One hundred and fifty years ago, August 1870, General John O’Neill delivered a speech in Chicago, part of which read, ‘I was not the originator of the scheme of freeing Ireland by an invasion of Canada, though I have been one of its warmest supporters’. As Eugene Dunphy explains, this ‘scheme’ is now considered as one of the most important events in Irish, Canadian, and American history.
At the end of the American Civil War, thousands of Irish and Irish-Americans banded together to strike a blow for Irish freedom by joining the Fenian Brotherhood (‘the Fenians’).
Branches sprang up throughout the US and by the summer of 1866, almost every newspaper in the world was carrying headlines which included the word ‘Fenian’. Our story concentrates on Patrick Bannon, William Collins and Fr. John McMahon, all of whom played key roles in the Fenian invasion of Canada.
Patrick Bannon was born in 1824, in Killough, County Down. Emigrating to America in 1849, he settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and became a wealthy man by founding two factories which manufactured bricks and terracotta sewer pipes for the building industry.
It is not known how much he donated to the Fenian Brotherhood, but Bannon became one of the its main financial backers. William Collins was born in 1838, in Strabane, County Tyrone. Running away from home in 1852, he boarded an emigrant ship bound for Canada, and at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and enlisted in the Union Army.
After the war, Collins became inspired and fired by the patriotic zeal of ex-Union soldier and Fenian General, John O’Neill. When it became clear that O’Neill intended to attack British colonial forces in Canada, Collins was one of approximately one thousand Fenians who joined O’Neill’s army, a formidable force made up of regiments from New York, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.