The Bold Fenian Men

Liam Ó Murchadha, do scrí

Deliver at the Fenian Commemoration at the Fenian Monument Calvary Cemetery, Queens ,NY on Nov. 11 2012

An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger of mid-19th century Ireland, which saw the population reduced by a half, was proof positive of the necessity, as Wolfe Tone had said in the 18th century, to break the connection with England (the “evil empire” to most 19th century Americans).  John Mitchel, in An Apology for the British Government in Ireland, as well as in the pages of his newspaper, The United Irishman, would make the case in a most compelling manner that England had encouraged and aggravated the famine for the purpose of thinning the Irish population.  Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes of New York stated that the food, which could have fed the Irish, was “exported to a better market, and left the people to die of famine…” [See Thomas Gallagher, Paddy’s Lament; Christine Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland and This Great Calamity; Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame.]   The “Famine” period would take on, for the Irish of the 19th and 20th centuries, the same psychological significance as the Nazi period has for the Jews of the 20th and 21st centuries.

After the failure of the Rising in 1848, the locus of Irish revolutionary activity had shifted from Dublin to New York.  After the suggestion of William Smith O’Brien, a conspiratorial élite of Irish exiles sought to create an Irish Republican military force.  Seven men, Michael Doheny, John O’Mahony, Michael Corcoran, Thomas J. Kelly, James Roche, Oliver Byrne and Patrick O’Rourke, gathered in the law office of Michael Doheny (of Brookhill, near Fethard, County Tipperary - Chairman, Emmet Monument Association), to play their part in the future liberation of Ireland.  As later articulated by Brian O’Higgins in the Wolfe Tone Annual, the lesson of history was clear to these men: Ireland had made progress toward freedom only through physical force, or the threat of physical force.  This was the cornerstone of the belief and purpose of The Bold Fenian Men –  The Fenian Faith. 

In part through the agency of Irish revolutionaries, the 69th Regiment of New York had been brought into existence on 12th October 1851 (Michael Doheny its first Lieutenant Colonel).  Nor was the 69th the only such Irish revolutionary unit in the organized militias of the several States (e.g., the “Irish” 9th and the 75th New York).  Realizing that activity in America would be futile without cooperation in Ireland, these exiles, the executive committee of the Emmet Monument Association, meeting in New York, reached out to their former comrades-in-arms at home, with the result that Joseph Denieffe, Thomas Clarke Luby and James Stephens brought into existence the Irish Revolutionary / Republican Brotherhood (the IRB) in Dublin, Saint Patrick's Day 1858. 

The IRB, which brought about the Rising in Dublin and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during Easter Week 1916, can trace its origin to this band of 1848 “Young Ireland” exiles, in New York City, meeting at 6 Centre Street, and then in the Hibernian Hall managed by Michael Corcoran (of the 69th New York State Militia), near Saint Patrick's old Cathedral on Prince Street. 

“The Wandering Hawk” Stephens became the Head Center of the IRB in Ireland, and the scholar O’Mahony was Head Center of the organization in America. 

O’Mahony, would later command the 99th New York State Militia “Phoenix Brigade” in the American Civil War.  It was another “Fenian” regiment, but of brigade strength, consisting of some forty (40) independent companies.  O’Mahony (from Kilbeheny, County Limerick), in 1858, was already a scholar of international repute, thanks in part to the wide acclaim for his translation of Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland from early classical modern Irish into English.  He was inspired by the example of na fianna, the élite national guard of third century Ireland.  He coined the word Fenian for the brotherhood in America.  Soon the terms Fenian and IRB became interchangeable. 

The Fenian Brotherhood grew exponentially after the refusal of Colonel Michael Corcoran to parade the 69th for the visiting (so-called) “Prince of Wales,” 11th October 1860, and the many ceremonies en route of the ’48 man, Terrence Bellew M’Manus, who died in San Francisco in 1861, and was eventually buried in Ireland.  This growth was compounded in both armies during the American Civil War, as well as, thanks in large part to the exertions of John Devoy, among Irish in the British Army.     

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the Fenian Brotherhood in America sent its most trusted military officer, Captain Thomas Kelly (formerly of the 75th New York State Militia, later part of the 69th - veteran of the “green flag” “Bloody 10th” Ohio Infantry, later Chief Signal Officer, XIV Corps, US Army of the Cumberland), home to Ireland to assess the prospects for a Rising, and to advise on military matters.  By summer 1865, John Devoy was convinced that the time was ripe for a rising.  The Fenian Chief, James Stephens, was captured in Dublin; Kelly, with John Devoy and others, rescued Stephens from Richmond Gaol – much to the consternation of Dublin Castle.

Kelly arranged their harrowing escape from Ireland, via a collier to Kilmarnock in Scotland, thence by rail to London, whence to Paris and ultimately to America.  In May 1866 Stephens, then in New York, appointed Thomas Kelly of New York (from Mountbellew, County Galway), his deputy.  After the visionary organizer Stephens stepped down on 29th December 1866, now Colonel Kelly, FB, the pragmatic military man, became Chief Organizer of the Irish Republic (Virtually Established) and leader of the Fenian Brotherhood / IRB.  Kelly promptly sailed, from New York, for England and Ireland in January 1867, to assess the situation, organize, and plan for a Rising. 

Of the Fenian Brotherhood / IRB, co-founded, and, for a time, led by Thomas Kelly, American soldier and Irish revolutionary, it can truly be said, “Is iad a do an tine beo”-  It is they who lit the everlasting fire.  It is the fire they lit which continues to inspire.  Professor Eoin McKiernan, former Editor of J.J. McGarrity’s newspaper The Irish Republic, and later founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute, felt that Ireland’s best chance for freedom was probably the Fenians – The Bold Fenian Men. 

As Pádraic Pearse would say, in his oration at the grave of the Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa, on Lá Lughnasa 1915, “… the seeds sewn by the young men of ’65 and ’67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today.”  They would bear fruit during Easter Week, 1916.

Glory O, Glory O, to the Bold Fenian Men

Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a n-anama uasaile

Go saoradh Dia Éire!


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