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Maine's Hidden History: Maine 'Fenians' Role in Ireland's Independence
03/15/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

With St. Patrick's Day almost upon us, we take a look at a lesser-known aspect of Maine's American Irish history. As part of our ongoing series, Hidden Histories of Maine, Tom Porter reports on Maine's role in the battle for Ireland's independence.

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Maine's Hidden History: Maine 'Fenians' Role in I Listen

John O'Mahony

As the clock counts down to Sunday, legions of American Irish folk - some more Irish than others - prepare for the big day. But amid the velvet shamrocks and pints of green Guinness, it's easy to forget the turbulent events that led to Ireland's independence from the United Kingdom - some of which happened on this side of the Atlantic.

Part of that story involves the Fenian movement of the 19th century. Fenian was a name given to Catholic Irish nationalists at that time. A number of efforts were made to achieve self-rule for the Emerald Isle, and these efforts involved attempted cross-border raids into Canada. Local historian Herb Adams says Maine played a key role.

The Fenians believed that by seizing either a city, or a province or the rails system of Canada, that they would hold it hostage for the independence of Ireland," Adams says. "So wherever there were Irishmen, such a thought was popular, of course, in the years right after the American Civil War. The first circle of Fenians to be founded in Maine was actually founded on Vinalhaven Island, because of the number of Irish who were marble cutters and stone workers there. But, pretty much, things took a backseat during the American Civil War."

But once the Civil War was over, says Adams, the Fenian movement in the U.S. had a new lease on life.

"The American Civil War found a whole set of first now and second-generation Irish who were filled with patriotic ardor for their country, the old country and the new country," Adams says. "United with new military tactics that they'd learned under arms in the Civil War, the Fenians could have made a formidable force."

Fenian militiamen did march Downeast towards the Canadian border the year after the Civil War ended. But, as Adams explains, the expedition was not to be a success.

"In April 1866 - the figures vary - but maybe as many as 700 Maine Fenians gathered under John O'Mahony himself, who was one of the leaders of the national movement, on the Maine shore up at Eastport, intending to take Campobello Island and hold that as hostage," he says. "However the British, of course, had infiltrated the ranks, knew all about it and dispatched a warship from Saint John and Halifax, in addition to which the Americans dispatched General Meade, the U.S. general who'd headed the northern forces at the battle of Gettysburg, with only his staff - no troops really - up to Eastport to quietly talk them out of it. As it happened, faced with less support at their backs and a warship at their front, the Fenians largely said, 'Perhaps this is not the thing to do today," and decided to go home."

Tom Porter: And I think it's interesting that following the failure of this and other raids along the Canadian border, the Fenian movement, and indeed Irish Catholics in general in America, adopted quite a different approach, didn't they, to getting on?

Herb Adams: The most successful Irish conquest that resulted from this was the invasion and conquest of American politics. Certainly in Maine, certainly in the United States, it's been one of their most successful results of the Fenian movement. Certainly in Portland, the great Fenian leader Daniel O'Connell O'Donaghue - there's a name for you - was the first Irish Catholic to be elected to the Portland school committee, and to open the door for Irish Catholics to serve in the Portland public school system."

Another consequence of the Fenian - and an unintended one from the Irish point of view, says Adams - was the effect it had on Canadian national unity.

"The Canadian Maritimes and the provinces decided that they'd better get united, and they did. And nation that we call Canada today formed the Articles of Confederation in 1867, and it had a lot to do with the fact that right across the border is this sleeping giant," Adams says. "So now we have a friendly neighbor to the north."

Tom Porter: "Well Herb Adams, complete with St. Patrick's Day beads, thanks for talking - and Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Herb Adams: "Indeed. And moral of the story is, 'Hold onto your fine and fierce dreams, but give them a second look the morning after St. Patrick's Day, Tom. Until then, 'Erin, and Downeast, Go Bragh.'"


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