Fenian was an umbrella term applied to members of various Irish nationalist organisations during the 19th century. Fenians operated through secret societies like the Irish Republican Brotherhood, launching a series of armed raids into Canadian territory between 1866 and 1871. Although the movement was primarily based in the United States, it had a significant presence in Canada.

Transatlantic Nationalism

Fenians were members of a movement started in 1857 to secure Irish independence from Britain. The term Fenian comes from the Irish Gaelic term Fianna a prominent band of mythological warriors. Irish nationalist James Stephens established the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an underground organization supported with funds collected by its American wing, the Fenian Brotherhood.

John O’Mahony’s wing emerged as a powerful force, and by the end of 1865 the Fenians had amassed nearly $500,000 and a force of roughly 10,000 American Civil War veterans. That year the movement divided into two factions over the question of a military invasion of British North America. The pro-invasion group was led by William Roberts, while those who supported an uprising in Ireland itself were led by O’Mahony.

Canadian Fenians

A small group of Canadian Fenians was headed initially by Michael Murphy of Toronto, who supported the O'Mahony faction in the US. The Canadian branch of the movement operated under the guise of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, a self-protection organisation founded in the aftermath of an 1858 St. Patrick’s Day Riot.

Patrick Boyle’s newsletter, The Irish Canadian, served as the movement’s Canadian mouthpiece.


When it became obvious that there was to be no immediate uprising in Ireland, O'Mahony launched a raid against the New Brunswick frontier in April 1866. Murphy was summoned to join O'Mahony's forces by cipher telegram, but the telegram was intercepted and deciphered, bringing about his arrest in Canada. The poorly organised raid collapsed and ultimately contributed to the shift in public opinion in the Maritimes in favour of Confederation.

The Roberts faction crossed the Niagara River frontier on 1 June 1866, defeated Canadian militiamen at Ridgeway, and withdrew. A second group crossed the Québec frontier at Missisquoi Bay on 7 June and remained 48 hours.

After the failure of an Irish uprising the following year, the movement was further fragmented. In Canada, Thomas D'Arcy McGee was allegedly assassinated in 1868 by a possible Fenian Patrick Whelan. And in 1870, another American faction led by "General" John O'Neill launched two small raids over the Québec frontier.

Last Gasps

O'Neill attempted one more raid in the fall of 1871 against Manitoba, hoping to receive support from Louis Riel and the Métis. This was checked by American authorities before it reached the Canadian border. Instead of supporting O'Neill, Riel raised loyalist volunteers to defend the frontier.

After 1871, some sections of the fragmented Fenian movement carried on and were still in existence at the time of the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin, Ireland. Fenianism added a page to Irish republican history. It also helped unite Canadians by providing an external threat during the period around Confederation.

(See also Irish Canadians.)