Transnational Revolutionaries

The Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1866

by David Doolin (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 352 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 71


The organization of several thousand Irish American men into a military outfit, which then attempted to invade Canada from within the United States, is a significant historical event that remains largely unexplored from an Irish and Irish American perspective. This study offers a fuller exploration of the details behind the Fenian invasion, asking why Irish immigrants were motivated to shape American international policy and examining the ways in which the Fenians defined identity as a transnational phenomenon. By taking a fresh look at the Irish foray, the author reveals new aspects to Irish immigrant negotiations of belonging – a prototypical transnationalism, accompanied by a broad-ranging anti-imperialism.
This book places the Irish American Fenians in their proper context, demonstrating their central importance within American, Irish and Irish American history. Its publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Fenian invasion of Canada.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Figures
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction : ‘A Hubbub … Where John Bull’s Calves of Canada Live’
  • Chapter 1 : The Fate of ‘Old Ireland’ and the Past that Infused Fenian Thought
  • Chapter 2 : The Irish Republican Brotherhood: International Radicalism of the IRB
  • Chapter 3 : The Mass Irish in North America and Proliferating Fenianism
  • Chapter 4 : Imagining Irish Liberty: Carried to Ontario’s Inland Sea
  • Chapter 5 : Campobello and Beyond
  • Chapter 6 : Conflict Across the Niagara: A Transnational Revolution
  • Chapter 7 : In a Decade of American Turmoil: Interpreting Irish Immigrant Insurgency
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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It is with great pleasure that I thank those who assisted me along the way as I wrote and re-wrote this study, to finally get it into book format. At the outset let me extend a sincere thank you to the National University of Ireland/Ollscoil na hÉireann who provided me with a publication grant, awarded by the senate in the summer of 2015, which enabled me to pursue publication of my work. Thank you to Peter Lang, especially Christabel Scaife for her direction and encouragement and more recently Jasmin Allousch for pushing this through to the end.

I owe much thanks and gratitude to all my former teachers at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, especially those who guided me in the earliest stages of my work on the Fenian Brotherhood’s invasion of Canada. David Stannard, Lois Horton, Robert Perkinson, Bob McGlone, and Laura Lyons not only offered guidance and invaluable feedback but showed great patience and understanding and I am very grateful for their dedication. I must reserve appreciation in particular for Lois Horton and David Stannard, who have always provided encouragement, support, and great insights, and above all were constantly there to help guide my studies and my writing. They both provided the motivation and expertise to help ensure I saw the process through to its end, for which I will be always grateful. I would also like to thank Prof. Simon Newman at the University of Glasgow, who introduced me to the intriguing academic challenge of graduate America Studies, and subsequently encouraged me to pursue my doctorate in the United States.

Throughout my research process I received generous assistance from several people along the way. At the Maine Historical Society, I would like to thank Bill Barry, Gary Libby, and Matt Barker for their conversation and guidance through the resources available in Portland. At the Irish Heritage Center, Portland, I owe individual thanks to Vinny O’Malley, Mary McAleney, David Soule, Prof. Michael Connelly and everyone who so ← vii | viii → kindly welcomed me into their community. My thanks to the staff at Boston College’s John J. Burns and Tip O’Neill libraries, who guided and encouraged me in my use of their collections. At the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, at the Catholic University of America (CUA), my thanks to Jane Stoeffler who patiently retrieved and guided me to the resources I requested on a daily basis while at the center. Thanks also to the staff at the New York Public Library who provided quiet encouragement in subtle acknowledgment of my research work. I would like to thank Tim Madigan and St John Fisher College, Rochester, NY, for access to Ben Maryniak’s private archive of research material on the Fenians, and for Tim’s kindness and encouragement along the road to publication. I would also like to thank those who listened to and commented on presentations of my work over recent years, particularly at local and national meetings of the American Conference of Irish Studies and the New England Historical Association; thanks especially to Jennifer Tebbe-Grossman, Mary E. Kelly, Catherine Shannon, Michael Doorley, P.J. Mathews, Bryan McGovern, and E. Moore Quinn, among others. Also, thank you to Peter Vronsky for access to and use of excellent maps that help us to visualize the Fenians’ invasion.

On a more personal note, I must also acknowledge and thank many friends: in the various places that I have found myself doing my research I want to thank those who put me up without a grumble (Katie Flahive and Heather Daur); the Grouse family of Gig Harbor, WA, for much support and kindness; and the BOI club in Hawai’i (Angela, Jon, Cheryl, Mo, Sean, Valerie, Edward) – I can’t thank you enough for your camaraderie and encouragement. I must single out Jeff Tripp for invaluable guidance and unreserved help throughout my time at UH, alongside Sujin, Jake, and Wes, who showed me the greatest of friendship during my stay in Hawai’i. Thank you as well to all my professors and peers at the American Studies department who provided the rigorous challenges that helped me learn and understand at UH. To my extended Maine family, the Carmichaels and Pollards, who helped me immensely during my stay on the American East Coast and supported me unreservedly over the years while researching and writing – I will be forever grateful to everyone for their unreserved kindness. ← viii | ix →

And it goes without saying that I, of course, owe most thanks to the steadfast support of all of my family and friends in Ireland. My parents Martin and Brigid, who have only ever backed me up, and have done everything in their power to help me achieve my goals, through each and every decision I have made. Equally, my brother Mark and sister Niamh, who have always been there to support and assist me in my endeavours, as have my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Peter and Laura. I will never be able to thank you all enough for your unquestioning love and encouragement. Finally, to my wonderful son Cillian who helped inspire me to get this tome in print, and to my wife and biggest cheerleader Rebecca, whose patience, love, and advocacy were pivotal to the completion of this project. For her feedback, editing skills, and endurance throughout the years I am forever grateful. Words cannot express my deepest love and gratitude to you both.

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List of Figures

Figure 1.1. Young Irelanders.

Figure 2.1. James Stephens; from Joseph Denieffe, A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood: Giving a Faithful Report of the Principal Events from 1885 to 1867, Written At the Request of Friends (New York: The Gael Pub. Co., 1906).

Figure 2.2. John O’Mahony, Fenian Brotherhood founder in America, from Michael Doheny, The Felon’s Track (Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son, Ltd., 1920).

Figure 3.1. Officers of the 69th New York Volunteer Regiment (an Irish regiment in the American Civil War) with a cannon at Fort Corcoran in 1861. Michael Corcoran is standing furthest to the left.

Figure 3.2. General Thomas Francis Meagher of the Civil War’s Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fair Oaks (from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Figure 4.1. W.R. Roberts and T.W. Sweeny from Joseph Denieffe, A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood: Giving a Faithful Report of the Principal Events from 1885 to 1867, Written At the Request of Friends (New York: The Gael Pub. Co., 1906), 138, 267.

Figure 4.2. Centrefold of Harpers Weekly, 31 March 1866, depicting the Fenian Leaders’ split as well as various plates depicting the symbolism of the Fenian Brotherhood’s transnational motivations (e.g. eviction, liberty, emigration, Civil War participation). ← xi | xii →

Figure 4.3. The Fenian Invasion, Buffalo, Ridgeway, and Fort Erie. Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada (Toronto: Allen Lane Canada, 2011).

Figure 5.1. Fenian $10 dollar bond signed by John O’Mahony, which helped lead to the Fenian Brotherhood split.

Figure 6.1. General John O’Neill, Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran who successfully defeated the Canadian British soldiers at the battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie, 2 June 1866.

Figure 6.2. The Battle of Ridgeway, 2 June 1866. Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada (Toronto: Allen Lane Canada, 2011).

Figure 6.3. The Battle of Fort Erie, 2 June 1866. Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada (Toronto: Allen Lane Canada, 2011).

Figure 6.4. ‘The Fenian Invasion – The Battle of Limestone Ridge fought […] between the Fenians, under Col. O’Neil [sic] and the Canadian Volunteers commanded by Col. Booker’ in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 23 June 1866.

Figure 6.5. ‘The United States steamer Michigan with captured Fenians on a scow-boat’ sketched by J.P. Hoffman. Lake Erie, off Buffalo, New York, June 1866, Harper’s Weekly, courtesy of Benedict R. Maryniak, private archive in the Irish Studies Department at St John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.

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List of Abbreviations

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‘A Hubbub … Where John Bull’s Calves of Canada Live’1

In the first week of June 1866, barely a year after the conclusion of the American Civil War, a new conflict was initiated in the United States, this time on the northern border with British North America. Starting on the morning of June 1, a series of raids by the Fenian Brotherhood (Fenians or FB) culminated in a short military confrontation with the British-Canadian authorities. These Fenian raids, widely described as the ‘Invasion of Canada,’ were planned, commenced, and carried out from within the United States in an attempt to achieve one, or both, of two main objectives: namely, seize some territory and there proclaim the Irish Republic, with the future intention of having that territory annexed to the United States; and alternatively, or indeed concomitantly, to try and foment an international war between the United States and Great Britain. The intentions of these raids, motivated by the Fenians’ aspiration to damage the British Empire as severely as possible so as to further the cause of Irish independence, have been overshadowed by the formulation of the invasion as a moment that signaled a historic shift towards Canadian Dominion status. As a history appropriated by Canada, it has been utilized to underscore a sense of domestic independence for that British Commonwealth country. Nonetheless, understanding the significance of the raids from an Irish and Irish American stance reframes and perhaps reclaims the history as an ambitious and important event in an Irish campaign of anti-British-imperialism that partly informed the struggle to create an independent republic of Ireland free from British rule. Furthermore, it also signaled an ← 1 | 2 → important articulation of an Irish American negotiation of identity following the arrival of such a significant number of immigrants from Ireland in the decades immediately after Ireland’s Great Hunger. More specifically, those that planned the invasion of Canada were part of a transnational, revolutionary organization, an American branch (Fenian Brotherhood) of an Irish revolutionary movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which played a central role in determining the North Atlantic landscape at this important period of history.

Several Fenian leaders involved with organizing the invasion of Canada were Irish exiles from charges of treason against the British Crown, but the Brotherhood’s membership was largely made up of immigrants already, or soon to be, naturalized American citizens. They thus claimed loyalty to both the United States while maintaining fidelity to the plight of a persecuted Ireland, still under pernicious colonial governance. As such, the record of the Fenian invasion of Canada deserves reconsideration. By attending to the detailed planning, as well as the motivations of this Irish group of immigrants who undertook such an audacious scheme, the central focus here is to show that the Fenian invasion was an important component of Irish diasporic history. That the specifics surrounding the Fenian invasion of Canada had seemed to be largely understudied becomes evident in how predominantly the event has been interpreted as a fiasco; admittedly as the event approaches its sesquicentennial anniversary in 2016, more serious investigations are beginning to appear. Yet, arguably there has not been close scrutiny paid to the motivations and ambitions when it came to the inspiration and initiation of the raids from an Irish and/or Irish American point of view. Prior to now, one of the more striking features about the descriptions of the Fenian invasion has been an apparent cursory dismissal of the affair in a few ephemeral lines. It has often been quickly dismissed as an ‘obstinate’ and ultimately ‘futile’ attempt; a fiasco.2 In terms of an apparent indifference afforded the ← 2 | 3 → Fenian invasion, conceivably it has not been a well-remembered story in Irish America, nor for an Irish or an American nationalist past.3 Instead, the attack on Canada has been described as a ‘comic-opera bungling,’ or as an ‘embarrassing4 attempt, with little elaboration. With practically no context on the specifics of the invasion, it has been hard to shake the (mis)representation of the failed assault as a ‘fiasco’ that spelled doom for the Fenian Brotherhood.5 Considering the paucity of details offered concerning the invasion and in reaction to these recurrent offhanded one-liners, one wonders how much of a fiasco the Fenians’ military ideas really were. While there have been investigations of the Fenian organization more generally among the literature from the Irish and Irish American perspective, often there is but a cursory chapter about the Canadian raids,6 and it appears that the 1866 episode needs further scrutiny in the context of what it meant for Ireland and for Irish America. Furthermore, by being paid such short shrift the myriad ways in which the story of the invasion interacts with both an American and Irish past are eschewed. This study, ← 3 | 4 → then, aims to recover the motivations and goals of this particular, perhaps peculiar immigrant group.

Considering the centrality of the Irish to nineteenth-century American immigration history (when ‘in the century after 1820 almost 5 million Irish people emigrated to the United States alone’),7 it seems an oddity that this Fenian event has been somewhat dismissed, maybe even forgotten. As it was a seminal moment of transnationalism informing Irish American history, and in terms of an emerging scholarship inspired, and inspiring approaches that challenge nationally bound narratives of the past, surely the Irish instigated invasion of British North America is worth another look. By suggesting the scarcity of studies from an Irish American perspective of the Fenian invasion of Canada, it would be remiss not to point out that there are a number of excellent works that detail the complexity of the nationalist experiences of Irish American immigrants.8 In this present study, the hope is to give a fuller exploration of the details behind the Fenian invasion specifically, and to concentrate on the motivations of these Irish immigrants to shape American international policy, while defining identity as a transnational phenomenon. Rather than merely a nationalist interest among the immigrants, the Fenian invasion suggests something novel in its prototypical, transnational aspects to Irish immigrant negotiations of belonging. While their interest in Ireland retained a focus on the freeing of the territorial island from British influence, their anti-imperialism was not confined within a bounded nation, but moved across borders. Furthermore, their sense of nationalism maintained a duality, in that Fenian actions in relation to Ireland were framed as concomitant with their American selves, ← 4 | 5 → and vice-versa. In a sense their duality is ‘trans’-national, in that displays of Irishness and Americanness moved across, beyond, and through national boundaries.

This project, then, is suggesting a thoroughly novel insight into an important moment of America’s and Ireland’s past. It suggests a fresh look at the specific record of the Irish foray from a largely unexplored Irish American viewpoint concerning the place of not only one of the nation’s more prominent immigrant groups, but also of the American nation itself within a global framework, as the young Republic emerged from the complexities of Civil War. The organization of several thousand men into a military outfit of Irish-American citizens, who then attempted to invade Canada from within the United States is significant on several fronts. It says something about Irish immigrants’ negotiations to belong in the US. It speaks to the development of the American nation-state as it dealt with the complexities emanating from the Civil War by bringing to light an international angle. And it challenges the contingencies of how Irish immigrants fit into the United States by offering a transnational dimension, as Irish leaders connected their own visions and hopes for an independent Ireland to America’s global expectations and intentions. So, while the Fenians as a group have been a party of interest when it comes to Irish America, the same cannot be said for the actual invasion into Canada. An initial starting point of this consideration, therefore, was to merely and modestly ask, why did Irish-Americans commence hostilities from within the US against British North America at this time? And, considering the enormity of the very idea, was the entire concept really such a preposterous endeavour? From here several interesting considerations emerge to challenge customary versions of American and Irish American history.

Scholarly investigations of the Fenian invasion have largely emphasized the raids from a Canadian history perspective, or served as an extension of purely Irish nationalist history concerning the direct challenge of the IRB to the British authorities. In terms of the importance for British North America, it seems somewhat of a more commonsensical study in light of the association between the Fenian invasion and the Confederation of the Canadian provinces, as well as more recent efforts to highlight the invasion’s ← 5 | 6 → place in Canadian military history.9 Indeed, as early as March 12, 1866, a story appeared in the Daily Eastern Argus of Portland, Maine, which highlighted the Fenian excitement on the northern border as an opportunity for Canadian leaders who ‘made the scare an occasion to ferment a general excitement in order under its influence to secure the confederation.’10 The Fenian offensive is, then, generally a more well-known moment in Canada’s past, since it is credited with helping achieve Canadian confederation, uniting the Provinces for the purposes of strengthening Canada, as Dominion status was conferred in order to help offload direct British responsibility for their North American colonies. Britain wanted to maintain links to Canada as a source of pride, but did not want to endure the costs of having to defend it, nor the embarrassment which would come about if they lost them by any other means than voluntarily conferring Dominion status. The Fenian invasion almost achieved such embarrassment, and provided a wakeup call exposing the true vulnerability of Britain’s North American territories. The Canadians themselves also wanted to create an independent military, without British management, because they realized their own vulnerability.11 The Fenians had, then, a large role to play in acting as the catalyst that ensured Canadian Dominion status. Yet, even in these more detailed studies of the invasion of Canada from the British-Canadian standpoint, it is often written off as a comic-opera.12 From such a Canadian predisposition, such analysis arguably perpetuates a problematic Anglo-centric scholarship that is unwilling to understand the legitimacy of Irish, anti-colonial, resistance movements.13 Moreover, these studies do not explore the meaning of the Fenian invasion’s importance in terms of ← 6 | 7 → how the Irish diaspora negotiated an ethnic identity and influenced events specific to the United States.

As mentioned, even when the invasion appears in studies of Irish immigration, it is also often written off without due notice. Irish historical scholarship of course offers several close assessments of the workings of the IRB, including the American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood and the transatlantic connections. Brian Jenkins, in his 1969 study of the Fenians and Anglo-American relations, investigates the diplomatic tensions that existed between the British and the Americans and assesses how the Fenian organization exasperated those tensions. He does not, however, engage in any great detail with the actual Fenian invasion of Canada. In fact, when he does mention the invasion he also depicts it with disdain,14 as a moment of ‘burlesque,’ a mere fiasco. This vein of thought is continued in Leon Ó Broin’s 1971 study, Fenian Fever: An Anglo-American Dilemma15 and in Mabel Gregory Walker’s 1969 work, The Fenian Movement.16 Ó Broin focuses on the Irish nationalists’ political and verbal agitation, which incited Anglo-American tensions, but quietly records the Fenian invasion in only a few pages, summing it up as a delusion. Walker engages with the meaning of the Fenians for American domestic politics, but similarly glosses over the details of the actual Fenian invasion. The result is the perpetuation of a view that arguably skews the incident in such a way as to reduce the Fenian invasion of Canada to a legacy that highlights farce and the prominent description of capriciousness that is conjured up and has stuck to the title ‘The Fenian invasion of Canada.’ So, while the Fenians as a group have been a party of interest when it comes to Irish America, the same cannot be said for the actual invasion into Canada. It is this latter insight that will be addressed in this present examination. ← 7 | 8 →

The Fenian Brotherhood and the American Context

Before the Civil War, the Fenian organization in the United States was dependent on a direct connection to the IRB in Ireland. They raised money and planned for a future date that would see the Irish people in Ireland rise in rebellion against the systematic oppression of their British overlords. The US side was to act as moral support while also acting as banker. The diaspora were asked to finance revolutionary plans, pay for military materials, and provide a salary for leaders who could then donate their entire energy and concentration on ensuring an uprising would come to fruition. The American Civil War, however, engendered novel proposals surrounding both the function of the American Fenian Brotherhood, and what they could achieve for Irish freedom from within the United States. These new plans provoked devastating internal faction fighting, but nonetheless a confluence of historical circumstances coalesced, from which emerged a very American-derived Fenian organization, one that melded American contingencies to Irish affairs in unique ways. As the American Civil War commenced, an immense amount of Irish émigrés had been flooding the United States for at least two previous decades. They were mostly fleeing British induced nefarious conditions in their homeland, for which a majority of Irish American immigrants remained eternally embittered. As Oscar Handlin has posited, the Irish experience was forged ‘[…] in the bitter atmosphere of poverty and persecution, […]. Their utter helplessness before the most elemental forces fostered an immense sadness, a deep-rooted pessimism about the world and man’s role in it, […] Irishmen fled […] degraded, humiliated, mourning reluctantly-abandoned and dearly-loved homes.’17 For many of these mostly impoverished and unskilled migrants, the US army became one of the few well-paying jobs for which they were eligible. The Fenians quickly figured that they potentially could have a well-trained revolutionary army produced from the American Civil War. ← 8 | 9 → From these contingencies, then, the suggestion was not only should the American Fenian Brotherhood be a group in charge of fundraising and generating political support, but now they would have an army of men, trained officers, and arms to utilize as they saw fit, in their fight for Ireland’s freedom from British control.

The Fenian Brotherhood developed a new idea for achieving Irish freedom, and it was just across the border in British North America. What the Fenian invasion of Canada can uncover, then, are several nuanced intersections with broader questions of American history and Irish American concerns. It challenges nationally bound interpretations of the history of the US Civil War, providing a lens through which that event can be seen in relation to concerns of a global, transatlantic context. That is, it helps shine a light on aspects of the Civil War in relation to competition with Britain, bringing this particular moment of history into a global arena. In doing so it also suggests American collusion with Irish interests and offers a unique look at Irish influences on the American international past. The proceeding investigation also speaks to Irish American studies within a diasporic and transnational framework, rather than an immigrant assimilation/acculturation perspective. In addressing this unique event this study will access aspects of how Irish-Americans negotiated their place in the United States as a diaspora group, in tandem with Americans’ attitudes and reactions to an ethnic-Irish presence and their actions as North American residents. Some of the correlated outcomes in such an undertaking inescapably speak to: the formation of Irish-American ethnicity; the framing of this episode as a seminal transnational event inextricably tied to colonial history; and alternative approaches to more familiar and conventional narratives that constitute American and Irish national histories. That the time period conjoins with the American Civil War, rather than overshadowing the Fenian incident, might instead raise questions as to why it was, if not a forgotten, then a largely dismissed historic event. Alternatively, the Fenian Brotherhood and the invasion of Canada can be seen to represent the ways in which a large part of the Irish population displayed their reluctance to simply surrender to either a British or American hegemony.


XIV, 352
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Irish Americans Fenians Canada invasion immigrant transnationalism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XIV, 352 pp., 14 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

David Doolin (Author)

David Doolin holds a PhD from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and is currently an occasional lecturer and tutor at University College Dublin, Maynooth University and the American College, Dublin. He previously taught American history and American studies courses at the University of Hawai‘i, MCPHS University Boston, and Wheelock College and Endicott College in Massachusetts.


Title: Transnational Revolutionaries
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366 pages