Celebrating Irish Americans: The Fenian Brotherhood

March is Irish American Heritage Month, and we’re taking a look at one of the more curious incidents in Irish American history: when Irish Americans attacked Canada! Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

John Francis O’Mahony, ca. 1861-1865. (National Archives Identifier 526300)

In the wake of the Great Famine of 1845–52, hundreds of thousands of Irish Americans immigrated to the United States. Many of them did not leave their Irish politics behind and joined organizations dedicated to the cause of ending British rule in Ireland. 

One of the earliest American-born organizations was the Fenian Brotherhood, founded in 1858 by Irish immigrants John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. Thousands of Fenians, as members were called, participated in the U.S. Civil War, largely with the Union Army.

One of the Fenian Brotherhood’s best-known actions in North America are the series of attacks they led on British Army forts and customs posts in Canada in 1866, 1870, and 1871. These attacks, known as the Fenian Raids, were made in the hope of forcing the United Kingdom into negotiating the formation of an independent Irish Republic. 

On June 1, 1866, an Irish American Union Army veteran named John O’Neill led a force of 600 men, largely Civil War veterans, across the Niagara River into Canada. His Fenian force occupied Fort Erie, a British fortification that had been the site of several battles during the War of 1812. On the following day, the Fenians encountered a column of Canadian soldiers, mostly inexperienced Canadians who were quickly routed by the veteran Fenian force. The skirmish became known as the Battle of Ridgeway and resulted in the death of 2 Fenians and 28 Canadian volunteers.

The battle of Ridgeway, C.W June 2nd 1866 (Library of Congress)

After the skirmish, O’Neill withdrew the Fenians back to Fort Erie, and with overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces closing in, he evacuated his troops back to U.S. soil on June 3, 1866. 

On June 5, President Andrew Johnson issued an executive order requiring enforcement of the neutrality laws that made attacking Canada illegal. Within a week, the U.S. Army had orders to seize Fenian weapons and ammunition, prevent further border crossings, and arrest anyone who appeared to be a Fenian. Many Fenians were later charged with violating neutrality laws, though those charges were eventually dropped.

Subsequent attacks on Canada were proposed at the Fenian Brotherhood’s convention in 1868, and the Fenian Raids ultimately resumed in April of 1870. The Battle of Trout River in May of 1870 resulted in a disorganized rout for the Fenians, and upon returning to the United States, the leaders were arrested, charged with violating neutrality laws, and imprisoned, though they were pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant in October 1870. Subsequent Fenian raids in Manitoba and Dakota territory in 1871 attracted even fewer Fenian volunteers, and the raids petered out. 

During the 1860s, the Fenian Brotherhood split into two factions—one focused on organizing the Fenian Raids in Canada to pressure Great Britain, while the other faction worked with the Irish Republican Brotherhood to organize a rebellion in Ireland in 1867. This failed rebellion, known as the Fenian Rising, resulted in the immediate arrest by the British of the Irish Americans who returned to Ireland.

In the wake of the failure of the Fenian Rising, the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided to support neither faction of the Fenian Brotherhood and instead promoted a new successor organization called Clan na Gael. The Fenian Brotherhood ultimately voted to disband in 1880, and the tale of when Irish Americans invaded Canada has largely faded from public memory. 

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