THE FENIAN MOVEMENT – The Fenians wanted one simple desire for Ireland – Independence from British rule. The Great Hunger had a massive impact on Ireland. Many in Ireland believed that the government in London, to solve the ‘Irish Problem’, had deliberately did as little as possible to aid the people of Ireland – in fact committed genocide (exporting goods by armed guard out of the country) – therefore, 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.
John Francis O’Mahony was a gaelic scholar, a nationalist, and a Young Irelander. He is most famously known as the founder of the Fenian Brotherhood, the sister organisation to the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland.
O’Mahony was born in 1816 at Kilbehenny, Co Limerick. His father and his grandfather were members of the United Irishmen and took part in the failed 1798 Rebellion. He defied the ban of the Catholic Church and studied Sanskrit, Hebrew and Irish at Trinity College Dublin, though he did not take a degree. While at Trinity he was an accomplished Gaelic scholar and taught Greek and Latin.
In 1843 O’Mahony joined Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Movement, but quickly became disillusioned with the movement’s lack of progress. He then joined William Smith O’Brien’s Young Ireland Movement, taking part in the failed Young Ireland Rebellion in 1848. His part in the failed rebellion resulted in him having to leave Ireland for exile in Paris. While in Paris he met with other Irish exiles, including James Stephens. Stephens and O’Mahony planned of founding a secret organisation to obtain Irish freedom. Stephens would recruit for the Irish branch while O’Mahony would create the American branch.
In 1854 O’Mahony travelled to New York City where he met fellow Young Irelander John Mitchel and joined several Irish aid organisations, including the Emmet Monument Association. In 1857 he published History of Ireland, by Geoffrey Keating, D.D., translated from the Original Gaelic, and Copiously Annotated, a work which left him mentally exhausted and confined to an asylum for some time. It was this work that inspired the name of the organisation he was sent to America to found. On 28 February 1858, O’Mahony and Michael Doheny founded the Fenian Brotherhood, named for the Fenian warriors of the ancient Gaelic tales. On St Patrick’s Day the same year Stephens founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland.
The Brotherhood grew quickly in America, especially after the funding campaign in 1861 to raise money to repatriate to Ireland the body of a minor 1848 uprising exile who died in San Francisco, Terence McManus. The American Civil War brought even more Irish in America into the Brotherhood. O’Mahony was a colonel of the 69th Regiment of New York State Militia, which was mainly Fenian recruits, though he resigned his commission towards the end of the war to focus on the Brotherhood.
The end of the Civil War in 1865 left the Brotherhood with hundreds of trained Irish soldiers looking for their next fight. Though O’Mahony was the president of the Brotherhood during this time, he took no part in the planning or execution of the 1867 Fenian Rising in Ireland or the Fenian raids into Canada between 1866-1870. The later part of his life was dedicated to literary pursuits, and though he controlled the Brotherhood exchequer, he lived in poverty, refusing aid. He died in New York on this date in 1877. His body was brought back to Ireland and buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
Photo: Thee grave of John O’Mahony (1816-1877), Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin