Fenian Society
The Fenians were a mid-19th century movement, beginning in 1857, aimed at securing Ireland's independence from Britain. Established by Irish nationalist James Stephens, the society, originally called the “Irish Republican Brotherhood,” was a secret and outlawed organization in the British Empire. The term “Fenian” comes from the Gaelic Fianna Eirionn which means the band of mythological warriors.1
The society operated openly in the United States as the “Fenian Brotherhood.” John O'Mahoney founded the American branch. By 1865, the Fenians secured 500,000 dollars and a force of approximately 10,000 individuals, many of whom were American Civil War veterans.2 The movement was based primarily in the US, however, there was a strong presence of Fenians in Canada as well. There was strong support for Irish nationalism in Canada, although only 1,000-3,000 of 250,000 Irish Canadians officially joined the movement. The most well-known Canadian Fenian was Michael Murphy in Toronto.3
Canadian officials were alarmed by the growth of Fenianism and armed raids that occurred in Canadian territory between 1866-1871. For example, in April 1866, the Fenian Society launched a raid in New Brunswick. The society felt that they should hit the British empire where it was most vulnerable, this they believed to be Canada. They saw Canada as an easy target to invade, especially if the French-Canadians remained neutral and they could gain Irish Canadian support.4 The movement's view was that if they succeeded in Canada, they could disrupt Britain's transatlantic commerce or use Canada as a “bargaining chip” for negotiations. The Fenians saw war in Canada as freedom for Ireland.5
However, the raids in Canada were poorly organized and quickly collapsed. The last attempt was in 1871 in Manitoba. The Fenians hoped to gain support from Louis Riel and the Métis, but Riel created a group of volunteers to defend the frontier against the Fenian's attacks.6 Afterwards, the Fenians became fragmented.
The Fenians did not disappear, and participated in the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin. However, by this point they were sharply divided. They were split into two groups, one side supporting the creation of a broad nationalist front and the other strongly supporting the need for political violence.7
  • 1. Hereward Senior, Fenians, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 7 February 2006.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. The Fenians, Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Senior, Fenians.
  • 7. Ibid.; John Dorney, The Fenians: An Overview, The Irish Story, 7 March 2017.
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Riel, Louis

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New Brunswick