150 years ago today the British North America Act came into force and the modern nation we know today as Canada was born.

But the provinces of the new Dominion of Canada had long been wary of each other and had it not been for the efforts of a group of rebel Irishmen they might never have realized that how much they needed each other.

Fenian rebellions against British rule were nothing new in Ireland: but the invasion in 1866 of Campobello Island in New Brunswick was the first on North American soil.

700 Fenians assembled in Maine; their aim was to invade and overrun the British colony to the north of them and use it as a bargain chip that would see a humiliated Britain trade Irish freedom for the return of her Canadian colonies.

If the attack failed, they hoped that the diversion of British manpower to North America would leave Ireland undefended and vulnerable to a successful rebel uprising there.

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In any event, the attack was a total failure, with British troops swiftly summoned from Nova Scotia to successfully defend New Brunswick.

Memorial cairn to the Battle of Ridgeway

Memorial cairn to the Battle of Ridgeway

However the invasion saw a wave of fear spread across British North America.

“Are we safe?” people asked each other. “Can Britain always be counted upon to look after us?”

The conclusion of many was that only a powerful confederation of the provinces could provide the protection needed.

Whereas in 1865 the Anti-Confederation Party in New Brunswick had won office comfortably the following year the Confederation Party won a landslide.

The fact that one of the Anti-Confederates’ most prominent legislators, Timothy Warren Anglin, was a Corkman and a Roman Catholic did not help their cause.

Fenian currency. Credit: LOC

Fenian currency. Credit: LOC

Following the Fenian Raids sectarianism in Canada grew and opponents openly questioned his loyalty to the Crown and whether he supported an Irish Republic. In vain did Warren Anglin protest that he did not; his religion was guilt enough in the eyes of many New Brunswickers.

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The new Legislature would go on to approve by a crushing margin of 38 votes to one the entrance of New Brunswick into the new Confederation and Canada was born.

Warren Anglin was not the only Irish Canadian whose loyalty to Canada was questioned as a consequence of the Fenian Raids.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a Louth man who had emigrated first to America and then to Montreal - perceiving Canada to be less hostile to Catholicism.

Canadian Home Guard. Photo: New England Historic Society

Canadian Home Guard. Photo: New England Historic Society

As a young man he had been a fierce advocate of ending British rule in Ireland but his conviction that Canada was better off as part of the British Empire than merging with the United States saw him transformed into an imperialist.

D’Arcy McGee spent many years trying to convince the Irish of Montreal - with various degrees of success - to support Confederation under the British Crown and he eventually became Minister of Agriculture and Immigration in Quebec.

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As an Irish Catholic the Fenian Raids saw him treated with great suspicion by many of Montreal’s Protestants - the vast majority of whom were of loyal British stock. But they need not have worried, D’Arcy McGee had left the anti-imperialism of his youth far behind and his denunciation of the raids alienated him from a great many people in Montreal’s Irish community.

As a delegate to the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences that drew up the blueprint for the new Dominion, D’Arcy McGee was hailed as ‘Father of Confederation’ and is venerated to this day by students of Canadian history.

A painting of the Battle of Ridgeway, when the Feinan Brotherhood invaded Canada. CLKER