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.
The American branch of the movement, founded by John O’Mahony, 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.
Fenians were also an internal threat. Recent scholarship by historians such as David A. Wilson reveals significant support for Irish nationalism in Canada — more than is generally recognized. Relatively few Canadians joined the Fenian movement itself. Estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 out of a population of approximately 250,000 Irish-Catholics in Canada. But many others were sympathetic to the cause. There were Fenian circles in major urban areas, including Montreal, Toronto, St. Catharines, Brockville and Guelph, and in some rural townships. Canadian Fenians were also part of the wider North American network, which made them a more significant threat than their numbers suggest.
One of the best known Canadian Fenians was Michael Murphy of Toronto. Murphy was president of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, a self-protection organization founded in the aftermath of an 1858 riot on St. Patrick’s Day. The society became associated with the Fenian cause in the 1860s. Patrick Boyle’s newsletter, The Irish Canadian, officially denied Fenian connections but served as the movement’s Canadian mouthpiece.
When it became obvious that there was to be no immediate uprising in Ireland, John O’Mahony decided to launch a raid against the New Brunswick frontier in April 1866. Michael Murphy was summoned by telegram to join the invading forces. However, the message was intercepted and deciphered, and Murphy 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.
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Canada’s first secret police service was established by Gilbert McMicken during the American Civil War. At the end of the war, much of the service was disbanded. However, the Fenian threat led to its reactivation and expansion. Before long, McMicken was also commissioner of the Dominion Police, which was established after the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The Dominion Police would eventually become the RCMP.
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)