Fenian Threat

A hundred and fifty years ago, Canadians were terrorized by the threat posed by Irish insurgents who were massing large armies just across the border.

Text by Steven Henry Martin

May 10, 2016

It was the verge of Confederation, and people in what was then the Province of Canada were in fear of an imminent invasion.

For months, agitators in the United States had been inflaming the passions of thousands of displaced Irishmen who were angry at Britain. Fresh from fighting in the American Civil War, the battle-hardened veterans were eager to attack Britain’s North American possessions in a bid to regain autonomy for their homeland.

Sure enough, in early June, an army of Fenians, as they were known, crossed into Canada at the Niagara Peninsula. A hastily trained force of volunteer soldiers met them on the field in the Battle of Ridgeway.

The Irish-Americans easily overcame resistance, at first, but eventually retreated. Although little remembered, the event is seen by some historians as a turning point in Canadian history. It was the first the battle fought exclusively by Canadians, as opposed to British troops stationed in Canada.

See letters and journal entries of people involved in the conflict at this blog.

A longer version of this article by Steven Henry Martin originally appeared in the June-July 2016 issue of Canada's History magazine.

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