Union Rebels: Civil War Veterans & the Fenian Campaign in Britain & Ireland, 1866-1868

In Part 2 of the guest series on the participation of American Civil War veterans in the operations of the Fenian Movement, James Doherty takes a look at events such as the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the creation of the “Manchester Martyrs” the Temple Bar shootings and the Clerkenwell Bombing. Virtually every major Fenian incident that took place in Britain and Ireland during the late 1860s involved a number of men who had fought for the Union during the Civil War– as we will discover below.

The first part of this article looked at the phenomenon of how the American Civil War acted as a breeding ground for militant Irish Nationalism and examined the failed gun-running expedition carried out by Fenians in 1867. The wide scale rebellion that the Fenians were planning to supply never materialised, but subsequent events would show that the threat from their movement was far from over. Ireland in 1867 was a tense and dangerous place– skirmishes had occurred between police and Fenians and there was sightings of mysterious boats lurking off the Irish coast. Fenian cells, or circles as they were known, existed in most Irish and many British towns and cities. Rumours persisted of the existence of “Fenian Fire” a substance like naphtha that was to be used in incendiary attacks on government buildings. Large numbers of returning veterans of the Civil War added to this already dangerous milieu. The term Fenian Fever* was adopted by the popular media as fears of insurrection or large scale attacks created a level of panic. The British authorities governing Ireland were anxious, to put it mildly. (1)

Officers of the 15th New York Engineers during the Civil War. Prominent Fenian Ricard O'Sullivan Burke served in this regiment (Library of Congress)

Officers of the 15th New York Engineers during the Civil War. Prominent Fenian Ricard O’Sullivan Burke (discussed below) served as an officer in this regiment (Library of Congress)

Draconian measures were introduced to help maintain law and order and to prevent further attempts at rebellion. Habeas Corpus (the legal requirement to bring a detained person before a judge or court) was suspended which meant that people could be arrested and imprisoned indefinitely based solely on suspicion. Between February 1866 and March 1867 seven hundred and seventy seven men were arrested under these emergency powers. Interestingly, out of this group of internees over a hundred were released under condition that they leave for America, indicating where many had originated. The Waterford News complained of a “police reign of terror” and noted how transatlantic American passengers feared to disembark at Cobh for fear of arrest. Responding to the rumoured existence of “Fenian Fire” the British authorities ordered sand to be spread on the floors of public buildings in an attempt to hinder arson attacks and recruited thousands more police constables. (2)

The closing months of 1867 would witness a series of events that involved veterans of the Civil War and would show both how dangerous and unpredictable the Fenian movement could be. Earlier that year, after the failed Irish rebellion, many of the Fenian leadership had been rounded up. Two of its leaders, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, escaped capture and travelled from Ireland to Britain to reorganise the movement there. Kelly had served as captain in the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and Deasy as first lieutenant in the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, units which both had significant Fenian elements. The Fenian movement in Britain and Ireland was in a state of flux. The rebellion had been a failure, the movement had been infiltrated by informers and many of its best men where in prison. Thomas Kelly was acting head of the Fenian operation in Ireland and Britain and set about the task of reinvigorating the organisation so that it could once more work towards its goal of an independent Ireland.

In September 1867 Kelly held a key meeting, where in addition to consolidating some of the depleted Fenian circles he was elected as the undisputed head of the movement. Over 150 Fenian delegates attended the meeting which was chaired by Captain James Murphy (late of the 9th Massachusetts) and Ricard O’Sullivan Burke. O’Sullivan Burke was the Fenian agent who had met the Erin’s Hope gun running expedition on the Irish coast and was now based in Manchester. O’Sullivan Burke was a larger than life character who had travelled the world and had also served in the Civil War with the 15th New York Engineers. He was now an arms procurer for the Fenian movement. (3)

On the night of 11th of September, when Kelly and Deasy left a Fenian safe house in the Smithfield Market area of Manchester, a Policeman stepped from the shadows and ordered both men to halt. The constable had no idea that these were two of the most wanted men in the British Empire, but had arrested them under the vagrancy act as he suspected them of burglary. They both gave false names and were several days in custody before their true identity was confirmed. (4)

Memorial to the Manchester Martyrs in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (Damian Shiels)

Memorial to the Manchester Martyrs in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (Damian Shiels)

The men’s capture was a major set-back for the Fenians, which had occurred just as Kelly was breathing life back into the organisation. The local Fenian leadership under O’Sullivan Burke and Edward O’Meagher Condon plotted to free the two prize captives. Condon was yet another veteran, having served in the 164th New York Infantry, and he immediately began surveillance on the magistrates court where Kelly and Deasy were due to appear. (5)

On the afternoon of the 18th of September the two Fenians, along with three other prisoners, left the Bridge Street Magistrates Court headed for the old city gaol at Belle Vue. They were being held in a horse-drawn “Black Maria” police van; six police rode on top with another officer– Sergeant Brett– travelled inside. All of the police were unarmed. When the van approached the Hyde Road Bridge a group of thirty to forty Fenians emerged, using sticks and stones to attack the police and threatening to open fire. The six police on top fled, leaving only the officer locked inside the van, who also had the keys. Threats were made and the brave Sergeant Brett reportedly replied “I’ll do my duty till the last”. It is believed an attempt was made to shoot the lock off, but the bullet passed through the keyhole, killing Sergeant Brett instantly. Another prisoner passed out the keys to the rescuers and Kelly and Deasy made their escape.  However, due in part to the actions of Sergeant Brett, the escape had taken much longer than anticipated. A large hostile crowd had gathered and scuffles had broken out. Guards from the nearby prison also started to arrive and join in the melee. Although the two prisoners escaped, many rank and file Fenians and the raid leader Condon were arrested. Over the next few days, and amidst scenes of anti- Irish hysteria, anyone suspected of having Fenian links was rounded up. Between fresh suspects and those arrested at the scene 28 men were brought forward for trial. Five of them were sentenced to hang. (6)

Two out of the five were Civil War veterans. In addition to the aforementioned Condon, another of the condemned men, Michael O’Brien, had served in Battery E, 5th New Jersey Light Artillery. One of the five, Thomas Maguire, was released due lack of evidence and thanks to the intercession of senior American diplomats Condon’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The remaining three men– Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen and Michael Larkin– were hanged amidst tight security on 23rd November 1867. Their names were immediately immortalised by the Irish nationalist movement as the “Manchester Martyrs.” Whilst events in Manchester unfolded Fenian violence flared in Dublin. The movement was well aware of how badly infiltrated their ranks were, and rumours persisted of a shooting circle– a team of assassins sent from America to eradicate informers. The Dublin Metropolitan Police were an unarmed force, but, somewhat ironically, in the winter of 1867 many had resorted to carrying weapons seized from the Fenians earlier in the year. On 31st October (Halloween night) Constable John Kenna approached a suspicious looking character on a dark unlit street in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. The suspect turned suddenly towards Kenna and shot him in the chest, wounding him fatally. Moments later a second constable rushing to Kenna’s aid was shot and seriously wounded. Something akin to panic gripped officialdom; first there was the escape of the Fenian chiefs Kelly and Deasy (who had by now surfaced to a heroes welcome in New York) and now police officers had been gunned down on the streets of Dublin. A major police operation soon swung into action as the establishment demanded a response. Once again the Fenians were informed upon, and a Patrick Lennon was identified as the leader of the so called “shooting circle”. (7)

Patrick Lennon was one of the hard men of the Fenian movement. His military career began in the British army where he saw action during the Indian Mutiny. He ran from the army but was caught and branded with the letter “D” for deserter. Lennon would later travel to the States where he supposedly served in a New York cavalry regiment. After the war Lennon flitted over and back between Britain and Ireland conducting Fenian business, and proved to be an elusive target. His luck ran out on the evening of the 8th January 1868, when he was apprehended by two detectives. Ominously he was carrying a list of the home addresses of senior administration officials in Ireland. Although he gave a false name, he was quickly identified through his branded scar. Over the next few days the newspapers were alive with the news of the capture of the notorious Fenian triggerman. At his trial, Lennon proudly admitted to being a member of the Fenian movement, but denied any involvement in the murder of Constable Kenna in Temple Bar. His murder trial collapsed due to lack of evidence, but he received 15 years hard labour for Fenian membership. At his trial an unrepentant Lennon stated his hope that the British Monarchy would collapse before his sentence expired, and avowed that he would gladly take up the Fenian cause again. (8)

Portraits remembering the Manchester Martyrs. American Civil War veteran Michael O'Brien is at left (Library of Congress)

Portraits remembering the Manchester Martyrs. American Civil War veteran Michael O’Brien is at left (Library of Congress)


In the winter of 1867 support for the Fenians ran high. Their PR machine had made a victory out of the failed Erin’s Hope expedition, portraying it as a David v Goliath type mission. The execution of the Manchester Martyrs triggered great resentment and anger within Ireland and the global Irish diaspora. As far away as New Zealand mock funeral processions were carried out in Irish communities. However, this surge in public sentiment would prove fleeting. (9)

The Fenian arms agent Ricard O’Sullivan Burke had been a constant in nearly all the Fenian “outrages” of 1867. On the 20th of November Burke was arrested in London and remanded to Clerkenwell prison. Once inside he started to plan his own escape. He smuggled out a note requesting that a hole be blown in the wall of the prison whilst he was out of his cell exercising. The escape plan went disastrously wrong. On Thursday the 12th of December the Fenians placed a gunpowder keg against the wall of the prison, but it failed to ignite. Unperturbed, they returned the next morning and tried again. The explosive was vastly overpowered and caused terrible loss of life and destruction in the streets surrounding the prison. Burke was fortunate that he had been ordered to exercise in a different part of the prison, as no one in the exercise yard would have survived. The escape attempt failed and Burke was sentenced to fifteen years hard labour. (10)

Eight men were arrested for the botched Clerkenwell bombing, but only one– Michael Barrett– was ever convicted, and that was on questionable evidence. In what was to be the last public execution of the Fenians he was hanged on the 26th May 1868. The bomb had ripped through a row of tenement houses behind the gaol causing twelve deaths and fifty injuries. Unlike the Fenians hanged for the rescue of Deasy and Kelly, the reckless nature of the Clerkenwell bombing ensured that Barrett didn’t enter the Fenian lexicon as a martyr. (11)

1867 marked the high water mark for militant Fenianism and its trans-Atlantic connection. Public support for the organisation had peaked after the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs but had sharply declined after the Clerkenwell bombing. The failed rebellion and the subsequent chaotic events that followed both in Britain and Ireland led the Fenian leadership to withdraw from the pursuit of violent rebellion and work towards influencing public policy in America around the issue of Irish independence. However, Fenian violence would return again in the in the 1880s, when a series of public buildings were bombed in what became known as the “Dynamite War.” (12)

One of the most interesting characters in the dramatic events of 1867 was Ricard O’Sullivan Burke. After his plot to rescue himself from prison failed, he faced a lengthy sentence in the harsh conditions of the Victorian prison system. In just three years it was reported that he was broken both mentally and physically. After pleas for clemency he was released in 1871 and returned to the America. After his release, the enigmatic O’Sullivan Burke quickly perked up and acted as an engineer to the Fenian movement. He was heavily involved in plans in the 1880s to develop the “Fenian Ram” a submarine designed by the Irish man John Holland that (it was hoped) would help to end British supremacy at sea. His adventures weren’t over; in 1881 Burke eloped with a girl half his age. He died at the age of 84, having remained committed to the Fenian cause all his life. (13)

"The Fenian Guy Fawkes" a caricature carried in Punch Magazine, December 1867, and reflective of the anxiety being caused by Fenian operations (Punch)

“The Fenian Guy Fawkes” a caricature carried in Punch Magazine, December 1867, and reflective of the anxiety being caused by Fenian operations (Punch)


*The term was first used in America in 1866 to describe the panic caused by the Fenian Raids into Canada, but by 1867 was being widely used by the media.

(1) Beiner 2014; (2) British Parliamentary Papers, The Waterford News, Beiner 2014; (3) O’Neill 2012, Kane 2002; (4) O’Neill 2012; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid; (7) Ibid., Kane 2002; (8) Ibid, Sydney Morning Herald, The New Zealand Press; (9) Ibid; (10) The New Zealand Press, Feniangraves.net; (11) Staniforth 2012; (12) Ibid.; (13) Dictionary of Irish Biography;

References

The Waterford News 14th February 1868.

Sydney Morning Herald 3rd April 1868.

The New Zealand Press 9th October 1909.

Enhanced British Parliamentary Papers On Ireland. Return of Number of Persons in Custody in Ireland under Habeas Corpus Suspension Act released from Imprisonment, and Number arrested, February 1866-67

Beiner, Guy. 2014. “Fenianism and Martyrdom– Terrorism Nexus in Ireland before Independence” in Dominic Janes & Alex Houen (eds.) Martyrdom and Terrorism.

Kane, Michael H. 2002. “American Soldiers in Ireland, 1865-67” in The Irish Sword: The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. 23, No. 91, pp. 103-140

Kennerk, Barry 2010. Shadow of the Brotherhood: The Temple Bar Shootings.

O’Neill, Joseph 2012. The Manchester Martyrs.

Staniforth, Andrew 2012. The Routledge Companion to UK Counter-Terrorism.

Fenian Graves.net

Dictionary of Irish Biography

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Categories: Discussion and Debate, Guest Post

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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3 Comments on “Union Rebels: Civil War Veterans & the Fenian Campaign in Britain & Ireland, 1866-1868”

  1. BampotsUtd.wordpress.com
    February 23, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on Bampots Utd.

  2. February 29, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

    Fantastic stuff!

  3. March 3, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

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