The time Irish armies kept invading Canada

Canadian militia pose next to a dead Fenian killed during an 1870 raid into Quebec.

In the roughly four centuries since first contact, only three groups have ever set out to invade and seize the lands called Canada: The British (who did it in 1759), the Americans (who failed twice), and the Irish Republican Army. Not the same IRA whose name would become a byword for terrorism in the 20th century, but an actual honest-to-goodness army of Irishmen bent on fighting pitched battles to conquer and subjugate the people of Canada. To mark St. Patrick’s Day, enjoy this repost of our 2017 article on the exceedingly bizarre events that collectively formed the low point of Canada-Irish relations. 

The plan was simple: Take a bunch of Irish veterans of the American Civil War, take over Canada and then tell Queen Victoria she could have it back in exchange for an independent Ireland. That, or the whole thing would just be a good chance to shoot up some relatively undefended British land. “Canada … would serve as an excellent base of operations against the enemy; and its acquisition did not seem too great an undertaking,” wrote Irish nationalist John O’Neill, an architect of what are now known as the Fenian Raids.

The wildly optimistic planners of the scheme figured they would only need about two weeks to take over Kingston, Toronto and the other major centers of what is now Southern Ontario. From there, they would commandeer some ships, slap together a navy, sail up the St. Lawrence and demand the surrender of Quebec. Then, once the Atlantic Coast was swarming with Irish privateers, the English would have to deal. The invasion’s organizers, the Fenian Brotherhood, even began funding the effort by selling bonds that would be promptly repaid by a future Irish Republic.

 A fundraising bond used to raise finances for the Fenian bid to conquer Canada. It, uh, was never honoured.

But like most rebellions throughout Irish history, the “invade Canada” scheme was big on romance but very deficient in strategic planning. Although the Fenian Brotherhood had envisioned vast columns of battle-hardened Irish-Americans streaming into Canada, their peak showing was only about 1,000. Of those, many forgot to bring guns and many more deserted as soon as they hit Canadian soil.

All told, the Fenian conquests added up to little more than brief occupations of a customs house, some hills, a few villages and Fort Erie. To any worried Brits back home hearing the name “Fort Erie” and nursing visions of Irish forces over-running a mighty Canadian fortification, a letter to the Times of London quickly set them straight. “It may relieve the anxiety of people to know that Fort Erie … consists of a corn mill with a dwelling house,” it read, adding that the “corn mill was burnt a few years ago.”

And, unlike most successful conquerors, the brief rulers of Fort Erie ended up having to bum transit fare in order to finish their retreat. After the U.S. government eventually got around to arresting Fenians massed on the border (staging freelance foreign wars from U.S. soil is illegal, after all), New York’s Tammany Hall political machine put up the train fare to get the raiders back home.

 Canadian militia pose next to a captured Fenian cannon.

And yet, the Fenians just kept invading. They invaded New Brunswick, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. They invaded Canada when it was still a British colony, and they invaded it after it had become an independent dominion. Confederation, in part, had been intended as a defensive union against all these damned invasions. For five full years, from 1865 to 1870, any Canadian who lived within a day’s walk of the U.S. border would never be quite sure whether they might wake up to find that yet another Irish raiding party had taken over a post office. Reportedly, border populations all began to keep guns a bit closer at hand.

“Intelligence has just been received from trustworthy sources that a band of lawless men calling themselves Fenians … intend to make a raid into this province,” was the proclamation issued on the streets of Winnipeg just before the final Fenian Raid in 1870. The message implored Manitoba’s “loving subjects, irrespective of race or religion, or of past local differences, to RALLY ROUND THE FLAG.”

 A painting of the scene at Frelighsburg, Quebec, where British troops fought a Fenian force on June 8, 1866.

As early Canadians would never tire of boasting, the Fenians were often pushed back by hastily assembled militias filled with farmers who barely knew how to work a musket. “Times of ease and quiet are not the times for cultivating a martial spirit,” read one contemporary account of the somewhat lacklustre Canadian forces.

They were also pushed back despite stunningly bad leadership at the top. Future Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was serving as minister of militia during the largest raid in 1866. As telegrams poured in with updates about the rebel advances, Macdonald remained far too drunk to read any of them. “Hypothesis A would be that he went on a bender from time to time and unluckily the Fenians chose one of those moments to invade,” historian Ged Martin, author of a 2013 biography of Macdonald, told the National Post in 2015. “Hypothesis B would be that he freaked out and took to the bottle.”

And yet, the 1866 Battle of Ridgeway — fought between Fenians and the first-ever all-Canadian military force — is one of only a handful of modern military victories won for the cause of Irish nationalism. As the rookie Canadians mistakenly began to retreat, they were chased off the field by a Fenian bayonet charge.

 A painting by Toronto artist Alexander von Erichsen of the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866.

Canada had been one of the main ports of call for refugees fleeing the Irish Potato Famine of only 10 years prior, and their new home hadn’t been the most welcoming of places. George Brown, founder of The Globe, was one of Canada’s most vocal anti-slavery activists in the mid 19th century, but his compassion absolutely did not extend to the country’s new Irish expats. In an

1858 column

, Brown called the Irish “lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.” Needless to say, rampant Canadian prejudices against Ireland were not improved by the Fenian Raids.

To be sure, the Fenians were not official “armies of Ireland,” a country that was then still part of the United Kingdom. But the invaders can claim a direct line to the forces that ultimately established the modern Republic of Ireland. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, a sister organization to North American Fenian groups, would eventually stage the 1916 Easter Rising, an attempted armed takeover of Dublin that would ultimately precipitate the Irish War of Independence. The men marauding Canada’s border areas were also carrying many of the same symbols that would come to define the modern Irish Republic.

 A heavily stylized lithograph of the Battle of Ridgeway published soon after the clash. In reality, the lines weren’t nearly this close, and the Fenian forces weren’t nearly as green.

The Fenian Raids had leaned heavily on the idea that once first blood was drawn, it would stir the hearts of Irishmen everywhere: Thousands of sympathetic Irish-Americans would pour over the border, Irish-Canadians would pull down the Union Jack and countrymen back home would be emboldened to stage a revolution.

The strategy ended up being dead wrong for a Canadian invasion, with some dissident Irish nationalists even saying that it would have made as much sense to invade Japan. One of the most prominent Irish critics of the raids was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. An Irish Catholic and Father of Confederation, he objected vehemently to secret paramilitary societies trying to tear down the very country he had just helped to create. McGee called the Fenians “impediments to Ireland’s reconstruction” and urged Irish nationalists to put down the gun and obtain independence the way Canada had; peacefully, and by remaining in the British Empire. A Fenian fatally shot McGee outside his home in 1868.

 Wanted poster issued after McGee’s assassination.

Fifty years after the Fenian Raids, however, the “public sentiment” card would work wonders for the 1916 Rising. Although a military failure that was initially opposed by the Irish mainstream, the harsh British putdown of its leaders ended up sparking a wave of Irish nationalism that would see the Irish Free State established only six years later.

As for a Canada that was still relatively short of military achievements, it’s easy to forget the immense, over-the-top pride the young country took in dropping everything to beat back some ragtag Irish republicans. Canadians of the era were so wildly pro-British that it was even known to creep out Britain at times. And for thousands in this sleepy, agrarian corner of the British Empire, it had been their chance to fight back was what soon being lambasted in the press as “barbarians” and “bands of plunderers.”

 What “standing on guard for thee” would earn you in 1866.

Better yet, it had been a stupendously cheap victory: In a testament to the poor marksmanship or humane sympathies of the combatants, the whole invasion was pushed back at the cost of only about three dozen Canadian dead. There were patriotic songs, epic poems, gripping bestsellers and government grants of 160 acres apiece to veterans. For decades afterwards, a column of proud be-medaled Fenian fighters were a regular feature of Canadian parades. As one particularly jingoistic poem put it, “your proud valour made them flee, and the wildest jubilee sound o’er our loved land again.”

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques