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Supplement given with the Weekly Freeman of October 1883
The Fenians, both the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), were fraternal organisations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the 19th and early 20th century. The name "Fenians" was first applied by John O'Mahony to the members of the Irish republican group which he founded in Americamarker in 1858. O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named the American wing of the movement after the Fianna. In Gaelic Ireland these were warrior bands of young men who lived apart from society and could be called upon in times of war.

The term Fenian is still used today, especially in Northern Irelandmarker, the Republic of Irelandmarker and Scotlandmarker, where its original meaning has expanded to include all supporters of Irish nationalism, as well as being a pejorative term for Irish Catholics. Irish nationalists, while honouring the 19th century Fenians, more often describe themselves as "nationalist" or "republican".


Fenianism, according to O'Mahony, is symbolized by two principles: firstly, that Irelandmarker has a natural right to independence, and secondly, that that right could be won only by an armed revolution.

The term Fenianism was sometimes used by the Britishmarker political establishment in the 1860s for any form of mobilization among the lower classes or those who expressed any Irish nationalist sentiments. They warned people about this threat to turn decent civilized society on its head such as that posed by trade unionism to the existing social order in England.


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 Donovan (afterwards known as O'Donovan Rossa) among its more prominent members, had recently been formed at Skibbereenmarker.

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

United States

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. 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, disagreement over O'Mahony's leadership led to the formation of two Fenian Brotherhoods in 1865. The US chapter of the movement was also sometimes referred to as the IRB. After the failed invasion of Canadamarker, it was replaced by Clan na Gael.


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 (1866, 1870, etc.) to invade some parts of Canada West (Southern Ontario) which was a British dominion at the time. 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 and/or collaboration for the Fenians in Canada became very rare even amongst the Irish.

A suspected Fenian, Patrick J. Whelan, was hanged in Ottawamarker for the assassination of Irish Canadian politician, D'Arcy McGee in 1868, who had been a member of the Irish Confederation in the 1840s.

The Fenians were a major cause of Canadian Confederation, although there were several other reasons, there is a lot of evidence that Fenian raids on the territory of Canada West was an important element into forcing the confederates hands to form a more adequate centralized defense.

Contemporary usage

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Fenian is used as a derogatory word for Catholics generally.

In 1984, the Unionist politician and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) member George Seawright caused outrage at a meeting of the Belfast Education and Library Boardmarker by saying that Catholics who objected to the flying of the Union Flag were "just Fenian scum who have been indoctrinated by the Catholic church".


The term Fenian is used similarly in Scotland. During Scottish football matches it is often aimed at supporters of Celtic F.C.. Celtic has its roots in Glasgowmarker's immigrant Catholic Irish population and the club has thus been associated with Irish nationalism.


In Australia Fenian is used as a pejorative term for those members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) who have Australian Nationalist views similar to those of the Irish Catholic supporters of Irish independence. Michael Atkinson, Attorney-General of South Australiamarker, 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. Irish Catholics have been traditional supporters of the ALP and have influenced the party's platform regarding the monarchy. Atkinson made a further subsequent mention of Fenianism when the title of Queen's Counsel was finally abolished.

See also



  • The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism, 1882-1916, M J Kelly, Boydell and Brewer, 2006,ISBN 1843834456
  • The Fenian Chief: A Biography of James Stephens, Desmond Ryan, Hely Thom LTD, Dublin, 1967
  • The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood from The Land League to Sinn Féin, Owen McGee, Four Courts Press, 2005, ISBN 1 85182 972 5
  • Fenian Fever: An Anglo-American Dilemma, Leon Ó Broin, Chatto & Windus, London, 1971, ISBN 0 7011 1749 4.
  • The McGarrity Papers, Sean Cronin, Anvil Books, Ireland, 1972
  • Fenian Memories, Dr. Mark F. Ryan, Edited by T.F. O'Sullivan, M. H. Gill & Son, LTD, Dublin, 1945
  • The Fenians, Michael Kenny, The National Museum of Ireland in association with Country House, Dublin, 1994, ISBN 0 946172 42 0
  • A Provisional Dictator:James Stephens and the Fenian Movement, Marta Ramón, University College Dublin Press (2007), ISBN 978 1 904558 64 4
  • A History of Ireland Under the Union, P. S. O'Hegarty, Methuen & Co. (London 1952).
  • The Bold Fenian Men, Robert Kee, Quartet Books (London 1976), ISBN 0 7043 3096 2
  • Finini Mheiricea agus an Ghaeilge, Fionnuala Ui Fhlannagain (Dublin 2008), OCLC 305144100

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