John Francis O’Mahony, Gaelic scholar and the founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, sister organisation to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, dies in New York City on February 7, 1877.
O’Mahony is born in 1816 in Kilbeheny, County Limerick. His father and uncle were members of the Society of United Irishmen, and took part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. On the death of an elder brother, he inherits a property which yields £300 per annum. He enters Trinity College, Dublin, where he studies Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Irish. He becomes an accomplished Gaelic scholar, and later teaches Greek and Latin, and contributes articles to Irish and French journals. He leaves Trinity without getting a degree.
In 1843, O’Mahony joins Daniel O’Connell‘s movement for the Repeal of the Acts of Union 1800, but quickly becomes dissatisfied with the lack of progress and joins the Young Ireland movement which William Smith O’Brien leads and takes part in the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. His participation in the rebellion obligates him to leave Ireland, and he settles for a time in Paris, where he lives in great poverty. In 1854, he joins John Mitchel in New York City, and takes part in the Emigrant Aid Association, the Emmet Monument Association, and other Irish organisations.
In 1857, O’Mahony publishes History of Ireland, by Geoffrey Keating, D. D., translated from the Original Gaelic, and Copiously Annotated (New York, 1857). O’Mahony’s notes are copied from John O’Donovan‘s translations of Annals of the Four Masters, and it is on this ground that Hodges & Smith procures an injunction against the sale of the book in the United Kingdom. The mental strain to which O’Mahony is subjected in the preparation of this work, which brings him no pecuniary gain, affects his reasoning and he is removed by his friends for a short time to a lunatic asylum.
In 1860, O’Mahony organises the Fenian Brotherhood, also known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The object of the association is to secure the freedom of Ireland. The name is probably derived from O’Mahony’s Gaelic studies, the Fenians having been a military body in pagan Ireland, celebrated in the songs of Ossian. The organisation of the new society is completed at conventions that are held in Chicago in 1864 and in Cincinnati in January 1865.
At the time of the Cincinnati convention, O’Mahony holds the rank of colonel of the 69th Regiment of New York State Militia, recruited mainly from the ranks of the Brotherhood, which has also furnished a large proportion of Thomas Francis Meagher‘s Irish Brigade, Michael Corcoran‘s legion, and Irish regiments engaged in the American Civil War. The rapid growth in membership of the Fenian Brotherhood renders it impossible for O’Mahony to retain the colonelcy of the 69th regiment, which he has held for some time. He resigns in order to give all his attention to the spread of Fenianism.
The close of the civil war in the spring of 1865 gives a great impetus to the Fenians, owing to the number of Irish American soldiers that are disbanded and anxious to see service elsewhere. Money pours into the Fenian exchequer. Many differences occur between O’Mahony and James Stephens and the Central Council relative to the policy to be pursued for the attainment of their object, but O’Mahony remains president of the organisation for several years. He does not take any part personally in the attempted insurrection in Ireland or in the raids on Canada, although his advice counts for much in these enterprises.
He devotes the last years of his life to literary pursuits, but suffers from ill health, and he has a hard struggle to secure the bare means for subsistence. However visionary may have been his objectives, he is honest, and although thousands have passed through his hands, he is often at a loss for a dollar. When his poverty is discovered, he declines to receive assistance in any form. He dies in New York City on February 7, 1877 and soon after his death his remains are returned to Ireland and interred with the honors of a public funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.