McMicken on Klein, 'When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland's Freedom'

Christopher Klein
Robert W. McMicken

Christopher Klein. When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland's Freedom. New York: Doubleday, 2019. x + 365 pp. $28.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-385-54260-9

Reviewed by Robert W. McMicken (University of Arizona) Published on H-War (May, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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During the 1860s and 1870s, Americans grappled with unspeakable personal loss and political turbulence as they questioned and contested their identities. As African Americans struggled to gain and retain enfranchisement and civil rights during the Reconstruction era, recent Irish immigrants to the United States reckoned with the tug of roots and duty on both sides of the Atlantic. Christopher Klein, a history writer who frequently contributes to and is the author of Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero (2013), examines the postbellum zeitgeist of many Irish and Irish American republicans. In his 2019 book, When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom, Klein challenges his readers to embrace an analysis of the period and of the Fenian raids through transnational, diasporic, and diplomatic lenses.

While Irish immigrants fought for both Northern and Southern states during the American Civil War, Klein argues that the war served as a means of seasoning Irish republicans and members of the US-based Fenian Brotherhood by offering an “opportunity to gain valuable training for the eventual revolution … in Ireland” (p. 35). Though some Fenians advocated for waging war against the English in Ireland, others believed that invading British Canada would provide sufficient political leverage for negotiating Irish independence, while simultaneously offering the pragmatic advantage of proximity. One aggravating factor that Klein identifies is the narrow, but significant, window of postbellum Anglophobia resulting from British maritime interventions on behalf of the Confederacy. The geopolitical tensions between the United States and the United Kingdom, Klein asserts, helped generate at least tacit sympathy for the Fenians from many constituencies previously harboring anti-Irish sentiments. The short-lived Fenian victory at the 1866 Battle of Ridgeway in Ontario against Canadian troops, Klein demonstrates, was a rallying point for the Fenian Brotherhood: an Irish victory on British soil. Further, it offered a broader American public a glimmer of revenge for the anti-Union sympathies of the British.

Despite the ultimate failures of the Fenian raids to accomplish much, if any, of the strategic aims of the Fenian Brotherhood, they did, Klein contends, crystallize support for confederation in Canada. The move toward confederation effectively rendered any thoughts that the US government had of annexing Canada impracticable. This is perhaps one of Klein’s strongest arguments in the text: that the filibustering Fenians so engendered themselves as an unwelcome presence in Canada that the same anti-confederation sentiment, upon which Fenian leaders counted for the success of their invasion, evaporated with their border crossing.

Klein’s narrative describes the organizational and logistical dysfunction of the Fenian Brotherhood while colorfully humanizing the figures emmeshed in the political machinations on both sides of the Atlantic. With a significant measure of sympathy for the Fenians, Klein deftly guides the reader through the ideological schisms and disparate personalities all clamoring ultimately for the same goal: an independent Ireland. Likewise, Klein highlights the political divides in the Irish diaspora and the political manipulation of the Fenian Brotherhood by both Democrats and Republicans to curry favor with Irish constituencies.

In crafting his narrative Klein draws upon a rich array of primary and secondary sources. While Klein uses newspaper articles extensively, he is also able to enrich the narrative with the principals’ own reflections through the memoirs and papers of James Stephens, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, John O’Neill, British spy Henri Le Caron, and Canadian spymaster Gilbert McMicken, among others. Additionally, government documents and the papers of American, British, and Canadian officials contribute to Klein’s depictions of high-level political reaction to the Fenians.

The value of Klein’s work also rests in its readability and accessibility. The chronological presentation of the Irish republican struggle allows the uninitiated reader to trace the evolution of the challenges encountered by the Irish and the Irish diaspora in the United States. The prose offers a journalistic perspicacity coupled with a crisp communicative quality engaging to both academic and non-academic readers.

Klein’s text excellently highlights the organizational disunity of the Fenian Brotherhood, the ineptitude of any efforts to maintain operational secrecy in its raiding expeditions, and its failures to properly execute its lofty ideals. However, Klein’s argument that “the Fenian Brotherhood was a link in the chain of history that led Irish republicans to ultimately topple the British lion” offers a teleology that neglects the social refuge the Fenian Brotherhood provided to Irish Americans encountering prejudice, or dislocated Irish American veterans seeking comradery analogous to that found in organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic (p. 278). Further, while Klein’s focus on key Fenian figures offers the reader a glimpse of the Brotherhood from the upper echelons of leadership, the reader might find figures like James Stephens, John O’Mahony, and John O’Neill periodically transmogrified from political agents to tragic heroes.

In total, When the Irish Invaded Canada is a valuable retelling of Irish republican sentiment and the Fenian raids in the context of Anglo-American diplomatic antipathy. As the United States was struggling to reconstruct its own identity, Klein demonstrates that the Irish Americans who had largely fought to secure the Union in the American Civil War found disunion and division in their efforts to establish an independent Ireland.

Citation: Robert W. McMicken. Review of Klein, Christopher, When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland's Freedom. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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