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The Fenians and Confederation
Original title:  Image of Fenian monument

Source: Link

When the Fenians gathered at Eastport, Maine, in April 1866 with the intention of capturing Campobello Island, they inadvertently strengthened the pro-confederation forces in New Brunswick. By asserting that Irish Catholic opponents of confederation in the province were secret Fenian sympathizers, loyalists helped to rally the Protestant majority in New Brunswick behind British North American union. One of the principal beneficiaries was the politician Samuel Leonard TILLEY:

“Had Tilley wished to create an accomplice to swing the doubtful he could not have improved on the Fenians, who invaded Indian Island near the mouth of the St Croix River on 14 April, thus revealing the necessity of the larger union for national defence. The raid also contributed to the pernicious anti-Catholic atmosphere that pervaded much of this election …. In the end, however, people had to choose either ‘union or disunion’ and they chose union.”


And one of the principal victims was the New Brunswick journalist and politician Timothy Warren ANGLIN, who had been an Irish revolutionary, and was now a prominent opponent of confederation:

“For many reasons, the position of the government became progressively weaker. Most significantly, the confederates went on making effective use of the loyalty issue, mightily aided by a comic-opera Fenian raid on New Brunswick in April 1866. The lieutenant governor, Arthur Hamilton Gordon*, took advantage of this crisis and the enfeebled state of the government to force a change in the ministry. In the election which followed in May and June, the anti-confederates were soundly defeated, Anglin included. According to one New Brunswick newspaper, the results meant that ‘Fenianism and Annexation, or, in one word, Warren-Anglinism was “taken in and done for,” and the disloyal Fenian sympathizing brood fairly squelched.’ For his part, Anglin thought that ‘the conspirators’ had won.”


The Fenian threat also aided the cause of confederation in Nova Scotia, where the Roman Catholic archbishop Thomas Louis CONNOLLY was one of its leading supporters:

“[Connolly] reassured non-Catholics that the Irish Roman Catholics of British North America had nothing to gain from the Fenians, ‘that pitiable knot of knaves and fools.’ He also used the Fenian threat as an indirect appeal in support of confederation for defensive purposes. He recognized that the life of Irish Catholics in British North America left much to be desired because of Protestant and Orange sentiment, but felt that their position was still superior to that of Irish Catholics in the United States….

“His endeavours to heal the rift between confederate and repeal elements, and between Catholics and Protestants over the Fenian troubles, make him deserving of the eulogy of the Reverend George Grant*, a long-time friend: ‘He was a man of peace – ever seeking to build bridges rather than dig ditches between men of different creeds.’”


Pro-confederation politicians in Canada also benefited from the backlash against the Fenian raids, as the biography of John A. MACDONALD points out:

“[The Fenian raids] undoubtedly contributed to an ‘atmosphere of crisis’ which had an important effect on the rapid achievement of a federal union and on the form it took.”


For more information about the effects of the Fenian raids of 1866 on the debate about confederation, please consult the following biographies:

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