Michael Scanlan (1833 – 1917)

Irish Nationalist, Fenian, Editor, Writer, Poet and Statistician


Michael Scanlan, the fifth of nine children, was born to Mortimer Scanlon and Kate Scanlon (nee Roche) on November 10, 1833 in the village of Castlemahon in Co. Limerick.  His father, Mortimer was a well-off shopkeeper and farmer, who fell on hard times with the onset of the Great Hunger in the mid 1840’s.

Scanlan received his primary education at the local national school in Castlemahon.  He was an excellent student who benefited greatly from the encouragement and teaching skills of one of Munster’s renowned teachers, Daniel O’Callaghan.  Apart from his formal education that ended at the age of fourteen, his inherent intellectual curiosity led him to study and acquire a basic understanding of some of the factors that controlled his life including religion, politics, history and folklore. 

Irish was the spoken language throughout most of Ireland when Scanlan was growing up. He was well versed in both Irish and English, a talent that allowed him to take full advantage of the stories and nuances unique to each language.  He was an avid listener who was enthralled by storytellers weaving their tales of yore,  of local heroes and villains and stories of hardship and woe,  wrought by the usurper who controlled their lives.  

Scanlan came of age in Castlemahon during the Great Hunger years of 1845 to 1850.  Castlemahon was not overly affected by the ensuing starvation, however, the accompanying diseases that included typhus and cholera and other famine related diseases did not spare Castlemahon or, for that matter, anywhere else in Ireland from the cruel scepter of death. Cholera took the lives of his two younger sisters and, possible, that his father who died before the family emigrated to America in 1848.

The widespread devastation caused by the Great Hunger resulted in an exodus out of Ireland by countless thousands of desperate and dispossessed people before death paid them a visit. The Scanlan family, who joined the exodus in 1848, were merely names on a coffin ship's manifest that mattered little to the British government or their representative in Ireland, Lord Trevelyan who described the “famine” as an "effective mechanism for reducing surplus population" as well as "the judgment of God" and wrote that "The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people"

The imprint left on Scanlans' psyche from his childhood in Ireland concerning the lives of the Irish people under British rule was that they were robbed of their rightful bounty, self-esteem, cultural heritage, civil and human rights by an immoral and greedy usurper. That imprint was a powerful and enduring legacy that greatly influenced his life’s choices going forward.     
Scanlan was fifteen years of age when he emigrated to America with his family.  He was old and wise enough to realize the he was leaving the land of his birth, where he and his fellow emigrants were dispossessed of their birthright and fruit of their labor, possibly never to return.
After their arrival in America, the Scanlon’s took up residence in the greater Boston area before relocating to Chicago circa 1852.  It was there that they planted their roots, married, raised families and contributed to American life.

For several years after arriving in America, Scanlan, according to his own memoirs, worked as a shoemaker, sawmill operator and grocery store attendant, before joining his brothers, John and Mortimer, as a partner in a very successful candy manufacturing business. For several decades, the firm was one of the largest candy manufacturing companies in the mid-west.

Circa 1860 Scanlan married Mary Nell Hogan with whom he had four children.

One takeaway from Scanlans childhood in Ireland did not fade with the passing of time. Although he was able to give expression to his most cherished memories through his prose and poetry he, nonetheless, agonized over his inability to do anything about the cruelty of British rule that continued to plague the vast majority of the Irish people.

Beginning in 1858, a movement, led by veterans of the 1848 uprising in Ireland, was taking hold in both Ireland and America that would afford him the opportunity to do something to lessen that feeling of helplessness.

John O’Mahony, who had fled to Paris after the abortive 1848 uprising, had made his way to New York where he and other exiled veterans of 1848, set about organizing for another uprising in Ireland.  On February 28, 1858, O’Mahony,  Michael Doheny, James Roche, Thomas J. Kelly, Oliver Byrne, Patrick O’Rourke and Captain Michael Corcoran founded the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City. A month of so later, a sister organization was set-up in Dublin.

 Despite condemnation by the Catholic Hierarchy who opposed the establishment a sovereign Irish Republic, the organization expanded by setting up ‘circles’ in various cities throughout the country, including Chicago.

In Chicago, Scanlan and his brothers were in the forefront of the Fenian movement. They were successful in fundraising and recruiting members from amongst the 20,000 Irish immigrants who had settled in Chicago. The onset of the American Civil War in 1861 gave a boost to their efforts, when they and other Irish American leaders invoked Fenianism as a ploy to recruit Irish volunteers for the Union army.  They did so by equating the Confederacy institution of slavery to British subjugation and landlordism in Ireland and, in so doing, were able to convince potential recruits that their military training would be vital in ridding Ireland of the British scourge.

As the Fenian movement spread across America, many of its leaders felt that the executive powers entrusted to John O’Mahony were opaque and exclusive, a hindrance to expansion, therefore, they believed that a more transparent and inclusive power structure was essential for the organization to reach its full potential. In pursuit of that objective, the Fenian constitution was amended at the 1863 and 1865 Fenian Conventions to include a senate of ten, headed by a senate president,  The newly established senate, headed by William R. Roberts, was given the responsibility for electing the President of the Fenian Brotherhood.  In deference to his past service and unique standing within the organization, O’Mahony, was elected President,  however, his directives were subject to the scrutiny and approval of the senate.  Scanlan was one of ten senators who would hold sway over the direction of the organization. 

O’Mahony did not go along with the restructuring, resulting in a splintering of the organization into two factions; one faction controlled by O’Mahony and the other faction by Roberts.  In addition to the disagreement over the restructuring, the factions disagreed on how to proceed regarding the organization's strategy objectives.  O’Mahony wanted to support an uprising in Ireland, whereas, Roberts, with the support of Scanlan and his senate colleagues, wanted to capture territory in Canada to be used as a bargaining chip for Irish freedom.

In April of 1866, O'Mahony, in an attempt to upstage Roberts, led a force of 700 Fenians volunteers north to Maine, from where they would launch an attack to capture Campobello Island. The Fenians setup camp in Eastport across Passamaquoddy Bay from Campobello. After a number of small raids and before they could launch their main attack, heavily armed British warships arrived on the scene. Unable to cross in face of the heavily armed warship, the Fenians abandoned their plans and disbanded.  After that failed attempt, O'Mahony and his faction reverted to their original strategy, i.e., support an uprising in Ireland.

Three months later in June of 1866,  Colonel John O’Neill led a force of 500 Fenian volunteers, dressed in green jackets and black hats, across the border at Buffalo NY with orders to cut telegraph lines, destroy a railroad bridge, take Fort Erie and control of the Welland Canal to disrupt British troop movements between Eastern and Western Canada.

After the earlier attempted crossing in Maine, the British were on  the alert and ready to respond in the event that the Fenians would try again. Once alerted that the Fenians were on the move, British and Canadian troops were dispatched from Toronto and Hamilton to repulse them.

When O'Neill realized that he was outnumbered three to one, he decided to strike the Hamilton contingent before they could unite with the contingent from Toronto. On June 2, at a location west of Fort Erie called Ridgeway,  the Fenians met the larger Hamilton force where they did battle. Despite being outnumbered and fighting on difficult terrain, the Fenians, made up of battle hardened Civil War veterans from both Union and Confederate ranks. prevailed,  forcing the Canadians to retreat. 

After the Battle, O'Neill retreated to Fort Erie to await reinforcements and supplies before taking on the combined British and Canadian force. The U.S. authorities, who originally supported the Fenian cause by selling them surplus military equipment and allowing them free rein to train their volunteers, suddenly, without warning,  reneged by placing a blockade on the Niagara River to prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching O'Neill. Left with no option O'Neill had to return back across the river and disband.

Scanlan, who was very much involved in planning the campaign, realized that the feasibility of any future military campaign to sieze Canadian territory was off the table after the U.S. government's  about-face. That opinion was not shared by other Fenian leaders who launched a number of unsuccessful incursions through 1871.

After having given up on the military option, Scanlan and other Irish Americans launched  a weekly newspaper titled 'The Irish Republic', self-described as  a journal of liberty, literature, and social progress. Because of his intellectual giftedness he was the natural choice to be the papers editor.  The paper openly preached rebellion and physical force as justifiable means to achieve an Irish Republic. In addition to his duties as editor, Scanlan contributed many articles, stories poems to the paper pages.

When the newspaper went out of business in the mid-1870's, Scanlan found work as a junior clerk with the State Department., By 1887 he had risen to the post of Chief in the Bureau of Statistics.  As Chief of the Bureau he developed a system that required  American Consuls throughout the world to prepare and submit monthly reports containing information and data that would help American businesses' take advantage of trading opportunities. That system had a detrimental effect on British trade and as a consequence they did everything they could to destroy him. Using their contacts within the State department they had some initial success that did not last very long.

His name and deeds on behalf of Irish freedom are better known here in America than in Ireland.   What little is known of him there is through his lyrical poems including,  Jackets Green, The Bold Fenian Men, Conor and Mona and Limerick is Beautiful and many others, to numerous to name.

Michael Scanlan died on March 6, 1917 in the hospital of St. Mary of Nazareth in Chicago at the age of 84.


Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealbha



NAME:    Calvary Cemetery                PHONE NO.. 847-864-3050

ADDRESS:   301 Chicago Ave, Evanston, Cook County, Illinois, 60202-3505



Back to Biographies                                                                                                                                                                             Posted 01/03/2018