Library and Archives Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional links

ARCHIVED - Canadian Confederation

Archived Content

This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.

Provinces and Territories

Key Terms

The Fenians

Named after warriors of Irish legend, the Fenians were committed to Ireland's independence from England. The Fenian movement originated as a secret society in Ireland around 1858. In America, veterans of the Civil War were recruited into the society. This military faction identified Canada as a vulnerable British asset, where an Irish Republican territory could be founded.

Fenian raids began in April 1866 with an attack at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. In June 1866, a Fenian force led by John O'Neill (1834-1878) captured Fort Erie, in Canada West, and battled British soldiers and members of Canada's volunteer militia at Ridgeway. When other Fenian troops failed to cross into Canada, O'Neill's retreat led to the arrest of hundreds of his soldiers, many of whom were put on trial in Toronto. Raids on the townships of Canada East met with similar results. Not only did the Fenians underestimate the resolve of the Canadian and British response, but their plans also counted on an uprising among Irish settlers in Canada, which never materialized.

The Fenian threat continued for several years, including another invasion attempt by O'Neill in 1870. The assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee at Ottawa in 1868 generally is attributed to Fenian motives, but by then the movement had already influenced the course of Canadian history. The threat of attacks had revitalized the pro-Confederation movement in 1866, as colonies such as New Brunswick came to associate a unified British North America with solidarity and security.