Had it succeeded, a 19th century attempt to force the British out of Ireland by invading Canada would be remembered as the boldest flanking maneuver in military history. As it failed, the reader must decide if the Irish American invaders were naive or laudable for dreaming of an ancestral homeland free of colonial oppression.
Whatever the verdict, the story began in Chicago in 1863.
That November, the Fenian Brotherhood of America held its first convention in the fraternal organization’s hall at Randolph and Wells streets. Delegates from Irish American communities in North America adopted a constitution defining the organization’s purpose and loudly echoed it at their closing banquet.
“Whatever was said against England or English policy met with a vociferous and hearty response from every man present,” the Tribune reported. “Indeed, we could not help noting that this feeling of hatred of Britain and British rule was predominant.”
Given its tragic history, Ireland’s salvation would come only through force of arms, the Fenians proclaimed, adding that they had pledged themselves to lead the way.
“We are thoroughly convinced of the utter futility of legal and constitutional agitations, parliamentary ‘policies,’ and all similar delusions,” the Fenians’ convention resolved. “No enslaved people ever regained their independence or became formidable to the enslaver without ‘illegal’ (in the enslaver’s sense) pre-organization.”
Britain’s domination of Ireland began with an invasion in 1169, and the Irish Free State won its independence only in 1922. For most of the intervening centuries, an English aristocracy owned the arable land, and Irish peasants worked it.
Courts and local government were off-limits to the Catholic majority, as was economic opportunity. England’s rulers considered the Irish savages and extinguished rebellions with blood. Forty-one percent of the population died when Oliver Cromwell put down a 17th century uprising.
The Fenian Brotherhood born in Chicago took its name from an underground movement in Ireland dedicated to liberation by arms.
The Fenians in America had come to a similar conclusion. Relatives in Ireland were literally starving. Successive potato harvests were devastated by disease, robbing the peasants of their staple diet. In some districts, not only were the potatoes inedible, but they also weren’t suitable for seeding the next year’s crop.
Yet the British government callously refused to recognize the disaster, as the Tribune reported in December 1861: “Sir Robert Peel, Chief Secretary for Ireland, who has recently made an extensive tour of the island, said in a speech at Belfast: ‘I can confidently assert that the reports and rumors which have been circulated about famine in this country have been greatly exaggerated.’”
In reality, a million Irish died, and more than a million fled the country during just one episode of famine, the “Great Hunger” of 1848-52. The recurrent disasters were magnified by the government’s reluctance to halt the export of grain from Ireland to England and reserve it for the peasants.
Far-fetched military ventures seemed less so once Irish expatriates realized that loved ones were dying because the English philosophy of government forbade meddling with the economy.
When America’s Fenians convened in Chicago, the Civil War was on, and England was backing the Confederacy. The Fenians assumed that made war between England and the United State inevitable.
Accordingly, the convention adopted a resolution ending with an allusion to Homer’s “Iliad.”
“Resolved: That the younger members of the Fenian Brotherhood be instructed to study military tactics, and apply themselves seduously to learn the use of arms, in order to be prepared as organized and disciplined bodies, to offer their services to the United States Government, by land or sea, against England’s myrmidons.”
That war didn’t happen, but the Fenians benefited from the tension between England and the United States. Washington turned a deaf ear to the Fenians’ intentions, which they loudly sang in pubs:
We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,
And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land 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.
Many Civil War veterans took advantage of the government’s offer of a discounted purchase price on their guns. When a cache of 600 rifles was uncovered in Canada, the U.S. secretary of state said their resale, although obviously to the Fenians, was legal.
The Tribune couldn’t decide whether the Fenians were dangerous or ludicrous.
“Are they going to attack Canada? Are they assembling on the (coast) of Maine preparatory to a trip across to Ireland? Which is the real movement and which is the feint?” the paper asked in April 1866, two months before the incursion into Canada. “But then arises the question whether the Fenians themselves know what they are about, or whether, like a mob, they are driving and drifting forward without a leader or a plan of battle.”
By the start of June, the question was moot. Fenians could be seen drifting into cities south of the Canadian border. The Tribune counted those arriving in Chicago: “From Galena 111, Bloomington 59, Hartford 46, LaSalle 10, Waukegan 20, Milwaukee 20, Peoria 60.”
They debated Fenian politics and swapped gossip on the corner of Wells and Randolph, outside the brotherhood’s offices. Leftovers from their Civil War kits identified them as members.
“Very many wear well-worn suits of army blue, and almost every one has a haversack, canteen, or knapsack, which looks as if it had already gone through some hard service,” a Tribune reporter observed.
Other Fenians gathered in Buffalo, New York, and on June 1, they crossed over the Niagara River into Canada while those in Chicago were held in reserve for a follow-up attack.
The 600 or so who landed in Ontario were confronted by a larger force, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto. Despite its grandiloquent name, it was a poorly trained militia whose British commander made a fatal blunder. Spotting a few horses, he formed his men in a hollow square, the classic defense against a cavalry — but hopeless in the face of the Fenians’ bayonet charge. A Tribune correspondent positioned behind the British forces witnessed the ensuing chaos on June 2.
“Every (British soldier) took to his heels, and the bloody ‘divils’ of Fenians take the hindmost,” he wrote. “Some took the fields, some kept to the railroad track, while large numbers deemed the woods the path of safety — each face being turned for Port Colborne, the point whence they emerged, a proud and confident army, but a few hours previous.”
But even as news of the Fenians’ stunning victory was telegraphed around the world, their commander recognized his untenable position. British regulars were en route, so he retreated. But the U.S. government had decided to end the game and sent naval vessels to block the Fenians’ escape.
On June 3, the Chicago contingent still hoped to join their comrades in Canada. Many boarded a train to Detroit.
“The Fenian sympathizers generally accepted it as a fact that their friends had been successful and were jubilant,” the Tribune reported. But “towards night came tidings that the Fenian invasion was ended.”
An American gunboat captured many Fenians. Stragglers rounded up by the British got stiff prison sentences, though some were commuted. Eighteen Fenians were killed and 24 wounded. Ten Canadians (British) were killed and 38 wounded.
In this country, the Fenians’ foredoomed venture has been forgotten. But in Canada, the countrymen who fought in the Battle of Ridgeway are acknowledged as part of a national holiday. Ireland’s nationalists drew the lesson that they had to to emancipate themselves.
The brotherhood here issued an appeal on behalf of their embattled brethren overseas. It was a passionate entreaty — which failed to rouse an offering of support.
“As Americans we ask if you can forget the traditions of your country,” the statement said, as published in the Tribune on Feb. 21, 1867. “In the past no hand has been more ready than yours to assist the struggling peoples of the world. Poland, Hungary, Italy and Greece have received your generous aid; will you not extend the same sympathy to a race allied to you by memories that cannot be forgotten?”
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