Fenian // was an umbrella term for the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), fraternal organisations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the 19th and early 20th century. The name Fenian was first applied by John O'Mahony to the members of the Irish republican group that he founded in the United States in 1848. O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named the American wing of the movement after the Fianna. In Gaelic Ireland these were warrior bands of young men who lived apart from society and could be called upon in times of war.
The term Fenian is still used today, especially in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where its original meaning has widened to include all supporters of Irish nationalism. It has also been used as a demeaning term for Irish Catholics and Catholics in general in the British Isles. Irish nationalists, while honouring the 19th century Fenians, more often describe themselves as "nationalist" or "republican".
Fenianism, according to O'Mahony, is symbolised by two principles: firstly, that Ireland has a natural right to independence, and secondly, that this right could be won only by an armed revolution.
The term Fenianism was sometimes used by the British political establishment in the 1860s for any form of mobilisation among the lower classes or those who expressed any Irish nationalist sentiments. They warned people about this threat to turn decent civilised society on its head such as that posed by trade unionism to the existing social order in the United Kingdom.
James Stephens, one of the "Men of 1848," (a participant in the 1848 revolt) had established himself in Paris, and was in correspondence with John O'Mahony in the United States and other advanced nationalists at home and abroad. This would include the Phoenix National and Literary Society, with Jeremiah O'Donovan (afterwards known as O'Donovan Rossa) among its more prominent members, had recently been formed at Skibbereen.
The Fenian Brotherhood, the Irish Republican Brotherhood's US branch, was founded by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny, both of whom had been "out" (participating in the Young Irelander's rising) in 1848. In the face of nativist suspicion, it quickly established an independent existence, although it still worked to gain Irish American support for armed rebellion in Ireland. Initially, O'Mahony ran operations in the US, sending funds to Stephens and the IRB in Ireland, disagreement over O'Mahony's leadership led to the formation of two Fenian Brotherhoods in 1865. The US chapter of the movement was also sometimes referred to as the IRB. After the failed invasion of Canada, it was replaced by Clan na Gael.
In Canada, Fenian is used to designate a group of Irish radicals, a.k.a. the American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood in the 1860s. They made several attempts (1866, 1870, etc.) to invade some parts of Province of Canada (Southern Ontario and Missisquoi County) which were a British dominion at the time. The ultimate goal of the Fenian raids was to hold Canada hostage and therefore be in a position to blackmail the United Kingdom to give Ireland its independence. Because of the invasion attempts, support and/or collaboration for the Fenians in Canada became very rare even among the Irish. A suspected Fenian, Patrick J. Whelan, was hanged in Ottawa for the assassination of Irish Canadian politician, Thomas D'Arcy McGee in 1868, who had been a member of the Irish Confederation in the 1840s.
The danger posed by the Fenian raids was an important element in motivating the British North America colonies to consider a more centralised defence for mutual protection which was ultimately realised through Canadian Confederation.
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The Fenians in England and the Empire were a major threat to political stability. In the late 1860s the IRB control centre was in Lancashire. In 1868 the Supreme Council of the IRB, the provisional government of the Irish Republic, was restructured. The four Irish provinces, Connacht, Leinster, Ulster and Munster, Scotland, the north of England and the south of England, including London, had representatives on the Council. Later four honorary members were co-opted. The Council elected three members to the executive. The President was chairman, the Treasurer managed recruitment and finance and the Secretary was director of operations. There were IRB Circles in every major city in England.
In 1867, three Fenians, William Philip Allen, Michael O'Brian, and Michael Larkin, known as the Manchester Martyrs, were executed in Salford for their attack on a police van to release Fenians held captive earlier that year.
The term Fenian is used similarly in Scotland. During Scottish football matches it is often aimed in a sectarian manner at supporters of Celtic F.C.. Celtic has its roots in Glasgow's immigrant Catholic Irish population and the club has thus been associated with Irish nationalism. Other Scottish clubs that have Irish roots, such as Hibernian and Dundee United, do not have the term applied to them, however. The term is now firmly rooted within the Old Firm rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, as a rivalry between "orange and green" has been replaced by one between "blue and green".
In Australia Fenian is used as a pejorative term for those members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) who have Australian Republican views similar to those who support Irish unification. Michael Atkinson, Attorney-General of South Australia, spoke of those members of the ALP who wished to remove the title Queen's Counsel and other references to the crown as "Fenians and Bolsheviks" in a speech given at the ALP Convention in Adelaide on 15 October 2006. Atkinson made a further mention of Fenianism when the title of Queen's Counsel was abolished.
- 'The Fenians were the best men in Irish politics.' Attributed to Isaac Butt, B. O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, 1846—1891, p. 63
- 'The Fenian is the artist in Irish politics. He is an inspiration, an ornament, a hero.' Liam O'Flaherty, 'The Life of Tim Healy' (1927)p. 40.
- ' ... the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.' Padraig Pearse's graveside oration at the reinterment of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa's remains in Glasnevin Cemetery in August 1915.
In Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (1873), Lord George de Bruce Carruthers, an Irish peer, is a man about town with no visible means of income. He is 'a bitter radical' and 'was suspected even of republican sentiments, and ignorant young men about London hinted that he was the grand centre of the British Fenians.' A full description follows.
In the 2011 Christmas Day Special of the television series Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham, after learning of the pregnancy of his daughter Sybil, who is married to an Irish revolutionary, says, "So, we're to have a Fenian grandchild." His wife, Lady Grantham, replies, "Cheer up. Come the revolution, it may be useful to have a contact on the other side."
The term is used in the movie Patriot Games. In the movie, when captured after a botched attempt against a Royal's life, a separatist group member is interrogated, and during this period is slapped and called a "Fenian bastard" by one of his British captors.
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- In Memoriam, William Philip Allen, Michael O'Brien, and Michael Larkin [original missing], 1867. Box 1, Folder 9, Allen Family Papers, 1867, AIS.1977.14, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
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- 'The Fenians in Context Irish Politics & Society 1848–82', Dublin: R.V.Comerford, 1985.
- Patrick Quinlavin and Paul Rose, 'The Fenians in England' (London, 1982).
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- Fenian Brotherhood
- BBC History article on the Irish Republican Brotherhood
- 1865 newspaper Article describing the Fenians
- History Learning Site > Ireland 1848 to 1922 > The Fenian Movement
- The Fenian Movement in the US including digitised materials about their activities. From the Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930 collection, Harvard University Library Open Collections Program