Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

The Fenians in Montreal, 1862-68: Invasion, Intrigue, and Assassination (1)

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

The Fenians in Montreal, 1862-68: Invasion, Intrigue, and Assassination (1)

Article excerpt

DURING the winter of 1865-66 reports reached the Canadian government that the Fenians--the physical-force Irish republican revolutionaries with their headquarters in New York--were planning to invade British North America. After a stormy convention in Philadelphia and an acrimonious dispute over the control of funds toward the end of 1865, the Fenian movement had split in two. One wing, led by John O'Mahony, wanted the organization to focus its attention on Ireland itself; the idea was to send money, weapons, and Irish Civil War veterans across the Atlantic to link up with the revolutionary movement at home and to complete the unfinished business of 1798 and 1848. Members of the other wing, led by William Roberts, saw things very differently; in their view the route to liberating Ireland lay through Canada. (2)

Roberts and his supporters were convinced that the conditions were not ripe for a republican revolution in Ireland. But the Fenians in North America had large numbers of troops at their disposal, and Britain's North American provinces offered a tempting target. A successful invasion of Canada, they argued, would transform the balance of power in the Atlantic. Irish revolutionaries would draw inspiration from their Irish-American allies; the Fenians would use Canada as a base from which to attack British shipping; Canada could even serve as a bargaining chip in negotiations for an independent Ireland. And if this seemed too farfetched, there was always the prospect that a Fenian invasion would trigger an Anglo-American war. (3) England's difficulty would become Ireland's opportunity, and the Fenians would reap the benefits.

The invasion plans were drawn up by "fighting Tom Sweeny," the one-armed general who had fought in both the Mexican and the Civil Wars. Studying the earlier American invasions of 1775 and 1812, Sweeny concluded that Canada East was the key to victory. A Fenian invasion force from Buffalo would compel British and Canadian soldiers to defend Toronto and thus "uncover Montreal." The Fenian army in upstate New York and Vermont would then cross into Canada East, secure in the knowledge that the French would remain neutral, as they had supposedly been during the earlier campaigns. Having established a firm base in Canada East, the Fenians would then isolate the garrisons in Canada West and force their Orange enemies to "surrender in detail" or be "cut to pieces by our troops. (4)

Rather than relying on massive Irish Canadian support, Sweeny's war plans envisaged highly selective operations and local risings that would undermine the defense of Canada. Small groups of Canadian Fenians would cut the telegraph lines, destroy the railway bridge that connected Canada West and Canada East, infiltrate the Canadian militia, and suborn British soldiers. To coordinate activities Sweeny established his own "secret service corps in Canada"; from the Welland Canal to Quebec City, Irish Canadian Fenian agents such as Patrick McAndrew and Richard Slattery swore in members and prepared the ground for the impending invasion. Within this secret network, in the context of an overall strategy that hinged on holding Canada East, the Fenians of Montreal not only were in a pivotal position, but they were also among the most militant Irish revolutionaries on the continent. (5)

In 1866, roughly one in eight Montrealers had been born in Ireland. As an ethnic group, the Irish constituted around a quarter of the city's population, with Catholics in the majority. Within a general pattern of upward social mobility the Montreal Irish experienced considerable occupational, social, and religious variety, and they had strong community networks in the district of the Quebec suburbs and above all in Griffintown. Here laborers in the factories along the Lachine Canal and women working as domestic servants mixed with a broad spectrum of artisans, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and publicans, who themselves shaded off into a middle class of merchants and professional men. …

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