A Decade of Turbulence

The Fenians

Few Canadians today have heard of the Fenians. Yet they struck fear into the hearts of our ancestors of the 1860s and often made the front pages of Canadian newspapers. They were a more or less secret society of Irish patriots who had emigrated to the United States and whose mission was to secure, by force, Irish independence from Britain. By the end of 1865 some 10,000 Civil War veterans of Irish descent belonged to the Fenians. There were two factions, one in favour of an uprising in Ireland and another intent on taking Canada so that it could be exchanged for Irish independence! They were taken very seriously by the Canadian and British authorities, who planted spies in their midst. Their discoveries were not reassuring: the Fenians were mostly experienced officers and soldiers; they appeared to be well organized, they had money, and not only did they possess rifled guns, but Spencer seven-shot breech-loading rifles, no less - effective weapons of which there were none in Canada. When it learned of this, the Canadian government immediately ordered 300 such rifles.

It was not long before the intelligence service reported the possibility of an attack on St. Patrick's Day, and in March 1866 the Canadian government called up 14,000 volunteers for active duty. Nothing happened, and the Canadian volunteers were demobilized at the end of the month. In April, however, a failed raid by the Fenians against Campobello Island in New Brunswick caused public alarm and won the people of that colony over to the proposed unification of the various British North American colonies into a single country.