The Fenians were members of the so-called Fenian movement in Ireland and elsewhere, though primarily America and England . The Fenians wanted one simple desire for Ireland - independence from British rule. The Great Famine had a massive impact on Ireland. Some in Ireland believed that the government in London - to solve the 'Irish Problem' - had deliberately done as little as possible to aid the people of Ireland – a form of genocide – and these people concluded that the only hope Ireland had for its future was a complete separation from Great Britain. If London was unwilling to grant this, then the Fenians would fight for it.
Anger against the British government spilled over in 1848. In this year a group of revolutionaries known as Young Ireland launched an ill-prepared uprising against the government. It was a failure.
Two of the members of Young Ireland were James Stephens and John O'Mahony. In the eyes of the authorities both had committed a very serious crime. To escape punishment both fled to Paris. Though near to Britain, both men were relatively safe in Paris.
In 1853, O'Mahony went to America. Here he tried to gain support for another uprising from those who had left Ireland during the Great Famine.
Stephens returned to Ireland in 1856. In Dublin in March 1858, he formed a secret society that became known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Its aim was Independence for Ireland. I
n America O'Mahony became the leader of a new organisation called the Fenian Brotherhood. It took its name from the Fianna who were a band of Irish warriors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The name ‘Fenians’ became an umbrella term to cover all the groups associated with wanting independence for Ireland. By the very nature of what they wanted, those elements within the Fenian movement who were prepared to use violence to advance their cause, had to remain secret.
The Fenian movement quickly attracted thousands of young supporters both in Ireland itself and America. When one of the 1848 Young Ireland rebels, Terence Bellew McManus, died in America in 1861, his funeral in Ireland was attended by thousands of people.
However, as the Fenian movement grew, so did the difficulties of keeping it organised. This had proved difficult because of the Irish-American geographic split and the problems of communications. But the two founders – O’Mahony and Stephens – disagreed on how the movement should develop. In 1863, Stephens founded a newspaper called the ‘Irish People’. He wanted to make as many people as was possible aware of what the Fenians stood for. O’Mahony did not approve of this move as he felt such a paper would attract even more attention to the movement from the British government based in Dublin. He preferred the movement to develop in secrecy.
Another problem faced by the Fenians was that the Roman Catholic Church was generally not supportive of them. The power of the local priests was great and their influence within a local community, and especially among the older members of such communities, meant that they could undermine whatever influence the Fenians tried to establish.
The Fenians always faced the possibility of being infiltrated by British spies. An uprising in Ireland had been planned for 1866 but it never took place because the government knew about it. In September 1866, the ‘Irish People’ was shut down by the government and Stephens was arrested and sent to prison. He escaped from jail and went to America. Anyone suspected of being involved with the Fenians was arrested. Money sent from America for the Fenians was seized. The government also believed that some units of the British Army based in Ireland were sympathetic to the Fenians. These units were moved out of Ireland.
There was an attempted uprising in 1867, though it was a failure. The ‘uprising’ was led by Thomas Kelly who had fought in the American Civil War. Kelly did not base himself in Ireland but in London. Here he gained support from the large Irish community that had come to the city during the Great Famine.
Kelly and other Fenians attempted to attack Chester Castle to gain weapons and ammunition. This was not a success and Kelly and another Fenian were arrested. In September 1867, Kelly was being taken to Manchester to be tried when he was rescued by other Fenians. During the rescue, a policeman was killed. Three of the Fenians were caught and after a trial were hanged for murder. To the Fenians, they became known as the "Manchester Martyrs". To many in Ireland, the sentence was considered far too harsh for what they saw as an accidental killing.
In December 1867, several Londoners were killed when a bomb planted by the Fenians exploded at Clerkenwell Prison. This caused a wave of anti-Irish feeling in London and elsewhere in England.
The activities of the Fenians were partly responsible for spurring William Gladstone into his stated mission – "to pacify Ireland". This led to the rise of Home Rule and the issues surrounding it. The Fenian movement became seemingly dormant for a number of decades – though it still existed as a movement. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was the most famous of the parts that made up the Fenian movement. However, politics now took a role in Ireland’s history. The murders of Lord Cavendish and T Burke in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882 showed the government in London that there were elements in Ireland who worked outside of the political arena even while Home Rule was being discussed. This murder was carried out by a group that called itself "The Invincibles".