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

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

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

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

by Christopher Klein


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"Christopher Klein's fresh telling of this story is an important landmark in both Irish and American history." —James M. McPherson

Just over a year after Robert E. Lee relinquished his sword, a band of Union and Confederate veterans dusted off their guns. But these former foes had no intention of reigniting the Civil War. Instead, they fought side by side to undertake one of the most fantastical missions in military history: to seize the British province of Canada and to hold it hostage until the independence of Ireland was secured.

By the time that these invasions—known collectively as the Fenian raids—began in 1866, Ireland had been Britain's unwilling colony for seven hundred years. Thousands of Civil War veterans who had fled to the United States rather than perish in the wake of the Great Hunger still considered themselves Irishmen first, Americans second. With the tacit support of the U.S. government and inspired by a previous generation of successful American revolutionaries, the group that carried out a series of five attacks on Canada—the Fenian Brotherhood—established a state in exile, planned prison breaks, weathered infighting, stockpiled weapons, and assassinated enemies. Defiantly, this motley group, including a one-armed war hero, an English spy infiltrating rebel forces, and a radical who staged his own funeral, managed to seize a piece of Canada—if only for three days.

When the Irish Invaded Canada is the untold tale of a band of fiercely patriotic Irish Americans and their chapter in Ireland's centuries-long fight for independence. Inspiring, lively, and often undeniably comic, this is a story of fighting for what's right in the face of impossible odds.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385542609
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,058,586
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

CHRISTOPHER KLEIN is the author of four books, including Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America's First Sports Hero. A frequent contributor to, Christopher has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Harvard Magazine,, and He lives in Andover, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Chapter One

The Young Irelanders

While his countrymen wept at the news of his death, James Stephens absorbed the view from atop Ireland’s highest mountain. He might not have been in heaven yet, but the young rebel was closer to it than any man in Ireland.

Shot twice and left to die during a failed uprising against the Brit­ish Crown, Stephens somehow escaped both death and the enemy that had occupied his beloved island for seven centuries. An outlaw in his own land, he hid from the authorities in the mist-shrouded Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, where he followed in the footsteps of Finn McCool, the mythical Celtic warrior who hunted deer with his five hundred Irish wolfhounds in these mountains. Now, in the summer of 1848, Stephens and his fellow Irish patriots were the prey, with the world’s foremost superpower in pursuit.

To throw the police off the chase, friends and family in the fugi­tive’s hometown of Kilkenny spread the erroneous news of his death. The Kilkenny Moderator ran an obituary for “poor James Stephens,” who “proved a martyr in the true sense of the word.” To further the ruse, the Irishman’s father staged a mock funeral. In the shadows of Kilkenny’s St. Canice’s Cathedral, which had been ransacked by the British forces of Oliver Cromwell two hundred years earlier, broad shoulders bore a coffin laden with stones. They laid the casket in the turf and erected a simple gravestone that bore the inscription “Here Lies James Stephens.”

The deceased, however, was very much alive as he traversed vast bogs, overgrown moors, and mountain streams swollen from summer downpours on a journey across the south of Ireland— one that he knew could conclude at the end of a noose. A stout man of average height, Stephens had fair skin and noticeably small hands and feet, which gave him an effeminate appearance. A voracious reader, he had few close acquaintances apart from his beloved books, perhaps because of his shifty appearance, thanks to an involuntary twitch in his left eye that caused him to wink constantly.

Covering as many as forty miles a day on raw, blistered feet, Ste-phens left behind a trail of blood drops from County Tipperary to County Kerry and the summit of Ireland’s tallest peak. Surely, he thought, the British combing the countryside for insurgents would not bother to look on the roof of Ireland. From the top of Car-rauntoohil, Stephens gazed out at a wondrous panorama of glim-mering lakes and rain- scoured mountains.

The beautiful facade, however, belied the rotting death that lurked below the surface of Ireland’s green sod. The same news-papers that had printed the rebel’s obituary also reported that the dreaded “potato disease” had returned for the fourth straight year. Potatoes that had appeared perfectly healthy just weeks earlier now bled a putrid red- brown mucus. A closer inspection of the scenery from Carrauntoohil’s summit revealed a horrific land-scape of abandoned potato ridges, walking skeletons, and deserted homes.

Along his trek, Stephens had encountered families dressed in rags and farmers who locked their cows and sheep inside their hovels at night to save them from slaughter by desperate neighbors with empty stomachs. He witnessed his starving countrymen withering away and feared that the revolutionary spirit of the Irish might be wilting too.


For seven centuries, the luck of the Irish was nothing to be coveted. A geographic accident had placed them in the backyard of the most powerful empire in world history. Ever since the Englishman Nicholas Breakspear, who inherited the throne of Saint Peter to become Pope Adrian IV, purportedly granted his countryman King Henry II his divine blessing to invade the island in 1155, Ireland had been occupied—and abused—by its neighbor.

While English politicians watched the richest, most modern econ­omy on earth flourish across the Irish Sea from the poor, starving potato people who spoke a foreign language and practiced an exotic religion, they wrestled with what they called the “Irish problem.” The problem with the Irish, of course, was that they weren’t English.

For nearly a millennium, the English sought to reshape the Irish in their own image and Anglicize what they saw as a savage land populated by people who lacked the intellect and initiative to govern themselves. Following the Reformation, Presbyterians from Scotland and Anglicans from England were transplanted to the north of Ireland. The 1690 defeat of the forces of King James II, the deposed Catholic monarch, at the Battle of the Boyne secured the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.

That wasn’t enough for the Crown, however. It inflicted extra ven­geance upon the conquered by attempting to annihilate their Celtic culture. Under the Penal Laws that passed beginning in 1695, Irish Catholics could not openly worship their God. They could not vote or hold public office. They could not send their children to Catholic teachers—or employ Catholic teachers to come to them. They could not own firearms or hold military commissions. They could not own horses valued at more than £5. They could not purchase or inherit land from a Protestant. In fact, they could not inherit anything from a Protestant. They were permitted to own a knife—as long as it was chained to a table to be of no threat to the police.

The English also required inheritances of Catholic-owned land to be subdivided equally among sons, which resulted in Irish Catholic farmers clinging to progressively smaller and smaller parcels of land. An eldest son, however, could take full ownership of his father’s land by converting to the Anglican church. Even in death the Irish could not be free, because their colonial overlords prohibited priests from presiding over graveside services, forcing them to bless hand­fuls of dirt that they gave to mourners to sprinkle over the deceased.

While they were gradually dismantled during the eighteenth century, the last of the Penal Laws endured until 1829. By that point, Anglo-Irish landlords owned four-fifths of the island, which was ruled directly from London after the abolition of the Irish Parliament by the 1801 Act of Union.

Stubbornness ran deep in Ireland’s old clans, however. Try as the English might to exterminate the proud, ancient Celtic culture, the defiant Irish refused to conform. No matter how many laws were passed, there was one thing no government could take from the Irish—their will to resist.

In parishes across Ireland, hatred of the English was in the mother’s milk. Huddled around fireplaces, boys like Stephens listened to tales of great Irish rebels like Hugh O’Neill, Theobald Wolfe Tone, and Robert Emmet who dared to raise arms against the Crown. The heroes in the stories might not have liberated Ireland, but they achieved immortality by their willingness to resist and fight in the face of overwhelming odds.


For millions of poor Irishmen, the potato was the ultimate superfood. Laden with vitamins, minerals, protein, and carbohydrates, the nourishing tubers flourished in Ireland’s cool, moist soil. The Irish ate potatoes for every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The aver­age adult workingman in Ireland consumed a staggering fourteen pounds of potatoes, equivalent to three thousand calories, per day. The average adult Irishwoman a little over eleven pounds.

Because they required less space to grow than other crops, pota­toes became ever more vital to survival as British policies continued to constrict farm sizes at the same time that the island’s population nearly doubled to over eight million people between 1800 and 1845.

In the first days of September 1845, farmers reported that the early potato harvest had never been better. Then, without warning, from County Donegal in the north to County Cork in the south, one-third of the island’s wonder crop suddenly failed. Black spots scorched potato plant leaves. Stalks withered. Bewildered farmers excavated potatoes pockmarked with lesions. Even those tubers that appeared healthy on the outside contained a putrid mush inside.

When the horror reappeared in 1846, the devastation was near total, with more than three- quarters of the crop lost. The potato blight exposed Ireland’s dangerous dependence on a single crop and sparked one of the worst famines in Western European history.

The harsh winter months of early 1847 presaged a year so ghastly that it would go down in history as “Black ’47.” Frantic farmers sprinkled holy water on their fields. Rats feasted on the corpses of the famished who died on the sides of roads as they wandered in search of food. Emaciated figures, tired of a diet of grass and seaweed, dug their frostbitten fingers into the rocky ledges above the crashing Atlantic as they scaled cliff sides to harvest seagull eggs.

The pestilence had arrived in Europe aboard vessels that departed American ports in 1843 carrying the microorganism Phytophthora infestans. After infecting the lowlands of the European continent, the deadly potato spores crossed the English Channel to the British Isles. Ireland’s damp conditions proved a superb breeding ground, and the island’s dependence on the potato greatly magnified its impact.

Through the duration of the Great Hunger, between 1845 and 1852, approximately two million people fled Ireland. They sailed to England, North America, and beyond. Another one million people perished from starvation and diseases such as typhus and dysentery. Jail populations in Ireland exploded as the starving broke the law just so they could dine on the guaranteed meals given to inmates. All of Ireland, however, had become a vile prison, and the truly desperate decided to escape.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Prologue 1

1 The Young Irelanders 7

2 Bold Fenian Men 22

3 The Civil War 34

4 Torn Between Brothers 43

5 The Eastport Fizzle 62

6 Erin's Boys 78

7 A Lawless and Piratical Band 93

8 Iron Wills and Brave Hearts 110

9 The Fenians Are Coming! 121

10 Hail the Vanquished Hero 131

11 Political Blarney 140

12 Erin's Hope 150

13 The Call of Duty 162

14 Blood in the Street 172

15 One Ridgeway Would Never Be Enough 183

16 Secrets and Lies 189

17 A Burlesque of a War 199

18 Another Fight, Another Flight 215

19 The Fenians Behind Bars 228

20 Losing Their Lifeblood 237

21 The Invasion That Wasn't 251

22 The Next Best Thing 262

Epilogue 271

Acknowledgments 281

Notes 285

Bibliography 323

Index 343

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