[NOTE – this piece accompanies a similar feature in my podcast, In The Past Lane
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of talk about immigration and terrorism these days. Specifically, many Americans are worried about the alleged threat posed by Muslim immigrants and refugees. They fear that some of these people may be motivated by Islamic extremism to commit acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, much like we saw in the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
Most Americans see this problem as a relatively new one – one that emerged in the wake of the terror attacks on September 11. But the association of immigrant groups with terrorism has a long history in this country.
In the late 19th century, for example, many Americans feared German immigrants because a small percentage of them were avowed radicals. These fears exploded in the wake of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in May 1886, an act of violence that killed 7 policemen and was blamed — albeit on sketchy evidence — on German anarchists. A few decades later, Americans shifted their fears from Germans to Italian immigrants because a small percentage of them likewise subscribed to anarchism, as well as other radicalisms like socialism. A number of murders and bombings in the early 20th century were attributed to Italian immigrant anarchists, including a massive bomb explosion on Wall Street in 1920 that killed thirty people.
But in this piece, let’s look at the connection between Irish immigration and terrorism in late 19th-century. It’s safe to say that the Irish were more closely associated with terrorism in the American mind than any other immigrant group and for a very long period of time. That’s right – the immigrant group that today most Americans associate with leprechauns, JFK, Riverdance, partying, and parading – was in the late 19th-century associated with terrorism.
Before going any further, it’s essential to point out that there are significant differences between San Bernardino-style terrorism that’s aimed at killing American citizens on US soil, and the terrorism that the Irish engaged in which was aimed at soldiers, policeman, and politicians in Ireland and Great Britain for the purposes of achieving Irish independence. These differences will become apparent as the details of this story unfold.
Let’s start with a quick Irish history 101. Our story begins in the mid 1860s, so what was the situation in Ireland at that time. For hundreds of years up to that point, Ireland had been ruled by England. This colonial rule had become particularly onerous by the mid-17th century. That’s when the seizing of land from the Irish and transferring it to English landlords began in earnest, along with the suppression of the Catholic Church.
Periodically, the Irish rose up against British colonial rule, most notably in 1798 and 1848. But these insurrections were all crushed. Then in the mid-1840s, the Great Famine struck Ireland, killing more than 1 million people – about 1/8 of the population — and forcing another 1,000,000+ to flee, most of them to America.
Among these many immigrants were ardent Irish nationalists, many of whom had participated in the 1848 uprising. They were determined to launch another uprising that would gain Ireland’s independence. And they would take advantage of the freedoms in America to plot, recruit, and fundraise for this effort. In the mid 1850s, these Irish nationalists, along with their brethren in Ireland, founded a nationalist organization that came to be known as the Fenians. For simplicity’s sake, we will use the term Fenians throughout this story. But it should be noted that Fenians was a broad term used to describe Irish nationalists who belonged to several different organizations like the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. The name Fenian comes from ancient Irish mythology. It’s an adaptation of the Fianna, the name of a legendary band of Irish warriors.
By 1860, these Fenians had recruited thousands of members from among the Irish immigrant masses in America. And they’d raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund an uprising in Ireland to gain Irish independence. And when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Fenians came to see it as enormously beneficial to their efforts. That’s because nearly 200,000 Irish and Irish-American men joined the Union Army. When the war ended, the Fenians reasoned, these battle hardened Irishman would make an ideal military force to help gain Ireland’s independence.
In 1866, a year after the Civil War concluded, the Fenians were ready to strike. But they had come to see that sending a force of 30,000 Irish-American Fenians across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland wasn’t practical. So, they opted for what appeared to be the next best thing: invade British North America, or what we know today as Canada. The goal was to trigger a war between the United States and Great Britain – something easy to imagine, since Americans were still furious with Great Britain for its support of the Confederacy. As soon as war broke out between America and Great Britain, Irish nationalists in Ireland would launch their uprising. Great Britain, they believed, would be so consumed with waging war on the United States, that it would be powerless to stop the Fenians from establishing an independent Ireland.
Now, if you think this sounds crazy, it’s important to point out that many Fenians also thought it was crazy. But they couldn’t stop a more militant faction within the movement from attempting the invasion.
In the spring of 1866 – 150 years ago – thousands of Fenian soldiers, many of them veterans of the Union Army, gathered in encampments along the Canadian-US border, from Vermont to upstate New York. This was surely an impressive start. But disorganization, poor communication, and sketchy logistics resulted in only one significant invasion effort. On June 1, 1866, a force of 1,000 Fenian soldiers, led by Civil War veteran Lieut. John O’Neill, crossed Lake Erie aboard a flotilla of boats, and landed on the Canadian side. The next day, after encountering no resistance, they attacked the small town of Ridgeway which was defended by about 850 poorly trained militia. The Irish invaders won the ensuing battle that saw eight Fenians and 12 Canadians killed. O’Neill called for 3,000 more soldiers massed in Buffalo, New York to join them in Canada, but by then the US military had moved in to stop the invasion. Frustrated, O’Neill had no choice but to retreat. After a brief skirmish with Canadian militia, his men boarded boats and headed for the United States’ side. But they were intercepted and arrested by American officials.
Now, stop here for a moment to consider this incident. A group of Irish-Americans, some of them still on active duty in the US Army, had conspired to invade a neighboring country to trigger a war between the United States and Great Britain. They killed 12 Canadians in the process. And had they succeeded in starting that war, thousands would have died. And who knows what the result would have been for the US.
Can you imagine a modern equivalent to this story? What if 1,000 Pakistani-Americans – all of them Muslim – gathered secretly in the desert in Arizona, formed a heavily armed force, and then invaded Mexico? And, after killing 12 Mexican soldiers, they retreated back to the United States whereupon they were arrested. What would be the reaction in this country? Fear? Rage? Talk of internment camps? Or worse?
While you think this over, let’s return to our story. What happened to the arrested Irishman? What became the Fenian invaders? Incredibly, all were released and all charges eventually dropped. This occurred for two reasons. One, American politicians did not want to alienate the Irish American vote by prosecuting men who many Irish-Americans saw as heroes. Second, this was a deeply embarrassing event and many US officials simply wanted it to go away.
By the way, the Fenian invasion did not simply go away in minds of the British living in the various colonies that made up British North America. Rather, it helped convince them of the need to unite into a single political entity to protect themselves from the United States. This “confederation,” as it was known, became official – one year later in 1867. So the Fenians failed to liberate Ireland from British rule, but they did help put Canada on the road to independence. Talk about the law of unintended consequences!
OK, let’s get back to the Fenians. Not surprisingly, the Fenian movement fell into disarray in the aftermath of the invasion fiasco. But various factions and other Irish nationalist organizations in the US continued to raise money for future operations aimed at gaining Irish independence. And some of these operations were explicitly terrorist in nature – bombings and assassinations.
In the 1870s, one Fenian living in New York named Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (depicted in the adjacent political cartoon) established what he euphemistically called a “Skirmishing Fund.” Each week in a newspaper he edited, O’Donovan Rossa reported the success of his efforts to raise money to fund operations against the British. Other Irishmen also raised money for similar purposes. Beginning in 1881, Fenians in the US and Ireland began to put this money to use. From 1881 to 1885 a dozen Fenian bombings rocked Great Britain. In 1882, radical Irish nationalists assassinated the two top British officials in Ireland, stabbing them to death in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
At the same time, Irish nationalists in New York City hatched another truly outlandish scheme. They commissioned the building of a submarine that would be used to sink British ships. Now keep in mind, while there had been many attempts, including a recent one by the Confederate navy, no navy in the world had managed to construct a successful military submarine. But these diehard Irish Americans were undaunted.
And amazingly, they succeeded. Well, sort of. It’s a remarkable story. The Fenians hired an Irish-born self-taught marine engineer named John Holland to build the submarine. He’d been studying submarine design and tinkering with scale models for years and now he had the funding to actually build one. The craft, dubbed the Fenian Ram, was completed in the spring of 1881. It was cigar-shaped, thirty-one feet long and six feet wide, with room for two to three crewmen. Torpedoes intended for British ships would be shot by compressed air through a tube at the bow. Holland completed a number of successful test runs in New York harbor.
But by July of 1881 the “secret” submarine plot was uncovered by the New York Times. In the end, the Fenian Ram was never put into action. But interestingly, John Holland went on to build the first submarines for the US Navy. In fact, he’s often referred to as “the father of the American submarine fleet.” That’s a pretty amazing turn of events for a man linked to a Fenian terrorist plot. You can still see the Fenian Ram on display at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, NJ.
This submarine plot, along with the bombings, assassinations, and invasions of Canada (yes, invasions – there were additional ones not discussed here), brought a lot of harsh criticism on the Irish in the United States. It added to the stereotype of the Irish as inherently violent people. This sentiment is revealed in the political cartoons that accompany this piece that depict the Irish as terroristic bombers. Fenianism also perpetuated the claim that the Irish would never make good Americans, because their actions showed them to be disloyal to the United States and obsessed with Ireland. At least that’s what their critics claimed.
So, what became of this Fenian movement and the association of the Irish with terrorism? To begin with, it’s important to point out that not all Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans supported Fenian violence. A great majority of the Irish in America did support efforts to gain Ireland’s independence from Great Britain, but not necessarily by means of violence. The Catholic Church in America promoted this position. It denounced Fenians and threatened Catholics with excommunication if they joined the movement. As a result, as more and more Irish-Americans began to experience upward economic mobility in the late-nineteenth century, they tended to avoid any association with Fenian-style Irish nationalism. These Irish-Americans wanted a free Ireland, but they also wanted respect. They wanted to be seen as intelligent, hard-working, sober, and patriotic Americans. As a consequence, they worked very hard to eradicate the association of the Irish with crime, poverty, disease, drunkenness, and – yes – nationalist violence. They supported efforts to liberate Ireland, but only peaceful and constitutional efforts. They rejected violence and terrorism as misguided and harmful to the Irish reputation. By 1900 the image of the Fenian bomber and assassin had faded in the United States. At that point, Americans were fixated on more recently arrived immigrant radicals from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Over the coming decades, continued rising economic status, as well as military service and staunch support for the Cold War, earned Irish Americans a reputation as some of the nation’s most loyal, law-abiding, and patriotic citizens. That remained the case even in the late 1960s and 1970s when Northern Ireland was plunged into sectarian violence that often involved bombings and assassinations funded in part by Irish Americans.
These days, no one seems to remember a time not that long ago when Americans looked at a St. Patrick’s Day parade and saw Irish terrorists.
We should keep this in mind as we listen to the vitriolic rhetoric about immigration and terrorism in this election year. And you might keep it in mind should you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
As always, the past has much to teach us. But we have to be willing to listen.