In his new book 'When The Irish Invaded Canada,' historian Christopher Klein tells the incredible true story of the plucky Irish Civil War veterans who fought for Ireland's freedom in the last country on earth you might expect them to.

When our ancestors sailed to America from Ireland in their cramped and disease filled coffin ships during the Great Hunger, so many of them died and were thrown overboard en route that sharks started following the ships.

That's the kind of detail that a good historian takes note of, but a great one notices the many still hidden within the epic tumult of the 19 century - like the Fenian invasion of Canada, for example.

Print showing the Fenians routing British troops at the battle of Ridgeway.

Print showing the Fenians routing British troops at the battle of Ridgeway.

Yes, you read that right.  In 1866, only a year after the Civil War, a group of over 700 Irish Civil War Veterans launched an attack on British held Canada - and they almost succeeded. 

After the Civil War, inspired by love of their homeland and very probably by some good whiskey, a semi-secret band of Irish American revolutionaries made plans to seize the then British run province of Canada and hold it hostage until they attained their lofty goal, independence for old Ireland.

They were serious about this aim, and they were taken seriously too. As plans go, it was certainly ambitious, but it was just as sincere.

As author Christopher Klein notes in his new book When The Irish Invaded Canada (Doubleday, $28.95) just thirteen months after the end of the Civil War a group of former Irish Confederate soldiers and Union army men had slipped back into their grey or blue uniforms and this time banded together to fight against the foe of foes: Great Britain.

Fenian Raid, May 1870. Across the Line of Richard's Farm. Showing Battle Field Ground.

Fenian Raid, May 1870. Across the Line of Richard's Farm. Showing Battle Field Ground.

When that Irish revolutionary army congregated in Buffalo, New York, on the night of May 31, 1866, they were inspired by a centuries old dream of liberating their homeland from the cruelty and exploitation of British Empire. A flame was rekindled.

The Famine era Irish migration story was one of the largest in human history, let's recall. One million of them arrived on these shores for the the first time, most still Irish speaking, and most of them having grown up on hardscrabble farms and raw tenant plots having never seen an actual city in their lives.

Starvation had hit Ireland like a meteorite, which meant that by the 1850's over a quarter of population of New York City was Irish born. And having lived through a near extinction event, the Irish diaspora here became even more radicalized by what they had lived through.

So the dual baptisms of starvation over there and Know Nothing abuse over here quickly taught them to band together to fend off all attacks. But America had allowed them to assemble too, the better to discuss their plans their future, a thing still unheard of in Ireland, so they started coming of age as a people here, or to put it another way they finally started coming into their own power.

Photograph of the Red Sashes with the captured Fenian Cannon, 1870.

Photograph of the Red Sashes with the captured Fenian Cannon, 1870.

Klein says when he first heard about a band of Irish revolutionaries invading Canada after the Civil War he drew a blank. “I did a double take,” he tells the Irish Voice. “I had not heard of any Irish attacks on Canada. So I delved into the story and found that it was a history that I didn't know anything about."

"The story is really a story about the Irish coming of age in America. Even after being in this country for 20 years the most militant of them viewed themselves as Irish first and American second and they never let go of that,” Klein says. “The patriotism that they had for their homeland was really what really drew me into this.”

The Irish Diaspora became even more radical in America because of course they did. What choice did they have? They were getting it in the neck everywhere they turned.

“One of the things the Civil War did was teach them warfare,” says Klein, “how to actually be in a conflict situation and to gain an edge.That training would be put to good use in fighting for the one cause they truly believed in: freedom of Ireland.”

For many of them – and one of the eye opening facts about the Civil War is just how many Irish, at least 20,0000 on both sides, actually fought in it - it was a training ground for the real war to come, the revolution against the British.

“Even after all of the disasters they had lived through, including the Great Hunger, to then come over here and fight in the Civil War and to come out of spoiling for a fight with the British, it's remarkable,” says Klein.

To raise money for its military ventures, the Fenian Brotherhood sold bonds such as these, which were redeemable six months after the establishment of the Irish Republic.

To raise money for its military ventures, the Fenian Brotherhood sold bonds such as these, which were redeemable six months after the establishment of the Irish Republic.

Supplying equipment for the armed struggle in Ireland was the original intent of the Fenian Brotherhood when the organization was formed, but as the years went by a growing segment of the senior Brotherhood started asking why not go to Canada (where the Irish can just hop on a train overnight and get off at the border the next morning) and just march into British territory and occupy it?

The main character in Klein's absorbing new book is a revolutionary named General John O'Neill. O'Neill had seen the Great Hunger ravage his family farm in County Monaghan and seen the population of the town decline by 20 percent. He had also grown up learning about the famous members of the O'Neill clan who dared to stand up to Queen Elizabeth. The Irish had faced overwhelming odds for seven centuries, but just because you face overwhelming odds doesn't mean that you don't try, Klein says.

“They picked up the torch from the Young Ireland rebellion in 1848 and kept the cause of Irish independence alive. And they passed the torch on to the generation that found success with the Easter Rising.”

Taken prisoner during the Fenian Raid of the Niagara Peninsula, Catholic priest John McMahon was condemned to die before British authorities ordered a reduction in his sentence.

Taken prisoner during the Fenian Raid of the Niagara Peninsula, Catholic priest John McMahon was condemned to die before British authorities ordered a reduction in his sentence.

America, being the moneybox and the place to purchase the weapons to ship to Ireland, is absolutely critical to Ireland's struggle to achieve a Republic and the Proclamation makes explicit reference to Ireland's exiled children in America.
So although the invasions of Canada may look like a Quixotic enterprise, you can see it as a kind of torch passing from the Great Hunger era Irish to their successors he says. Don't let this flame die, their efforts tell us. It's not tilting at windmills, it's not absurd, it matters.

“When we view it through present day it seems crazy. But what is really amazing to me in doing the research is that the idea was not as crazy as it sounds in their time. There was just so much animosity in America towards the British and to Canada because of what happened during the Civil War. British money and British ports built Confederate warships. Britain supplied Confederate guns. Canada offered safe havens for the Confederate Secret Service to plots and undertake a few operations against the Union.”

So the plan of holding the country hostage as ransom for our own independence and it's right up with what. They wanted to spark some some sort of conflict between the United States and Great Britain. That plan that had a lot more realism in 1865.

“The real tilting at windmills only begins with John O'Neill in 1870 and 1871 after the country's sort of losing its animosity towards the British. O'Neill attacked with three dozen men. I cannot decide whether it's sort of comical or heroic. He's either a comic opera or Shakespearian tragedy because he's just so blinded by his absolute hatred of the British that he can not let go of this idea.

What they did can look so foolhardy to us. But they considered it foolhardy to do nothing And so they kept the flame burning. That's the thing.”

When The Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom is now available Doubleday.

The Fenians routing British troops at the battle of Ridgeway.Library of Congress