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The Origins Of The Name Irish Republican Army Or IRA

Brass button from the uniform a Fenian volunteer inscribed with the letters IRA or Irish Republican Army, Canada, 1870
Brass button from the uniform a Fenian volunteer inscribed with the letters IRA or Irish Republican Army, Canada, 1870

Back in 2011 I wrote a short piece on the history of the terms “Irish Republican Army” and “IRA by conducting a simple internet search through Google News to highlight some of the earliest printed occurrences of those descriptions. To the surprise of quite a few of my readers many of these appearances dated to publications from the mid-1800s when the name was used by the military wing of the Fenian Brotherhood of America, a revolutionary movement founded around 1858 in the industrial cities of the north-eastern United States. That Irish Republican Army came to global prominence in the 19th century with several attempted invasions of British-administered Canada between the years 1866 and 1871. Staged by rival factions of the Fenian organisation the objective of the expeditions was the establishment of an “Irish Republic in Exile” on the North America continent by exploiting the simmering post-Civil War tensions between Washington and London (senior members of both the White House and US Congress initially encouraged the Fenian plans). Though the strategy failed the abbreviation “IRA” was soon added to the lexicon of Irish and international politics. Some fifty years later when the Fenian sister-movement in Ireland, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), orchestrated an insurrection against British colonial rule in the country it did so by coalescing several existing paramilitary organisations under one banner. These were the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and Hibernian Rifles which in the Easter Rising of 1916 assumed the collective title of the “Army of the Irish Republic” or, as you may have guessed, the “Irish Republican Army”. The IRA was thus reborn for a new generation and a new century.

So to another internet search, this time through Google Books, with some representative results below.

The uniform jacket worn by a volunteer of the Irish Republican Army during the Second Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1870, with its IRA buttons in place
The uniform jacket worn by a volunteer of the Irish Republican Army during the Second Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1870, with its IRA buttons in place

From the compendium “A History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798: With Memoirs of the Union, and Emmett’s Insurrection in 1803” by W. H. Maxwell, London, 1845:

“The French were happy to find a man who could speak their language well, and who was likely to be useful to them, from his long experience in military matters; they therefore conferred on him the rank and dignity of general in the Army of the Irish Republic.”

From the satirical news magazine “Punch, Volumes 49-52” London, 1866:


We recognised the Confederates as belligerents because the Federals constituted them such by blockading their ports. The United States Government cannot, with any justice whatever, attempt to retaliate on us by countenancing the Fenians. But, indeed, it would not if it could. Even if HER MAJESTY’S Ministers had made no attempt whatever to prevent British ship-builders from selling the Confederates vessels of war (whilst other subjects of the Queen were selling the Federals guns and ammunition) the countrymen of WASHINGTON would be too onerous to take vengeance on poor us. On the contrary, they would, no doubt, study to return us good for what they might consider evil. But we must take care that we do not compel them to allow the Fenians, as they compelled us to allow the Confederates, belligerent rights. Therefore, if GENERAL SWEENEY and his Irish Republican Army invade Canada and are captured, we shall be under the painful necessity, in pure self:-defence, of hanging every man Pat of them as filibusters and pirates.”

From the Quakers’ periodical “The Friend, a Religious and Literary Journal, Volume 39, 1866” Philadelphia, 1866;

“The Fenian Commotion.—Roberts, the Fenian leader, has issued a proclamation to “the Irish Republican Army,”advising the members to return to their homes until a fresh campaign is inaugurated. He recommends this in view of the repressive measures of the U. States Executive to crush the movement. The bodies of men who assembled along the northern frontier have dispersed and mostly returned to their homes. Many of them were provided with transportation by the United States, on their engaging to abstain in future from any hostile attempts on tbe British dominions.”

From the populist history “The Fenian raid at Fort Erie, June the first and second, 1866: with a map of the Niagara Peninsula, showing the route of the troops; and a plan of the Lime Ridge battle ground” published by W.C. Chewett, Toronto, 1866:

“Headquarters of the Fenian Brotherhood, No. 706, Broadway,

New York, June 2, 1866.

The Irish Republican Army, under command of Colonel John O’Neil, met the British troops at a place called Ridgeway, Upper Canada. The British forces were composed of volunteers, and a regiment of militia called the “Queen’s Own.” The British outnumbered the Irish army two to one. The fighting was desperate, and lasted about three hours, daring which time the Fenians were twice driven back, but again regained their position. Finally, the Irish army charged the British at the point of the bayonet, and drove them from the ground and remained masters of the field, which their Irish valour had so nobly won. The Indianapolis troops led the final charge. The battle-field was covered with the debris of the beaten army.”

From the arts publication “Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers, Volume 18” London, 1866:

“Colonel B introduced him as Colonel Contri, commanding the cavalry in the advance, and I remember having heard of him as a foreign officer who served under Stewart and Ashby, as leader of a rebel regiment in the war of secession. He was a small, little fellow, of graceful movements, and handsome Italian face, with pathetic liquid eyes, and pale complexion. His taste for the picturesque was manifest in his costume, which consisted of enormous jack-boots reaching to his hips, loose grey velveteen trousers, a braided hussar’s jacket of dark blue, a jaunty fatigue cap, a green sash as a Fenian badge, and a belt bristling with two large revolvers and a clanking sabre. In appearance the brigand of the poets, his record is brimful of adventure and revolution. He cannot be more than twenty-eight years old, yet he has fought with Garibaldi in half a dozen campaigns, and held a responsible position in the army which liberated Sicily in 1859: he galloped and fought all over Virginia, on the losing side, between 1861 and 1865 ; he was at the head of the advance guard of this most forlorn of forlorn hopes, the Irish Republican Army; and I presume at this writing he is hastening across the Atlantic to aid his old leader in liberating Venetia.”

From “Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Volume 75, January to June, 1867” London, 1867:

“When I did come, both cottage and field were deserted: the fortunate finder of the treasure had given himself no time to put away the money, but had expended it in his paying his passage to America, where I suppose he is living now, a moneyed man perhaps, and a major-general of the Irish Republican Army on the point of invading Canada—who knows?”

From the influential and frequently republished “Ridgeway: An Historical Romance of the Fenian Invasion of Canada” by Scian Dubh, Philadelphia, 1868:

“There were three regiments of the Irish Republican Army in line; they numbered fully two thousand men, and were clad in their new uniform. The three regiments parading were the Eighth, Ninth and Twenty-fourth. The brigade was commanded by Col. William Clingen, Major Daniel A. Moore, Asst. Adj’t-Gen.

There were nineteen Circles of the Fenian Brotherhood and three hundred delegates to the Fenian Congress, besides the Charles Carroll Beneficial Society and the Buchanan Beneficial Society. The civic portion of the parade numbered about five thousand men. The participants wore dark suits and badges, and pieces of green ribbon tied in the button-holes of their coats.

When matters quieted down in the vicinity of Ridgeway, Martha paid a visit to her friend Kate, and_was soon followed by Henry with a view to keeping his word in relation to their marriage which took place on the same evening and under the same roof with that of Kate and Nicholas. The joint affair was a grand one; many guests having been invited to the wedding; among whom were some officers of the I. R. A., and all that survived of Barry’s comrades.

Thus ended the first invasion of Canada under the gallant O’Neill, who, on his return from the campaign, was made a General and Commander~in-chief of the Army of the Irish Republic, and who, in addition, was subsequently elevated to the position of President of the Fenian Organization throughout the world.”

Artist's impression of a slain Irish Republican Army soldier during the Fenian invasions of Canada
Artist’s impression of a slain Irish Republican Army soldier during the Fenian invasions of Canada

From the internal Fenian Brotherhood document “Official Report of Gen. John O’Neill, President of the Fenian Brotherhood, On the Attempt to Invade Canada, May 25th, 1870. The preparations therefore, and the cause of its failure, with a sketch of his connection with the Organization, and the motives which led him to join it: Also a Report of the Battle of Ridgeway, Canada West, Fought June 2nd, 1866” New York, 1870:

” J. Boyle O’Riley, Major Danl. Murphy, Capt. John Fitzpatrick, and other officers and men, whose names I do not know, acted very gallantly in trying to get the men forward, but with no result. Only a few were willing to venture forward. I fear that some of them had but a very imperfect idea of the duties incumbent upon them, or the responsibility they assumed, in swearing allegiance to the Irish Republican Army. They seemed to have a very erroneous idea as to the number of the enemy (there were not a hundred of them, and volunteers at that) which was confirmed to some extent by the rapidity of his fire. I believe he was armed with Spencer rifles; I have been in many engagements, but never before heard so much firing where there was so little execution. Finding that I could not accomplish anything practical with these men, I had them to fall back a short distance out of range of the enemy’s.bullets, to await the arrival of the men from New York, under Col. Leddy, whom I looked for every moment.”

From British colonial court documents “Reports of Proceedings at the Special Commissions, (1867), for the County and City of Cork, and the County and City of Limerick, in Cases of High Treason and Treason-felony, and of Trials for Treason-Felony at the Summer Assizes of the Same Year, for the Counties of Clare and Kerry” Dublin, 1871:

“Then, according to the evidence of O’Shea, about half-past seven o’clock the same morning, at about three and a half miles further on, in the direction of Killorglin, an armed party assembled at and about O’Shea’s hotel at Glenbeigh. O’Shea says he took a look at them, first from his window, and then remained in bed until they left-—and that it was a large party, armed with pikes and guns, and that that armed party was under the charge and command of O’Connor, there can be no doubt in the world. He it was who gave that slip of paper to the daughter of the hotel proprietor, thereby acknowledging that he was accountable for the refreshments—and that paper had on it his name, with the addition “Colonel of the Irish Republican Army.” That slip of paper was afterwards given back to him; for some one paid for the refreshments with a sovereign, and the paper was torn up, for O’Shea says he found the pieces of it afterwards, on the road.”

From the British submissions in the records of the United States Congress “The Executive Documents of the House of Representatives of the United States of the Second Session of the Forty-Second Congress 1871-’72” Washington, 1872:

“During the year 1867 the Fenian Brotherhood were occupied in promoting Fenian disturbances in England and Ireland, in which Halpin, Burke, McCafferty, and others who had come over from the United States for the purpose, were ringleaders.

In 1868 the Fenians obtained from the Government the return of the arms seized at Saint Alban’s, consisting of about 1,300 muskets, and again proceeded to organize an expedition against Canada.

In November, 1868, a Fenian congress was held at Philadelphia, and O’Neill marched through the town at the head of three regiments of the so-styled Irish Republican Army, in green uniforms, numbering, as was reported, 3,000 men.”

The Battle of Eccles Hill a young soldier of the Irish Republican Army military wing of the Fenian Brotherhood
The Battle of Eccles Hill – a young soldier of the Irish Republican Army, the military wing of the Fenian Brotherhood (FB), lies slain on a roadway during the 1870 invasion of Canada

From the periodical collection “The Contemporary Review, Volume 19, 1871-1872” London, 1872:

“O’Neill accordingly started with his Vice-President on an organizing tour through the Western States, and in spite of the discredit soon afterwards cast- upon the movement by the murder of Mr. Darcy Magee, in Canada, his exertions were tolerably successful throughout. The exigencies of American politics had led the House of Representatives to pass resolutions on the 9th of January, in favour of the Fenian prisoners in Ireland and in Canada; and these proceedings, accompanied as they were by speeches hostile to England, strengthened the hands of the Fenian President. But though considerable enthusiasm was here and there displayed, and money was liberally promised, the treasurer’s receipts showed no corresponding increase. Whatever funds were collected, however, were spent in procuring munitions of war; and in view of immediate hostilities, the element of a secret oath was introduced, the members of the “Irish Republican Army” as the military section of the Brotherhood was called, who volunteered for service, being required to swear obedience to the orders of their chiefs.”

From the memoir “Other Countries, Volume II” by William Morrison Bell, London, 1872:

“I do not believe the Americans have the smallest intention of fighting. I believe they look on Canada as a poor deluded country that does not know its own interest, but that when it does will annex herself to America. I believe the common sense and bulk of the mind and wealth of Canada says, in return for such American thought, “Thank you for nothing,” and, “We are quite willing to leave well alone.” As regards the Fenians, the opinion held of them by Americans and Canadians is summed up in their button, on which is engraved, I. R. A., “Irish Republican Army”  but which is read, “I ran away.””

From periodical “The Canadian Monthly and National Review, Volume 4” edited by Graeme Mercer Adam and George Stewart, Toronto, 1873:

“He came forward with easy confidence and great affability, giving Maurice’s hand a grasp with his iron fingers, which, strong and muscular as it was, almost crushed it, reminding him of stories he had read of thumb-screws and similar instruments of torture.

“I have done myself the pleasure of calling on you, sir,” he said, speaking with a mixture of the Irish brogue and the Yankee nasal twang, “in consequence of my friend Captain McCann’s letter. Allow me to introduce myself as Colonel Ryan McGarvey, late of the United States Army, but now holding that rank in the Army of the Irish Republic. I am a true Irishman, sir, compromised in the unfortunate affair of ’48, and obliged to fly to that land of liberty where so many of Ireland’s noblest sons have found an asylum from English tyranny. Now they are coming back, sir, that band of gallant patriots, a hundred thousand strong, to revenge their sufferings on their ancient and detested foe!””

5 comments on “The Origins Of The Name Irish Republican Army Or IRA

  1. john cronin

    How were they planning on holding Canada? It’s quite a big place.


    • Well, they weren’t after the whole of Canada 😉

      Remember that the American Fenians launched their Canadian plans in the aftermath of the US Civil War. Because Britain had supported the Confederacy during the conflict there was considerable animosity in the US towards the British which partly manifested itself in sympathy for Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood had gained access to the highest levels of the US government partly because of this, partly because of Irish-American wartime participation and influence, and there was a widespread belief that the US authorities had given the nod for the first invasion to proceed. The expedition was intended to exploit a limited “window of opportunity”, which included availing of unrest amongst the seditious Québécoise and First Nations in Canada (who the Fenians were in contact with; Native American volunteers supported the “Irish Republican Army” to the dismay of some American journalists). The seizure of even a nominal part of British territory in North America was intended to spark something bigger elsewhere in Canada. It was also the plan of at least some in Congress to use the pretext of the Fenian expeditions to send US forces over the border and annex parts of the valuable Great Lakes region as a “peace-keeping” measure.

      Last minute policy changes in the White House and State Dept. brought all that to an end. The Fenians eventually realised that they were being used in a game of diplomatic chess between Washington and London.


  2. john cronin

    Incidentally, did you ever read about the attempt to take Chester Castle? Quite audacious as well.


    • Everything about the Fenains was audacious. They thought big and acted big. Partly the American influence, partly the era they grew up in. Most were men (and some women) who came of the same generation of nouveau middle-class thinkers that were laying the seeds of revolution across Europe. The radicals of the frustrated petty bourgeoisie fed up with the restrictions of the old order. Fabians, Chartists, Socialists, Suffragettes and many more were other manifestations of this in Britain, while Germany had its industrial militants, etc.


  3. Did you ever see that quote from some Fenian, saying they’d be off to New Zealand after Canada to fight along side the Maori? I’d love to come across that quote again! Can’t seem to find it.


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