The Palimpsest
"The Irish in Iowa"
Vol. 45 #2, Feb 1964

The Fenians
The Fenians were organized in the 1860's to destroy English rule in Ireland
by force of arms and to establish an Irish republic. Following the Civil
War, Irish started Fenian movements in many Irish localities. In April,
1866, a Fenian meeting was held in Des Moines where " Ireland is pretty
largely represented" and where the movement has "many ardent and working

The Iowa State Register was very pro-Irish and anti-British at this time.
"The British Lion has a lively and extensive tail, but there is an excellent
prospect of having it pulled out by the roots before the Fenian excitement
shall have dropped dead."

A few days later it was announced that J.F. BARRETT and Dr. C.C. McGOVERN
were to speak on "Fenians and the Freedom of Ireland." Go and hear what the
champions of Irish liberty have to say." BARETT and McGOVERN, the Register
records, "struck old John Bull several times between the eyes...We are
inclined to think...that the Fenians have no great measure of affection for
England:-We can't blame them much; for it is impossible to tell just now
what particular benefaction, except starvation and misgovernment, have been
conferred by J.B. on the Emerald Isle."

The Fenians in Des Moines were described as "active, working men whose
interest in Irish independence is no mawkish, sentimental affair!" They were
so enthusiastic that many felt the organization would last until it gave the
English "the almightiest scare, or flogging which it has received since the
days of Washington and Patrick Henry!" When conflict broke out in Ireland
newspapers urged: "Fenians, go in!"

"We prefer the Irish flag to the British Lion.-We'll go for Limerick before
we shall go for perfidious Albion! Our voice is for war, for Tipperary, and
for Irish independence! If Brittania rules the waves, the Fenians are in
fair way to rule the Canadas. Success to 'em!"

The Fenian attempt to invade Canada led to other editorials:
"The Fenians are undoubtedly a sort of judgment seat sent by Heaven to
punish the read-coats [sic] for their hypocrisy and rascality during our
late Civil War, and we are disposed to accept their dispensation of
Providence with the most devout resignation. We hope Gen. Grant and the
State Executives on this side of the line will just keep hands off, and let
the young gentlemen with the shilalahs slosh around on Canadian soil to
their hearts' content."

The movement spread through Iowa from 1866 to 1869. A Republican meeting at
Norwalk in 1866 urged release of all Fenians, declaring:
"We are people with the oppressed of every Nation or People who are
struggling to be Free, and that we consider the peculiar duty of Americans
to aid, by all lawful means, the Irish, in their patriotic efforst to wrest
their native land...from the grasp of a perfidious, hereditary and
insatiable foe."

Dr. BELL, a Fenian from Dublin, spoke at Muscatine a few weeks later.
Davenport also had " a tremendous meeting" about the same time. Large Fenian
demonstrations were held in Dubuque on July 4, 1866. The next year Fenians
from Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota held their convention in Dubuque-July 2
to 4. Social events were not overlooked. The Des Moines Fenians staged a
Grand Fenian Ball on August 1, 1867.

The Sarsfield Circle of Fenians in Dubuque, of which John O'NEILL was
commander and John P. QUIGLEY secretary, held at least four annual balls
from 1867 to 1870. The third grand ball of 1869 was a great success. Music
was furnished by a ten piece band and a sumptious repast was prepared. The
price of admission was $2.50 per couple. Receipts totaled $575. The same
year the Fenians, the German Rifles and German Turnverein, participated in
Decoration Day ceremonies.

Delegates in the Fenian Brotherhood met in Dubuque again in 1868. General
John O'NEILL, President of the Brotherhood and Professor BROPHY of
Washington, D.C. were the speakers.

"With such a leader [O'NEILL] that wishes for independent nationality on the
beautiful Isle where sleep his forefathers, who will longer hesitate to do
his duty? An organizer...will soon visit your localities. Be prepared to
labor with him in the glorious work and...the shout of a triumphant and
victorious people will gladden the hearts of the republican world, long,
long ere that would may hope for such a result."

The peak of Fenian activity in Iowa was reached by 1868 when there were
about fifty circles. The Chicago Irish Republic, eloquent spokesman for
Fenianism, had a circulation of 5,000 in Iowa. Some newspapers were not
sympathetic to the movement. The Albia Union considered the movement humbug.
On the other hand, W.S. BURKE of the Council Bluffs Nonpareil went to Canada
to see the Fenian invasion firsthand.

By 1869 the movement in Iowa had waned, although it was concluded that:
"Certain it is that the Irish heart was never so full of hope that Ireland
is to be free as it is at the present time."

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2001 Cathy Joynt Labath