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
Battle between Fenians and a Canadian militia unit near Ridgeway, Ontario, on June 2, 1866.
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
Meanwhile, relations between the governments of the United States and Canada had still not recovered from American anger at the Confederate incursions from
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
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.
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
New York City
New York State