Fenians were members of a mid-19th century movement to secure Ireland’s independence from Britain. They were a secret, outlawed organization in the British Empire, where they were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They operated freely and openly in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood. Eventually, both wings became known as the Fenians. They launched a series of armed raids into Canadian territory between 1866 and 1871. The movement was primarily based in the United States, but it had a significant presence in Canada.
Fenians were members of a movement that started in 1857. Its goal was to secure Irish independence from Britain. The term Fenian comes from the Irish Gaelic term Fianna Eirionn — a band of mythological warriors. Irish nationalist James Stephens established the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was an underground organization that was funded by its American wing, the Fenian Brotherhood.
John O’Mahony’s branch of the movement in the US emerged as a powerful force. 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 invading British North America. The pro-invasion group was led by William Roberts. Those who supported an uprising in Ireland itself were led by O’Mahony.
A small group of Canadian Fenians was initially led by Michael Murphy of Toronto. He supported the O’Mahony faction in the US. The Canadian branch of the movement operated under the guise of the Hibernian Benevolent Society. It was a self-protection organization founded in the aftermath of an 1858 riot on St. Patrick’s Day. 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 by telegram to join O’Mahony’s forces. However, the telegram was intercepted and deciphered, and O’Mahony was arrested. The collapse of the poorly organized raid contributed to the shift in public opinion in the Maritimes in favour of Confederation.
An advance party of 1,000 heavily armed Fenians crossed the Niagara River frontier on 1 June 1866. They were
led by John O’Neill, a former US Calvary officer who had served in Ohio and West Virginia during the American Civil War.
The Fenians defeated Canadian militiamen at Ridgeway and withdrew. A second group crossed the Quebec 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 assassinated in 1868 by Patrick Whelan, a possible Fenian. In 1870, O’Neill launched two small raids over the Quebec frontier.
O’Neill launched one more raid in the fall of 1871, this time against Manitoba. He hoped to receive support from Louis Riel and the Métis. But this raid was stopped by American authorities before it reached the Canadian border. Instead of supporting O’Neill, Riel raised volunteers to defend the frontier.
After 1871, some sections of the fragmented Fenian movement carried on. They 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.
A telegram from the head quarters of the Fenian Brotherhood, 1 March 1870. (courtesy Missouri History Museum)