Young Ireland and Fenians in the U.S. South

John Mitchel was not the only former member of Young Ireland to settle in the South. In the ante-bellum years, Richard D’Alton moved to Spring Hill, Alabama to teach at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution. In 1849, an Irish jury had acquitted him of the charge of treason. Two years later, he came to Spring Hill to teach Latin and Greek. Later, he moved to Louisiana to practice medicine. Another Young Irelander, Joseph Brenan settled in Louisiana, where a New Orleans newspaper said he had the eloquence of the 1798 exiles.

After the Young Ireland movement was crushed, a new organization emerged, known as the Fenian Brotherhood. It was founded on St. Patrick’s Day, 1858. The Irish Republican (Fenian) Brotherhood advocated the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. The Fenians recognized the value of Irish-American support. They organized Fenian circles throughout the United States. In 1864, during the war, James Stephens, the founder of the Fenian Brotherhood, visited the Fenian circle in Nashville, 171 members strong.

Patrick Condon organized Fenian circles in New Orleans, Alabama and Texas. There were seven circles in New Orleans, with 800 members. The largest circle was the Emmett circle with 250 members. In 1865, the Baton Rouge newspaper reported there was an “immense”  gathering of the Fenian Brotherhood at the Opera House in New Orleans and large numbers signed the Fenian rolls. T.C. Cunningham, the “Center” of Louisiana presided over the meeting. Lieut.-Col. Condon spoke about the oppression of Ireland by Great Britain.

In 1869, James Brennan, of the Fenian Brotherhood visited New Orleans and delivered a series of lectures on the true conditions of Ireland. Also in 1869, Col. John J. O’Connor was reported to be organizing a Fenian brotherhood circle in New Orleans. In 1867, Col. O’Connor had commanded a Fenian uprising in Co. Kerry. The British government had placed a bounty of £800 for his head. Col. O’Connor was a Union veteran of the American Civil War.

The British consul in New Orleans was alarmed enough by the local Fenians to ask the Louisiana Union Army commander, Phil Sheridan, to suppress the Fenians. The War Department told Gen. Sheridan to arrest any Fenians who violate the neutrality laws of the U.S. There would eventually be a Fenian invasion of Canada in 1867, which invasion failed.

Later, it would turn out that the New Orleans organizer, Patrick Condon was actually Godfrey Massey, a British informant. Condon had claimed to be a Confederate veteran. His claim aroused some suspicion among the New Orleans Fenians. He would travel to Ireland in 1867 and served as a witness for the British government against several Fenians.

Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette & Comet, Nov. 14, 1865, p. 3, col. 1

New Orleans Crescent, Jan. 29, 1869,  p. 4, col. 3 (reference to Brennan)

New Orleans Crescent, Feb. 20, 1869, p. 2, col. 6 (reference to O’Connor)

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 70-73.

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