The Big Canadian Saint Patrick’s Day Scare of 1866

I was searching the Archives for a good story about Saint Patrick’s day celebrations in the 19th century when I came across a military/political movement I had never heard of before today.  Do you know who the Fenians were? I do… now.

The The Vincennes Weekly Western Sun had this to say on March 16, 1866:

St. Patrick’s Day – Tomorrow, the 17th, is St. Patrick’s Day. This is the event of the big scare in Canada, when it is expected that the Fenians will walk the streets of its cities.

Fenians, get your rifles ready;
Let your aim be sure and steady;
If we would win, we must begin
To get our men and rifles ready.

The rifle’s ring will freedom bring;
Tyrants never yield to trifles;
So let us try, this Present spring,
The virtue of true Fenian rifles.

This made me very curious as to who the Fenians were and why Canada would be afraid of them walking the streets.

The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish republican organization founded in the United States in 1858 by John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. It was a precursor to Clan na Gael, a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Members were commonly known as “Fenians“. O’Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named his organization after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes called Finn McCool).

The Fenian Brotherhood made attempts to run arms and fighters to Ireland but after being intercepted by the British, the Fenians started looking to other British holdings that would be easier targets and the main place that seemed a likely target was Canada.

The day after the item above ran, there was this report:

The Vincennes Times: Canada and the Fenians

They have heard that some Fenians intend spending St. Patrick’s day (today) with some of their Canadian brothers. So they are preparing to welcome them with bloody hands to hospitable graves. Already, we are told, thirty thousand troops are armed and ready to march to interrupt the time honored festivities of the friends of the good and revered St. Patrick . Parliament is called to assemble immediately, the writ of habeas corpus will be suspended and martial law will be proclaimed, while already Government has taken possession of the telegraph lines. These acts when committed by our Government during the late rebellion were, in their view, terrible outrages, but now—oh well, they are so badly scared that we cannot expect them to think about consistency.

The November before had reports like this in newspapers throughout the United States.

Weekly Vincennes Gazette: The Fenians

The uneasiness in England with regard to the intentions and movements of the Fenians still continues. Majesty”s Government evidently supposes their object is the liberation of Ireland, but whether the blow for Ireladd”s independence is to be struck directly in the Emerald Isle, or indirectly at Canada does not-seem to be known. There is deep anxiety, though, with regard to Canada, the Canadians themselves being fearful of the movements of the Fenians . There is great disaffection among the troops, both regular and volunteer. It is stated that squads are constantly deserting from the former, and that at least one-third of the latter are enrolled for or are in sympathy with the uprising of the Irish: so greatly dreaded. In the meantime the British camps and garrisons are actively preparing” for any emergency that may arise…


So the Fenians are making quite a stir, though they are still working in the dark. Who they are to hit, and where and when and how, are questions Great. Britian is trying to solve. And they are important questions too, for the Fenian movement is evidently gathering strength and gaining favor, and may become capable of working great harm to British interests; England is not, at all what she once was, either in physical or moral power. And anything that will tend to makes her weakness move appearent will work greatly to her detriment. A united and brave struggle for independence on the part of Ireland would do this”. She would find such a rebellion a dangerous and costly affair.

Posters like this circulated to drum up support for the Fenians and their fund raising operations.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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