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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Phila-Trivia: Irish 1865-67 Fenian Stamps



While the first postage stamps of the Republic of Ireland were issued in 1922, there were a number of earlier forerunners issued as propaganda labels in support of the cause of Irish Independence. Forerunners are stamps or labels that are used (or prepared for use) for a country, prior to the issue of the first official postage stamps for general use in that country. Some of these stamps may have been produced as essays - proposed designs for stamps to be issued when the final goal was reached. In any case, none are in any of the major stamps catalogs, although they are listed in David Feldman’s ‘Handbook of Irish Philately’ published in 1968.

During the American Civil War, approximately 190,000 Irish-American immigrants served in both the Union and Confederate armies, with almost 80% of that number fighting for the North. When the war ended in 1865, a group of Irish veterans, members of an Irish Nationalist organization, Clan na Gael (Family of the Gael), which had been established in the late 1850′s, and better known as the Fenian Brotherhood, realized that a great way to promote their cause was to produce postage stamps for the ‘Republic of Ireland’, even though no such place existed at that time.

Accordingly, the Clan na Gael produced the 1865-67 Fenian Stamps, a set of seven probably printed by S. Allen Taylor of Boston, from wood blocks in three different denominations: 1c black on green, 1c black on pale blue, 1c black on rose mauve, 3c green, 24c deep green, and 24c mauve-purple, and 24c black on yellow.

They are all imperforate, although the 3c is also recorded perforated, and all are quite rare. In his handbook Feldman states: ‘Most of the exmples in circulation are forgeries, copied from magazine or catalogue illustrations’. It also seems that small printings, of at least the 1c and 24c values, were produced around 1893 from metal plates.


Around the same time that Clan na Gael appeared in the US, The Irish Brotherhood, an organization with the same objectives, was established in Ireland. Both movements were described as ‘secret, separatist, physical force organizations whose object ‘was national (Irish) independence’. Both organizations were involved in violent actions against the British authorities.

In Ireland, The Irish Brotherhood were involved in unsuccessful risings in Dublin and Kerry during 1867. The Fenian Brotherhood were involved in a number of terrorist activities including armed raids over the border into Canada, assassinations, and dynamiting railways and buildings. These activities included between 800 and 1300 (accounts vary) Fenians, under the command of Colonel John O’Neill, actually captured Fort Erie on the Great Lakes in 1866.

These activities, both in Ireland, the U.S., and Canada, had two main purposes, to force the British government into granting Ireland independence, and to raise the visibility of this cause to the world at large. It was in anticipation of Irish independence coming about sooner, rather than later, that these ‘Fenian issue’ stamps came to be. Independence did not happen, and so, of course, the stamps were never used.

The Fenian stamps proved effective, and served as a precedent for the issuance of later propaganda labels as a means of popularizing and raising money for the cause.

In 1967, Ireland issued a set of two stamps commemorating the centennial of the Fenian uprising, illustrating how sometimes those considered outlaws in the past may be legitimized as national heroes in the present.


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