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The Fenian Invasions

Bruce Ricketts

People generally associate the Irish homeland issue with England, but did you know that in 1866, the issue spilled over into Canada.

The roots of the Fenians go back to the mid 18th century Ireland.  For almost a hundred years the Irish, living under British rule, languished in poverty and misery.  While the British attempted to alleviate the situation, the situation always seemed to get worse.  

The Great Famine (1845-1848) changed the face of Ireland forever. The most drastic effect of the starvation was the rapid declination of population. In a few short years, the population dropped by two million. The most logical principle for the horrific conditions of the Irish state was to blame the British. Two political factions competed for Irish loyalty during the famine years and thereafter; the “Young Irelanders” headed by John Mitchell, William Smith O’Brien, and Thomas Davis and the “Repealers” led by Daniel O’Connell.

The Young Ireland movement represented a militant stance to completely sever ties with Great Britain.   The Repeal movement, on the other hand,  advocated the repeal of the Act of Union that joined Ireland to Great Britain, and the re-establishment of an Irish parliament without breaking every connection with England; such as the case with Canada.

The influence of Young Ireland and the Repeal movement swelled into the United States as thousands of immigrants fled the famine of their homeland. In America, two leaders emerged who would pioneer the Fenian uprisings, James Stephens and John O’Mahoney. Both of these men found enough anti-English feelings in the states that lead them to believe that a revolt among Irish-Americans was entirely possible. O’Mahoney spearheaded the Fenian organization which was also known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret oath-bound society dedicated to armed revolution. The alliance was suppressed, still it remained active and gave birth to a new generation of revolutionary Fenians.

Believing that the English could be preoccupied away from Ireland toward defending the Canadian colonies, the Fenians began, in 1865,  threatening to invade Canada.  These threats were taken seriously on both side of the border.  In March of 1866 ten thousand Canadian militia were placed under arms as a precaution against anticipated attacks on St. Patrick’s Day after the Fenians held a mass meeting in New York and threatened to invade north.

On April 10, a group of Fenians massed at Eastport, Maine intending to invade Campo Bello Island, New Brunswick. They withdrew in the face of the Canadian Militia, British warships and American authorities.

On May 31, about 800 Fenians under John O’Neill crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo into Canada. They occupied Fort Erie and cut telegraph lines. The Buffalo and Lake Huron railroads were also cut before the Fenians proceeded inland.  Much of the Canadian Militia was ordered out to counter the move.

On June 2, Canadian forces under Alfred Booker were driven back by the Fenians at Ridegway, Ontario with the loss of 10 dead and 38 wounded. Fenians retreated to Fort Erie where they were engaged by another Canadian militia force under the command of John Stoughton Dennis. The Canadians were forced back with the loss of 6 wounded an 54 prisoners.

By June 3, over 20,000 militia had taken arms and been called out. The main Canadian force commanded by George Peacocke entered Fort Erie.   O’Neill and the Fenians had already escaped back across the border to the US where they were given a hero’s welcome.

On June 7,  about 1000 Fenians commanded by “General” Spier crossed the Canadian border and occupied Pigeon Hill in Missiquoi County, Quebec. They plundered St Armand and Frelighsburg but retreated to the US when American authorities seized their supplies at St Albans.

With that defeat the Fenian Invasions came to an end.

Although the raids failed in ending British rule in North America or Ireland they did have serious historical consequences. Canadian nationalism was promoted by the raids.  Fear of American invasions united the separate provinces in common defense and a few months after the raids in 1866 the provinces unified under the British North America Act of 1867, also known as Confederation. The American Fenian movement also pushed and
encouraged their counterparts in Ireland, the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, though Fenianism died out in the United States after the failed invasions by John O’Neil in the early 1870s. Speculation suggests that the Fenian raids are responsible for the creation of Canada as a country, however it is certain that the stirrings of confederation can be traced back to the time of the Fenian raids.



Written by

Author of Mysteries of Canada

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