Monday, March 16, 2015

The Irish Invade Canada!

There are three things I love most in my writing world: Ireland, Irish history, and mythology—specifically Irish mythology. So naturally, I was thrilled to be able to combine these elements with a little bit of little-known, but important, Canadian history, when I wrote Keeper of the Light (Wild Geese Series, Book II).

The Irish Invade Canada!

No, it's not a St. Patrick's Day parade, or even a ceilidh given by a local branch of the Irish Society. The Irish invasion of Canada actually happened, and it was one of several factors that contributed to the Confederation of Canada in 1867.

An Gorta Mor, Ireland’s Great Hunger of the min-Nineteenth Century, decimated the population of Ireland. Many fled to America, where anti-English sentiments (and Fenian beliefs) ran high. The Fenians believed that England might be turned away from Ireland if one of their colonies was in danger. So, in 1865, they threatened to invade Canada, then known as "British North America." The threats were taken seriously on both sides of the border, where troops were massed and ready for action.

 In April of 1866, a group of Fenians gathered at Campobello Island, near New Brunswick, but withdrew in the face of the Canadian Militia, British warships, and American authorities. A month later, about 800 Fenians crossed the Niagara River into Canada, occupying Fort Erie and cutting telegraph lines. The Buffalo and Lake Huron railroads were also severed before the Fenians proceeded inland. Again, the Canadian Militia countered the attack.

In June, the Fenians drove the Canadians back at Ridgeway, Ontario, and suffered many casualties. At Fort Erie, they took on another Canadian Militia and forced them back. The main Canadian forces entered Fort Erie, but the Fenians had already escaped back across the border to the U.S., where they were given a hero's welcome. Later that same month, about 1000 Fenians crossed the Canadian border and occupied Pigeon Hill in Missisquoi County, Quebec. They plundered St. Armand and Frelighsburg, but retreated to the U.S. when the American authorities seized their supplies at St. Alban's.

Thus ended the Fenian invasion of Canada.


Although the raids failed to end British rule in North America or in Ireland, they did have serious historical consequences. Canadian nationalism was promoted by the raids, and the fear of American invasion united Upper and Lower Canada in common defense. A few months later, the two provinces came together under the British North America Act of 1867 (also known as Canadian Confederation).

This is the background to Keeper of the Light.

When I first conceived The Wild Geese Series, I knew the heroes would be Irish. Five boys who met on a coffin ship grew up together in the New York City of immigrants and crime, and survived to fight in the American Civil War. Originally, I’d planned for each of their stories to take place in New York City.

Then I met Cathal Donnelly…

A story teller, a singer of songs, a dreamer of dreams, Cathal has a rebellious streak and a deep bitterness born in the far-off days of Ireland’s Great Hunger. A restless man, he’s never been able to settle down, and after the assassination of President Lincoln, he becomes involved with the Fenians, whose goal is to free Ireland from the British yoke.

That’s when I decided Cathal had to become involved in the plot to invade Canada.

Here’s a little bit about Keeper of the Light:

…Like the Wild Geese of Old Ireland, five boys grew to manhood despite hunger, war, and the mean streets of New York…
She was everything he despised…but he didn’t know it
Cathal Donnelly washed up on the shores of an Atlantic island one stormy night, with no memory of who he was or why he was there. But is his lovely rescuer his salvation…or his doom?
She dreamed of a very different life
Laura Bainbridge has spent her entire life on tiny Turtle Island, but she dreams of a Season in London and a presentation to Queen Victoria. Can a handsome Irish stranger with a golden tongue and a disturbing past change her heart and convince her to stay?
As Cathal’s memory slowly returns, both he and Laura must come to grips with his painful past…and fight for a future free of hatred and loss.

We are a Fenian brotherhood,
Skilled in the arts of war,
And we’re going to fight for Ireland,
The land that we adore.
Many battles we have won,
Along with the boys in blue
And we’ll go and capture Canada
For we’ve nothing else to do.
~ Fenian soldiers’ song

 Queenstown Harbor, Ireland, “Black ‘47”

“Cathal, lad, look at me. Look at me now, and tell me why ye’re here.”

Cathal Donnelly’s soul shrank as the priest grasped his chin between long, bony fingers and forced his reluctant gaze up to his face. Father O’Reilly’s black robe flapped and snapped in the chill spring wind that slashed Cathal’s own skin. The gulls screaming over the sea like banshees sent shivers down his spine. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, struggling to control his shameful tears. “We’re going to America, Father.”

“And do ye know why ye must go to America?”

“Because we’ve no food, Father.”

“Ah, now that’s where ye’re wrong, lad.” Father O’Reilly glanced over to where Cathal’s family huddled together on the shore with hundreds of other emaciated refugees waiting to board the Sally Malone. Then he knelt before the ten-year-old boy, his dark-blue eyes blazing, his hands biting into his flesh. “Ye must go to America because the English decided ye’ve no food, Cathal. England starved ye, abused ye, and when ye dared to cry out for help, she turned blind eyes and deaf ears. Where has all the grain gone? And the cattle and the pigs and the sheep? All gone to England.” The priest waved a bony hand toward the quay, where huge, many-masted ships filled with food and livestock waited to sail. “All of it sent over the water so England may grow fat while Ireland starves. Do ye realize that, Cathal Donnelly? Do ye, lad?”

“Aye, Father.” Cathal widened his eyes in awe, pride swelling his heart and puffing out his thin chest. No one had ever talked to him this way, as if he were grown up. As if he understood. He’d heard the whispers in the back room at Phelan’s pub, or when the men were digging the praties before they’d turned to black slime in the pit. But never had anyone told him why they must send their own food away. “I understand.”

“Remember it then, lad. Remember it all—the hunger, the evictions, the cruelty. Remember it, and tell yer children, and in time their children. Will ye do that for me, Cathal Donnelly?”

“Aye, Father, I will.”

“The English drove ye from yer land.” Father O’Reilly’s voice shook with emotion. Tears sprang to his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, and Cathal’s heart twisted for the priest’s grief. “Don’t ever forget that, lad. Keep the memories alive, so that one day, please God, the wrongs done to our people will be righted.”

Blinded by tears that had nothing to do with the sharp salt wind blowing off the sea, Cathal clenched his fists, his soul crying out for justice. For vengeance.

“I promise, Father.”

Wishing everyone at the Celtic Rose a happy St. Patrick’s Day!


  1. Thanks so much for having me today, Miriam, I love visiting the Rose!

  2. You're welcome, Cynthia. You know we love having you here. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

  3. Happy St. Patrick's Day, Ladies. Cynthia, you've taken a unique area of history and turned it into a wonderful tale. Best to you and your writing!

  4. Oh, thank you, Pat! I had a wonderful time writing Cathal and Laura's story. It's definitely what I'd call a "book of my heart." Happy St. Patrick's Day to you, too, Pat, and thanks for the good wishes.