17 March

Canadian volunteer bivouac, 1870

Fenians Plan Attack

We are a Fenian brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war.

And we are going to fight in Ireland, the land we adore; 

Many battles have we won, along with the boys in blue,

And we'll go to capture Canada, for we've nothing else to do!

                                                -Fenian Battle Song, 1866

Canada had an invasion scare on March 17, 1866, that helped to speed up Confederation. The enemy was the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization of Irish revolutionaries dedicated to damaging Britain in any part of the world. One of their objectives was to capture Canada.

In 1863 they held a convention in Chicago, at which they drew up a new constitution for Canada as a republic and appointed a cabinet to govern it. Their scheme called for a fund of $15 million and battle forces of 30,000 men. The money was available. Appeals to "help the dear auld sod" drew generous support from many Americans. The troops were also available, battle-hardened Irishmen who had fought in the American Civil War. Many of them assembled at Portland, Maine, early in March and rumors circulated that an attack would be made on New Brunswick on St. Patrick's Day. New Brunswick had been "on again, off again" about Confederation, but the invasion rumor became so alarming that sentiment swung sharply in favor of joining Canada.

In Canada itself, Sir John A. Macdonald called out 10,000 militia..

There was no attack on New Brunswick but the Fenians began their raids in June on Fort Erie, Niagara Peninsula. They were waving green flags, emblazoned with a harp and crown of gold. The raids were not successful, partly because they were badly led. There were too many "generals" and "colonels" and it seemed that few of the Fenians were willing to be ordinary foot-slogging soldiers.

An interesting point about the Fenian plan to capture Canada was that Canada's name would be changed to "New Ireland." New Brunswick was actually called "New Ireland" for a short time when it was made a separate province from Nova Scotia in 1784.


17 March

-1765    St. Patrick's Day was celebrated for the first time in Canada at Quebec City.

-1776    British forces left Boston for Halifax after General Washington seized Dorchester Heights in a night attack.

-1800    Philemon Wright arrived at the site of Hull, Quebec, across the river from Ottawa (see February 2) .

-1810    The first issue of the Kingston, Ontario, News was published.

-1866    The United States terminated a reciprocal trade agreement with Canada. This had a bearing on swinging opinion in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in favor of Confederation.

-1885    The Métis formed a provisional government with Riel as President, as they had done at Red River in 1870.

-1907    A Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the Civil Service.

-1955   The suspension of Maurice Richard from hockey caused a riot in Montreal. 1959 The death of Dr. Sidney Smith,

             Minister of External Affairs, was announced.