Despite the high-minded aspirations and ambitious scope of the Fenian
movement, it met its end through squalid and lowly processes. These maneuverings should be familiar to all students of the centuries long history of the physical force republican
tradition. This physical force includes not only armed campaigns but also more occluded forces; assassination
, outrages, intrigues, and threats fed by calculated campaigns of rumours, whispers, and deceit. These small words can have far more impact upon history than glory on the battlefield. The history of the Fenian movement is written, or unwritten, in these less-planned acts that form the atmosphere of a contested society shared by forces struggling against one another.
Fenian Patrick Doody had died in prison on suspicion of conspiring to assassinate Thomas D’Arcy-McGee in 1868. His funeral was the occasion for a mass demonstration by Fenian sympathizers through the streets of Montreal, but the inscription on his grave; “the first martyr in Canada to Ireland’s rights and liberties” is therefore inaccurate. The true resting place, if it could be called that, of that particular unsung hero and his comrades is lost to history. It is often forgotten that Irish revolutionaries have been active in what is now Canada for almost as long as republicanism has existed. In 1799 an estimated tenth of the population of St John’s in Newfoundland were United Irishmen. The following year the Bishop James O'Donel caught wind of a planned mutiny within the Royal Fencibles Regiment in Newfoundland. On the day of the planned rebellion, authorities captured the rebels. Two escaped, but five were hanged and eleven more transported to Halifax, and there another three were executed1.
Though Newfoundland occupies a rather marginal place in the politics and economy of Canada today, it was once a vital hub of transatlantic trade when the world was tied together more by sea than land. Newfoundland was a key point of contact between Europe and North America, as was Ireland. It was speculated that that the Irish made up a majority of the wintering population of Newfoundland and had become the culturally dominant group by 1798, a startling increase the a handful of servants brought by the English planters to the colony a century before2. While Newfoundland would not join Canada proper for another century and a half, it would be amiss to pass over in silence this early abortive rising. In history, it is all too often what is not said which is most important and all too little has been said of the rising of the United Irishmen in Newfoundland. It demonstrated the continuity of physical force republicanism between the defeat of ‘98 and Robert Emmet taking up arms in 1803. The precursor of the Fenian Brotherhood was known as the Emmet Monument Foundation, whose goal was to erect a memorial to him on freed Irish soil3.
Given that the Easter Rising met but with a few muttered words of sedition from Montreal workers, it would be quite uncontroversial to state that the era of Fenianism was the apogee of militant Irish republicanism in Canada. It would be very controversial, on the other hand, to state Quebec was the locus of the Fenian movement. But if this claim isn’t put forth, it would risk being understood strictly militarily as Canada’s war with the Irish, instead of Canada’s war between the Irish.
The Catholic church in the British empire had become adept and accustomed to negotiating for its very existence. Coming from the European wars of religion and now buffeted by the waves of republicanism from the continent, the ecclesiastical hierarchy had evolved into a shrewd political operator. The Penal Laws had already been relaxed considerably by the eve of the the ‘98 rising, reflected in the Empire by the Quebec Act, calculated to grant concessions to Catholics to counter American influence. On the other hand Republican ideals, born of lofty sentiments, often found themselves at odds with realpolitik. They have led many on fools' errands as the Fenian movement shows but threw off the fetters of what seemed possible at the time. Bishop O’Donel’s loyalty to the crown before his country would prefigure a rocky relationship between nation and confession frustrated further by the presence of a state considered Orange by many of its embattled Catholic inhabitants. Newfoundland should not be understood as the birthplace of Canadian Fenianism or its core dynamics. Neither should Toronto, as some would have it4.
Micheal Murphy’s Hibernian Benevolent Society, founded in 1858, could not properly be considered a Fenian organization, but rather one which was taken over by Fenians5. It was formed along the lines of defending the Irish Catholic community from Orange attacks and only later became amenable to Fenianism. Francis McNamee’s Hibernian Society in Montreal was the first Fenian organization in Canada which was founded as a true extension of the New York based Fenian Brotherhood.
Unlike the open Hibernian Benevolent Society which only had a covert armed branch, Montreal’s Hibernian Society was a secret society which operated within the aboveground St-Patrick’s Society in an "entryist" capacity6. What’s more, while Toronto’s society had come under the control of the Fenians, the pinacle of its activities was a Saint Patrick’s day parade of only 600 in 18667. In Toronto, "Belfast of the North" as it was, it was easily drowned out by a sea of Orange. Quebec City even had its own Hibernian Benevolent Society, founded only late in the movement that same year and notable for the extraordinary participation of clergymen. At the same time, Montreal Fenians had succeeded in bringing the prospect of a revolutionary uprising to the forefront of public discourse. They quickly identified Thomas D'Arcy-McGee as their greatest obstacle and began a campaign to discredit him, setting the stage for his assassination. They overcame the splits of the American Fenians (over whether to fight the British in Ireland or Canada) by proclaiming their loyalty to whoever would be first to fight. They prepared to make common cause against D'Arcy McGee with more mainstream politicians like Bernard Devlin8. The Fenians had blackened D'Arcy McGee’s name in the eyes of the Irish community to the point where when he was able to outmaneuver the Fenians’ military campaigns with a network of informers, he only confirmed the Fenians’ accusations of treachery. Throughout the sordid saga of willful deceit and betrayal, there can be little doubt that each party was only doing what they thought was best for the Irish Catholic community. Whether Catholics enjoyed greater rights within the British Empire or the United States is beyond the scope of this study, but regarding the question at hand, it could be said that the Fenians saw McGee as a British spy while McGee saw them as an American fifth column.
Hereward Senior, Canada’s longstanding authority on the Fenians, writing around the centenary of the raids, paints a dim picture of them as “incompetent” and self-interested, lauding D’Arcy McGee for clearing the Irish community of the Fenian “taint”9. It goes without saying that the Fenians were hardly military masterminds, but the rest is not altogether true. Senior’s claims about the Fenian leaders’ personal ambitions” are insufficiently substantiated. The struggle, and secrecy embraced by Fenians point towards their commitment to an ideal at considerable personal loss. While D’Arcy McGee and the aftermath of his assassination can take credit for the isolation and repression of the Fenian Movement, there is evidence the Irish of Quebec were not scrubbed of Fenianism. Fenian newspapers continued to receive letters in support of physical force and their most sizeable donations from the Irish in Quebec. Though a few still had ideas about an invasion from the south, the Land War and Dynamiting Campaign transformed the violence from conflagrations in Canada to a slow burn across the Atlantic. The plot or “Canadian Strategy” might seem completely outlandish today, as it certainly did to elements of the movement itself10. The historical moment lent it enough plausibility to avoid being dismissed entirely by opponents. Irish Veterans of the American Civil War, exhilarated by the defeat of the Confederacy, must have looked at Canada’s sparsly populated expanses as ripe for the taking. British taxpayers were already grumbling about the costs of the empire’s upkeep while British troops were being replaced with untested Canadian Regiments11. Beyond the American Civil War the Irish had an expatriate military tradition which had attracted storied reknown for turning the tide and showing valour at the battles of Fourtenay and Pensacola12.
The Fenian Brotherhood were unified in their commitment to taking Irish freedom by force of arms, but divided by the question of where to strike. Another factor which contributed to the division in the Fenian Movement was the formation of Clann Na Gael during the period of the Fenian raids, which was explicitly formed as a reaction to the rift between the O’Mahony and Williams factions on the basis that “a debating society will never free Ireland”13. Moreover, what ultimately happened was that during the impasse between the two factions, there were simultaneous failed risings on both sides of the Atlantic. In some respects this could be seen as a vindication of O’Mahony’s view. Perhaps the rising in Ireland would have had greater success if it had been bolstered by material support from America which had otherwise gone towards the Canadian campaign, which compounded the organizations’ persistent financial insolvency14. After the defeat of the raids, these problems were resolved to a certain extent and the Irish republican movement in North America transformed itself into a well oiled machine for the collection of financial support towards a unified goal of sustaining a bombing campaign against points of British logistics and infrastructure in Ireland. It prefigured guerilla campaigns and insurgencies in the 20th century and beyond.
Much of the initial donation to this “skirmishing fund” came from Quebec15. If the idea of the invasion itself was not ambitious enough, the plan of action was a strkingly ornate affair. While there is doubt surrounding who can be credited (or blamed) for the Canadian strategy, the figure of John O’Mahony looms large. According to more recent interpretations, John O’Mahony, had demanded that the movement focus strictly on Ireland16. However, some more dubious turn of the century biographical sources implicate him as an advisor for the raid into Canada without placing him at the scene17. Despite his protestations, an associate of O’Mahony by the name of Killian had indeed planned the invasion of Campobello Island in New Bruinswick in 1866 which they intended to proclaim as the capital of the new Irish Republic, very much in the vein of what William Lyon MacKenzie had done on Navy Island only a decade before. Ultimately, the Fenians were chased away by a passing British vessel. This discredited Killian and O’Mahony (who had been against the invasion of Canada from the beginning), conferring legitimacy to his rivals William Roberts and Thomas Sweeney, who had considerable military and political experience and delivered the Fenians their first and last victory at the Battle of the Ridgeway.
While drawing on invasions of British North America by the early United States, as the brainchild of Irish Veterans of the American Civil War it owed much to Union strategy against the Confederacy. It involved attacks on Canada’s communication and transport infrastructure, as well as the formation of a 5th column within the British Army18. The railroad (and telegraph) would bind the fledgling nation of Canada together. The Fenians also hoped that their destruction would be Canada’s undoing. Montreal was it’s objective, but while over twelve percent of the city’s inhabitant were born on Irish soil, the American Fenians overestimated their support in the community. While the strategy itself did in no respect hinge on any sort of insurrection by the Irish inhabitants of Montreal, it may have perhaps overlooked that dimension in some regard. Before the first raids, the Fenians themselves estimated that they had the support of just under a fifth of the city’s Irish19. After the failure of the first raid in 1866, the Fenians appear to have factored this into their strategy and called for the Irish of Montreal to rise up in arms on St-Patrick’s Day in 1868, but this was foiled by an informer. The resulting rage from Fenian sympathizers would lead to D’Arcy McGee’s death20.
There is considerable doubt as to who pulled the trigger on D’Arcy McGee, but none surrounding how it was his staunch repudiation of the nationalist cause that cost him his life. The fact that it is difficult to be certain as to weither Whelan was the one who killed D’Arcy McGee point to it being a coordinated conspiracy instead of a crime of political passion. This did not elude the authorities of the day, who intercepted several key Fenians, including the aforementioned Patrick Doody21. Just as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln cast aspersions on the reconstruction process of the United States, the assassination of D’Arcy McGee did much the same on the prospect of peace and security within confederation of Canada. The fact that they paid with their lives gave their projects a posthumous solemnity, a sacred duty to the transformed nations and their martyred founders that would prefigure much violence in the expansion of these massive states22. These assassinations spurred the development of the Secret Service and Dominion Police. The latter would go on to inflitrate the Fenian movement and become the bulwark of the Canadian internal security apparatus.
D’Arcy McGee had escaped persecution for his role in the Young Ireland movement by impersonating a priest, and it could be said that he soon began to act the part in piety and condemnation of secret societies23. Though D’Arcy McGee, along with much of his rapport in the Irish community of Canada came from a movement which was spurred by indignation at the suffering of the rural poor of Ireland, by the time of his death, contempt for the toiling people had become evident in his speeches; “dream not, my dear neighbour, that great cities are built chiefly by stone masons” he had said just 6 months before his assassination by a humble tailor24. D’Arcy McGee was outspoken believer in “aristocratic inequalities inherent in men from their mother’s womb” and placed “Nature and Revelation” before “levelling and system-mongering of the American, or any other kind”25. This should not serve to simply dismiss D’Arcy McGee as a reactionary and vindicate Whelan outright, but rather provide insight into more possible motive behind D’Arcy McGee’s contempt for the Fenians through the prism of Victorian class relations. It may serve to also show how his hatred for secret societies may not have been as “straightforward” as it usually appears; as a outgrowth of his disillusionment with the Nationalist cause26. Secret societies in Ireland were inextricably bound up with violence, and especially agrarian violence carried out along class lines by poorer tenants against the wealthy27. They were a major contributor to the roil of Ireland’s boisterous, teeming countryside in the period before the famine. The United Irishmen had drawn on their strength, and it could be argued that the Fenians operate on a more expansive and sophisticated application of their principle. Just as the agrarian societies had been the language of the voiceless masses of Ireland’s rural poor, the Fenians were men of some means but low standing in the Victorian class system. The laws around the franchise at the time were complex and still included property qualifications. The agrarian societies had given the Irish peasants a voice in the only language left to the disenfranchised. The Fenian would do the same for a cause which was unspeakable in mainstream politics but still a dearly held dream in the immigrant community. This violence was intended to be instructive about violations of the moral economy instead of obtaining a political end. Ascribing ulterior motives of elitist to McGee might seem to be a dishonest attempt to make the story fit a preconceived narrative, but a study of the electoral arena bears this out, along with the patterns surrounding 19th century elections, which were riotous affairs of intimidating torchlight marches, candidates plying their constituency with free alcohol, and inevitable brawls.
McGee’s major rival, Bernard Devlin, had draw support from the Fenians and their lower middle class millieu, along with a few of their strongarm tactics. D’Arcy McGee had the backing of the wealthy, and could employ more subtle economic coercion28. In 1870, Montreal’s newspapers in French and English were making clear connections between Fenianism and the working class movement, representing elite’s fear of revolt29. New York’s Irish World, founded that same year would tap on populist resentment from the Irish working class to fund agitation in Ireland30. The narrative of the Irish in North America has often focused on the suspicion against them and their exclusion from the public life. While this is an important feature, it is also critical to focus on their terms of inclusion within the power structure of Canada.
The Fenian Movement is not spoken of often enough for the role it played
in bridging two crucial events in North American history, namely; the
American Civil War and the Confederation of Canada, the consolidation of
the continent as they appear today. It also spanned a period of
enourmous and rapid industrial development, translating the politics of a
tiny rural world to an ever shifting industrial landscape. Therefore it
is important to view the even not as a singular event or place undue
focus upon the raids itself, but to examine it as a process where memory
and dialogue leavened the bitter dough. Though the most dramatic events
of the Fenian era took place outside of Montreal. it was in the
workings within the halls of the urban Irish communities of the day
where its fate was decided as the Irish rebels sought to pluck this
jewel from the crown of Britain’s Northern Empire.
1. O'Driscoll, Robert, and Lorna Reynolds. The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada. Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988. pp. 171-201.
2. Handcock, W G. So Longe As There Comes Noe Women: Origins of English Settlement in Newfoundland. St. John's, Nfld: Breakwater, 1989. pp. 30-89.
3. Senior, Hereward. "Quebec and the Fenians." The Canadian Historical Review, vol. 48 no. 1, 1967, p. 26-44.
4. Lyne, D C, and Peter A. Toner. Fenianism in Canada, 1874-84. Dublin: Studia Hibernica, 1975. p. 38.
5. Senior. "Quebec and the Fenians." p. 29.
6. Wilson, David A. Irish Nationalism in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014. p. 114.
7. Senior. "Quebec and the Fenians." p. 29.
8. Wilson. Irish Nationalism in Canada. pp. 120-124.
9. Senior. "Quebec and the Fenians." p. 26-44.
10. Lyne, D C, and Peter A. Toner. Fenianism in Canada, 1874-84. Dublin: Studia Hibernica, 1975. p. 34.
11. Stacey, C. P. Canada and the British Army 1846-1871. University of Toronto Press, 1963. p. 117-264.
12. Murphy, W. S. “The Irish Brigade of Spain at the Capture of Pensacola, 1781.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3, 1960, pp. 216–225. p. 225.
13. Devoy, John "Founder of Clann-na-Gael" Gaelic American, 29 Dec 1906, pp. 1-8.
14. Senior. "Quebec and the Fenians." p. 26.
15. Lyne and Toner. Fenianism in Canada. p. 34.
16. Wilson. Irish Nationalism in Canada.
17. Wilson, James G, and John Fiske. Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton, 1900. p. 579-580.
18. Symonds, Craig L. “Lincoln and the Strategy of Union.” Naval War College Review, vol. 27, no. 5, 1975, p. 66.
19. Wilson. Irish Nationalism in Canada. p. 111.
20. Lyne and Toner. Fenianism in Canada. p. 33.
21. Wilson. Irish Nationalism in Canada. p. 131.
22. Wilson, David A. “A Rooted Horror: Thomas D'Arcy McGee and Secret Societies, 1845-68.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, 2005, p. 49.
23. Boylan, Henry (1998). A Dictionary of Irish Biography, 3rd Edition. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. p. 246.
24. D'Arcy McGee, Thomas. “Paper read before the Montreal Literary Club” Montreal Gazette, Nov. 5th, 1867. p. 2.
25. ibid. p. 7.
26. Wilson. "A Rooted Horror." pp. 45-49.
27. Christianson, Gale E. “Secret Societies and Agrarian Violence in Ireland, 1790-1840.” Agricultural History, vol. 46, no. 3, 1972, p. 370.
28. Wilson. Irish Nationalism in Canada. p. 124.
29. Senior. "Quebec and the Fenians." p. 41.
30. Lyne and Toner. Fenianism in Canada. p. 34.
Burns, Robin and Niko Block. "Thomas D'Arcy McGee". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12 November 2019, Historica Canada.
Crawford, Michael, and Kenneth Armstrong. The Fenians: Written and Compiled by Michael Crawford and Kenneth Armstrong. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1970. Print.
Krikorian, Jacqueline, Marcel Martel, and Adrian Shubert. Globalizing Confederation: Canada and the World in 1867. 2017.
Senior, Hereward. The Last Invasion of Canada: The Fenian Raids, 1866-1870. Toronto: Oxford, 1991.