The Fenians, both the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood, were fraternal organisations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The name "Fenians" was first applied by John O'Mahony to the members of the Irish nationalist organization which he founded in America in 1858. O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named the American wing of the movement after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The term Fenian, which derives from the Irish Fianna Éireann also rendered as Fianna na hÉireann and Na Fianna Éireann (Irish: "Soldiery of Ireland" or "Warriors' of Ireland"), named after the mythological Fianna), is still used today, especially in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, where its original meaning has expanded to include all supporters of Irish nationalism, as well as being an abusive term for Catholics. Irish Nationalists themselves, while honouring the 19th-century Fenians, commonly use other designations for themselves such as "Nationalist" or "Republican", terms also used by the Fenians themselves.


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

Fenianism was term sometimes used by the British 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 Skibbereen. Along with Thomas Clarke Luby, John O'Leary and Charles Kickham he founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood on 17 March 1858 in Lombard Street, Dublin.

United States

The Fenian Brotherhood, the Irish Republican Brotherhood's U.S. branch, was founded by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny, both of whom had been "out" 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 USA, 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 U.S. chapter of the movement was also sometimes referred to as the IRB. After the failed invasion of Canada, 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 southern Canada 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 ask 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 Whelan was hanged in Ottawa for the assassination of Irish-Canadian politician , Thomas D'Arcy McGee in 1868, who had been a member of the Irish Confederation in the 1840s.

Contemporary usage

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Fenian is used as a derogatory word for Catholics generally. In 1984, the Unionist politician and UVF member George Seawright caused outrage at a meeting of the Belfast Education and Library Board 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 ofCeltic F.C.. Celtic has its roots in Glasgow's immigrant Catholic Irish population and the club has thus been associated with Irish nationalism. In a bid to eradicate "discriminatory chanting", Rangers F.C. have attempted to encourage the singing of more traditional songs such as Wolverhampton Town&The Sash,


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 Australia, 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.



  • 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 Delemma, 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

See also

External links

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