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Little-known invasion launched here set stage for Irish independence

Lord Mayor of Dublin Criona Ni Dhalaigh stood at the foot of Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, gazing toward Canada on Wednesday afternoon, and observed that the April ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of her city’s Easter Uprising may very well have been born on the banks of the Niagara River.

She noted that Irish independence can trace its roots to historical milestones like the Fenian Invasion of Canada, launched by Irish veterans of the Civil War 150 years ago next week from Riverside. It was all part of a failed attempt to barter a captured Canada for Ireland’s freedom from Great Britain.

“The connections between the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Invasion of Canada and the 1916 rising are quite similar,” she said. “You have a small group of Irishmen and Irishwomen who took on the might of the British Empire. They were greatly outnumbered and greatly outarmed.”

Dhalaigh joined State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo and City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder on Wednesday near a monument erected several years ago commemorating the event. After the obligatory exchange of proclamations and local memorabilia, Kennedy and Schroeder noted the significance of an event mostly unfamiliar even to local historians.

The Fenian Invasion of 150 years ago failed to achieve the independence Ireland eventually won in 1921. But historians note that events like the Fenians contributed to the eventual goal.

“It did not immediately serve the cause of freedom; that took another 50 years,” said Buffalo historian Timothy Bohen. “But it was another step in the continuum that was the cause of Irish freedom.”

Bohen, who has studied and written about the Old First Ward’s history in “Against the Grain: A History of Buffalo’s First Ward,” said the Buffalo portion of the Fenian Invasion was born in Patrick O’Day’s auction house on Pearl Street and in the pub Hugh Mooney ran on Ohio Street. Many of its participants were Civil War veterans, with some West Side Irish merchants financing the excursion.

“The objective was to secure the rail lines and telegraph wires and the early Welland Canal,” he said. “That was the Buffalo plan.”

Other incursions were slated to invade Canada from Cleveland and Detroit, all aiming toward holding Canada “hostage” and forcing Britain to grant Irish independence.

“It was actually very well organized,” Bohen explained. “It was just poorly executed.”

He said that on June 1, 1866, the Fenian forces of 500 to 800 men under the command of Gen. John O’Neill crossed into Ontario from the foot of Hertel Avenue and advanced to Ridgeway on June 2. There they were met by Crown forces.

In the battle that followed, the Irish-Americans prevailed, and again in another skirmish near Fort Erie.

But victory came with a cost – casualties. Realizing they would soon be outnumbered by Canadian forces, the Fenians retreated to the ruins of Old Fort Erie, where they held out until surrendering aboard the USS Michigan, which had been dispatched to the area.

The irony is that plans for incursions from other areas meant more soldiers were ready to join the action.

“If the USS Michigan had not been sent to the Niagara River, there very well could have been a more prolonged battle,” Bohen said.

Schroeder noted in his remarks that Irish volunteers from all over the East came to Buffalo to set up for the raid, hiding out in the First Ward until the night of the invasion. The comptroller wasted no words in describing the horrors of the 1840s Irish Potato Famine under British rule.

“The Fenian brotherhood and sisterhood was right. They stood against the injustice of England and other bullies,” Schroeder said.

The Fenian Invasion may dwell in the footnotes of most history books, but played an important role on many fronts. Bohen said the incursions helped Canada realize its need to provide for its own defense, leading to independence from Great Britain just one year later in 1867.

Mostly it served as an important milestone in achieving Irish independence, not fully realized until 1921. The predecessor of the Irish Republican Army – the Irish Republican Brotherhood – was part of the movement, Bohen said, and the raids strengthened the cause in Ireland.

Doreen DeBoth, chairwoman of the Black Rock Historical Society, said her group will sponsor events June 3 and 4 to commemorate the anniversary.