparing to invade Canada massed along VermontVermont’s Canadian border and the Niagara Falls region in 1866, U.S. authorities were not firm in restraining them.

The grandiose plan of the Fenians was to use Irish veterans of the U.S. Civil War to seize all of Canada and hold it hostage until Great Britain recognized Irish independence. About 1,500 armed Irishmen actually did cross the Niagara River into Canada in June, 1866. They were met by Canadian militia, who gave battle before fleeing. This single battle left about twenty Canadians and Fenians dead. Soon, the Fenians themselves fled. Those who returned into New York State were promptly arrested. They were equally promptly released, as the Irish vote was important in New York New York State;Fenian movementpolitics.

The Fenians attempted several risings in Ireland that were aborted by informed British authorities. The most notable Fenian rising during the nineteenth century occurred in Ireland in 1867, but it failed when a ship bringing arms and men from the United States arrived too late to assist rebels attempting to seize a cache of British arms. The Fenian leaders involved in the scheme were arrested. Afterward, only scattered guerrilla fighting broke out in Ireland.

During the twentieth century the Fenian devotion to violence and guerrilla warfare would serve as examples for the generation that did wrest Irish independence from Britain. The famous Easter Rebellion of 1916 has been cited as the Fenian underground surfacing once more.Irish immigrants;and Fenian movement[Fenian movement]Fenian movementSecret societies;Irish

Further Reading
  • Coohill, Joseph. Ireland: A Short History. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2008.
  • Fry, Peter, and Fiona Somerset. A History of Ireland. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Kee, Robert. The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
  • Welch, Richard F. “The Green and the Blue.” Civil War Times (October, 2006): 22-30.


Great Irish Famine

History of immigration, 1783-1891

Irish immigrants

Molly Maguires

New York City

New York State

Categories: History