The Research Desk column from the Jan. 9, 2017, weekly issue of
The 30-millimeter brass medal bearing a ship under full sail flanked
by F – B and the legend IRISH REPUBLIC presents several mysteries to
A robust 2.5 millimeters thick and pierced for suspension, the
medal’s reverse presents clasped hands between IRELAND and AMERICA,
the date 1866 in a shamrock spray, and at base a radiant rising sun.
The issuer was the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish revolutionary
organization founded in the United States in 1858 by exiles including
the learned John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. O’Mahony later joined
one of the many “Irish Brigades” fighting with the Union Army in the
American Civil War.
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The U.S. Army valued these hard-fighting volunteers, many of whom
marched off from their mustering-out shouting “Ireland Next!”
The Fenians prepared a highly original plan to attack the British,
not at home but in the Western Hemisphere. Armed with war surplus
American rifles, Fenian volunteers would invade Canada and hold it,
negotiating its return to Britain in exchange for Ireland.
This audacious plan’s success depended on benevolent neutrality of
the U.S. government and cooperative blindness of the distinctly
anti-British U.S. Army.
The raids were launched and spirited fighting took place. Both
Fenian and Canadian volunteers fought valiantly, but the Irishmen
failed to sweep the field.
A campaign bar FENIAN RAID was provided as the British award medal
for this fighting.
The raid stimulated agitation for closer union among the Canadian
colonies, which came together in 1867 as the Dominion of Canada.
In the U.S., the principal Irish revolutionary organization became
Clan na Gael, which remained active through the Irish War for
Independence, 1917 to 1922. The secret, oath-bound Irish Republican
Brotherhood was born at the same time.
The principal numismatic relic of the Fenian affair is an elusive
medal. The identity of engraver and manufacturer are not known with
absolute certainty, though Leonard Forrer names “SEWELL (Amer.).
Die-sinker of New York, of Irish origin, by whom is a Fenian
Brotherhood Badge, 1866 …” Lawrence Brown, British Historical Medals,
1837-1901, assigns this number 2863 and repeats the name Sewell. Both
references provide concise histories of the Fenian movement.