Canada’s Fenian years featured some interesting personalities

A plotter, a spy with an overactive libido and a three-time attempted invader all called themselves Fenians

Pat MurphyHistorian David A. Wilson’s new book is Canadian Spy Story: Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police. It recounts a mid-19th-century episode where Irish revolutionaries – known as Fenians – tried to use Canada as a pawn in their struggle for Irish independence.

Last week’s column looked at the Fenian attempts to invade Canada and hold it hostage. This week takes a quick peek at three players – a plotter, a spy and an invader.

Plotter: Francis Bernard McNamee

McNamee didn’t conform to stereotypes about revolutionaries. He wasn’t a martyr, he didn’t spend his life on the run and he didn’t die young. When he finally passed away in his late 70s, he was well connected and wealthy. A pillar of the establishment, you might say.

McNamee was born in County Cavan, Ireland, and came to Montreal with his family in 1839. By the early 1860s, he was a prosperous contractor who outwardly professed loyalty to the Crown. But he was surreptitiously more than that.

In 1862, McNamee founded Montreal’s first Fenian circle. The Fenians being a secret society, the term “circle” is used advisedly.

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And with talk of invasion abounding in 1866, McNamee proposed using “a little deceit on our enemies.” Drawn mainly from the ranks of Irish Catholic immigrants, an ostensibly loyal militia regiment would be formed and the government would be convinced to provide firearms and drilling. Then when the American Fenian invasion transpired, the regiment would change sides and support the invaders.

McNamee was indeed a slippery customer, so much so that persistent rumours circulated to the effect that he was really a double agent. Wilson, however, found no extant evidence to support those suspicions.

Still, Wilson describes McNamee as difficult to read: “the closer you look, the harder he is to find.” John A. Macdonald said something similar, observing (of McNamee) “that he was far too shrewd to be caught in a conspiracy.”

Spy: Charles Clarke

Clarke was perhaps the story’s most colourful character. Described by his boss as the best detective in the Canadian secret police, his activities were the kind of stuff that movies are made of.

As a Gaelic speaker born in Ireland, he was uniquely qualified for infiltration assignments, passing himself off as a Fenian and going undercover. And the fact that he was a member of the Orange Order meant his loyalty to the Crown was never in doubt. Clarke wouldn’t be turned.

Unfortunately, he also possessed a particularly active libido, which had the habit of creating compromising situations. It was a proclivity that led to him being fired by the regular Toronto police before subsequent recruitment to the newly formed secret service.

Wilson’s entertaining prologue is about one of Clarke’s escapades. It tells the tale of his adventures under the pseudonym Cornelius O’Sullivan.

The action began in New York during January 1867. Posing as a cattle dealer from Missouri and wearing a Fenian badge, he introduced himself to William Roberts, the man behind the previous year’s invasion of the Niagara Peninsula. Roberts was determined to try again. Canada, he believed, “was a sitting duck and where serious damage could be inflicted on the British Empire.”

Over the following months, Clarke (as O’Sullivan) cultivated the relationship, even going so far as to gift Roberts with a pony for his son. In the process, he got to know “almost all the principal figures in the Fenian Brotherhood.”

But things eventually got dicey, thanks in part to his wandering libido. So with cover blown, Cornelius O’Sullivan bowed out.

Clarke, however, continued his service into 1868. Then, with all bridges burned by further indiscretions – verbal this time – he was fired by none other than Macdonald himself.

What happened to him next is unknown. In Wilson’s words, he “simply vanished from the historical record.”

Invader: John O’Neill

If there was a Fenian military hero, it was surely John O’Neill.

Known in Irish nationalist circles as the “hero of Ridgeway,” he led three invasion attempts – in 1866, 1870 and 1871. Only the first enjoyed any degree of success. And that was fleeting.

O’Neill was born in County Monaghan, Ireland, and arrived in New Jersey as a child. After serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War, he became enthusiastically involved with the Fenians. He was a true believer.

Leading an experienced force of 600 men across the Niagara River in June 1866, O’Neill defeated a company of Canadian Volunteers at the Battle of Ridgeway. Then, with numerically superior British/Canadian forces closing in, he withdrew safely to U.S. territory.

From the Fenian military perspective, that was as good as it got.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.


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