IFfF Global owes its creation to the exhaustive efforts of its founder, Erica Veil, who as an inquisitive young girl was fascinated with her family history and loved digging through the trunk that housed old family photographs and memorabilia of her ancestors. For many years, Veil’s family lore focused mainly on her paternal Swiss and French ancestry, but as she moved into adulthood and into the mid-1990s she became more curious about her maternal side and began to question her mother about her Irish ancestry. Encouraged to speak to her mother’s eldest brother, John Alfred Quist, Erica reached out to her Uncle and began to learn the notable story of her great-great-grandfather, Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, a Civil War veteran and a Co-founder of the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City. Kelly orchestrated the Fenian Rising of 1867 in Ireland – a precursor to the more decisive Easter Rising of 1916. Uncle John, the apparent torchbearer of the legacy of their shared ancestor, was grateful that a younger member of the family was now interested in the story as he was anxious to be able to pass information on to the next generation. He began grooming his niece to become his successor in preserving Kelly’s history, and he officially passed the torch to her in 2007.
Intrigued about this side of her family history, Veil was eager to learn more about her great-great-grandfather’s remarkable story, and his role in the Irish fight for freedom from the English government. She started scouring the indices of Irish-interest books in every bookstore and library local to where she lived, in search of anything in print about “KELLY, Thomas J.” She would come to understand only many years later that what she learned in those early days barely touched on the enormous impact that her ancestor’s devotion to Ireland had on successive generations.
Over the ensuing years, and as time and location permitted, Veil continued to collect more information on her ancestor’s life. As her knowledge and collected works expanded, she found time to contribute missing details (as known to her at the time) and photos of her ancestor to a few community-sourced internet compilations, including Wikipedia. She began to note that over time, the name of her great-great-grandfather gradually dwindled and ultimately disappeared from the indices of the majority of newly published works. Frustrated by the realization that revisionist history was slowly excluding Colonel Kelly’s role in the significant movement in Irish history, she recognized that the only accurate way to tell and preserve his story was to write his biography. She committed to doing so at some point in the future.
By 2015, Veil had collected a significant amount of information on her great-great-grandfather and on the Irish fight for freedom. She had learned that after he emigrated to America at an early age, he was a printer by trade, he served in the Civil War, and he was involved in the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City. But, she still had no idea of just how centrally involved he was in the entire movement – as its existence and expanse was such a well-kept secret.
Early in 2015, Veil began to devote her time fully to the task of writing Colonel Kelly’s biography. Largely confined for the first few months during a particularly challenging winter in the northeastern US, she researched extensively online, by telephone, and by mail to fill in the gaps of the already expansive story. She anticipated the need for a few more weeks of deeper research to flesh out one significant part of Colonel Kelly’s story – how he gained the military experience to lead such a large and secretive movement. She shifted focus to his U.S.-based activities and his Union Army service during the Civil War, and mentally mapped out a trip to follow his path in the coming months.
In March of that year, Veil spoke with a collateral torch-bearer for Colonel Kelly – Dr. John Mannion, a Professor Emeritus of Geography (historical settlements) at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Professor Mannion is a direct descendant of Colonel Kelly’s eldest brother, Patrick, who remained in Ireland when Thomas emigrated to America. Connecting with Mannion opened the floodgates of understanding on just how monumental the story surrounding the Irish fight for freedom was. Mannion directed Veil to Liam Murphy – a well-known New York City Irish historian. Murphy was the first of many Irish historians and modern-day Fenians she would meet with in the coming months – and these face-to-face interactions with living individuals, rather than historical characters, changed the tenor of her research entirely. With every visit to an archive and library, and with every conversation held with living historians, the project grew exponentially.
As more of Kelly’s remarkable story was revealed, it became clear that his role in the Irish fight for freedom spanned well beyond America. Since the Irish people were forced to disperse to points all around the world in order to survive after the onset of Ireland’s Great Starvation and economic hardship in the 1840s, a global web of support for the fight for freedom emerged.
After Kelly emigrated to America in 1851 at the young age of 18, he immediately joined the New York National Guard and the Emmet Monument Association. He was quickly tapped to be a leader, and was one of the men who founded the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City. In 1857, to further the reach of the Fenian Brotherhood, he migrated to Nashville Tennessee, where he established a newspaper in support of one of the candidates in the 1860 race for U.S. President.
During the U.S. Civil War, he served in the Union Army (10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Co. C and Co. I, 1861-1864) and rose to the ranks of Captain and Chief Signal Officer. After the war, he re-joined the Fenian Brotherhood and became the first official Fenian Brotherhood military envoy to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland. Thus began his integral role in the movement both from within the U.S. and in Ireland, Scotland, France and England. Learning that Kelly was “THE man”, and the depth and significance of Kelly’s work for Ireland, took a fair amount of time for Veil to truly grasp.
In June of 2015, Veil embarked on a an eight month research journey spanning six European countries (Ireland, England, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy), where she immersed herself in the collections of national, state, municipal and internet archives, private and public libraries, museums and other organizations. When asked to describe the experience, she responded that “It was amazing, difficult, painful, long, lovely, and a truly life-altering experience.”
Returning to the US in early 2016, Veil began the overwhelming task of compiling the massive amounts of documents and images that she had unearthed. In the summer of that year, she completed the next leg of her global research tour by following Kelly’s path from New York City through Washington, DC, West Virginia, Tennessee and finally, to Ohio, visiting Civil War battlefields, archives, and historical societies along the way.
Over the course of the same summer, Veil added another item to her already lengthy to-do list. Recognizing that the 150th anniversaries of the 1867 Fenian Uprising and the execution of the Manchester Martyrs would fall in the following year, 2017, she began to organize a special commemoration to be held at her ancestor’s gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NYC. The timing of this anniversary was both coincidental and challenging, but choosing to celebrate it “some other time” was simply not an option and she did not intend to allow her ancestor’s role in such an historical event to pass without appropriate acknowledgement.
To learn more about the Commemorative Sesquicentennial: Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, Sesquicentennial
At this point in her decades-long research, Veil conceded that she had more than enough material to write Kelly’s biography, but she also realized that her project had moved well beyond that initial goal to what would likely become an open-ended endeavor. The project had grown far beyond the telling of her ancestor’s role in both US history and Ireland’s fight for freedom into the necessary telling of the many, many actions and movements coordinated across multiple nations by both Ireland’s citizens and her diaspora who had been displaced from their homeland.
Veil discovered that the very secret nature of the movement in which Kelly participated meant that much of what has been published today about the parts of the movement that took place in the 1800’s appeared to be based on many assumptions rather than verified accounts based on primary source documents.The enormity of the project’s ultimate mission finally crystallized when Veil read the words of author/publisher John Denvir, a compatriot, fellow printer, and close friend of Colonel Kelly:
“The time has perhaps not yet come when those who are capable of writing the full history of this great movement can give it to the world.” — John Denvir, London, 1910.
Although Colonel Kelly’s biography is still in progress and will eventually be published, Veil acknowledges that there is a much larger story to be shared than that of Colonel Kelly and the Fenian Brotherhood. There is a huge interwoven cast of historical characters with stories waiting to be told and the time has arrived for the world to hear the full story – a story that has thus far only been told in pockets of information around the globe. Nothing has been written from a truly global perspective, and over time, revisionist history has influenced much of what has been written – without benefit of primary source documents. As a result, generally held perceptions of the Irish culture and its role in events prior to the 1916 Rising are perhaps fundamentally flawed.
In seeking to establish an initiative to keep the story alive and growing to its true global dimensions, Veil, in partnership with Dr. Peter Fox, founded IFfF Global, Inc. in September of 2016. This website was created as a portal to provide the means to engage with and invite others to help in preserving this important role in Irish history by sharing their stories and/or volunteering to advance the message.