A political association of Irish and Irish-Americans, the object of
which was the overthrow of English authority in Ireland, and the
establishment of a republic there. It has been said, and is generally
supposed, that the movement originated in America, and was transplanted to
Ireland; but, as a matter of fact,  the plans for both the Irish and
American organizations were drawn in Paris by a small group of the Irish
revolutionary exiles of 1848.
      The Irish Society was organized by the efforts of James Stephens, who
in 1853 traveled through Ireland, and organized the small centres of
disaffection into a powerful conspiracy. It was necessarily secret, and
known as the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (popularly called  I.R.B.). Its
aim was to convert the people of Ireland into a soldiery capable of
resisting the British Army. Stephens himself was the absolute military head,
known as chief organizer (C.O.). He was assisted by four executive officers
(one for each Irish province), known as "V's" (vice-organizers), and chosen
by himself. The "V's" selected "A's" (colonels), who in turn selected "B's"
(captains) to choose and drill the "C's" (privates), who were all
able-bodied men capable of bearing arms. The political programme of the
Brotherhood contemplated the establishment of an independent republic based
on universal suffrage, and peasant proprietorship of the land. The
possessions of hostile landlords were to be confiscated and optional
purchase was to be made at fair prices in other cases. Church property was
to be confiscated, and the clergy were to be paid by the State. All
religions were to be alike before the law.
      The American society was organized at the same time by John O'Mahoney,
according to the arrangements made in Paris, but did not obtain a really
good footing until the arrival of Stephens in 1858. Its principal object was
to supply money and arms to the Irish branch. In America the ability to bear
arms was not a necessary qualification for membership. At the head was
O'Mahoney, called the head centre, who appointed his own central treasurer,
assistant treasurer, and central secretaries.  He also commissioned State
centres, on the recommendation of delegates from circles. The State centres
commissioned district centres, who in their turn organized circles (local
associations). The membership dues were nominal, but the society received
large sums as voluntary contributions. The Fenian convention , which met in
Chicago in October, 1863, made the constitution of the society more
democratic, by making the office of head centre elective. The growth of the
Fenian Society was very rapid. The American branch quickly spread  into
Canada, and the Irish branch into western England and Scotland. The funeral
of Terence McManus, an exile of 1848, who died in San Francisco, gave
for demonstrations of mourning in America and Ireland, which greatly
increased the number of Fenians. Two newspapers, The Phoenix in New York,
and The Irish People in Dublin, were the official organs of the society. The
effort of the Fenians made to win over Irish soldiers in the British Army is
claimed  to have been successful, but this is denied. Being a secret society
in Ireland, it necessarily fell under the ban of the Catholic hierarchy,
although the lower clergy sympathized with and in some cases participated in
the movement. In America the clergy were divided in sentiment.
      The Civil War in the United States gave the Fenians a great
opportunity to obtain military training. A large part of the Irish soldiers
engaged on both sides in the struggle were Fenians, and at the end of the
war there was a formidable number of trained soldiers ready to fight for
Ireland. It believed in Irish circles that a definite understanding existed
between the Federal Government and the head centre to the effect that after
the war in America was ended the Fenians should receive material
the American officers went to Ireland to assist in drilling and leading the
expected recruits, they found the organization not sufficiently advanced for
active military measures.
      Meanwhile the British Government had kept itself informed of the
movement by
the aid of informers and spies. In 1865 it suddenly suspended the habeas
corpus act and caused the chief leaders of the Brotherhood to be arrested.
Stephens escaped from prison and fled to America, where he was joyfully
received by the American branch and made head centre. But his repeated
failures to send a military expedition to Ireland displeased the society,
and he was deposed. All the military efforts of the Fenians were
unsuccessful. A proposed expedition of 10,000 men into Canada resulted in
500 men crossing the border in 1866. They defeated the Canadian militia, but
had to return to the United States on account of the failure of the
organization to provide them with reinforcements and supplies. Their
leaders, were arrested by the American authorities. A daring attempt to
the arms and ammunition stored in Chester Castle, and convey them by ship to
Ireland, was thwarted in 1867. The general uprising in Ireland which was to
follow the seizure was suppressed at every point. The rescue of two leaders
by a band of Manchester Fenians resulted in the death of a police officer,
for which three of the rescuers were hanged. The demolition of the wall of
Clerkenwell prison and various Fenian threats threw the British authorities
into a state of great alarm. Another attempt to raid Canada was suppressed
by the United States Government in 1871. This was the last effort of the
      The cause of the repeated failures of the Fenians is to be found in
the fact that they had no real leaders. Stephens was a model organizer but
not a man of action. O'Mahoney was loyal to the order, but not a man of
ability. There were endless dissensions among the leaders in both countries,
besides much corruption, especially in the American branch. The dual
organization in Ireland and America prevented harmony of action. But
although they failed in their immediate object, their attempted uprising
tended to convince English statesmen that it would be better to grant
proposed reforms in Ireland than to be constantly engaged in suppressing
      The name has been the subject of much discussion. O'Mahoney, who was a
student of Old irish lore, gave the name Fenian to the society. This name he
derived from Fionna Eirinn, an ancient military organization which existed
in Ireland, taking its name from Finn, the celebrated hero of Irish legend.
Officially the name Fenian applied to the American branch only, but in the
mind of the public it became connected with the entire movement. At first
the Irish branch was popularly known as the Phoenix Society, owing to the
aid Stephens received from the Phoenix Club, especially in counties Kerry
and Cork. This club was suppressed by the Government in 1858. The real name
of the Irish branch was, as before stated the Irish Revolutionary
Brotherhood.  CONSULT: Gibbons, J., Proceedings of the First National Fenian
Convention Held at Chicago, 18 (Philadelphia, 1863); The Government
Proceedings against Fenianism (London, 1865). The most detailed account of
the movement is J. Rutherford, Secret History of the Fenian Conspiracy (2
vols., London, 1877). partisan English;  A.M. Sullivan, New Ireland
(Philadelphia, 1878), chs. 17-25 is partisan Irish, as is J. Savage, Fenian
Martyrs and Heroes (Boston, 1864), the author of which was himself a Fenian.
A good brief account of the movement, Irish in sympathy, is to be found in
Justin McCarthy, Ireland Since the Union (London, 1877), chs. 14-17.

                             B I O G R A P H I E S
                                          of  the
                    (Organizers of the Fenian Society)


      An Irish politician, born at Kilbeheny, County Limerick. He received a
good education at a classical school in Cork and at Trinity College, Dublin,
though he never took a degree. Early in his career he became deeply
impressed with a sense of the wrongs of Ireland, and practically his whole
life was devoted to efforts to free her. He was a "repealer," but was more
radical than O'Connell, and in 1845 seceded with the "Young Irelanders." He
joined in the insurrection of Smith O'Brien in 1848, and after its failure
fled to France, where he lived for some years in great poverty. In 1852 he
went to New York and there in 1858 was a member of the committee that sent a
delegate to James Stephens in Dublin with proposals for the founding of the
secret society later known as the Fenian Brotherhood. O'Mahony was one of
the most active and influential promoters of the organization, and was for a
time its president. In his later years he had a hard struggle to secure the
bare means for subsistence. He died in New York in 1877, and his body was
taken back to Ireland and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, near Dublin, with
great honors. In 1857 he published "The History of Ireland by Geoffrey
Keating, D.D., Translated from the Gaelic and Copiously Annotated. Consult
Webb, Irish Biography (Dublin, 1888), and articles in the Celtic Magazine
(New York).

JAMES  STEPHENS  (1824-1901)

      An Irish agitator and Fenian leader, born in Kilkenny. After
participating in the Young Ireland rising of 1848, he fled to Paris. In 1853
he instituted the foundation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, commonly
known as the Fenian Society. His system depended on complete preparation of
the people. A favorable opportunity was to be awaited when England should be
embroiled in foreign troubles. By 1863, both in point of view of numbers
enrolled and revenue raised, the organization had assumed formidable
proportions, but from that time dates its decline. The "Irish People" a
newspaper which he founded in Dublin in 1863 as a Fenian organ, he conducted
on a private basis. The rising in the autumn of 1865 was an ill-timed affair
that had hung fire from the preceding spring, and the leaders were arrested.
Stephens's facile escape from Dublin Castle was a cause of reproach on the
ground that he sacrificed his lieutenants to his own chances instead of
taking them with him. He proceeded to the United States and devoted his
energies to pacifying and uniting the branch of the society there, but in
1867 he was formally deposed. He fled for his life to Paris, and in 1891
returned unnoticed to Ireland.

Source:    The New International Encyclopaedia
Publisher:  Dodd, Mead and Company-New York
Copyright:  1902-1905 Total of 21 volumes
                Transcribed by Miriam Medina