The Green Flag In America


The result was a series of disasters. The British had honeycombed the Fenian organization with informers, and knew exactly where and when they planned to strike. The U.S. government also knew, but made very little effort to restrain the Fenians. Secretary of State William Seward wanted to teach Perfidious Albion a lesson about neutrality, and incidentally to persuade Parliament to ante up millions for damages inflicted on American shipping during the Civil War by the British-built raider Alabama . In 1865 Seward let the Fenians buy guns and ammunition from American arsenals, drill publicly, and recruit men in the heart of cities like New York and Chicago. For several months, the green Fenian flag, with its harp and sunburst, flew over Tammany Hall, headquarters of New York’s Democratic party and a major recruiting center. Another flag flew over the nearby Moffat House, off Union Square, where the Fenian president and cabinet met, issued orders to the generals of their army, and sent representatives to Washington to confer with the Russian ambassador and other powers hostile to Britain.

Fenianism was no joke as long as the American government tacitly supported it. The “men of action” put seven thousand soldiers on the Canadian border in 1866. But when their invasion looked as if it might succeed—the Fenians routed the Canadians in their opening skirmish—the U.S. government closed the border, seized the Fenians’ weapons, and arrested their generals. Another attempted invasion in 1870 was dealt with even more summarily.

In Ireland, the Fenians had concentrated on recruiting Irishmen in British regiments, hoping to cripple the enemy army from within. But the British had the advantage of informers here, too, and transferred the regiments out of Ireland, then struck hard, arresting scores of Fenian leaders. A few Fenian companies rose in defiance in March of 1867 and were quickly smashed by the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Out of the ashes of Fenianism arose a tougher, more secretive Irish-American movement, the Clan-na-Gael. It was dominated by two men, both of whom were to haunt Irish-American nationalism for decades, John Devoy and Alexander Sullivan. A stocky, argumentative, scowling exFenian, Devoy was suspicious of everyone not fanatically committed to the triumph of the republican cause in Ireland. Sullivan was a far more subtle, self-interested man, one of the few who bridged the gap between the revolutionary nationalists and the professional politicians.

In 1877 the Clan worked out a murky alliance with the remnants of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Ireland. Over the objections of the IRB, whose leader, John O’Leary, maintained that there were some things a man must not do for his country, the impatient Irish-Americans launched a dynamite campaign which spread death and destruction in London, the enemy’s capital. Between 1882 and 1885, explosions wrecked trains and maimed passengers on subways, and damaged Victoria Railway Station, Scotland Yard, the Tower of London, and the House of Commons.

Virtually all the “dynamitards” were Irish-Americans. How serious they were can be glimpsed from the story of Dr. Thomas Gallaher, described as a “mild-mannered” Brooklyn physician, who set up a nitroglycerin factory in Birmingham, England. When British police, aided by spies and informers, raided the premises, they found enough nitroglycerin, according to one account, to level the entire city of London. Gallaher and three accomplices were sentenced to life imprisonment. This was also the fate of seven other dynamitards; eight more received stiff prison terms. Three, including a Fenian hero, William Mackey Lomasney, were blown to bits when their bomb went off prematurely under London Bridge.


From almost every point of view, the dynamite campaign was a disaster. It was denounced as immoral by the clergy and repudiated by conservative Irish-Americans, who saw it as a blow to their struggle for respectability. It even alienated American politicians who normally took a pro-Irish stance. The explosion in the House of Commons inspired the U.S. Senate to condemn dynamite by a vote of sixty-one to one.

Alexander Sullivan was the man behind the bombs. Born in Canada, where his County Cork father was serving as a sergeant in the British army, he began his career as an Irish nationalist and Republican politician in Detroit. But he soon made Chicago his base of operations, establishing himself as a power in city politics and the Clan-na-Gael.