Patrick Steward and Bryan McGovern provide a comprehensive review of the Fenian Brotherhood’s activities in the Atlantic world during the mid-nineteenth century. The organization, founded in 1858, and known in Ireland as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), sought to overthrow British rule in Ireland by any means necessary, but particularly violent revolution. Steward and McGovern [End Page 511] provide good coverage of Fenian activities in Ireland and Britain, but are particularly strong on North America. They go beyond the classic study on American Fenianism by Leon O’Broin, published in 1971, describing the detailed machinations of Irish American politics behind the Fenians. These intrigues led to the inevitable Irish “split,” with some advocating an invasion of Canada (including, for example, the Fenians of Covington) and others for starting revolution in Ireland. The farcical nature of these “invasions” has become the standard interpretation, but Steward and McGovern make a strong case that, in motivational terms, the incursion led by Fenian leader and Union army veteran John O’Neill into Ontario inspired many Irish nationalists in America. The Battle of Ridgeway in June 1866, really a skirmish, did lead to a retreat of British Canadian forces, thus boosting the morale of the famine-generation Irish eager to strike a blow against Britain.
Strategically, this obsession with Canada, however, undermined efforts for revolution in Ireland. Steward and McGovern, nonetheless, highlight that, despite large recruiting efforts on that side of the Atlantic, the Fenian leadership there was virtually nonexistent. It took the appearance of Irish and Irish American veterans of the Civil War to push for any action in Ireland. The most notorious of them was a man with Kentucky connections. Born in Ohio, John McCafferty was, however, one of John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders (although he does not appear in the compiled service records). Although watched for by British and Irish police, he managed to get into Britain and, pretty much of his own accord, planned an attack on Chester Castle in early 1867 to garner arms, head to the west coast of nearby Wales, and ship the arms to Ireland to precipitate a revolution. The scheme failed, but when an attempt was made to spring some Fenians arrested at Chester from prison in Manchester, an unarmed policeman was shot and killed. Three of the men accused of this killing were convicted and executed, becoming the “Manchester Martyrs” and thereby adding their names to the bitter pantheon of those who died for Irish freedom. Even with the “Fenian [End Page 512] Fizzle,” as Steward and McGovern call it, continuing into the 1870s and 1880s, McCafferty continued to support the extreme wing of Irish nationalism, and was reportedly involved in a plot to kidnap the Prince of Wales, a bombing campaign in London, and the murder of the British chief secretary in Ireland.
McCafferty was an extreme example, but he was indicative of how the Fenians continued to have an impact on, as William Gladstone called it, the “Irish question,” and also on Anglo-American relations. The most pressing issue was the fate of Fenians who were American citizens of Irish birth imprisoned in Ireland and Britain. As a result, Britain came to recognize naturalized Americans of Irish birth as Americans in 1870. Irish American pressure on the U.S. government also helped secure the release of most Fenian prisoners. Through John Devoy, one of those released, and his organization, Clan na Gael, the spirit of the Fenian movement lived on in America to support other nationalist efforts until the partial Irish independence of 1922. Steward and McGovern see a longer influence, however, concluding that the “Fenian legacy thus endures to the present” in the “militant Irish Republicans opposed to the Good Friday Accords” (p. 234), but these remaining die-hards do not come within a million miles of the domestic and transatlantic support the Fenians had. This “North Atlantic World” of Irish militancy, portrayed so well in this book, appears to have finally ended.