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

The Great Famine, 1845-1848, changed the face of Ireland forever. The most drastic effect of the famine was the rapid decline in population. In a few years, the population dropped by two million. The Irish blamed the British. Two political factions competed for Irish loyalty during the famine years. 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 advocated the repeal of the “Act of Union” that joined Ireland to Great Britain.  They also wanted the re-establishment of an Irish parliament, without breaking all ties 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 Ireland. 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 Fenian.

Believing that the English would be not want to get involved outside of Ireland, the Fenian began threatening to invade Canada in 1865.  These threats were taken seriously on both sides 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.  Right 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 Campobello 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 Fenian proceeded inland.  Much of the Canadian Militia was ordered out to counter the move.

Drawing of Fenian John Oneill

John O’Neill

On June 2, Canadian Forces, under Alfred Booker were driven back by the Fenians at Ridgeway, Ontario.  With the loss of 10 dead and 38 wounded.  The Fenians retreated to Fort Erie.  They were engaged by another Canadian militia force.  This one under the command of John Stoughton Dennis. The Canadians were forced back with the loss of 6 wounded and 54 taken prisoner.

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 Fenian 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 Missisquoi 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 to end 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 defence.  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 encouraged The Revolutionary Brotherhood, their counterparts in Ireland.  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. It is certain that the stirrings of confederation can be traced back to the time of the Fenian raids.

Reference:  Bruce Ricketts