Irish Secret Societies in America

From the Lecture Series: Secret Societies

By Richard Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Secret societies in Ireland were mainly focused on taking back their independence that was taken away from them centuries ago. However, they hadn’t had much success as English rule was dominant, and the Irish secret societies were not powerful enough to challenge this imperial power. Still, their activities extended across borders.

The flag of Irish Republican Brotherhood, the organisation Clan na Gael was directly tied to for many decades
Flag of Irish Republican Brotherhood (Image: Fred the Oyster/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

In addition to social and political adversities, Ireland grappled with a natural disaster, the Great Famine. Nearly a third of the Irish population had starved or immigrated, mainly to the United States by 1851. By the end of the century, the number of Irish people in America was more than those in Ireland. Among them were Irish secret societies, too.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians

The first secret society that appeared in the US was the Ancient Order of Hibernians that rose in 1836. Modeled after Freemasonry, the members had to be male, catholic, and be Irish or of Irish descent. It was a peaceful fraternal order that, although they appeared to oppose Irish independence, supported home rule. It meant the Irish could maintain self-government under the British Empire. As most of their founding members had links to the Ribbon Men, they had a bitter hostility with the American Orange Order.

Learn more about the freemasons.

Logo of the Ancient Order of Hibernians
This emblem of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was found in the Library of Congress and was published on the front page of the Hibernian Digest in 2001.(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The Fenian Brotherhood

In the 1840s, a new society called Young Ireland emerged that was inspired by nationalist sentiments in Europe. Influenced by the French and German revolutions, Young Ireland staged a rebellion, which failed.

Among the Irish immigrants to the US, there were two veterans of the failed Young Ireland, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. In 1854, they founded a new society in New York, the Fenian Brotherhood, which was named after a group of mythical Irish fighters called the Fianna.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

In the years to come, all Irish Rebels were called by the generic name of Fenian. Another brotherhood emerged as the Fenian’s sister society, known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenian maintained a more significant position than its sister society as it could operate more freely in America. Their problems were similar, though: factional feud and informers.

Learn more about secret societies: the never-ending story.

The Fenian Brotherhood Schemes

As thousands of Irishmen had fought in the American Civil War, they had an expanded group of experienced officers and soldiers.

The most significant project that the American Fenians launched was an invasion of Canada. They had schemed to take over Montreal and other cities to offer later to exchange them for the freedom of Ireland. They sold dubious bonds that were to be redeemed by a future Irish republic and raised a massive war chest. With this cash, they armed and equipped thousands of volunteers.

"Freedom to Ireland", a patriotic lithograph by Currier & Ives, New York, c. 1866
‘Freedom to Ireland’, a patriotic lithograph by Currier & Ives, New York, c. 1866 (Image: Currier & Ives./Public domain)

The first invasion that took place in spring 1866 was an amphibious operation to take over Campobello Island, near Maine. But it fizzled.

Then Gen. O’Neil and his army of 1,000 Civil War veterans passed the border at Buffalo and took over Fort Erie, Ontario. The US government, who had been silent so far, had to take action due to a harsh objection by the British government. The American Army cut off supplies and reinforcements to his army so he couldn’t advance any further.

The Fenians didn’t give up, though. In 1867, they set up a parade of 6,000 armed men in Philadelphia. In April 1870, O’Neil gathered 1,300 soldiers in Vermont. They crossed the border into Quebec, not knowing the Canadian militia was awaiting them. After just one barrage from the Canadians, the Irish men rushed back across the border. They had called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but Canadians said the abbreviation stood for ‘I Ran Away’.

O’Neil never suspected that his failure was due to the betrayal of his friend and comrade, Henri Le Caron, who was a British agent. However, that was not the only case of Le Caron’s betrayal. The following year, he also revealed a plan of invasion out of North Dakota to Canadians. This plan also fizzled.

The Clan na Gael

These failed invasions left the Fenian Brotherhood discredited and shattered. The radical members formed a new brotherhood called the Clan Na Gael. In 1881, they planned an attack against the British at sea. They commissioned John Holland, the American inventor, to develop a submarine called the Fenian Ram to invade British trading ships and warships. The submarine was built, but the Irish did not pay Holland and stole the submarine. There was a catch, though: they didn’t know how to operate it, and Holland wouldn’t tell them how to do it. So, the submarine was moved to a barn in Connecticut and remained there until 1916.

Common Questions about Irish Secret Societies in America

Q: Why did the Irish move to America?

One of the main reasons for Irish immigration was a Great Famine. Through the mid-to-late-19th century, about a third of the Irish population was lost to starvation and emigration. They mostly immigrated to the US.

Q: What was the Ancient Order of Hibernians?

The Ancient Order of Hibernians was an Irish secret brotherhood in America. It mimicked Freemasons and only accepted male Catholics who were born in Ireland or of Irish descent.

Q: What is meant by home rule?

Home rule was a system of government promoted by some opposing groups of British rule over Ireland. It meant the Irish could maintain self- government, but they had to remain under the British Empire.

Q: Who were the Fenians?

The Fenians were a secret Irish group founded by two veterans of the failed Young Ireland, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. In 1854, they founded the Fenian Brotherhood in New York. Named after a group of mythical Irish fighters called the Fianna, they launched several rebellions, all of which failed.

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