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The Fenians place in Canadian/Ulster History
"With the reduction of Montreal, a demand will be made upon the United States for a formal recognition of Canada, whose name will be changed at once to New Ireland."
During the middle of the 19th Century, a series of factors combined to create a new Irish patriotic movement. This organization was a revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. It had its roots in both the United States and Ireland and was popularly known as The Fenian Movement, in honour of the Fianna, the ancient Irish warriors.
The origin of the term Fenian comes from Irish folklore. It describes an ancient group of Knights who were self-reliant and had a passion for Irish land. So great was their passion, according to the legend, they gave up a chance for world dominion to keep Ireland. This fits very closely with the beliefs of the modern movement and was taken as the organizations name.
Times were hard for the Irish, and had been since England took control of the land. In the middle of the 1840's, however, things got much worse. The potato famine of 1845-1848 was a great disaster to the Irish population. In the space of three short years, the inhabitants of the country declined by over two million souls.
Some of these two million people emigrated to America while most starved to death or died of
After the famine ended, times remained very hard for the Irish. They never completely recovered from the disaster and many more Irish emigrated to America during the 1850's. Most of these people had a very strong patriotic belief in their home country, and only left to survive.
On St. Patrick's Day, 1858, James Stephens and Thomas Clark Luby started the Fenian organization in Ireland as the Irish Republican Brotherhood when they swore each other in as members. James had been a participant in the Young Ireland Movement of 1848. A friend of James Stephens, John O'Mahoney (also of the Young Ireland movement) started the Fenian Movement in the United States at about the same time.
Both portions of the movement gained support rapidly, especially during 1861.
This was largely contributed to the death of Terrance Bellew MacManus, a hero of the Young Ireland movement who died in this year. Upon his request, his body was shipped from San Francisco to Ireland for burial, and all along the route patriotic Irish paid their respects.
In Ireland the movement was mainly unsuccessful, as the British clamped down on it quickly in a successful effort to stop the problem. They did, however, manage to get the attention of Parliament to focus for a short time on the "Irish problems".
In the United States however, the organization continued to grow rapidly. Many of the American members gained military experience during the American Civil War and therefore were becoming a force to be feared.
Rumors spread that the American Fenians were going to invade what is now Canada. The
rumors were not unfounded, as the American group was quickly gaining arms, money, and various other kinds of support including that of the US government.
According to Donald MacKay, author of Flight from Famine,
the Fenians planned three separate invasions:
"1.The one aimed at Campobello Island in New Brunswick never materialized.
2. The one aimed at Fort Erie and Ridgeway in Upper Canada , was driven back by British and Canadian forces,
(Trivia - William Tempest, Chris Alderson, and Mark DeFries were Orangemen
and the first casualties of the Battle of Ridgeway. They were buried in St.
James Cemetery in Toronto with full Orange honours along with their
lodge banners and regalia. Source :Canadian Orange Historical Site )
3. and the effort to invade Quebec's Eastern Townships near Frelighsburg was thwarted by Montreal militia"
Flight From Famine.
Note : ( In 1870 the GOL of Quebec reported that the warrant of L.O.L. 398, Frelighsburg,
had been burned by the Fenians when they invaded the county in 1866. )
The goal of the invasion was to attain control of what is now Canada and hold it in ransom for the freedom of Ireland. Their initial efforts were somewhat successful, but were quickly tempered by the American government, which stepped in to stop the raids.
Seumas McManus, author of The Story of the Irish Race, says the withdrawal of American governmental support for the Fenians dealt a serious blow to the movement:
"The invasion of Canada, which would undoubtedly have been a successful move and a severe blow to England, was stopped by the unexpected action of the American Government, which, having tacitly encouraged the scheme and permitted the plans to be ripened, stepped in at the last moment to prevent it."
The Story of the Fenian Assaults.
Had it not been for this American assistance to the British cause, the raids might have been successful and the history of Canada could have been quite different. The raids continued through 1871and all were quite handily repelled.
It has been suggested that the threat of the Fenians was a major cause for the union of Provinces into the confederation that became the Dominion of Canada.
While the Fenian Brotherhoods did not achieve their goal of a Free Ireland, they did however, successfully pass the flame of terrorism, murder and mayhem to succeeding generations.
The Story of the Irish Race, By Seumas MacManus,
The Devon-Adair Company, 1974 Flight from Famine:
The Coming of the Irish to Canada, by Donald MacKay, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1992.
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