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  • Before the Fenians:1848 and the Irish Plot to Invade Canada
  • Shane Lynn (bio)

On 29 July 1848 the debacle at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, precipitated the ignominious collapse of the long-anticipated but briefly attempted Young Irelander rebellion. As the curtain dropped on one theater of operations, the spotlight fell on another three thousand miles across the Atlantic. The same day in Albany, New York, a British agent named J. C. Sewell wrote to Colonel Sir George Augustus Wetherall, deputy adjutant general of Canada, to convey some troubling intelligence:

I arrived here last night, and in a short time accident threw me in the way of an Irish Roman Catholic who informed me that the Irish here are organising an invasion simultaneously with an insurrection in Canada. He stated that both Irish and French Canadians were in active correspondence with them from Canada, and that they had already a quantity of arms and money collected. He stated that it was to act as a diversion from Ireland by distracting the attention of the British government and dividing its forces. I have reason to believe that there is some truth in this from enquiries that I have made today, and therefore have lost no time in communicating this to you…

Sewell’s letter soon reached Lord Elgin, governor general of Canada, at Montreal. It was not the last that Elgin would read of a cross-border, underground conspiracy to assist revolution in Ireland by invading or destabilizing Canada. Nor was it the first. Rumors had reached him in April of a secret, oath-bound society of Irish revolutionaries, numbering seventeen thousand, who planned to seize or [End Page 61] destroy the magazine on St. Helen’s Island, Montreal.2 Precautionary measures were quickly implemented to ensure the security of the island. The military presence on the city’s streets was augmented; officers were advised to be on guard against attempts to subborn troops; and axes, ropes, and cannon were readied in the event that barricades would require dismantling.3 Downstream in Quebec City, similar concerns about the stockpiling of weapons and the sabotage of fortifications prompted later arms raids and arrests.4 Detailed reports of the events at Ballingarry and the subsequent arrest or flight of Irish Confederate leaders did not reach North America until the last fortnight of August.5 Even then, the news came as such a surprise, and was accompanied by so many contradictory rumors, that it was not widely accepted until September.6 Canada thus remained on high alert a full month after the subsidence of the threat in Ireland.7

Though false alarms were abundantly raised, Canadian concerns about invasion or insurrection by Irish nationalist émigrés were not unfounded. As this article will demonstrate, a cross-border conspiracy was indeed unfolding—one that sought to ensure that the anticipated war for Irish independence would have a North American front. In 1848, as a wave of revolutionary excitement pulsed through the Atlantic world, thousands of Irish emigrants pledged to fight for an independent Ireland from beyond the island’s shores. Whether through propaganda, donations, or drilling, Irish nationalists in places as diverse as Lancashire, Clydeside, New York, and the St. Lawrence Valley sought to add their weight to what many believed would be the decisive heave against the Union. Alliances were attempted with key groups in respective host societies: Chartists in Britain, annexation-ist Democrats in the United States, and French Canadians in Lower [End Page 62] Canada. Such entente-seeking, transnational mobilization in support of home issues had been typical of Irish diasporic nationalism since the campaign for Catholic Emancipation.8 But the revolutionary atmosphere of 1848 introduced a potent strain of physical-force republicanism and a willingness to defy elites who adhered stubbornly to moral force. Much of what would later be deemed characteristic of Fenianism—its paramilitarism, sabotage, filibustering, and impressive fundraising machine—flourished among Irish nationalists in North America during the summer of 1848.

Irish diasporic politics prior to the founding of the Fenian Brotherhood remain sorely understudied, and the events of 1848 are no exception. Fortunately, recent work of considerable quality by Christine Kinealy and by John Belchem has...


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