“A Fenian Song (I)”


"The Queen's Own Regiment was their name, From fair Toronto town they came, To put thie Irish all to shame, The Queen and Colonel Booker." But the loyalist forces are routed: "See how they run from their Irish foe, The Queen's and Colonel Booker!"


Many Irish immigrants in America retained their hatred for Britain. The Fenians were an organization devoted to freeing Ireland. The organization was founded in 1858 by James Stephens (who had been active in the revolution of 1848 and survived partly because he was reported dead; for his story, see "James Stephens, the Gallant Fenian Boy"), and quickly spread; the British government felt the need to suppress the group in 1865. Stephens and others were taken prisoner; although he escaped, it turned him cautious; he no longer had the nerve to take aggressive action. That pretty well killed the group as an active set of rebels; their attempt at an Irish rebellion would fail in 1867.

But the Fenian movement did not die; individuals kept trying things, though none of their tricks amounted to much. This song chronicles an early example.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, when the U.S. and Britain were not on the best of terms over the Alabama Claims and the like, the Fenians conceived the idea of invading Canada and holding it hostage for Ireland's freedom. They thought that the American government would go along.

Unfortunately, they were not united; according to Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, pp. 143-144, by 1866 the American Fenians were split into two groups, one led by John O'Mahony, the other by the more radical Thomas Sweeney.

Mahony, the more rational and established leader, nonetheless let himself be goaded into action, staging a sort of demonstration against Canada: "Members of his decimated Fenian Brotherhood began converging on the town of Eastport in Maine.... The small army went into action on April 15, invading Indian Island, a small chunk of Canada... Washington sent troops and warships to Eastport, and O'Mahony's Fenians immediately withdrew."

That didn't deter the Sweeney faction.

On May 31, 1866, the Fenian General John O'Neill led 1200 men from Buffalo into the Niagara area. Mark Bourrie, _Many a Midnight Ship_ (University of Michigan Press, 2005) quotes their manifesto on pp. 128-130, it states, among other things, that "We are here as the Irish army of liberation, the friends of liberty against aristocracy, of people against their oppressors.... Our war is with the armed powers of England, not with the people, not with these provinces." Funny that it never occured to the Fenians to think that people would resent being held hostage for other's crimes.

The proclamation was signed by Sweeney, but, interestingly, he failed to make the crossing.

The Canadian government mustered various forces to deal with them. One of these was the Queen's Own Rifles, at that time hardly better than a militia regiment; Bourrie, p. 130, says it was made up of residents of Toronto, many of them University students. "In all, about 880 very inexperienced Canadian part-time soldiers , under the command of inept officers... arrived... in the early hours of June 2." Rather than wait for the rest of the Loyalist forces, the detachment under Lt. Colonel Alfred Booker attacked the Fenians.

The result was a complete rout of the Loyalists, though with relatively slight losses (listed by Bourrie, p. 131, as ten Canadians dead). It did the Fenians no good, however. Within days the Canadian forces had assembled, and they were much larger, better equipped, and better trained than the Fenians. And the Americans moved to block any Fenian reinforcements from crossing the Niagara river. O'Neill retreated back to the United States (where his men were set free), and the Fenians never amounted to much thereafter. Eventually the U.S. government put a stop to their border raids.

For the aftermath of this story, see "An Anti-Fenian Song."

The Fenians, of course, eventually evolved into other independence organizations. A member of one of those organizations perhaps summed up why they failed so often: They just weren't single-minded enough. Tim Pat Coogan, in _Michael Collins_, p. 116, reports a quote from Vinnie Byrne, a member of one of those later organizations:

"Collins was a marvel. If he hadn't done the work he did, we'd still be under Britain. Informers and drink would have taken care of us."

That is perhaps too strong; there were other determined leaders in the 1916-1920 period. But the Fenians didn't have a one of those other leaders, let alone a Collins. So they wasted their energy on schemes like this.

For information on the founding of the Fenians, see "James Stephens, the Gallant Fenian Boy." For their one major success in one of their gimmicks, see "The Fenian's Escape (The Catalpa)." For other examples of the Fenians' ineffectiveness, see "The British Man-of-War" and "The Smashing of the Van (I)." - RBW

Historical references

  • May 31, 1866 - Some 1200 Fenians under General O'Neill invade the Niagara area
  • June 2, 1866 - The Fenian's victory at Lime Ridge near Ridgeway

Cross references


  1. Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 100-101, ""A Fenian Song (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Fowke/MacMillan 1, "A Fenian Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Roud #4531
  5. BI, FMB100


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1958
Keywords: Canada battle political
Found in: Canada(Ont)