The word Fenian (/ˈfniən/) served as an umbrella term for the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), secret political organisations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were active in Ireland, Britain, Canada and the United States. They sometimes used violence.[1][2]

Supplement given with the Weekly Freeman of October 1883
John O'Mahony
James Stephens

The term Fenian today occurs as a derogatory sectarian term in Ireland, referring to Irish nationalists or Catholics, particularly in Northern Ireland. The term has been used similarly in Scotland by Protestants as an attempt at a derogatory religious slur when referring to Scottish Catholics or to Scots with Irish ancestry.


Fenianism (Irish: Fíníneachas), according to O'Mahony, embodied two principles: firstly, that Ireland had a natural right to independence, and secondly, that this right could be won only by an armed revolution.[3] The name originated with the Fianna of Irish mythology - groups of legendary warrior-bands associated with Fionn mac Cumhail. Mythological tales of the Fianna became known as the Fenian Cycle.[4]

In the 1860s, opponents of Irish nationalism within the English political establishment sometimes used the term "Fenianism" to refer to any form of mobilisation among the Irish or to those who expressed any Irish nationalist sentiments, or questioned the Protestant Ascendancy (such as by advocating for the rights of tenant farmers). The political establishment often applied the term in this sense - inaccurately - to the unrelated Tenant Right League, the Irish National Land League and the Irish Parliamentary Party, who did not advocate explicitly for an independent Irish Republic or for the use of force. The establishment warned people about a perceived threat to turn what they saw as "decent civilised" society on its head by movements such as trade unionism seeking to change the existing social order in the United Kingdom.[5]


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, which had been formed recently at Skibbereen.

Along with Thomas Clarke Luby, John O'Leary and Charles Kickham he founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood on 17 March 1858 in Lombard Street, Dublin.

The Fenian Rising in 1867 proved to be a "doomed rebellion," poorly organised and with minimal public support. Most of the Irish-American officers who landed at Cork, in the expectation of commanding an army against England, were imprisoned; sporadic disturbances around the country were easily suppressed by the police, army and local militias. In the aftermath, Fenian assassination circles were active in Cork and in Dublin and were responsible for shooting two officers of the Dublin Metropolitan Police while on duty in October 1867.[6]

In 1882, a breakaway IRB faction calling itself the Irish National Invincibles assassinated the British Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and his Permanent Under-secretary (chief civil servant), in an incident known as the Phoenix Park Murders.

United States

Three Manchester Martyrs of 1867; at right is Michael O'Brien a former Corporal of Battery E 1st New Jersey Artillery regiment
Fenian convicts escape from Fremantle in the 1876 Catalpa rescue.

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.[7] 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.

In 1865 O'Mahony's leadership was challenged, and the movement split, by a faction led by William B. Roberts, a wealthy New York City dry-goods merchant, more closely allied with the Democratic-Party machine. It was Roberts faction that sponsored the plan to invade Canada and hold it hostage for the liberation of Ireland.[8] In 1867 there was a further challenge to O'Mahony from the new IRB exile David Bell, and his weekly the Irish Republic. In contrast to Roberts, Bell, committed to black suffrage and to Reconstruction, was allied to the Republicans and was calling a "cleansing" of the spirits of the Irish in America: "Let our people fling off the scales of bigotry and declare that all men are entitled to 'life, liberty, and happiness.'"[9]

John Devoy records that in the course of 1866 various conferences where held to reunite the various factions. There were efforts were to elect as president of a united organisation James Stephens. Stephens had escaped the round-up the I.R.B. leadership in Dublin the previous year, but still promised that "The Irish flag — the flag of the Irish Republic — will float in an Irish breeze before New Year's Day, 1867". At the close of 1866, a conference of the refugees of the I.R.B. and many of the American officers who had been in Ireland was held in New York and pre-sided over by Stephens, at which the decision was taken that the fight should be made early in 1867. Some thousands of rifles which were afterwards sent to Ireland, but arrived too late to be of any use in the Rising.[10]


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 to invade some parts of the British colonies of New Brunswick (i.e., Campobello Island) and Canada (present-day Southern Ontario and Missisquoi County[11]), with the raids continuing after these colonies had been confederated. 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 or collaboration for the Fenians in Canada became very rare even among the Irish.

The Battle of Ridgeway was the largest engagement of the Fenian Raids.

Francis Bernard McNamee, the man who started the Fenian movement in Montreal (and who was later suspected of being a government spy), was a case in point. In public, he proclaimed his loyalty to the queen and called for an Irish militia company to defend Canada against the Fenians. In private, he wrote that the real purpose of an Irish militia company would be to assist the Fenian invasion, adding for good measure that if the government denied his request he would raise the cry of anti-Irish Catholic discrimination and bring more of his aggrieved countrymen into the Fenian Brotherhood.[12]

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.


Fenian Flag, captured by British forces at Tallaght, County Dublin 1867

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 had representatives on the council, along with Scotland, the north and south of England and 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.[13]

On 23 November 1867,[14] three Fenians, William Philip Allen, Michael O'Brian, and Michael Larkin,[15] known as the Manchester Martyrs, were executed in Salford for their attack on a police van to release Fenians held captive earlier that year.[16]

On 13 December 1867, the Fenians exploded a bomb in attempt to free one of their members being held on remand at Clerkenwell Prison in London. The explosion damaged nearby houses, killed 12 people and caused 120 injuries. None of the prisoners escaped. The bombing was later described as the most infamous action carried out by the Fenians in Great Britain in the 19th century. It enraged the public, causing a backlash of hostility in Britain which undermined efforts to establish home rule or independence for Ireland.

Contemporary usage

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Fenian is used by some as a derogatory word for Irish Catholics;[17][18] in 2012, British National Party leader Nick Griffin was criticised by Unionists and Republicans for tweeting the term while attending an Ulster Covenant event at Stormont, Belfast; Griffin referred to Lambeg drums, saying "the bodran [sic] can't match the lambeg, you Fenian bastards".[19][20]


Memorial dedication to John Keegan 'Leo' Casey (1846 – 17 March 1870), known as the Poet of the Fenians

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.[21] Celtic has its roots in Glasgow's immigrant Catholic Irish population and the club has thus been associated with Irish nationalism, symbolised by the almost universal flying of the Irish Tricolour during matches. Other Scottish clubs that have Irish roots, such as Hibernian and Dundee United, do not have the term applied to them, however.[22] The term is now firmly rooted within the Old Firm rivalry between Celtic and Rangers.[23] Use of the term as a religious slur carried criminal penalties in some contexts under the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, before its repeal in January 2018.


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 title of Queen's Counsel was re-instated by the South Australian government in 2019. [24]

See also

  • Taig


  1. "Fenians". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  2. E. R. R. Green, "The Fenians" History Today (Oct 1958) 8#10 pp 698-705.
  3. Ryan, p. 318
  4. "Fianna". www.timelessmyths.com. Retrieved 6 February 2019.
  5. McGee, pp. 13–14
  6. Kennerk, Barry (2010). Shadow of the Brotherhood: The Temple Bar Shootings. Mercier Press. ISBN 978-1-8563-5677-0.
  7. "FENIAN BROTHERHOOD". IrishRepublicanHistory. Retrieved 6 February 2019.
  8. Montgomery, David (1967). Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872. New York: Alfred Knopf. pp. 130–133. ISBN 9780252008696. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
  9. Knight, Matthew (2017). "The Irish Republic: Reconstructing Liberty, Right Principles, and the Fenian Brotherhood". Éire-Ireland (Irish-American Cultural Institute). 52 (3 & 4): 252–271. doi:10.1353/eir.2017.0029. S2CID 159525524. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
  10. Devoy, John (1929). Recollections of an Irish rebel.... A personal narrative by John Devoy. New York: Chas. P. Young Co., printers. p. 276. Retrieved 13 October 2020.
  11. "For the Sake of Ireland: The Fenian Raids of Missisquoi County 1866 & 1870". townshipsheritage.com.
  12. Further reading: W. D’Arcy, The Fenian movement in the United States: 1858–1886 (New York, 1947, 1971). W.S. Neidhardt, Fenianism in North America (Pennsylvania, 1975). H. Senior, The Fenians and Canada (Toronto, 1978). D.A. Wilson, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, vol. I: passion, reason, and politics, 1825–57 (Montreal and Kingston, 2008).
  13. Stanford, Jane (2011). That Irishman. History Press Ireland. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-84588-698-1.
  14. "The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Dock and the Scaffold, by Unknown".
  15. 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
  16. Allen Family Papers, 1867, AIS.1977.14, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
  17. Socialist Worker Archived 11 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  18. "Fenian". TheFreeDictionary.com.
  19. Adrian Rutherford; Victoria O'Hara (2 October 2012). "BNP leader Nick Griffin faces police probe over 'fenian bastards' sectarian tweet during procession - BelfastTelegraph.co.uk". Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  20. "BNP leader Nick Griffin defends Fenian comment on Twitter". BBC News. Northern Ireland. 30 September 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  21. "Ibrox chant ruling goes to appeal". BBC News. 18 April 2006.
  22. Bradley, Joseph (1998). Fanatics!: power, identity, and fandom in football. ISBN 9780415181037.
  23. Devine, Tom (1996). Scotland in the twentieth century. ISBN 9780748608393. The divide between Orange and Green has been increasingly transformed into a divide between Blue and Green
  24. "InDaily - Adelaide News - Daily Independent News". InDaily.


Fenian Plot, Glasnevin, Dublin
  • E. R. R. Green, "The Fenians" History Today (Oct 1958) 8#10 pp 698–705.
  • Sean Cronin, The McGarrity Papers, Anvil Books, Ireland, 1972
  • P. S. O'Hegarty, A History of Ireland Under the Union, Methuen & Co. (London 1952).
  • Robert Kee, The Bold Fenian Men , Quartet Books (London 1976), ISBN 0-7043-3096-2
  • M J Kelly, The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism, 1882–1916, Boydell and Brewer, 2006,ISBN 1-84383-445-6
  • Michael Kenny, The Fenians, The National Museum of Ireland in association with Country House, Dublin, 1994, ISBN 0-946172-42-0
  • Owen McGee, The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood from The Land League to Sinn Féin, Four Courts Press, 2005, ISBN 1-85182-972-5
  • Leon Ó Broin, Fenian Fever: An Anglo-American Dilemma, Chatto & Windus, London, 1971, ISBN 0-7011-1749-4.
  • Marta Ramón, A Provisional Dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement, University College Dublin Press (2007), ISBN 978-1-904558-64-4
  • Mark F. Ryan, Fenian Memories, Edited by T.F. O'Sullivan, M. H. Gill & Son, LTD, Dublin, 1945
  • Desmond Ryan, The Fenian Chief: A Biography of James Stephens, Hely Thom LTD, Dublin, 1967
  • Mitchell Snay. Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction (2010)
  • Finini Mheiricea agus an Ghaeilge, Fionnuala Ui Fhlannagain (Dublin 2008), OCLC 305144100
  • Jane Stanford 'That Irishman The Life and Times of John O'Connor Power', The History Press Ireland, Dublin 2011, ISBN 978-1-84588-698-1
  • Patrick Steward and Bryan McGowan, The Fenians: Irish Rebellion in the North Atlantic World, 1858-1876. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2013.
  • '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).
  • Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867–1900 (Cambridge, 2012).
  • Thompson, Francis John (1940). "Fenianism and the Celtic Renaissance" (pdf). A dissertation studying the interrelation between the exponents of physical force and the literature produced in, or about, Ireland during the period between 1858 and 1916.. University of South Florida Tampa Library: New York University. pp. 1281, 5 vols.
  • Thompson, Francis John (1936). "Francis J. Thompson Diary" (pdf). A journal of Francis Thompson research for Fenianism and the Celtic Renaissance. University of South Florida Tampa Library. p. 229.

Further reading

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