Idaho History

From Fenian Brotherhood to Emmett Life Guards, Irish blazed trails in Idaho

Robert Emmet and Irish martyr
Robert Emmet and Irish martyr Idaho State Historical Society

The first mention of the Irish Fenian Brotherhood in Idaho appeared in Idaho City’s Idaho World newspaper on Sept. 23, 1865: “The Fenian Brotherhood are making preparations for a Grand Ball to come off on the evening of October 31st.”

The Brotherhood was a patriotic Irish social and political organization founded in the United States in 1858 by John O’Mahony and Michel Doheny to work for an end to British rule in Ireland. O’Mahony, who was a Gaelic scholar, named the organization after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Fresh in the memory of all Irish was the great potato famine of 1845, caused by a fungus that ruined half of the crop that year, and then got worse. Before it ended in 1852, the potato famine had taken the lives of a million Irish from starvation and related causes, with at least another million forced to leave their homeland as refugees.

A “Fenian Chop House” advertised in the World in February 1866, claiming that its cook, Ben F. Ballou, was “the oldest California cook in Idaho.” The owner of the restaurant was surely Irish to give it the name “Fenian.”

On April 14, 1866, a “Fenian Proclamation” appeared in the World, calling for a territorial convention of the Brotherhood in Idaho City on April 22, 1866. It was signed, “John M. Murphy, District Centre, Fenian Brotherhood of Idaho Territory.” On the 28th the World devoted a column and a half to the public address given by William Malony, of Placerville, who was then elected temporary president.

In May a group calling itself the “Emmett Life Guards” held a meeting that featured “patriotic remarks and speeches,” and an election of officers. The Guards took their name from Robert Emmet, (with one “t”, although Idaho papers always spelled it with two), a martyr to the cause of Irish independence, hanged for treason by the English on Sept. 20, 1803. Emmett, Idaho, was first given the name of Emmettsville in honor of Emmett Cahalan, the infant son of Boise attorney Thomas Cahalan. Little Emmett was named for the Irish hero.

On July 4, 1866, a “Grand Fenian Ball was given by the Emmett Guards in the hall of the Magnolia Hotel. Supper was served in the City Hotel.” The World called it “a brilliant and pleasant affair.”

Boise City’s Curran Circle of the Fenian Brotherhood published a resolution in the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman mourning the death of Lawrence O’Toole, Sgt. of Co. F, First Cavalry, U.S. Army. He was killed by two arrows fired by an Indian in a skirmish near the Owyhee River. He was the only U.S. casualty, but the paper estimated that 25-30 Indians had been killed.

Frank Ganahl, of Idaho City, gave a speech to the Fenians of Boise in January 1867. The Idaho World called it “eloquent” and said, “It was, in fact, a classic, historical, beautiful address, well worthy of preservation in print as one of the grandest, happiest tributes ever paid by tongue of man to that nation and that people in whose honor, vindication, and cause it was pronounced.”

Fenianism in Pioneer City received a new impetus that month, reported the World. “The members from this place came back from Idaho City on New Year’s Eve singing ‘Wearing of the Green’ and have not let up yet. They are about fifty strong here and manifest perfect faith in the ultimate success of the cause.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email