Author Interview--Christopher Klein (When the Irish Invaded Canada)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature Christopher Klein to talk about his book When the Irish Invaded Canada, which came out in March 2019 with Doubleday. 

Chris Klein has a bachelor’s degree from Drew University and an accomplished journalists career, writing about history and travel. Besides When the Irish Invaded Canada, he has published Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero. He contributes to History.com, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Harvard Magazine, Smithsonian.com, and AmericanHeritage.com.

To start, Chris, could you tell us how you became interested in the Fenian Invasions of Canada and what you are arguing in the book?

CK: While I was researching my previous book, Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, I came across a reference to one of the Gilded Age boxer’s ring opponents as a veteran of the recent attack on Canada. I did an immediate double-take because I, like most people, had never heard of this little-known coda to the Civil War. When I probed this passing mention, though, I discovered this outrageous tale of the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army that undertook one of the most fantastical missions in military history—to hold Canada hostage and ransom it for Ireland’s independence. And this Irish-American militia attacked Canada not just once, but five times. 

The few books I could find on the Fenian Raids reflected the Canadian perspective, but as someone with Irish roots, I wanted to tell the story through the lens of these Irish-American revolutionaries who fled Ireland after the potato crop’s failure, endured the scorn of nativist Know-Nothings, and still thought of themselves as Irish first, American second even after fighting in the Civil War. 

In addition to having the opportunity to tell an incredible adventure story, I was drawn to the Fenian Raids as a subject because I thought it could add valuable historical context to the current immigration debate, in which some of the most prominent voices have Irish roots, by showing that the assimilation of Irish immigrants into American culture was much more violent and far less smooth than many Irish-Americans realize. In addition, I make the case that the Fenian Raids made the United States a key player in Anglo-Irish affairs, a role that continues to the present day in Northern Ireland, and that the Fenian Brotherhood, which undertook the attacks, established a transatlantic revolutionary framework that proved pivotal in providing the financial and military support that decades later led to Ireland’s eventual liberation from British rule. 

Having my own book that deals in part with Irish Revolutionaries just come out, I could not agree more. You are personalizing the story with your focus on John O'Neill and James Stephen, why did you pick these two? But also, considering they were minor players in the '48 uprising, how does the '48 revolution shape them as the Fenian Movement/IRB evolves?

CK: John O'Neill is the central character of the book since he plays a role in nearly every one of the Fenian Raids and he leads the Irish-American army to its greatest moment, the victory over Canadian forces at the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866. It was a triumph that made O'Neill perhaps the most famous Irish-American of his day. O'Neill had a singular obsession with the idea of attacking Canada, which he would continue to undertake with decreasing success, and by the end of the book you can either see O'Neill as a figure from a Shakespearean tragedy or a comic opera. So O'Neill's story really is the story of the Fenian Raids, but he only joined the Fenian Brotherhood a few months before its 1866 invasion of Ontario. 

I thought it was important to give the reader a broader background to the Fenian Raids so that's why I start the book in Ireland with James Stephens and the Young Ireland uprising in 1848 in the midst of the Great Hunger. O'Neill's hatred of the British was inbred long before the Young Ireland revolt. O'Neill witnessed firsthand the horrors inflicted on Ireland after Britain's anemic response after the failure of the potato crop, and his grandfather had told him the tales of his ancestors, members of the O'Neill clan who achieved fame by daring to take up arms against the Crown. 

Stephens, however, was one of the leaders of the 1848 Young Ireland revolt, and I open the book with him for two reasons. One is because during the uprising, Stephens is involved in a shootout with local authorities and left for dead on the side of the road, which he uses to his advantage in an episode that will have you thinking about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The second is to make this connection between the Fenian Raids and the Young Ireland uprising. More than any Irishman, Stephens kept the revolutionary spirit alive in the wake of Young Ireland's failure and the devastation of the Great Hunger. The transatlantic revolutionary structure that he helps to establish with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland and the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States will prove vital, not just to the Fenian Raids, but to Ireland's eventual revolution decades later. 

We watch movies all the time where the protagonists succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. Well, the reality is that most people who face overwhelming odds, like those who undertook the Fenian Raids, don't get their Hollywood ending. But what Stephens and the Fenians teach us is that just because you will likely not see success in your lifetime doesn't mean that you don't put up a fight. Be it a fight for civil rights, a fight for freedom, or a fight against cancer, you might not see a triumph in your lifetime but your descendants might because of your efforts. That was the case with a man like Stephens who prevented the revolutionary fire from being extinguished after the defeat of Young Ireland in 1848 and kept the torch kindled so that he and the Fenian raiders could pass it along to a future generation--the Easter Rising generation--that ultimately staged a successful revolution against the British. 

Chris, that is a great point to make considering this was just one small part of the struggle for Irish autonomy or independence. You mentioned already the invasion(s) of Canada, which is the main part of your book. Run us through these, there were three attempts, if I counted correctly. Why go for Canada if you want Irish independence? Was it even feasible to take Canada hostage to exchange for Ireland? Were these truly possible, at the best, or just figments of a desperate imagination, at the worst?

CK: So there were a series of attacks in 1866 launched from Maine, Vermont, and New York along with an 1870 incursion from Vermont and New York and a beyond-disastrous attempt to strike Manitoba in 1871.

There were several schools of thought inside the Fenian Brotherhood that spurred the idea of attacking Canada, which was a British province at the time of their plotting. At the root of all the motivations was that the Irish-American organization's original plan to ship weapons and money raised in the United States to support a rebel army in Ireland was, given the repeated failures of rebellions in Ireland and an 1865 crackdown by the British, the more foolhardy idea than simply striking the British Empire at its nearest point--Canada. 

So what did the Fenian hope to achieve in Canada? One idea was the attack could force the British to transfer troops from Ireland to Canada, increasing the odds for an armed uprising in Ireland to succeed. Another is that they could gain a piece of Canadian territory and be granted belligerent rights, which would allow it to launch privateers to disrupt British shipping. The real wide-eyed Fenians expected that, with the support of Irish immigrants in Canada and French-Canadians, they could conquer Canada and swap it back to the British for Ireland. The way events played out in the series of attacks showed that this idea was a fantasy.

I think the most realistic hope, though, was that the invasion could help to spark a war between the United States and Great Britain. The idea of the United States invading Canada sounds absurd today, but it was an idea as American as apple pie in the first century of the country's history. Even before the Declaration of Independence had been signed, the Continental Army marched due north to try and seize Montreal and Quebec. There were constant battles along the border in the War of 1812 and simmering border tensions in the following decades. 

By supporting the United States in seizing Canada, the Fenians hoped the Americans would force Great Britain to grant Ireland its independence. One of the surprising things for me in researching the book is that the Fenian plot to attack Canada appeared to have the tacit support of the White House. In fact, the Fenians had a meeting with President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward in which they claimed to have laid out their plans and not been dissuaded by the administration. And that's because of the tremendous animosity that existed between the United States and Great Britain and Canada after the Civil War because of British aid to the Confederacy and the safe harbor given to the Confederate secret service in Canada, from which they launched raids on banks in Vermont and Maine, plotted the firebombing of New York City, and possibly planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. 

With the United States seeking reparations from Great Britain for the damage caused by Confederate warships built in British ports, the so-called Alabama claims, the White House could use the Fenians as leverage. Plus, with the country reunited after the Civil War and now stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, many Americans cast their eyes north and expected that Canada would be the next land mass to be annexed by the United States as it continued to fulfill its Manifest Destiny. In fact, at the end of the Civil War, a Michigan senator proposed that the country could be healed by raising a 200,000-man army--with half the men from the North, half from the South--to invade Canada and seize it as compensation for the Alabama claims.   When the Fenians come into President Johnson's office with a similar idea, it received a receptive ear.

Indeed, you mention the Confederate secret service, but you have a far more fascinating Royal Majesty spy with Henri Le Caron. How do you become such an agent and considering the stories you recount, how did nobody ever question him or that there might be a British spy in the midst of the Fenians?

CK: I found the Henri Le Caron element of the story both fascinating and perplexing as to how he was never found out. Le Caron was a man of adventure who left France to fight in the Civil War and through that service came to strike up a friendship with John O'Neill. Le Caron, who became O'Neill's right-hand man, claimed to be a Frenchman with Irish roots, but in truth he was as English as tea and crumpets. His real name was Thomas Billis Beach and he became a British spy after a return trip home post-Civil War when he saw the panic in England being caused by Fenian violence.  

There were Fenian leaders who accused Le Caron of being a spy. However, that was hardly uncommon. O'Neill himself was accused of being a spy. The Fenian Brotherhood was so infested with British and Canadian spies that the Fenians became desensitized to these accusations of double-dealers in their midst. Plus, Le Caron launched such a vigorous defense after being accused of espionage that O'Neill insisted he continue to be his confidante. 

O'Neill would die without ever knowing Le Caron's true identity. But to be fair to O'Neill, Le Caron was apparently a master of deception. For years after the Fenian Raids, Le Caron continued to spy on Irish-American revolutionaries but his espionage work would not be revealed until two decades after the Fenian Raids when he was forced to give his true identity in a judicial proceeding.

Chris, to change direction slightly, you mentioned that you see this book also as enlightening current discussions. How do you think readers could learn lessons from the book and what are they?

CK: One of my goals in writing When the Irish Invaded Canada was to correct the historical record. The Fenian Raids are often dismissed as some whiskey-fueled daydream, as if they were undertaken as a lark by a group of men at a bar along the international border. One author of a book on the Fenian Raids even dismissed the invaders as "just a bunch of drunken Irishmen" to a Canadian magazine. In fact, the attacks on Canada took place after months of planning by highly trained and experienced military officers. Many of the soldiers who participated in the Fenian Raids were Civil War veterans with considerably more combat experience that the Canadian defense forces they encountered after crossing the border. 

I believe that reading about and learning history makes us more empathetic people and is crucial to explain why people acted how they did. My hope is that those who read When the Irish Invaded Canada gain a greater appreciation as to the motivation the Irish-Americans who carried out the attacks. These refugees from Ireland’s Great Hunger were, to use modern parlance, “radicalized” by their experiences living under the thumb of the British. For hundreds of years, British rulers had attempted to extinguish Ireland’s religion, culture and language, and when one million people died after the potato crop failed in the 1840s, some Irish believed their colonizers were trying to exterminate them altogether. 

Those Irish Catholics refugees who washed ashore in the United States continued to face scorn, this time by the nativist Know-Nothings. These exiles from Ireland were unlike any newcomers the United States had seen before. They were not immigrants seeking political or religious freedom but impoverished refugees fleeing a humanitarian disaster. They were starving for food, not hungering for American ideals. Many practiced an alien religion, Catholicism. Some spoke a foreign tongue. It took a full generation before the Irish really began to become a part of the fabric of the American tapestry and as When the Irish Invaded Canada chronicles, it came with some violent spasms. 

And as I mentioned earlier, one other lesson the Fenians teach us is that just because you will likely not see success in your lifetime doesn't mean that you don't put up a fight.
Chris, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.

Mr. Klein,

I am enjoying this conversation. In the process of research for my published biography of Pauline Cushman, an nineteenth-century actress and Civil War spy, I discovered that she and her Irish acting friend, James M. Ward, traveled around Upstate New York, New Jersey, and New York City raising money for the Fenians during 1865 to about 1867. Have you come across either of their names?

Cordially,

Bill Christen