The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Irish immigrants were America’s most feared terrorist group

What we can learn from the era’s discarded stereotypes

A vintage engraving depicts an explosion on Feb. 26, 1884, at Victoria Station in London, part of the Fenian dynamite campaign. (iStock)
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With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, we can expect to see all manner of expressions of Irish American pride, from green sweaters and soda bread to Irish music and colorful parades. The celebrations convey an inescapable message: The Irish are proud of both their heritage and the notion that they’ve contributed mightily to the building up of America. Irish pride and American patriotism, it would seem, go hand in hand.

But it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, in the late 19th century, Americans loathed the Irish as an immigrant group associated with poverty, drunkenness, crime and popery (that is, dreaded Catholicism). And one more thing: terrorism.

Long before Americans began associating Muslim immigrants with terrorism, they saw the Irish as terrorists who threatened U.S. national security. That’s right: The immigrant group that today most Americans associate with leprechauns, the Blarney stone and Guinness beer was 150 years ago reviled as a band of foreign terrorists. This teaches us a valuable lesson about stereotyping entire groups based upon the actions of a few — a lesson we should apply to minority groups today.

The image of the Irish terrorist first emerged in the 1860s. At the time, a rising Irish nationalist movement had begun to challenge British colonial rule of the island. Some Irish nationalists pushed for independence, or at least home rule, through peaceful agitation and political activism. But other factions, known generally as Fenians (derived from “Fianna,” the name of a legendary ancient band of Irish warriors), believed Irish independence could be won only through violence.

The Fenians operated in secret in Ireland. But in the United States, they openly raised money and recruited members from among Irish immigrants. One Fenian rally in New York City in 1866 drew a crowd of more than 100,000.

That same year, the Fenians plotted their first terrorist action: a military-style invasion of British North America, or what we know today as Canada. The Fenians saw two possible outcomes. One, they would seize Canada and hold it until Britain agreed to exchange it for Ireland’s independence. Or two, the invasion would trigger a war between the United States and Britain that would allow Fenians in Ireland to launch an uprising that would topple British rule and win Irish independence.

In the spring of 1866, several thousand Fenian paramilitaries, many of them veterans of the Union Army, gathered in encampments along the Canadian-U.S. border, from Vermont to Upstate New York. On June 1, 1866, a force of about 1,000 heavily armed Fenians, led by Civil War veteran Lt. John O’Neill, crossed Lake Erie and entered Canada.

The next day, they clashed with a force of about 850 members of the Canadian militia. The Irish American invaders won the battle, killing nine Canadian militia members. But the U.S. Army quickly intervened, and the Fenians retreated to U.S. soil, where they were intercepted and arrested. Additional Fenian raids into Canada occurred in 1870 and 1871. All were defeated.

In the wake of the failed Canada invasion, Irish American Fenians in the 1870s changed their strategy. Instead of raising a paramilitary force, they would embark on a campaign of bombings and assassinations that targeted British officials and public buildings in Britain. Between 1881 and 1885, using money largely raised in the United States, Fenians carried out more than a dozen bombings across Britain. They also built (but never used) a submarine called the “Fenian Ram” to sink British ships. In 1882, radical Irish nationalists assassinated the two top British officials in Ireland, stabbing them to death in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Even though many, perhaps most, Irish immigrants and Irish Americans did not support the Fenians, the submarine plot, along with the bombings, assassinations and invasions of Canada, generated a lot of harsh criticism toward the Irish in the United States. The New York Times denounced the Fenian “dynamiters” as “Satan’s Henchmen” for carrying out “wicked plots against life and property,” while Harper’s Weekly declared, “Every Dynamite agent is an enemy of human society.” Political cartoons from this period often depicted the Irish as terrorist bombers.

Irish American terrorism added to the long-standing stereotype of the Irish as inherently violent people and the claim the Irish would never make good Americans. Obsessed with their homeland, they willingly imperiled American lives and U.S. national security in a reckless bid to win Ireland’s independence.

So, what became of this Irish association with terrorism? It faded in the late 19th century as the nonviolent form of Irish nationalism, home rule, gained more prominence and as Irish Americans experienced increased upward economic mobility.

It also diminished as Americans began to see German immigrants as the primary terrorist threat because of their association with anarchism. These fears skyrocketed in the wake of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in May 1886, an act of violence that killed seven policemen and was blamed — albeit based on questionable evidence — on German anarchists. In the early 20th century, the focus of fear shifted to Italian immigrant anarchists who were linked to a number of murders and bombings, including a massive explosion on Wall Street in 1920 that killed 30 people.

For Irish Americans, continued rising economic status, as well as conspicuous military service and staunch support for the Cold War, earned them a reputation as some of the nation’s most loyal, law-abiding and patriotic citizens. That remained the case even in the late 1960s and 1970s when Northern Ireland was plunged into sectarian violence that included bombings and assassinations funded in part by Irish Americans. Then in the 1990s, came a boom in popular interest in all things Irish, from Riverdance and “Angela’s Ashes” to heritage tourism and the Dropkick Murphys.

Little wonder then that these days, no one seems to remember a time not that long ago when Americans associated St. Patrick’s Day with Irish terrorism. We would do well to keep this in mind in 2019 when we hear the vitriolic rhetoric about recent immigrants and terrorism. In the past, we’ve denounced entire groups of immigrants based on the actions of a small subset. Each time, it’s added another chapter to this nation’s regrettable tradition of nativism. Unfortunately, these days we appear to be adding yet another.