Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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FENIANS. Thus the American members of the revolutionary party, which, during the years 1860-70, agitated the forcible separation of Ireland from England, by means of a wide-spread organization known as the Fenian brotherhood, call themselves. The conspiracy of the Fenians owed its important position in the long line of Irish conspiracies against the English government principally to two causes: its distinctively revolutionary tendency and its origin in America. As a revolutionary effort it was the work of a party which had adopted the name "Young Ireland," and which, in opposition to the conciliatory policy of O'Connell, had organized itself as a party of violence. Its American origin is accounted for by the dreadful Irish famine (1845-7), in consequence of which a large number of poor, discontented Irishmen, who bore a traditional hatred toward England, left their native country and came to America in search of a new home. In the course of time these emigrants grew rapidly in number and public influence, and when the war between the north and south began, quite a large number of naturalized Irishmen enlisted in favor of the Union. During the war different causes were at work to arouse the old animosity between the United States and England to such a degree as to make it not at all unlikely that it would result in open hostility between the two countries. A more favorable state of circumstances in furtherance of the schemes of the young Irish patriots could hardly be imagined, and encouraged in view of the difficulties pending between the British and American governments, the Fenian conspiracy was, toward the close of 1861 and the beginning of the following year, organized and began its active operations.


—The name Fenian was taken from the ancient Celtic caste of warriors, the Finna. The organization of the Fenians was, therefore, a society of men who trusted to the force of arms, and the object of the conspiracy is sufficiently indicated by the name. The principal founder of the brotherhood in America was John O'Mahoney, while in Ireland James Stephens took the foremost lead in the movement. It was in America that the organization was first effected, and the United States was from the beginning recognized as the principal base of operations; yet in Ireland secret meetings of Fenians were held as early as the beginning of 1862. In the spring of 1863, John Luby, one of the leaders of the brother hood, came to America as a sort of emissary, where he, together with O'Mahoney, visited the camp of Gen. Corcoran, the commander of the Irish legion in the army of the Potomac, and where he met with the warmest expressions of sympathy for the cause of Ireland. In the fall of 1863 Fenianism had made such progress in the northern and western states of the Union, that O'Mahoney no longer hesitated to call a Fenian convention, which took place at Chicago. A few weeks later (November, 1863), the first number of the paper "The Irish World," published by Luby and edited by O'Leary, was issued, as the organ of the Fenians in Ireland. Practical measures in aid of the movement were not neglected. Emissaries visited all parts of the country in order to enlist volunteers and to perfect the military organization of the brotherhood; armories were established and the men instructed, though with the utmost secrecy, in the use of arms. The American brethren were likewise very active. In the spring of 1864, the first contributions, from the proceeds of the great fair held in Chicago, toward a military fund, were made; and in the fall of the same year a second Fenian convention was held in Chicago, which was attended by delegates from all the states from New York to California. The sudden close of the civil war in the United States in April, 1865, and the disbanding of the army, in consequence of which not only the commanders of the Irish legion, but a large crowd of adventurers, were open to new engagements, hastened the Fenians to take some decided action. But in proportion as the Fenians became more demonstrative and active, the vigilance of the British government was increased, and before the Fenians were ready to take a decided step, their hopes of succeeding before long in their revolutionary enterprise were suddenly dashed to pieces. In the night of Sept. 15, 1865, the police took possession of the building of "The Irish People." took charge of the press, put Luby, O'Leary and O'Donovan Rossa, and other Fenian leaders who were stopping at Dublin, under arrest, and at the same time seized upon the private documents of the Fenians, which at once gave the British government a clue to the secret movements of the conspirators. In consequence of the information gotten by means of these private documents, a number of arrests were made in the southern and western districts of Ireland. Stephens himself fell into the hands of the police. Thus deprived of all its leaders, without encouragement in the shape of sympathetic demonstration on the part of the Irish people, the Fenian brotherhood in Ireland fell to pieces.


—Yet, notwithstanding all this, the Fenian conspiracy was by no means subdued; for the defeat which the Fenian movement had suffered aroused all the latent energy of the brotherhood in America. In October, 1865, a general convention of Fenians was held at New York, which was to inaugurate the establishment of an independent republic on Irish soil. A constitution was submitted and debated, and O'Mahoney was elected president of the new republic. He appointed a minister of war, of the navy, and of finance, and together with his ministers took up his residence in an elegant mansion in New York city, which had been chosen as the temporary seat of government. The first executive measure was the levy of an income tax, by means of which a considerable amount of money came into the treasury. In accordance with the original plans, and in view of the differences still existing between the United States and England, which the Fenians tried to use as a means whereby the breach between the two countries might be widened, and their governments stirred up to open hostilities, a two-fold plan of action was agreed on, on the basis of which O'Mahoney was to take charge of the operations against Canada in the United States, while Stephens was to direct and manage the invasion and revolutionizing of Ireland.


—The winter months were passed in making arrangements for final action. Toward the latter part of February, 1866, the excitement among the people of Ireland again rose very high. The English authorities discovered some traces of the importation of arms and ammunition and the enlistment and drilling of volunteers. During the fore part of March the number of American emissaries who had come to Ireland increased in alarming proportions. Their bearing became daily more threatening, and the symptoms of an impending outbreak were unmistakable. But the English government was on its guard, and once more the energetic measure—the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus—was all that was needed to check the revolution in its inception. Suddenly the strangers, who were suspected by the authorities, had disappeared from Ireland. The few who remained were put under arrest without difficulty, thus the rebellion, the leaders gone, again came to a sudden collapse. The Fenian operations against Canada shared no better fate. In the beginning of June, 1866, the Fenian forces began to gather on the Canadian borders, and in the second week in June an army of about 4,000 or 5,000 men invaded Canada along the coast of Lake Erie. The Fenian troops took possession of a few border towns, but were in the end defeated by the Canadian troops in several engagements.


—This unsuccessful issue proved not only the fact that the Fenian forces were not equal to carry out the great plans of their leaders, but the more important fact, that the government of the United States was not willing to use the Irish discontent in support of any hostile movement against England, and all subsequent attempts on the part of the Fenians only served to prove the same facts. In Ireland, preparations to that end having been made for some time, on March 5, 1867, the rebellion broke out simultaneously in the vicinity of Dublin, in Drogheda and in Kerry. It was the most powerful effort the Fenians made in defense of their cause; yet it resulted, after a few days' struggle, in a complete defeat. The total number of the Fenian insurgents engaged in this struggle did not exceed 3,000 men, and, aside from the destruction of railroad and telegraph lines, the taking of a quantity of arms, and the firing of a few police stations and guard houses along the coast, the insurrection was of no consequence. There were no battles fought. The English troops, who followed up the insurgents, nowhere found a consolidated body of men opposing them. All that the English troops had to do was to capture the fugitives and take possession of the arms and ammunition belonging to the Fenians, which were scattered about in large quantities. The only attempt which the Fenians again made to establish an Irish republic, came to an end which was even more disgraceful. In April, 1867, about forty or fifty Fenians, who had served in the Union army, left New York, in a steamer fitted out for the purpose, to conquer Ireland. In the beginning of June, after sailing about the Irish coast for some time, they landed near Waterford, only to fall, a few hours later, into the hands of the police, without offering any resistance. With this first and only invasion of Ireland the Fenian conspiracy was not of course broken up, but all hopes of again putting the Fenian forces on the offensive were gone. Completely routed in Ireland and America alike, the Fenians finally hit upon the plan of alarming their traditional enemy in his own camp, by arousing the discontent of the Irish laboring classes who were employed in England, especially in the large commercial and manufacturing cities, and thus to subject England herself to the horrors of a civil war. The Fenian conspiracy had now come to its last and most desperate stage, in which it totally lost its political character; its organization was reduced to a state of anarchy, and the further doings of the Fenian combatants were simply the deeds of murderers and incendiaries.


—Two events, characteristic of the further movements of the Fenians, deserve special mention: the forcible liberation, September, 1867, of several Fenian leaders who were under arrest in Manchester, and the attempt to release, December, 1867, two Fenians who had been arrested in London, and were there kept in prison. In Manchester the prisoners succeeded in escaping, but a large number of those who had aided in their liberation were put under arrest, and three of the ringleaders were put to death. In London the Fenians caused an explosion, whereby the outer prison walls and several neighboring houses were blown up, and, though the prisoner was not set free, about fifty persons, who happened to be on the spot, were either killed or wounded. In this case, too, the head of the conspirators was caught and suffered the penalty of death.


—These events mark the last public effort of the Fenians in furtherance of their cause. Although the Fenian conspiracy, as a means of forcibly separating Ireland from England, proved unsuccessful, its effects undoubtedly were of great importance in this, that it hastened the adoption of needful reforms for the removal, in a peaceful way, of the crying evils under which Ireland was then suffering.


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