135 years ago: the Fenian uprising suppressed

Archive  /   /  By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred thirty-five years ago this week, on March 5 and 6, 1867, radical Irish nationalists staged an armed insurrection in Munster and Dublin. Ever since the failed Young Ireland uprising of 1848, radical nationalists known as Fenians had been hoping for the opportunity to launch a much larger and better-organized insurrection. By the mid-1860s all seemed in order. They’d raised huge sums of money, purchased arms, and laid plans for an armed invasion by Irish Americans fresh from the battlefields of the American Civil War. Unfortunately, the British were ready for it.

The Fenian Brotherhood was the first major nationalist organization to emerge after the Famine. It was founded in New York City by exiled nationalists, among them John O’Mahoney and Michael Doheny in 1854. They chose the name “Fenian” to make clear the character of their movement. Irish nationalism had long been divided by two antagonistic philosophies. Some, like Theobold Wolfe Tone, advocated armed insurrection as the only means to achieve Irish independence from Britain. Others, like Daniel O’Connell, insisted that only peaceful and constitutional methods would prevail. The Fenians represented the former tradition and so named themselves in honor of Finn MacCool and his band of warriors from the ancient Celtic myth of the Fionna.

To avoid detection by British authorities and condemnation by the Catholic church (ever leery of radicalism), the Fenians created a cover organization known as the Emmet Monument Association. Their ostensible purpose was to raise money for a monument to honor the martyred United Irishman Robert Emmet. In reality, they were financing a future armed insurrection in Ireland. The plan proved very successful and brought in $500,000 from the U.S. and Canada between 1858 and 1866. By that time, the Fenian Brotherhood had established a full-blown government-in-exile, centered in Philadelphia and consisting of a Senate, House of Delegates, and president.

As the Fenian’s took form in the United States, James Stephens, a participant in the failed Young Ireland uprising of 1848, founded in Dublin the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (later renamed Irish Republican Brotherhood) on March 17, 1858. Working in tandem with the Fenians in America (in fact, all involved called themselves Fenians), the IRB planned for the armed uprising that would expel the British and lead to the establishment of a democratic republic of Ireland.

The only question was, when? For a while, the American Civil War seemed to promise a unique opportunity. An openly pro-Confederate attitude on the part of British officials in the early phases of the conflict led to a series of diplomatic flare-ups between Union and British governments. On several occasions the two sides nearly went to war — a development eagerly hoped for by Irish nationalists. “England’s difficulty,” John Mitchel had long asserted, “is Ireland’s opportunity.” In other words, England at war with the U.S. would be unable to put down a massive uprising in Ireland. But these hopes dimmed as tensions between the U.S. and Britain subsided.

Still, the end of the Civil War presented another attractive possibility. Might the Fenians in America fashion an invasion force out of the hundreds of thousands of Irish and Irish Americans who served in the Union army? The chances looked good, given the number of veterans who joined the Fenian cause. Dissention, however, arose of where to send it — to Ireland or to nearby British-held Canada? The latter was closer at hand and seemed a far easier target. Strategically the goal was to invade and thereby provoke an Anglo-American war, paving the way for the uprising in Ireland. The first Fenian invasion of Canada (there were several more in the years to come) began on April 15, 1866 and was quickly suppressed by the American and Canadian armies.

While the American Fenian movement suffered acute embarrassment and infighting in the wake of the failed invasion, the British government pounced on the IRB in Ireland. British operatives infiltrated the movement and in the fall of 1866 arrested most of its leaders: Charles Kickham, John O’Leary, Thomas Clarke Luby, and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Many in the movement who escaped arrest argued that now was the time to launch the uprising, but cooler heads prevailed for the time being. Over the next few months Britain tightened its grip further, arresting hundreds more, including John Devoy, one of the movement’s rising figures.

By March 1867, with most of the leadership in jail, the remaining core of Fenian diehards decided to launch the long-anticipated uprising. With most of the IRB now in jail, leadership fell to Col. James Kelly, a veteran of the Union army. Elaborate plans were put in place for simultaneous attacks throughout Ireland and a few in England itself. Once the rebellion began, predicted the Fenians, the great mass of oppressed Irish peasants would join in and thereby expel the British once and for all. But the shooting that began on March 5 was sporadic and uncoordinated. By the next day, the Fenian uprising was over. In the ensuing months, still more Fenians were arrested and sentenced to lengthy terms in the prison colonies of Australia.

Although the Fenian rising of 1867 failed to spark a mass revolt to overthrow British rule, it did succeed in stimulating nationalist sentiment throughout Ireland. This was especially true in the case of the Manchester Martyrs, three Fenians hanged for their alleged role in a daring rescue of two fellow Fenians that resulted in the death of a prison guard. Even members of the Roman Catholic clergy, opposed to most radical nationalist movements, expressed sympathy for the martyrs. Equally important, many of the men exiled to the ends of the earth would manage to escape and make their way to America. From there men such as John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, and John Boyle O’Reilly would once again begin plotting to win Ireland’s freedom.


March 8, 1966: The IRA blows up Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin.

March 10, 1938: Leo McCarey (Best Director for “The Awful Truth”), Spencer Tracy (Best Actor in “Captains Courageous”), and Alice Brady (Best Supporting Actress in “In Old Chicago”) win Oscars at the 10th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

March 11, 1951 Hardline Unionist Rev. Ian Paisley establishes his Free Presbyterian Church.


March 10, 1888: Actor Barry Fitzgerald is born in Dublin.

March 11, 1858: Nationalist Thomas J. Clarke is born in Hurst Castle, Isle of Wright.

March 12, 1832: Irish land agent Captain Boycott is born in Norfolk, England.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him, at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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