Irish to fete would-be conqueror of Canada

Randy Boswell, CanWest News Service Published: Thursday, May 18, 2006

John O’Mahony, the 19th-century founder of the Fenian rebel movement and the would-be conqueror of Canada, is to be honoured as a hero of Irish nationalism this month at his Dublin gravesite, 140 years after his failed 1866 invasion of New Brunswick.

A terrorist in the eyes of British and Canadian officials of the day, O’Mahony will be hailed at a May 28 anniversary ceremony as an “inspirational force” in the fight that — long after his death in 1877 — led to the creation of the Republic of Ireland.

The event, organized by the Irish cultural society Craobh Gal Greine, will feature a speech by former IRA hunger-striker Tommy McKearney, who served 16 years in a Belfast prison after being convicted of killing a British soldier in the 1970s.

In Canada, O’Mahony is best remembered as a blundering rebel and an accidental Father of Confederation. His ill-conceived attempt to seize New Brunswick’s Campobello Island off the coast of Maine — partly to thwart the Atlantic colonies’ move toward political union with Quebec and Ontario, partly to create a Fenian base for a transatlantic Irish revolution — backfired spectacularly.

Though easily suppressed, the Campobello assault shook the citizens of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia enough to clinch their legislatures’ support for Confederation.

“The infusion of the Fenian Movement into the debate,” author Dan Soucoup wrote in Historic New Brunswick, “did more than any other single element to create the huge conversion of anti-Confederation New Brunswickers into Canadians.”

The botched raid also kickstarted a string of more serious Fenian attacks in Quebec and Ontario that failed but added impetus to John A. Macdonald’s campaign for a united, independent Canada.
O’Mahony was born in Ireland in 1816 and fought — along with a genuine future Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee — in the failed 1848 rebellion against British rule.

O’Mahony’s “square, broad frame,” wrote a fellow 1848 rebel, “his frank, gay, fearless look; the warm forcible headlong earnestness of his manner; the quickness and elasticity of his movements; the rapid glances of his clear full eye; the proud bearing of his head; everything about him struck us with a brilliant and exciting effect, as he threw himself from his saddle and, tossing the bridle on his arm, hastened to meet and welcome us. At a glance we recognized in him a true leader for the generous, passionate, intrepid peasantry” of Ireland.

Exiled to North America, O’Mahony settled in New York and in 1858 helped found the Fenian Brotherhood, a secretive society dedicated to Irish independence and named by O’Mahony after the legendary Fianna warriors of ancient Irish history.

O’Mahony, who served as Union Army colonel in the U.S. Civil War, later organized discharged Irish-American veterans from both North and South into Fenian militia units, and raised considerable amounts of money for an eventual armed uprising against Britain in Canada and Ireland.

Though initially opposed to attacking New Brunswick in 1866, O’Mahony eventually embraced the idea to secure his position within the rebel movement. He authorized the plan to seize weakly defended Campobello Island, which lay close to the U.S. shore in Passamaquoddy Bay.

Hundreds of Fenians gathered in Eastport, Maine, in early April for the anticipated assault. The Ocean Spray, a former Confederate schooner, was hired to transport a shipment of arms to the Fenian force. And a proclamation anonymously posted in Saint John ridiculed the British monarchy, condemned the “obnoxious project of Confederation” and urged citizens to rise up in a republican revolution.

But Canadian, British and U.S. authorities, alerted by their spies to the coming attack, countered with thousands of regular troops and volunteers. The Ocean Spray was seized and the Fenians, badly outgunned and outnumbered, conducted one minor act of piracy, burned a few warehouses owned by the New Brunswick government, and stole the Union Jack from a customhouse on Indian Island, near Campobello.

The operation, though initially celebrated by some Fenians as a great coup, was eventually exposed as a fiasco. And O’Mahony — discredited within the rebel movement and ousted from the Fenian leadership — slipped into obscurity and later poverty in New York City. He died in February 1877 but his body was sent for burial in Dublin, where he was given a hero’s funeral.

“The attempt to land a Fenian force at Campobello was folly,” historian Hereward Senior noted in The Last Invasion of Canada, “but there are times when revolutionary movements have to attempt the impossible or disintegrate.”

CanWest News Service