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Fenian Movement

Map Illustrating the Fenian Raid on June 2nd 1866, in The Fenian raid at Fort Erie, June the first and second, 1866..., 1866.
Map Illustrating the Fenian Raid on June 2nd
1866, in The Fenian raid at Fort Erie, June the
first and second, 1866..., 1866.

The Fenian Movement consisted of revolutionary groups determined to overthrow British rule of Ireland and establish an independent Irish state. The movement was started in Ireland in 1850 when James Stephens and Thomas Clarke Luby created the Irish Republican Brotherhood; the nickname, "Fenians," came from the ancient Irish warriors called the Fianna. John O'Mahoney, Michael Doheny, and Stephens started the Fenian Movement in the United States in a ceremony in front of Tammany Hall in New York City in October of 1858. Their objective in starting an organization in the United States was to rally Irish-Americans politically behind a revolution in Ireland against Britain.

In Ireland, the movement was quickly stamped out by the British, who launched a vigorous crackdown. The Fenians had better luck in the United States, however, for the American government made no efforts to suppress the group.

The movement grew swiftly by attracting volunteers from the large population of Irish immigrants in Boston, New York, and other urban centers in the Northeast, and many of its members soon gained extensive military experience serving in the American Civil War. In the aftermath of the war, the Fenians planned a three-pronged invasion of Canada. The hope was that, if they succeeded in capturing British Canada, it could be used as ransom to coerce the British government into granting Irish independence. In theory, the plan might have been appealing, but it was impractical and quixotic because the Fenians simply did not have enough soldiers and resources to have any realistic hope of taking Canada from Britain, the world's premier military power in the mid-19th century.

The Fenians' first planned invasion of New Brunswick in 1866 never took place. Their second invasion of Canada attained some initial success after 1,000 Fenian soldiers crossed the Niagara River into Ontario and captured the town of Ridgeway on June 1, 1866. But they were quickly driven back as British and Canadian soldiers reinforced the Canadian border. A third invasion of eastern Quebec was thwarted when US forces intercepted and arrested a Fenian force in northern Vermont on June 6, 1866. The US government, which had hitherto given the Fenians wide leeway, now began to rein them in and tried to prevent further incursions into Canada out of the fear that the Fenians would provoke an international crisis with Britain. Nevertheless, small border raids would continue off and on until 1871.

In the end, the Fenians failed to achieve Irish independence, a goal which would have to wait until 1922 when the Irish free state was created. The Fenian movement remained active in the United States throughout the rest of the 19th century, but it never managed to export revolution from the United States to Ireland. The foundation and growth of the Fenians demonstrate how some immigrant groups tried to use the United States as a launching pad for stimulating political change in their home countries. Nevertheless, the Fenians were unique among immigrant political groups in their formation of armed militias and their invasion of a foreign country from American soil, two actions which arguably make them among the most militant immigrant groups in the history of American immigration.

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Fenian Movement