The Irish Invade Canada: The History of the Fenian Raids

The Fenian Raids

In 1866, only a year after the Civil War, a group of over 700 Irish Civil War Veterans launched an attack on British held Canada. Had it not been for the quick arrival of 700 British regulars, they might have taken the Canadian Fort at Campobello Island just north of Maine. The Fenian Brotherhood, as the Irish soldiers were known, launched at least 6 more raids into Canada over the next five years. At least 22 Canadians were killed in the raids and almost 100 injured. The raids had long-term effects on Canada including a growth in anti-Americanism which helped develop a strong sense of Canadian nationalism. This nationalism quickly pushed the Canadian provinces into forming a single country. So, in short, Canadians can thank some rogue Irishmen for the formation of their country. How Aboot that, eh?

Why Would the Irish Attack Canada?

The Fenian Raids can trace their beginning back to Ireland, specifically around the 1840s. For over 300 years Irish Catholics had been fighting and rebelling against their Irish-Protestant and English counterparts. For many periods throughout this time, the English ruled Ireland in a brutal fashion. Ireland had long been the stage for battles, violence, famine, and disease and the casualties had been taking its toll on the Irish population (most of which were poor Irish-Catholic peasants). In 1848 a group called the Young Irelanders were plotting a rebellion against the British. Their plans were uncovered and they were forced to launch their attacks prematurely and were quickly crushed. The instigators were either rounded up and arrested, deported to Australia, or forced to flee Ireland. 

Some of this conspirators found passage to America and wound up in New York City. With Irish nationalism still burning in their hearts, they were looking for ways to prepare for another rebellion back in Ireland. Eventually, some of the Irishmen were able to convince the State of New York to allow them to form their own Irish militia, made up of Irish immigrants. The militia eventually became the 69th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “fighting Irish.” The goal was to train young Irish men so that they could go back and lead a rebellion against England. However, the Civil War broke out and put a damper on their plans.

Flag of the Irish 69th

Flag of the Irish 69th

The founder of the Fenian Brotherhood was one of these rebels and he was forced to flee Ireland in 1848. His name was John O’Mahoney and he fled to New York City. He served as a colonel in the Irish 69th during the Civil War. The 69th was commonly referred to as one of the better outfits on the Union side of the war and was often called in to take on difficult missions. 

After the war, the men of the Fenian Brotherhood (many of whom served with the 69th), led by O’Mahoney, developed a plan. They believed that they would be able to pressure Britain into granting freedom to Ireland if they were able to capture areas of British held Canada. So, recruits were gathered and plans for raids were laid out. The Fenian Brotherhood was even able to raise large amounts of money (up to $500,000) by issuing bonds that could eventually be redeemed for cash 6 months after Ireland became an independent country. They truly believed in their cause. The U.S. also had a similar bond during the American Revolution called the Continental Dollar.

Fenian Bond signed by O'Mahony

Fenian Bond signed by O'Mahony

The deadliest Fenian raid took place on June 1, 1866. Armed with leftover Civil War munitions, the Fenians crossed the Niagara River and laid an ambush for the inexperienced Canadian militia that was trying to fend off the Irish raiders. The groups exchanged volleys for a couple of hours before the untrained Canadians became confused on the battlefield. The Fenians proceeded to bayonet charge the hopeless Canadians, killing a handful and wounding many others. 

Ironically, the USS Michigan was dispatched by the American Navy to intercept the Fenians and stop the battle. However, there were Fenians aboard the vessel who were still enlisted in the Navy and they sabotaged the gunboat to keep the interception from happening. After the raid on June 1, President Andrew Johnson finally called in support to stop the raids and US troops worked to seize Fenian supplies. The Fenians did go on to launch a few more raids over the next few years, but hardly any were substantial. 

Canada was upset with the lack of US response regarding the raids and the Confederation of Canada was formed by the following year in 1867. The Fenian Raids did nothing to help Irish Independence, but they did have a lasting effect on the creation of Canada.

Also, I’m guessing those Fenian bonds were never worth anything. Good luck cashing them in.