In 1866, forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, shortly to become the Irish
Republican Army, assembled on the border between the United States and Canada.
Their aim was to capture territory in Canada for an Irish homeland, or alternatively
to use any gains as a bargaining tool in negotiations with the English for Irish
The Irish forces, under the command of Major-General "Fighting Tom" Sweeney, numbered
some 25,000 men, mostly veterans of the American Civil War, there being Irish Brigades
on both sides in that conflict. Also present were 500 Mohawk Indians and 100 black
veterans of the Union Army.
Funded by Irish businessmen in the U.S., most of the Republican forces wore green
uniforms closely modelled on those of the Union forces. The jacket buttons were
engraved with the initials "I.R.A.", the first time the name had been used.
Crucially, the expedition had the tacit support of the U.S. Government under President
Andrew Johnson, whose administration "would recognise accomplished facts". Without
this support, it would have been impossible for Sweeney to assemble and arm his men,
indeed all their equipment including three warships, was to be purchased from the
U.S. Dept. of War.
If the Americans closed their borders, it would be impossible for I.R.A. reinforcements
to cross in support of their advance parties. U.S. co-operation was therefore
vital for the success of the operation.
The plan was to seize Quebec and then Montreal, establishing an Irish Republic-in-exile
based in Quebec City. In order to confuse the British forces, the invading army
would be split into three groups, two of which were to feint an attack on Toronto,
leading the British to commit all their forces to its defence. The British would
then be cut off from Quebec by a series of sabotage raids on the few bridges across
the Quebec and St. Lawrence rivers, and the Beauharnois Canal.
In the event, the western group did not leave their bases, and the Commanding Officer,
Brigadier Charles Tevis, was court-martialled for cowardice.
The centre group crossed into Canada on the morning of the lst. of June, initially
with a force of 600 men, under the command of Col. John O'Neill. They were to
be reinforced within forty-eight hours by the remaining 5,000 troops under Col. Sherwin.
However, immediately after O'Neill's force landed, the U.S. sealed the border with
troops and warships, and impounded the three Irish ships in Brooklyn Harbour.
This not only prevented Sherwin from crossing the border in support of O'Neill,
but also prevented General Spear from attacking Quebec with his eastern group. He
did manage to get a small force across on the 7th., but by this time the invasion
had failed, and after a series of skirmishes, he withdrew on the 9th.
O'Neill was therefore cut off from all aid, with no cavalry or artillery, and after
a series of successful actions against overwhelming odds, notably at the Battle
of Ridgeway on the 2nd., he was forced to recognise that his position was untenable
and attempted a withdrawal across the Niagara River.
By this time the U.S. was openly siding with the British, and O'Neill was seized
by the U.S. Navy, along with the remains of his command, as they crossed the Niagara.
They were charged with breaking U.S. neutrality laws, but were subsequently released.
O'Neill had been forced to leave his wounded on the Canadian side under the care
of Father John McMahon. He, along with his patients, was put on trial for treason.
Twenty-two men, including Fr. McMahon, were sentenced to death, but these sentences
were later commuted. Some of General Spear's men were not so lucky, as a substantial
number were put to the sword as they were captured.
It emerged later that the U.S. had been engaged in negotiations with the British
for reparations for their support of the Confederate States in the Civil War, and
the support of the U.S. for the Republican cause was merely brinkmanship on the
part of President Johnson. It is a matter of record that the British subsequently
paid $15million to the U.S.
The American public, however, was outraged by this duplicity and Johnson avoided
being impeached by Congress by one vote.
The British used the hysteria raised by the invasion to push through legislation
causing the separate provinces of New Brunswick, Canada and Nova Scotia to be united
as a single British Dominion, reinforcing its colonial grip.
Proclamation to the people of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
"We come among you as the foes of British rule in Ireland. We have taken up the
sword to strike down the oppressor's rod to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the
despoiler, the robber... We have no issue with the people of these provinces, and
wish to have none but the most friendly relations. Our weapons are for the oppressors
of Ireland. Our blows shall be directed only against the power of England; her
privileges alone shall we invade, not yours. We do not propose to divest you of
a solitary right you now enjoy... We are here neither as murderers, nor robbers
for plunder and spoliation. We are here as the Irish army of liberation, the friends
of liberty against despotism, of democracy against aristocracy, of the people against
the oppressors: in a word, our war is with the armed power of England, not with
the people, not with these provinces. Against England upon land and sea, till Ireland
is free... To Irishmen throughout these provinces we appeal in the name of seven
centuries of British iniquity and Irish misery and suffering, in the name of our
murdered sires, our desolate homes, our desecrated alters, our millions of famine
graves, our insulted name and race – to stretch forth the hand of brotherhood
in the holy cause of fatherland, and smite the tyrant where we can... We shall endeavour
to justify the confidence of the former, and the latter can expect from us the
restraints and relations imposed by civilised warfare."
Commanding the Army of Ireland,
1st. June, 1866.
The above article, including the 'Proclamation to the people of Canada...', was
found among the Editor's papers – author / source unknown.
If anyone is able to identify the source of what seems to be an extensive excerpt
from another publication we would be pleased to hear from him or her.