Organizing for Irish Independence #SouthOfUnionSquare
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the neighborhood South of Union Square was home to a thriving community of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans. This community played a major role in shaping the development of New York City. Prominent Irish New Yorkers including Andrew Carrigan, James McCreery, William Michael Harnet, and Alfred E. Smith all lived here. Though the popular narrative of the Irish experience in New York is often one of hardship, the history of the Irish community South of Union Square also reflects deep civic engagement and a fostering opportunity for the upward mobility of Irish people.
One example recently uncovered in our ongoing research for the area involves 814 Broadway, a five-story building designed circa 1855-1856 in the Italianate style by renowned architect Griffith Thomas. The building was known as Fenian Hall beginning in 1865, when the Irish-American Fenian Brotherhood located here. From this spot, they organized around the cause of Irish independence. They planned and undertook a series of raids from American soil against British Canada and Ireland itself to end British rule through armed rebellion.
John O’Mahony (1815 – February 7, 1877), born in Kilbeheny on the border between County Limerick and County Cork in Ireland, was one of the founding members of the Fenian Brotherhood. O’Mahony, in exile from his native Ireland due to his activism, emigrated to New York City in 1854. One of O’Mahony and the Brotherhood’s most impactful campaigns was fundraising for the Fenian Rising of 1867, an unsuccessful armed raid of Ireland by members of the Brotherhood intended to stir a full-scale Irish rebellion. The Brotherhood sold bonds only redeemable six months after the acknowledgment of the Independence of the Irish Nation. O’Mahony had also helped organize and lead multiple armed raids into British Canada from the United States after the Civil War (while the U.S. government was not directly involved, they were not particularly inclined to help the British, who had just supported the confederacy in the Civil War). While these armed incursions were ultimately not successful in altering British policy in or control of Ireland, it did have a profound if unintentional impact upon Canada. The attacks moved the provinces together and highlighted their common interests and need for mutual cooperation and defense They helped lead to the Canadian Confederation of 1867, the foundation of the modern nation of Canada.
O’Mahony was eventually ousted from Fenian Brotherhood. The Brotherhood believed his support of the Candian uprising cost Irish-American lives and money; the Americans also began to focus on the issues facing Irish-Americans here rather than a united Ireland and felt O’Mahony was not focused enough on these bread-and-butter issues facing Irish-Americans in their everyday lives.
The Brotherhood also ran religious and social programs; nuns instructed Sunday school here and lectured women on their roles in the home and society. The Brotherhood disbanded in 1880.
We recently added 814 Broadway and the Fenian Brotherhood to our South of Union Square Irish History Tour. There you’ll find many other prominent Irish Americana and Irish American institution, especially in the realms of politics, the arts, commerce, and literature.
Village Preservation’s proposed South of Union Square Historic District was recently named one of 2022-2023’s “Seven to Save” — the biannual list of the most important endangered historic sites in New York State — by the Preservation League of New York State. This designation shines a spotlight on the incredibly valuable and varied architecture of this neighborhood, and its deep connections to civil rights and social justice history as well as transformative artistic, literary, and musical movements.
We have received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world expressing support for our campaign to create a historic district for the neighborhood South of Union Square. To help protect these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this neighborhood, click here.