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  • John O’Keeffe and the Fenian Brotherhood in the American West and Midwest, 1866–1890
  • Regina Donlon

In the course of reminiscing about the Fenian invasion of Canada in 1866, Captain John O’Keeffe, a prominent activist and recruiter for the group, declared that the Fenian Brotherhood was “the greatest revolutionary organisation in the history of the world,” continuing that it “spread like lightening [sic] over two hemispheres.”1 Even allowing for hyperbole, O’Keeffe’s boast does not hold up under scrutiny. Certainly, from its formation in 1858, the Fenian Brotherhood—the more common name of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)—became one of the vehicles through which Irish nationalism in America was most effectively articulated during the second half of the nineteenth century. The purpose of the organization was to overthrow British rule in Ireland, secure Irish freedom, and create an Irish republic. That said, its tangible successes were limited at best.

Writing about the movement in Ireland, R.V. Comerford has suggested that membership of the IRB, appealed to “predominately ‘respectable’ wage earners and some of the urban lower middle class.”2 By contrast, the organization in America attracted, as T. H. O’Connor notes, “ambitious young men” and “rallied the more adventurous elements in the immigrant community.”3 Kevin Kenny has estimated that as early as 1865 the Fenians in America had attracted 250,000 followers, often Civil War veterans.4 The mobilization of these “ambitious young men” in America was accelerated by the outbreak of the American Civil War, which provided many Irish immigrants with invaluable military training and strengthened the membership of the Fenian Brotherhood in America.

O’Keeffe, born in County Kilkenny in 1847, was one of the “ambitious young men” to whom O’Connor alludes. He attended St. Patrick’s College in Carlow [End Page 86] before emigrating to the United States during the Civil War. A week after arriving in New York, O’Keeffe joined the celebrated 69th Infantry Regiment of the Union Army.5 He later recalled that his motivation for doing so was to “learn the soldier trade in the hope that the knowledge we acquired might, in the future, be of service to the old land.”6 This statement illustrates Susannah Ural Bruce’s observation in The Harp and the Eagle (2006) that many of the Irish “volunteered in order to acquire military experience that could be used to liberate Ireland in a future war, rather than to express any great loyalty to America.”7

Yet, although the stated aim of the organization was to bring about Irish freedom, the organization also played a role in the consolidation of an ethno-cultural identity within the immigrant community in America. This was particularly evident on the East Coast, where the dense composition of Irish communities in port cities like Boston, New York, and to a lesser extent, Philadelphia, ensured that the ideals of the Fenian Brotherhood were widely propagated. Although the development of the organization in the Midwest was not as numerically significant as on the East Coast, it nonetheless played a substantial role in the establishment of ethnic unity. The fact that Fenian Brotherhood circles were established in remote areas of Montana, Missouri, and Kansas represents the Irish immigrants’ ambitions to maintain their ethnic individualism, rather than their genuine commitment to Irish patriotism. The differing regional contexts in which the Fenians developed are important. In the East, it attracted individuals with a sincere and sustained interest in Irish nationalism. In contrast, the organization in the Midwest and West was primarily a vehicle through which developing Irish immigrant communities could form bonds and acculturate. As R. A. Burchell notes, the organization was “most valuable in binding Irishmen together through weekly meetings.”8 It did benefit the nationalist cause, but it had the added advantage of enabling immigrants to meet fellow countrymen and to acculturate to their new homes in a secure, embracing environment.

The historiography of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States is, paradoxically, both voluminous and narrow. Some historians have focused on the Fenian invasions of Canada, while more recently, others have followed a transnational line of inquiry by discussing Irish nationalism in the North Atlantic.9...


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