The Fenian movement, also referred to as Fenianism, was a revolutionary movement organized by the Irish people. This movement developed in communities of the Irish immigrants who were settled in the United States in the mid of the nineteenth century. A strong component of this movement was also found in France and it goes without saying in Ireland.
Most of these immigrants who were living in the United States were those who had fled from Ireland when the Great Famine hit the country. However, these people had a strong desire to free Ireland from the British rule. This feeling to liberate Ireland was further intensified by the breakdown of the Young Ireland Movement that took place in the 1840s.
The name of the Fenians came from the ancient Irish warriors. On the other hand, the members of this movement were almost always sworn in secrecy. The international aspect of Fenianis, as well its concealed membership made it looks like something that was threatening for the world and especially for the British.
Origins of Fenianism
Fenianism that is also known as The Fenian Brotherhood and the Fenian movement was founded on the St. Patrick's Day in the year 1858 in Dublin. This movement was founded when a meeting was held between Joseph Denniffe, Thomas Clarke and James Stephens. This meeting was held when Denniffe returned from New York, when he met with John O'Mahony who gave him $140 for the establishment of a secret fund for this movement. The main of this movement was to overthrow the British rule in Ireland with the help of an armed uprising. A direct connection of this movement was identified by John Devoy who was a pre-eminent Fenian, with the Young Ireland movement that took place in the 1840s. Stephens played the role of a secretary for William Smith O'Brien at Ballingary. On the other hand, a large body of men who were in an open rebellion was led by John O'Mahony in 1848. Moreover, O'Leary and Luby were with James FintanLalor when he made an attempt for an uprising in the year subsequent year. When the movement that was led by Stephens could not produce any fruitful results, he fled to Paris and so did O'Mahony where they started to practice their conspiratorial and organizational skills and lived in immense poverty (O'Broin, 1976).
O'Mahony moved to New York in the year 1854 where he got involved with the Irish nationalists organizations that included the Emmet Memorial Society. The following year, Stephens came to back to Ireland. There he travelled all over the country and he got in contact with people, groups and organizations that belonged to the main core of the revolutionary movement. The main aim of the Fenians was to unite all the groups with the same aim and to make a single multi-national secretive society. A member of the Phoenix National and Literary Society situated in Skibbereen, O'Donovan Rossa also helped in the movement as these societies existed all over America and Ireland and thus they turned out to be good recruiting grounds for the Fenians at the beginning of the movement.
It should be noted here that the Fenian Brotherhood or the Irish Revolutionary Movement was led by men who were literate and well-educated. Many memoirs have been written by these people and give the readers a lot of information about the movement. If one wants to research on the organization of these movements, these memoirs are an excellent starting point. The most significant literary works that were completed by the leaders of this movement are the two-volume Recollections of Fenianism and Fenians by John O'Leary. On other hand, John Devoy's Recollection of an Irish rebel and Rossa's Irish rebels in English rebels are also works of these men that are worth noting here. Nonetheless, historical sources in Dublin make it possible for the general public as well as the professional historians to access the huge variety of photograpghs, documents, unpublished memoirs and letters by these Irish men. A huge amount of material from O'Donovan Roosa, O'Leary, Luby, Stephens and Devoy is also contained in the National Library of Ireland.
Organization of the Fenian Movement
As the historians' perspective regarding the foundations of Fenianism has been considered, it is almost more necessary to understand the thoughts of Fenians themselves about the movement's roots. Michael Davitt, a Fenian founder, traced the formation and evolution of the movement through both Defendism and Ribbonism; Davitt claimed late Ribbonism to be one of the oldest political movements that was carried off by Irish labourers to wherever they moved, like Britain and the United States.
When the great and horrible Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 came, it struck hardest at those at the lowest level economically, as potato was a staple part of their diet. More than a million Irish refugees, most of them Catholic, were forced to immigrate and nearly a million were finished off by growing disease and starvation. The loss of life was so immense that the 1851 census showed the remaining population to be 6.5 million compared to the 9 million which was the estimated size of population, calculated by the figures given in the census in1841. Any thoughts other than survival led the O'Connell parliamentary movement, which had been gaining a good number of supporters before the Famine, were brushed aside Interest in O'Connell's popular legislative movement was stopped dead by an unprecedented calamity of holocaust proportions -- the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 (Davitt, 1904).
Looking at the horrific result of the Famine and the total inability of the British government to handle it satisfactorily led to a faction of O'Connell's supporters to bringing back the slogan for self-government and Catholic and Protestant unity, as was used by the United Irishmen. This group was invested in the idea of an insurgency using arms to be the only way to acquire their goals; they now became the Young Ireland movement and were completely separated from O'Connell's movement.
In the Victorian times, the Fenians were regarded simply as a group of overenthusiastic religious radicals who represented representing a change that'pure' Catholicism connected to a Papacy with political motivations at its centre in Rome; it was all a big conspiracy. The famine took a large population of the predominantly Catholic Irish community to Canada in the years following the tragedy in Ireland, specificalled the 1860s, because of which Canada was internationally accused of harbouring and sympathizing with the 'terrorists' in forms of Fenian allegiances (Anonymous, 1986).
These suspicions were aggravated also by the discreet link between the Fenians and the Canadian Catholic HBS, however, the attack into Canada in 1866, provided no evidence of the involvement or existence of Canadian Fenians. Thus, the existence of such a faction was attributed to a 'fifth column', which never truly existed. The movement was clearly categorized wrongly as a Catholic or religious one as simply put, Fenianism was a nationalist movement as indicated by the sizable amount of Protestants that were part of the 58 Fenians captured and confined to the Toronto goal in 1866 on the Niagara Frontier.
The Fenians were treated as terrorists and illegal warmongers, whether they fought with or without the typical use of uniformed and organized groups. They were simply guerillas meant to create panic. It is important to closely examine and understand the extent of the complications that were present in the world back then; the mid-nineteenth century was nowhere near as technologically advanced as today and so the idea of international contact and cooperation to garner support and communicate important announcements through public and press wire and in circumstances where the movement for the Fenian's had reached a global level and the whole world had come to know about the intensity of the uprising of the Irish-American movement, the Fenians could not afford the spread of misinformation and something that was not true about them. Moreover, they could not organize the rallies and could not make the announcements since there was no media who would spread the word. The level of the alarm and fear that was raised in the British Empire because of this movement cannot be denied. The fact that the communication system was not very efficient back then and even the monetary support that was being given from the Irish people in American to the ones who were present in Ireland was being seized by the government could have been a point of paranoia for the nationalists, but it did not make them insecure because there was no decline in the popularity and the motivation of the members of this movement. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Empire perceived the Fenians as a great internal threat and the first one was considered to be the Imperial German spies. Irrespective of all the structural similarities that this movement had with any terrorist movements, the Fenians did not have the conduct and attitude of invaders in the year 1899 when they…