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In 1973 the government had to politely explain why it couldn't cash a near 100-year-old bond

Hundreds of thousands of these bonds were issued in the 19th century to raise support for Irish nationalism.

Image: National Museum of Ireland

WRITING TO THE Department of Foreign Affairs in April 1973, Minnesota-based solicitor Daniel Dennis O’Connell wanted to know the current market value of a Republic of Ireland National Bond – dated 5 May 1886.

The $10 bond belonging to a client of O’Connell’s carried an annual interest rate of 6% and the solicitor’s client hoped to claim that interest by cashing in her bond. But there was a problem.

She was 50 years too late. 

‘A donation’

State papers show a back-and-forth between government departments and diplomats attempting to figure out whether or not O’Connell’s client could cash in her nearly 100-year-old bond and collect her interest.

Often called “Fenian” bonds, these large sheets of paper were issued by republican groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries to raise money for the cause of Irish freedom.

It is believed that hundreds of thousands of these bonds were sold throughout America where veteran Fenians like John Devoy and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa led the charge for Irish freedom across the Atlantic. 

Sandra Heise, Curator of Historical Collections at the National Museum of Ireland, says that the museum holds several of these ‘Fenian’ bonds, dating mainly from 1866.

Ranging in value from $5 to $100 theses bonds feature images of Irish patriots like Wolfe Tone and James Stephens. 

In 1866, a New York Times article reported that Fenians in Boston faced “unexpected difficulties” after questions arose about where people’s money was going when they purchased these bonds and just what it was being used for.

According to the article, “thousands of those who contributed their hard earnings…now feel that they have been the victims of designing men and demand a legal investigation”. 

In Fenian circles, opinion was divided, however. “Those who are still hoping to see the independence of Ireland realised contend that there has been no fraud practiced whatever.”

The bonds themselves weren’t payable until after an Irish republic was established and, therefore, bond-holders knew full well this condition. 

“The courts will have a nice question to decide, however, when it is shown that these bonds were issued for the purpose of invading a country with which the United States are at peace.”

While Boston courts may decide that these bonds are invalid, others at the time felt “that the money exchanged for these bonds was a simply a donation” and was never expected to be redeemable. 

The value of bonds sold in Boston “during the Fenian excitement” was at least $100,000, according to The New York Times. 

‘Un-exchanged bonds’

As for O’Connell’s client in Minnesota, the Department were the bearers of bad news. 

When the first Dáil Éireann External Loan was being floated in the U.S.A in late 1919 and early 1920 there was widespread publicity informing Fenian Bond holders that they could exchange their Fenian bonds for new External Loan bonds, under the recently formed Irish government. 

The newly-formed government upheld the original condition of the Fenian bond – they could be redeemed once an Irish republic had been established. Or in this case declared. 

For 10 years – between June 1927 and October 1937 – there was an office operated by the now-independent Irish state at 117 Liberty Street, New York City where bond holders could redeem their bonds. 

According to the Department, thousands of dollars were spent on and press and radio advertisements throughout America telling folks where they could redeem their Fenian bonds. 

By 1973, the last Dáil Act relating to these bonds had expired and the New York office had closed. There were no longer arrangements in place for redeeming un-exchanged bonds.

The final date was 30 June 1936.

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