Fenian: Definition, Movement & Brotherhood

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

This lesson will look at the Fenian Movement. First, we will define Fenian, then look at the movement as a whole and particularly at the Fenian Brotherhood.

The Fenians

An explosion rocks a factory in Manchester, England. Was it an accident? If it is sometime in the 1870s, chances are that the explosion was a bomb, the result of the Irish nationalist group the Fenian Brotherhood. Let's learn more about this group.


In general, the word ''fenian'' is used to describe Catholic or Irish nationalists. Irish nationalists sought to create an independent Ireland outside of the control of Great Britain. Specifically, it refers to the Fenian Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary organization that was dedicated to overthrowing British rule in Ireland during the 1800s. Britain had officially ruled Ireland since 1800, and the Fenian Brotherhood hoped to convince Britain to abandon their control of the island. Fenian also is sometimes used to refer to another group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The goals of both groups were the same, but the Irish Republican Brotherhood was located in Ireland while the Fenian Brotherhood was in the United States.


In 1798, a secret society called the Society of United Irishmen led a rebellion against English influence over Irish life and politics. The rebellion was unsuccessful, and it led to the Act of Union, passed in 1801, which formally united England and Ireland into one political entity controlled from London. There were still those who supported the rebellion, and began immediately to push back against English rule yet again. There were two different ways that this happened:


After the rebellion, Daniel O'Connell led a movement to use legislation and peaceful protest to change the relationship between England and Ireland. He did this by pushing for emancipation of Catholics (which would let Irish Catholics serve in the British Parliament) and by pushing for the repeal of the Act of Union. He was successful at the first, and was elected to Parliament in 1828.

Secret Societies

Other people fought back against British rule through forming secret societies. This was especially true after the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849, which killed at least 800,000 people. Some estimates put it closer to 1 million, which was one-eights of the entire population of Ireland. The famine forced another 1.5 million people to emigrate, most of them Catholic. The British government responded very badly to this catastrophe, mostly by forcing the Irish to continue to export food instead of keeping what they were producing for themselves. Many Irish interpreted this as British misrule and began to organize secret societies to fight back against it. The most important of these was the Young Ireland movement, which staged a small rebellion against the Irish police in 1848.

The Fenian Brotherhood


Even though the 1848 Young Ireland Rebellion was a failure, several of its participants escaped Ireland and went on to found the Fenian Brotherhood. John O'Mahoney fled to Paris, where he began to work to form a more organized Irish nationalist movement. In 1854, Mahoney immigrated to the United States, and from there, he worked with his connections in Ireland to create a unified and transatlantic movement dedicated to Irish independence. The result was the Fenian Brotherhood.

John O


Today, the Fenians are sometimes referred to as terrorists. Even at the time, they were viewed as fundamentalist Catholics who would do anything to draw attention to their cause. The movement had a few distinct characteristics:

1. Organization

The Fenians were a transatlantic movement, meaning that parts of the organization existed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. Although they were based in the United States, there were Fenian groups in Ireland, England, Canada, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. Each group was organized like a military unit: there was a colonel at the center, who recruited captains, who in turn recruited privates.

2. Use of Technology

The late 1800s was a time of a lot of technological change, and the Fenians took advantage of most of it. Especially important was the beginning of the use of steam power, which could be harnessed both for transportation between the United States and Ireland, but also for mass-producing recruitment literature. The rise of a global economy and global capitalism meant that they could protect their financial assets by hiding them outside areas of potential seizure (the Fenian financial center was in France rather than the United States). And they were able to recruit many dissatisfied Irish immigrants within the United States as well, especially because of the legacy of discrimination against Irishmen in America.

3. Violence

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