Shortly before the American Civil War, an Irish nationalist militia was formed in the United States. Founded by Irish immigrants John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny, it was known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Situated as an arm of the Ireland-based Irish Republican Brotherhood, it was an organization whose goal was the re-establishment of an Irish Republic, wholly independent and sovereign from British rule.
Popularly known as the Fenian Brotherhood, it was chiefly comprised of Irish-Catholics who had immigrated to the United States, and traced its beginnings to the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798. Over the ensuing 50 years thereafter, the organization took various names within Ireland, but all had the same goal: ridding Ireland of the British.
Over those 50 years multiple rebellions took place. All failed at their goal.
In 1848 yet another unsuccessful skirmish occurred, known as the Young Irelander Rebellion. John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny were participants.
Finding themselves sought by British authorities, both men fled Ireland.
O’Malley headed to New York; Doheny headed to Paris but eventually joined O’Mahony in New York.
In 1860 O’Mahony established a militant branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in America, and linked the organization to its counterpart in Ireland. Loosely known as the Fenian Brotherhood, during the first six years of its existence the organization floundered.
At the end of the American Civil War however, the organization’s popularity and strength skyrocketed. Former Civil War soldiers of Irish descent joined the Fenian movement, and the organization suddenly found its cause featured in popular print media.
Like its Ireland counterpart, American Fenians sought to find ways to force the British to relinquish Ireland. Beginning in 1866 as a means to raise funds for the cause, bonds and bearer notes were issued by the Fenians. Payable at Ireland independence, they were initially met with lukewarm reception. Despite this, over time the brotherhood was able to amass nearly $500,000 to finance their operations.
In that same year, the brotherhood planned and commenced conducting raids into Canada. Surmising that such raids would force a British compromise, the goal was to use the Canadian colonies as a bargaining chip.
Over the next four years various raids were conducted. The principle goal of the raids were to attack Canadian transportation infrastructure, thereby paralyzing the colonies and their economies.
However, as with the failed rebellions in the Irish homeland, the raids were quickly quashed. Despite the organization’s significant financial resources, its acquisition of arms, and its sizable militia of soldiers, all of its incursions ended in prompt defeat.
While initially the United States government took a blind eye to the attacks due to British indifference during the American Civil War, eventually it stepped in, and worked alongside the British and Canadians to successfully subdue the offensives.
As a result, the Fenian’s strategy backfired. Prior to the raids Canada was a region made-up of British colonies. After they began however, resolve was strengthened among Canadian colonists to form a sovereign Canadian Confederation.
On July 1st 1867 the Dominion of Canada was established.
Wright and Rulau list but only one variety of the Irish Republic token that is dated 1866. It measures 29mm and was struck in brass.
In 1912 numismatic researcher Leonard Forrer reported that these tokens were issued to members of the Fenian Brotherhood. While no surviving ribboned medals are known to exist today, in his research Forrer was able to provide a photograph of one. In addition to the attribution, Forrer also credits the token’s die-work to Sewell, a New York City engraver of Irish origin.
Cataloged as Rulau NY-NY-A117, the specimen pictured below was struck in brass. Based on its wear, it appears to have been finished in gilt brass. The specimen is holed as usual and grades at approximately Very Fine.
It is assumed that the letters ‘F’ and ‘B’ featured on the obverse represent ‘Fenian Brotherhood.’ Likewise, it is supposed that the joined hands on the reverse symbolize the Fenian Brotherhood’s alignment with the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In terms of scarcity, Numismatist Joseph Levine estimates that the token is Rare.
Pursuant to the 2008 September 2008 Heritage Auction Lot #28505, the token has an rarity rating of R-6 (13-30 surviving).
Base on these numbers, the following table provides an estimate of the token’s value. Included in the table is a second Irish Republic token, Rulau catalog number NY-NY-B117. The second token was struck in the 1870s.
Some modern historical accounts such as those found in Wikipedia incorrectly intimate that the Fenian Brotherhood was associated with the Republican Party of the United States. Neither organization was associated with the other.
Notes and Sources
- Auction Catalogue of A very Valuable and Interesting Collection of Gold, Silver and Copper Coins, Edward Cogan, Messrs. Bangs & Co., April 12-13, 1877
- Biographical Dictionary of Medalists – Volume V, Leonard Forrer, Spink & Son, 1912, pgs.484-485
- Fenian Fever: An Anglo-American Dilemma, Leon Ó Broin, Chatto & Windus, London, ©1971
- American Business Tokens, Benjamin P. Wright, Quarterman Publications, ©1972, pg.58
- Irish Nationalism: A History of Its Roots and Ideology, Sea Cronin, Dublin, ©1980
- Canadian History: Beginnings to Confederation, Martin Taylor, University of Toronto Press, ©1994, p.13
- The Fenians, Michael Kenny, The National Museum of Ireland in association with Country House, Dublin, ©1994
- Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 Fourth Edition, Russell Rulau, Krause Publications, ©2004, pgs.748-749
- Lot 28505: 1866 Irish Republic Fenian Brotherhood Trade Token, CA Tokens & Medals Signature Auction #1100, 2008 September Long Beach, Heritage Auctions
- Correspondence with Joseph Levine, Numismatist, Presidential Medals and Tokens, Alexandria Virginia
- The New York Public Library Digital Archives
- The Library of Congress Digital Archives