A Conversation with Christopher Klein, author of When the Irish Invaded Canada

Inspiring, lively, and often undeniably comic, 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.


Chris Klein
Photo © Erin Klein

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. Inspiring, lively, and often undeniably comic, 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.

The publishers at Doubleday sat down with the author to discuss the inspiration for his new book, the importance of understanding history, and the Fenian Raids.

Did an Irish-American army really attack Canada?

Yep, it’s no blarney. When the Irish Invaded Canada is a true story. In fact, an Irish-American army attacked Canada not just once, but five times between 1866 and 1871 in what are collectively known as the Fenian Raids.

When did you first learn about the Fenian Raids?

When researching my last book, a biography of heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan, I came across a mention that one of his ring opponents was a veteran of the attack on Canada. I did a double-take because I, like most Americans, had never heard of the Fenian Raids.

What made you want to write a book about them?

The more I delved into the story, the more I found that there was an incredible adventure story to be told about these revolutionaries who fled Ireland’s Great Hunger, fought on both sides of the Civil War, and then united to attack Canada multiple times. When the Irish Invaded Canada is the first popular history of the Fenian Raids told from the perspective of the Irish-Americans who carried out the invasions, and it allowed me to tell the story of those Great Hunger refugees who struggled to assimilate into American culture.


What drove these Irish immigrants to attack Canada?

It’s important to remember that at the close of the Civil War, Canada was a province of Great Britain, which also ruled over Ireland. In today’s parlance, you could say that the Irish who invaded Canada were “radicalized” by their experiences living under British rule. For seven centuries the British had attempted to extinguish Ireland’s culture, language, and religion, and when the potato crop failed in the 1840s and 1850s, the most militant of Irish thought the British were trying to exterminate them altogether. More than one million Irish died in the Great Hunger and another two million were forced to flee the island. Even after fighting in the Civil War, the members of the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army who attacked Canada saw themselves as Irish first, Americans second. The trauma of the Great Hunger remained raw for the Irish who invaded Canada, even from the distance of 20 years and 3,000 miles.

What did the Irish immigrants hope to achieve by attacking Canada?

It was the hope of some members of the Fenian Brotherhood, the revolutionary organization that carried out the raids, that they could divert British troops from Ireland to Canada, making it easier to launch an uprising in their homeland. Other Fenians hoped it would spark a war between the United States and Great Britain. In return for helping America conquer its northern neighbor, they hoped the United States would pressure the British to grant Ireland its independence. Some with grandiose ideas expected they could overrun Canada, hold it hostage, and ransom it from the British for Ireland’s independence.

Why didn’t the United States government try to stop the attacks on Canada?

The American government turned a blind eye to the doings of the Fenians because of the animosity toward Great Britain that existed in the Union at the end of the Civil War. The British government had given tacit support to the Confederacy and allowed Confederate warships to be built in its ports. After the war President Andrew Johnson wanted the British to pay millions of dollars in reparations, and he used the Fenians to leverage his position. In addition, there was great anger towards Canada in the Union because it gave safe haven to a Confederate secret service cell that plotted a raid on a Vermont town, the fire-bombing of New York City theaters, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Most people haven’t heard about the Fenian Raids. Why do you think they had been mostly forgotten?

In American history, the Fenian Raids get lost in the shadows of the monumental events of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the legacies of which we are still struggling with today. Plus, the Fenians did not succeed in their plan of holding Canada hostage and ransoming it for Ireland’s independence, and history is too often told from the perspective of the victors.

What’s the most challenging part about writing a history book?

Distilling reams of research into a flowing narrative is the most difficult task. In the case of When the Irish Invaded Canada, it was especially challenging because events unfolded simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, so it took extra work to keep the story on track.

People say that understanding history is key to understanding today’s world. How do you think an understanding of the Fenian Raids impacts us today?

The Fenian Raids were indicative of how the assimilation of Irish immigrants into American culture was much more violent and rocky than many Irish-Americans realize. There’s no small irony that the ancestors of some of the most prominent voices in the current immigration debate in the United States once spoke with an Irish accent because few groups proved to be as challenging to assimilate into the fabric of American life as the Irish. After enduring the scorn of nativist Know-Nothings, the Irish coiled inward for protection. That’s how their culture managed to survive seven centuries of British colonization. I think the story of the Fenian Raids can add context to today’s immigration debate by showing that cultural assimilation has never been a quick process for any group of newcomers to the United States.

Who is your favorite “character” in the book? Why?

John O’Neill is the thread that stitches together When the Irish Invaded Canada as he had a hand in all of the principal attacks. As a boy growing up in Ireland, O’Neill witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Great Hunger, and at his grandfather’s knee he heard the tales of famous members of the O’Neill clan who dared to stand up and fight the British. O’Neill carried both that inspiration and that trauma with him to America and became one of the most famous Irish-Americans of his age by scoring the first victory by an Irish army over British Empire forces since 1745 at the Battle of Ridgeway. O’Neill would never let go of the idea of invading Canada, no matter how great the odds facing him, even after giving President Ulysses S. Grant his promise to never attack Canada again in return for a pardon. By the end of the book when O’Neill starts tilting at windmills, I can’t decide if he is a character out of a Shakespearean tragedy or a comic opera.

Have you always been a history fan? When did you become fascinated with history?

Yes, I’ve been a history geek since when I was a kid. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say I was probably a little different from other eight-year-olds by being able to name all the American presidents. And instead of reading comic books or fiction, I would pore through the World Almanac and be amazed by all the historical facts listed inside.

What is the legacy of the Irish who invaded Canada?

The Irish Republican Army managed to bring self-government to one territory in the British Empire—just not the one they intended. In the wake of the 1866 Fenian Raids, Canadians questioned the ability of the British to defend their southern border from foreign invaders, and the attacks gave impetus to the formation of the confederation of Canada the following year. As far as liberating Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood first established the United States as a key player in Anglo-Irish relations, a role that would eventually prove vital to the 1916 Easter Rising and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. The Fenians also teach us that you don’t always have a Hollywood ending when facing overwhelming odds, but fighting a losing battle is often better than not putting up a fight at all because whether it’s the fight for civil rights or the fight against cancer, even if you don’t succeed in your lifetime, future generations might as long as you keep the cause alive.

Inspiring, lively, and often undeniably comic, When the Irish Invaded Canada is a story of fighting for what's right in the face of impossible odds.

“An important landmark in both Irish and American history."―James M. McPherson

Click to start reading an excerpt of When the Irish Invaded Canada.




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