Fenian Risings for Irish Independence

The Irish revolutionary society known as the Fenian Brotherhood formed to liberate Ireland from its subjection to Great Britain. Organized simultaneously in Ireland and the United States, the Fenians sought a major rebellion in Ireland to topple the British government. Fenians in the United States planned to occupy British Canada to use as a bargaining chip to force Great Britain out of Ireland. Although initially unsuccessful, the movement kept alive the passion for freedom and independence in Ireland and sparked Canada’s call for independence from Britain as well.

Summary of Event

The Fenian movement that arose in Ireland and the United States after 1850 sought the total elimination of British dominion in Ireland. Irish nationalists had long found much inspiration in the successful American and French Revolutions French Revolution (1789);and Ireland[Ireland] , and many were also radicalized by the harshness and injustices of British rule. Militant groups such as the Young Irelanders Young Irelanders had periodically raised armed revolts, including the rising of 1848, although these were, without exception, crushed by the British army. Fenian Risings (1866-1871)
Ireland;Fenian Risings
Irish Republican Brotherhood
[kw]Fenian Risings for Irish Independence (June, 1866-1871)
[kw]Risings for Irish Independence, Fenian (June, 1866-1871)
[kw]Irish Independence, Fenian Risings for (June, 1866-1871)
[kw]Independence, Fenian Risings for Irish (June, 1866-1871)
Fenian Risings (1866-1871)
Ireland;Fenian Risings
Irish Republican Brotherhood
[g]Ireland;June, 1866-1871: Fenian Risings for Irish Independence[3950]
[g]Great Britain;June, 1866-1871: Fenian Risings for Irish Independence[3950]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June, 1866-1871: Fenian Risings for Irish Independence[3950]
[c]Government and politics;June, 1866-1871: Fenian Risings for Irish Independence[3950]
Stephens, James K.
O’Mahony, John
Roberts, William R.
Sweeny, Thomas W.
O’Neill, John

The Fenian rebellion promised more from the outset, however, because its strong anti-British message struck a chord not only in Ireland but also, and more so, among the large Irish Catholic immigrant communities in the United States. Memories of persecution were still vivid, as was the bumbling response of the British government to the horrors of the Great Irish Famine. Ireland;potato famine
Famines;Irish Between 1845 and 1854 more than one million Irish died of disease and starvation while another million were forced overseas, mostly to the United States.

Two Irish nationalists, James Stephens Stephens, James K. and John O’Mahony O’Mahony, John , were most instrumental in the creation of the Fenian movement. Both had fought in the ill-fated Young Irelanders’ Young Irelanders insurrection of 1848. By the mid-1850’s, Stephens in Dublin Dublin and O’Mahony in New York City were again plotting the overthrow of the British regime. In 1858 they joined in a transatlantic alliance to form a new society, called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Later, O’Mahony discovered in Irish folklore the term “fenian,” which he deemed more inspirational and fitting in describing the mission of the new organization. “Fenian” is derived from an old Gaelic word that referred to legendary pre-Christian Irish warriors pledged to die in defense of their land and its people. “Fenian” quickly became the most popular term for both the Irish and the U.S. wings of the organization.

Under Stephens’s Stephens, James K. skillful leadership, Fenian “circles” were organized and, soon, membership rolls steadily expanded across Ireland. In the United States, meanwhile, substantial sums were raised to recruit, arm, and transport volunteers to Ireland to support the native Fenian militias in the struggle for liberation. Also, an estimated 150,000 Irish-born Union troops ready for demobilization and possible recruitment to the Fenian cause were available after April, 1865, the end of the U.S. Civil War.

In September, 1865, Stephens was in Dublin, ready to strike. He claimed that several thousand supporters in Ireland were waiting for word to rise up. At the last moment, a double agent serving as Stephens’s aide tipped off the British, and on the night of September 14, 1865, troops raided Stephens’s newspaper office and arrested most of his top deputies. Stephens himself escaped, but the Irish wing of the movement collapsed in disarray. If Ireland were to be liberated, it would have to come through the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States.

Meanwhile, O’Mahony O’Mahony, John , stunned at the collapse of the Fenian rising in Ireland, found his leadership of the U.S. wing under increasing criticism because of alleged timidity and indecision. When, in late 1865, O’Mahony continued to insist that the time was still not ripe, he was deposed from office and replaced by a fellow Irish-born militant named William R. Roberts Roberts, William R. . Roberts promptly named as his secretary of war a former Union general named Thomas W. Sweeny Sweeny, Thomas W. , whose motto was “deeds not words.”

Roberts himself had already decided that the best way to free Ireland was to proceed not directly there but through British Canada Canada;and Fenians[Fenians] . He regarded that land as thinly defended and very vulnerable. A successful Fenian conquest would be followed by the establishment of an Irish republican government-in-exile. Full British withdrawal from Ireland would be required as the price for the return of Canada. O’Mahony O’Mahony, John called the plan pure folly, but he could not change it.

Battle between John O’Neill’s Fenian followers and a Canadian militia unit near Ridgeway, Ontario, on June 2, 1866.

(Library of Congress)

Roberts charged Sweeny with devising the military strategy that would best achieve the conquest of Canada. Canada;and Fenians[Fenians] Sweeny envisioned a multipronged assault that involved many thousands of Fenian troops attacking various points along a thousand-mile frontier that ran from the U.S. state of Vermont in the east to Michigan in the west. The ultimate goal was to capture the major Canadian cities of Toronto Toronto;and Fenians[Fenians] and Montreal, Montreal;and Fenians[Fenians] which would, in theory, end the war and prepare the way for the necessary deal with the British government. Sweeny was convinced, wrongly as it turned out, that Irish and French Catholics living in Quebec Quebec;and Fenians[Fenians] province would actively assist the Fenians.

At any rate, Sweeny’s Sweeny, Thomas W. master plan could not be implemented. First, the Fenian leadership believed that a U.S. government bitterly resentful of England’s tilt toward the Confederacy during the Civil War would not enforce a neutrality law that barred private military forces from invading another country from U.S. soil. President Andrew Johnson had privately assured the Fenians that he would recognize the “accomplished facts” of any such incursions. In fact, he intended to use the Fenian threat to Canada to pressure the British to pay large indemnities for damage done to Union forces during the Civil War by Confederate ships purchased in Britain.

Certainly, the U.S. government had no intention of starting a war with England over the Fenian incursions. Hence, when the first Fenian raids actually began in early June, 1866, U.S. troops intervened, blocking Fenian supply lines and arresting the leaders. The Fenians felt betrayed. Several Fenian leaders were jailed by U.S. authorities but quickly released in deference to the large Irish American vote that politicians had to respect.

The actual raids, three of which took place during the first week of June, 1866, ended in disaster. Only the invasion led by Colonel John O’Neill O’Neill, John had even temporary success. On June 2, O’Neill’s force of six hundred Fenians decisively defeated a Canadian militia unit near Ridgeway, Ontario. However, when U.S. forces cut his supply lines and prevented reinforcements from reaching him, O’Neill returned to New York state, where he was promptly arrested and briefly jailed by U.S. authorities. In 1867, the Fenians in Ireland staged a series of unsuccessful rebellions that led to the capture, imprisonment, and execution of various local Fenian leaders.

Four years later in North America, the irrepressible O’Neill led four hundred men in an attack from Vermont into Quebec Quebec;and Fenians[Fenians] province, only to suffer a similar fate. This raid, and a smaller and also ineffective raid in 1871, marked the ignominious end of the Fenian venture into Canada. Canada;and Fenians[Fenians] As a result, the movement lost much of its prestige among the Irish American populace and faded rapidly in influence.

A number of factors figured most prominently in the final outcome. First, the whole grandiose enterprise of the invasion of Canada was ill-conceived and mismanaged from the start. Another critical obstacle was the unwavering hostility of the Catholic Church because of the Fenian reliance on violence and its sometimes anticlerical outlook. Even more basic were the shifting policies of the U.S. government toward Fenian operations at the borders. Finally, there was the serious damage done to the Fenian cause by spies who often informed the British and Canadian authorities of prospective Fenian moves.


Although the Fenian rising in Ireland and the Fenian raids into Canada both failed miserably in their original purpose of liberating Ireland, they each left their marks on history. In Ireland the memory of Fenianism kept alive the passion for freedom and resistance to oppression. Further, the militant Fenian spirit, along with many former Fenians, lived on in fraternities like the Clan na Gael and, ultimately, in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which early in the twentieth century blazed the path to Irish independence.

In Canada Canada;and Fenians[Fenians] the Fenian raids had a major unintended consequence. The various Canadian provinces that comprised British North America displayed sharply contrasting characteristics that reflected a great diversity in geography, economy, and ethnic composition. As a result, most Canadians had traditionally preferred the loose political arrangement of the status quo, with its close dependence on the British crown.

The Fenian raids of 1866 shattered this equanimity. The threat of recurrent incursions from the United States helped to resurrect the long dormant idea of a confederation of Canada that would forge much closer ties among the provinces and provide more effectively for the common defense. In effect, the move to unite was born of the desire to survive. The British North America Act of 1867 created a Dominion of Canada, a confederation of provinces in a new nation whose government enjoyed much greater powers of self-determination within the British Commonwealth.

Further Reading

  • Moody, T. W. The Fenian Movement. Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1968. Particularly valuable on the origins and early phases of the Fenian movement in Ireland.
  • Neidhardt, Wilfried. Fenianism in North America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. Evenhanded account of the genesis, course, and impact of the movement as a whole. Frequent use of contemporary newspaper articles provides a vivid sense of immediacy and of the shifting forces of the Fenian cause.
  • Rafferty, Olivier. “Fenianism in North America in the 1860’s: The Problems of Church and State.” History 84 (1999): 257-277. Focuses on the significant role played by the U.S. and Canadian Catholic bishops in diminishing the appeal of Fenianism to their Irish immigrant populations.
  • Steward, Patrick J. “Erin’s Hope: Fenianism in the North Atlantic, 1858-1876.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 2003. This work vividly relates events in North America to the broader political context in Ireland.

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