On St. Patrick’s Day of 1858, a group of Irish patriots calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as The Fenian Movement, met in Ireland. A branch was organized at the same time in America and having less need for secrecy than their counterparts in Ireland, the American Brotherhood grew rapidly. Indeed, their activities and fund raisers were often mentioned in the local newspapers. Though resettled in the United States the Irish had never abandoned their dreams of a free Ireland and Auburn, where my McGarr and O’Hora families first put down roots upon immigrating, was very much a part of the movement.
The Fenians organized themselves into local cells called circles; each circle had a head man called the center. Likewise, each state had a center. The center of New York State was Daniel O’Sullivan of Auburn. Their nine man Executive Council included M. J. Cunningham, also of Auburn. Another notable Fenian from Auburn was Civil War Captain Owen Gavigan, a respected, educated man who organized an Irish literature study group in that city. Captain Gavigan was a delegate to the 2nd National Congress of the Fenian Brotherhood held in Cincinnati in 1865. There with him were fellow Auburnians John Barrett Dunkirk and P.N. Madigan.
Another prominent member was General T. W. Sweeney, a well known Union officer. Eager to strike at England, he spent the winter of 1865 devising a plan to invade Canada, the closest outpost of the British government. During the Civil War the Brotherhood had been permitted to purchase surplus arms and even several warships from the United States Army itself! This tolerance was in large part due to Washington’s resentment over Britain's aid to the Confederacy. General Sweeney spent the months prior to the invasion finalizing his strategy and organizing his officers and equipment. A letter from Major W.M. O’Reilly to General Sweeney concerning the distribution of muskets states that forty of those muskets were delivered into the hands of none other than Owen Gavigan at Auburn.
Their preparations made, at 3 a.m. on the first day of June in 1866, cavalry colonel Owen Starr gave the signal and led his men across the river at Buffalo onto Canadian soil. They proceeded to the village of Fort Erie, captured a railroad depot there, and by 5 a.m. the Irish tri-color flew above the crumbling walls of the old fort. Two hundred fifty men had followed him at dawn under Civil War lieutenant John O’Neill, and later more than one thousand men crossed the river. They moved on to Ridgeway where they defeated the British defenders. Unfortunately for the Brotherhood, the American government stepped in at the last minute and prevented reinforcements from crossing into Canada. By the 3rd of June, British reinforcements had arrived, and the Fenians were forced to retreat.
Most of them escaped back across the border to a hero’s welcome. After a short hearing the United States government declined to press any charges against them and they were released and given rail passage home. Those captured in Canada were tried and seven, including Catholic priest Father John McMahon, were sentenced to death. None of the executions were carried out, and later they were released. But the Brotherhood was far from done.
In May of 1870 they again attempted to invade Canada and again, Colonel Starr was there. This time they didn’t get off so easily. Starr, along with Colonel William Thompson and Captain Edward Mannix were arrested and tried at Canandaigua, New York in July of 1870 for violation of the federal Neutrality Laws. After their convictions they were taken to Auburn prison and held there until their pardons in October of 1870. An excerpt from that pardon reads, Whereas, many good citizens of the United States who condemn the criminal acts aforesaid, have interceded for the pardon of said offenders…, and said offenders have thoroughly repented of their offence and intend to live in strict obedience to the laws, Now therefore be it known that I, Ulysses S. Grant, President of the United States of America, do hereby grant to the said Owen Starr, Wm. L. Thompson, and Edw'd J. Mannix a full and unconditional pardon.
The speeches made to an admiring crowd upon their release however, were anything but repentant. All three men thanked the citizens of Auburn for the visits and many kindnesses shown them during their imprisonment, then Colonel Thompson remarked, “I am an adopted citizen of America, I have fought, yes, I have bled for the Stars and Stripes, [cheers] and I will fight again to uphold freedom and the republic. Most of you are aware that I am a Scotchman; many may wonder why I fight for Ireland. But I love any nation that fights for her liberty. If tomorrow, my services are required, I am with Ireland again. [Loud applause] When the time comes to strike the decisive blow my friends, do as you did in May. I shall be there, if I am in the land of the living, by the help of God.”
Captain Mannix declared, “We are free tonight, thanks to the people of the country. It was the people, who, without regard to party… demanded our release, and we thank the people only. But let us not forget tonight that across the St. Lawrence, our brethren are in prison, and away over the Atlantic, near the land of our fathers, in the prison pens, are also our brethren.”
While the Brotherhood was active for many more years, they never again attempted an invasion. While I’ve found an ancestor who was hanged during the 1798 rising in Ireland, I’ve found nothing to tie my ancestors in Auburn to the Brotherhood, though I do like to think some of them were in that cheering crowd.