The most famous of Irish revolutionary secret societies, the Fenian Brotherhood emerged after the catastrophic potato blight in Ireland in the late 1840s. The failure of British officials to provide relief for a famine that caused between one and two million deaths embittered the Irish and convinced them they had nothing to gain from continued British rule. In 1848, a planned rising was nipped in the bud by British authorities, and three of the leaders of the conspiracy – John O’Mahony, Michael Doheny, and James Stephens – fled for safety to America.

There, in 1858, they founded a secret society to pursue Irish independence, calling it the Fenian Brotherhood or Irish Republican Brotherhood. The first name came from the legendary band of warriors led by the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, while their operating structure derived from contemporary secret societies in Europe. Members swore oaths of secrecy and were grouped into cells of 10, each cell independent and unknown to all others, at least in theory. In practice, the Fenians had glaring security problems, and the British government had little problem filling its ranks with informers. The Fenians themselves did much to undermine their own security by holding large public conventions, the first in Chicago in 1863. See cell system.

The Fenians nonetheless posed a significant challenge to British rule over Ireland, if only because the huge Irish expatriate population in America – some 1.6 million by 1860 – provided a sizeable field for recruitment. Several attempts were made to fund a rising in Ireland, though these fell through when the British authorities used their informers to arrest leaders and seize guns and money gathered for the purpose.

The American Civil War, in which many Irish expatriates fought on the Union side, brought thousands of veterans into the Fenian ranks. This emboldened the movement and launched it on the frankly harebrained project of trying to conquer Canada as a springboard to Irish independence. In 1866, a thousand armed Fenians crossed the border and seized the town of St Armand, expecting to provoke a rising against the British government. Instead, they were quickly dispersed by Canadian troops. Two further efforts along the same lines yielded equally unimpressive results. In 1867, one final attempt at a rising in Ireland, backed by a plan to seize weapons from Chester Castle in England, fizzled quickly.

Meanwhile the Fenians faced a widening spiral of internal troubles. The organization split in half in 1866 after a series of political quarrels among its leaders, and the fragments split further in the years that followed. The consistent failure of the Fenians to accomplish any of their aims or, for that matter, even make a plausible attempt at doing so, alienated the younger generation of Irish and Irish-American activists. By the mid-1870s the Fenian Brotherhood had ceased operations in America, but Irish Fenian groups in Dublin remained active in at least a theoretical sense. The Fenian name had by this time become an embarrassment, and members typically used the name “Irish Republican Brotherhood” instead. Even under its alternative name, the Brotherhood accomplished little during the last years of the nineteenth century, and the movement was at a low ebb. Several of the most serious Irish terrorist groups of the 1880s drew their membership primarily from Irish Fenians who saw the Brotherhood as a dead end and sought to pursue the cause of Irish independence by more radical means.

By the first decades of the twentieth century British police and military intelligence had written off the Fenian movement as a negligible threat. This proved to be a disastrous mistake, as a new generation of leaders came to the fore and began preparing for an insurrection. The revitalized Brotherhood was small – it had only 2000 members in Ireland in 1914 – but it had close links to other republican organizations, including the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, two pro-independence militia groups. When the Brotherhood and its allies rose in revolt on the Easter weekend of 1916, they took the authorities totally by surprise. While the Easter Rising was defeated, it demonstrated the weakness of the British hold on Ireland in a way that could not be ignored, and sparked a general revolt against British rule that led to Irish independence in 1921. Thus, despite all the failures of the intervening years, the Fenian Brotherhood played a crucial role in accomplishing the goal its founders set themselves in New York back in 1858.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006