The Big Picture and Canada's Fenian Raids

The 2nd of June marked the anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway, the largest battle of the 1866 Fenian Raids. The Fenian Raids are remembered in Canada on the great list of “Events that led to Confederation.” You probably heard about it high school history. Most probably remember a simple story of the Fenian raids. Canada, threatened by the invasion of Irish-American Fenians, united to form one country at Confederation in 1867 so as to defend itself. Less remembered is the larger series of events which led to the forming of the Fenians and their raids on Canada.

In 1848, revolutions swept through continental Europe. Since the Vienna Congress of 1815, Europe had lived in relative peace, safe from the forces of the Revolution that had plunged the continent into nearly a quarter century of war. After three decades, many of those living under autocratic rule wanted change. The 1848 Revolutions began in France, when King Louis-Philippe was overthrown and the Second Republic was proclaimed. In Germany, students demanded a unified German Confederation and the guarantee of civic liberty. The Habsburg Austrian Empire faced revolution and Hungary revolted against their leadership leading to a civil war. Many other nations experienced their own revolution or unrest. Great Britain famously avoided revolution, but a failed uprising did take place in Ireland called the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.

Ireland was still in the midst of the Great Famine where nearly a quarter of its population died of starvation or immigrate to new lands. There had been various political groups within Ireland agitating for a repeal of the Acts of Union 1801 that had combined the kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain (in the aftermath of another rebellion in 1798 – Ireland was not happy under English rule). One called themselves the Young Irelanders who longed to see the revolutionary ideas of “the Continent” take hold in Ireland. After hearing of the relatively bloodless revolutions of Europe that year, the Young Irelanders tried to organize a protest against British rule in 1848. They were immediately targeted by the government as rebels and hunted down. After a brief standoff, the small rebel force was defeated, ending yet another Irish attempt at independence.

Two Young Irelanders named James Stephens and John O'Mahony fled to the continent to avoid arrest. They lived in Europe for a time but continued to plan the next phase in their fight to overthrow British rule. In 1856, John O'Mahony left for America and two years later founded the Irish American organization known as the Fenian Brotherhood, while Stephens returned to Ireland to form the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Historian Peter Vronsky notes that they were one of the first transcontinental insurgent groups in the Western world. They operated using encrypted communication, a cell organization where each cell did not know about the others, global information campaigns in newspaper and presses, and a worldwide source of funding from the vast Irish diaspora.

The American Fenians quickly expanded to thousands of members by the 1860s. Thousands of Irish had immigrated to the United States during the Famine, so there were many eager members. The start of the American Civil War in 1861 allowed thousands of Fenians to enter into military service and receive military training. When the war ended in 1865, Fenian veterans were trained soldiers, underemployed, and passionate about their political cause. A famous Fenian drinking song describes their situation:

We are a Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war.

And we're going to fight for Ireland, the land that we adore.

Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue.

And we'll go and capture Canada, for we've nothing else to do

They believed that they could successfully invade Britain's North American colonies and trigger a crisis that would force Irish independence. They would either hold the colonies hostage or occupy Canada and begin planning a war of liberation. In the 1860s, as Britain struggled to manage its growing Empire with limited resources, the plan was not as unlikely as we might think today. Or at least, it had potential for success. Britain was under economic strain after the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny during the 1850s. It could not possibly defend every corner of its Empire across the world. One solution was to turn over the defence of British North America to its colonies so as to lower the cost of maintaining its possessions. Britain began the process of removing its forces and were in favour of the proposal for increased Canadian autonomy presented by colonial politicians like John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier. So as Canadians were organizing for Confederation, the Fenians were planning their invasion, both a result of some of the same factors.

The invasion took place in 1866 when three raids were launched. One occurred at Campobello Island in New Brunswick in April, two in June at Pigeon Hill in Lower Canada (Quebec), and in the Niagara Region. On 2 June, a small force of Fenians gathered at Ridgeway, west of Fort Erie. In response, the Canadian militia (a single company of the Toronto based Queen's Own Rifles) attacked the Fenians. They failed to turn them and retreated to Port Colborne. The Fenians forces, fearing an engagement with a larger number of regular and militia troops, attempted to return across the border to Buffalo. The Americans intercepted them and they surrendered, ending the one-time invasion of Canadian soil.

Two other raids took place in 1870 and 1871, but the Battle of Ridgeway was probably the most successful, as they had at least defeated another military force. In 1890, 2 June was named “Decoration Day” to remember the contribution of Canadian veterans. It was Canada's “first remembrance day” and was established by ageing Fenian Raid veterans seeking to commemorate their role in the pivotal Battle of Ridgeway. It eventually expanded to include all veterans until it was replaced by Remembrance Day on 11 November in 1931.

The Fenian Raids had another impact on Canadian history that is less well known. One veteran of the Battle of Ridgeway was a teacher, Alexander Muir. After returning to his home in Toronto, Muir entered a poem into a contest that he titled, “Maple Leaf Forever.” The poem was set to music, and as a song it became English Canada's unofficial national anthem. Unofficial if only because it was unpopular among French Canadians since it glorified Canada's connection to Britain. Lines such as “The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine / The Maple Leaf forever!” reveal Muir's vision of Canada. Thistle for Scotland, shamrock for Ireland, and rose for England, combined under Canada's maple leaf. In 1997, new lyrics were written for Maple Leaf Forever that removed its heavy references to Canada's British past.

Canadians place the Fenian Raids in the story of changing from colony to Dominion to nation. As we said, it's often linked to Canadian Confederation and the threat of American invasion. Still, like so many events in Canadian history, it's easy to lose the forest for the trees. The Fenian Brotherhood came about from a long series of events, stretching as far back as 1848 or even 1798. It's important to remember when studying Canadian history that, despite narrow lens of nationalist historians, Canada existed in an increasingly globalized world. Even events that few Canadian historians consider, such as the 1848 Revolutions, had ramifications for the path of Canadian history that followed.