Fenians in Greenpoint! How an Irish secret society tried to invade Canada and invented the Submarine

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In going through old editions of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle I came upon two references to meetings of the Fenians. These meetings were held on May 24, 1865 and July 11th of the same year  at the Greenpoint Temperance Hall ( Thank God the hall and the Organization are mercifully dead!)  with the purpose of establishing a branch of the Fenian brotherhood in Greenpoint. The articles mention that a number of men took the pledge to become Fenians at the end of the meeting, but before we go any further we should explain who the Fenians were.

The Fenians were a group that wanted to liberate Ireland from British rule by armed insurrection. The roots of the Fenian movement begin with the failed rising for Irish independence in 1848. One of the leaders of the rising John O’Mahoney escaped to France and then to New York where  O’Mahoney founded the Fenian brotherhood in 1858.

O’Mahony’s presidency of the Fenian Brotherhood was being increasingly challenged by William R. Roberts.( in every Irish organization it is only a question of time until there is a split)  The Fenians raised money by issuing bonds in the name of the “Irish Republic,” which were bought by the faithful in the expectation of  being honoured when Ireland should be “A Nation Once Again.” Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants subscribed.

What did they do with the money? They bought guns. With what aim?  The invasion of Canada. I have never been in the military and do not claim to be a military strategist, but there were about fifteen hundred Fenian soldiers and Canada is the world’ second largest country with a land mass of 3.855 million sq miles !! (9.985 million km²)

Obviously, this invasion was not so well thought out, but at least the irish would be able to fight the Brits in Canada, so at least there was some pleasure in it. Setting aside the fact that Canada had a huge land mass, there was also the minor detail that the British Empire had the world’s largest land army and the world’s largest navy.

They did try though. In April 1866, under the command of  O’Mahony, a band of more than 700 members of the Fenian Brotherhood arrived at the Maine shore opposite the island with the intention of seizing Campobello from the British. British warships from Halifax, Nova Scotia were quickly on the scene and a military force dispersed the Fenians. There was another unsuccessful attempt across the Niagara River. The American government realized that it could not let the attacks on Britain continue told the Fenians that it would provide them railroad tickets if they would just go home, which most of

them wisely did.

One of the Irish fighters invading Canada was WIlliam Dalton who raised a Fenian group in Ireland, was discovered and fled to America when the British government put a thousand pound price on his head. Dalton ended up in Greenpoint where he ran a butcher shop at 978 Manhattan Avenue.

The Fenians were far from done though. They collected large sums of money known as “Skirmishing funds.” It came to the attention of the Fenians that a young Clare man named John Holland had emigrated to the United States and was experimenting with sub marine craft that could attack the British navy from under the water line. In 1876, Holland’s submarine investigations came to the attention of the Fenian conspirators, probably through the offices of his brother Michael, who had been a member since 1869. Sympathizing with the Irish cause and seeing an opportunity for financial support for a working prototype of his evolving design, Holland offered to build the Fenians a small submarine that could  be used to attack British warships. After observing a 30-inch working model that Holland demonstrated at Coney Island early in 1877, the Fenian authorities agreed to fund Holland’s boat. It was the world’s first submarine!

John Holland’s first submersible,  known as Holland Boat No. I, was laid down in some secrecy at the Albany Iron Works in New York City. In the spring of 1878, the boat was moved to a second iron works in Paterson – more convenient for its inventor – and launched into the Passaic River there on 22 May.  In a second trial, Holland kept his boat on the bottom for an hour and returned safely, which so impressed the Fenians that they agreed to fund a larger version.

After some disputes within the Fenian Brotherhood about  use of the Skirmishing Fund for building submersibles, work on Holland’s second boat was begun in May 1879 at the Delamater Iron Works in Manhattan, ( by the way where John Ericsson of Monitor fame worked)  and it was launched into the Hudson River two years later. Despite continuing attempts at secrecy, the new submarine  attracted the attention of both the press and a half-dozen foreign navies, and when it became generally known that the new craft had been paid for by the Brotherhood, the New York Sun dubbed it the Fenian Ram, and the name stuck.

Holland moved the Fenian Ram into the Morris Canal Basin on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and commenced two years of experiments. By mid-1883, he was conducting experimental trials as far south as the Narrows of New York Harbor and along the Brooklyn shore, achieving a surface speed of nine knots and submerging to a  depth of 50 feet. Holland also staged several successful demonstrations of his  pneumatic gun, A forerunner of a sub’s torpedo system, that  shot  a dummy warhead both underwater and through the air  distances of several hundred yards.  He also continued tinkering with his design,  improving the ship’s maneuverability, speed, and range, while simultaneously building a 16-foot, one-ton model with which he intended to perfect his   ideas on submerged navigation.

Holland’s steady progress in improving the Fenian Ram, however, came to an abrupt halt in November 1883 as a result of bitter internal dissension in the Fenian Brotherhood over continuing funding for the Ram. One faction of Fenians sued the other to stop the testing of the ship.  Late one night, fearful of seeing the submarine seized in the ongoing legal proceedings, one of the warring factions gained access to the the boat  and towed it surreptitiously to New Haven, Connecticut. Holland’s 16-foot model was dragged away also, only to founder in the East River, swamped by unexpectedly choppy water. The Fenian Ram’s new custodians attempted to operate the submarine in New Haven Harbor, but their ineptitude led the harbor master to declare the boat a menace to navigation, and additional trials were forbidden. Consequently, the Ram was soon abandoned by its putative owners, and the Fenians offered no further backing for John Holland’s experiments on what they had called “the salt water enterprise.

The ship made its way back to New Jersey and today is an exhibit in the Patterson Museum.

In the book I have written I also tell the story of how the Greenpoint Fenians tried to bomb London!

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