John O’Mahony

Many of Ireland’s great Fenians scattered to the wind to avoid prison when their various uprisings failed. More than few of them ended up on America’s shores and promptly set about creating organizations that furthered the Irish cause within the United States. One of those powerful men was John O’Mahony, the founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood in America.

O’Mahony was exiled to the states after the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, nevertheless he was determined to continue to fight for his country’s freedom from afar. He started the Fenian Brotherhood to be a sister (or brother as the case may be) organization to the newly-formed Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. Both groups were dedicated to overthrowing English rule and setting Ireland free. The Fenian Brotherhood grew rapidly and by 1860, the organization had sent thousands of dollars and arms back to Ireland repeatedly and it showed no signs of slowing down. Behind the scenes however, the organization was starting to split.

All members of the Fenian Brotherhood wanted to help Ireland gain its freedom, but there was some disagreement over how best to achieve that goal. Some in the American organization wanted to support another armed uprising in Ireland and others thought that acting against England’s interests in Canada would effectively blackmail them into leaving the Emerald Isle. O’Mohony originally found himself in the latter group and he began plotting against his northern neighbors in Canada. In April of 1866, he led a force of several hundred Fenian men toward Campobello Island in New Brunswick. The plan was to take control of it and hold the English outpost hostage until England left Ireland. The Fenian forces retreated when Royal Navy warships packed with soldiers arrived to defend the island. The mission failed.

At this point the Brotherhood fractured into two distinctly different paths – one that continued raids and military action against England’s interests on the North American continent and another that stuck to fundraising and sending money and arms to Ireland. John O’Mahony’s popularity waned after the failed coup of Campobello and he stepped away from the public leadership of the Fenian Brotherhood for a few years. He resumed the helm of the organization in 1872.

O’Mahony was a poor man and he was nearing the end of his life. Every dollar he ever collected or made went straight through his hands to Ireland, no matter how desperately he may have needed funds himself. When his dire straits were discovered many offered to help but the proud and devoted man refused charity, even from the lucrative organization he helped to build. John O’Mahony died in poverty on this day in 1877.

O’Mahony’s remains were returned to Ireland for burial, just like those of other great Fenian leaders. His body was laid out in the Mechanics’ Institute when the Archbishop of Dublin refused a viewing in the cathedral, based on O’Mahony’s Fenian politics. This didn’t hinder more than seventy thousand people (presumably most with the same political leanings) from paying their respects and joining in his funeral procession. John O’Mahony is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery where his devotion to Ireland is carved in stone. His grave is marked with a massive monument commemorating several Young Irelanders and Fenians and their important contributions to an independent Ireland.

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