Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Square-Toed Boots and Felt Hats: Irish Revolutionaries and the Invasion of Canada (1848-1871)

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Square-Toed Boots and Felt Hats: Irish Revolutionaries and the Invasion of Canada (1848-1871)

Article excerpt

On 12 April 1866 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle released a third edition of the day's issue with the following hurried report from Calais, on the border between the state of Maine and New Brunswick:

   There was much excitement yesterday and last
   night in St. Stephens, N. B., opposite this city.
   The fears of a Fenian raid somewhere on the
   border have been strengthening for several days
   past, but the precise point of attack is not yet
   known....

   From two to three hundred men were under
   arms at St. Stephens all last night, and all the
   approaches to the town are strongly guarded,
   and every preparation made to receive the
   Fenians.

The dreaded "Fenians" were the members of the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish-American military society, and the ultimate object of the raid that was causing such a commotion was the "liberation" of Ireland from British rule. Since its foundation in 1858 the Fenian Brotherhood had been slowly evolving from a semi-secret military body at the service of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a clandestine movement in Ireland, into a massive organisation with a weakness for public displays and an alarming potential for upsetting the delicate balance of post-Civil War Anglo-American relations. From 1866 to 1871, at the height of Anglo-American tensions, Fenian parties carried out a series of startling although ineffectual raids into Canadian territory before the organisation exhausted its resources and definitely lapsed into decline.

It has often been stated that the alarm caused by the first Fenian raids of 1866 gave the definite impulse to the Canadian Confederation of the following year (see for instance Watts 1987: 771; Stacey 1968: 12). In all other respects, however, the raids have been generally dismissed as little more than comic-opera episodes (Miller 1985: 336; Wilson 2005: 50). But if they had little military value in themselves, they are a fundamental piece in the puzzle of Irish-American nationalism. As an approach to the cause of Irish independence, the raids illustrate all the complexities of the Irish-American nationalist commitment. As a revolutionary strategy, they evidence the chasm between the American Fenians and their Irish Republican Brotherhood allies "at home", who were to be set aside when the Canadian scheme gained momentum. The reasons for the collapse of the Fenian movement in 1866 are various and complex, but the present article will trace the divergent evolution of Irish Republican Brotherhood and Fenian Brotherhood during these years in order to clarify the process leading to the Canadian crisis and the dissolution of the Fenian partnership.

The Fenian venture was not the first attempt by Irish-Americans to promote Irish nationalist efforts, but it was the first time that they had a formal, long-term agreement with an Irish organisation for this purpose. Although both O'Connell's Repeal Association and Young Ireland's Irish Confederation in the 1840s had had their respective American branches, they were simply extensions of the parent organisation, and they did not play an instrumental role on events in Ireland. This situation began to change in 1848. The Irish Confederation, caught in the republican fever sparked by the "Spring of the Peoples" and desperate to stop the progress of the Famine, prepared to make their mark by launching an insurrection after the harvest. In the United States the newly-founded Irish Republican Union proposed to contribute to this insurrection by sending off an Irish brigade. The Nation newspaper reported a meeting of the Irish Republican Union in New York where it was,

Resolved--That the real wants of Ireland at this moment are, a want of Republican spirit, and a want of military science.

Resolved--That the object of the Irish Republican Union is, to supply her with those requisites, in the persons of a few thousand Americanized Irishmen, who are now ready and willing to embark in her battle. …

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