Canadian War Museum exhibition shows how Irish invasion of Canada helped usher in Confederation

January 26, 2017


For immediate release

Ottawa, Ontario, January 26, 2017 — In the new exhibition The Fenians – Unintended Fathers of Confederation at the Canadian War Museum, 23 rare watercolours reflect a turbulent time, when Fenian raiders crossed the border into British North America in a bid to free Ireland from British rule. Instead, they contributed to the achievement of Confederation.

The Fenian Raids, as these and similar attacks were known, were an attempt by Irish-American veterans of the American Civil War to conquer Canada, which they would then trade for Ireland’s independence from Britain. The scheme failed, and dozens on both sides were killed or wounded in this series of small, armed incursions across the border.

“While the Fathers of Confederation were debating and negotiating the creation of the Dominion of Canada, Fenian nationalists were plotting to liberate their homeland from British rule by using the Canadian colonies as a bargaining chip,” says Stephen Quick, Director General of the Canadian War Museum. “Fortunately for Canada, the Fenians’ bold plan served only to unite a divided British North America in the lead-up to Confederation in 1867. While the Fenian threat is now a distant memory, its unintentional contribution to our nation’s birth is worth remembering as we celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary this year.”

The watercolours are by Alexander von Erichsen, a German-born artist who lived north of Toronto in Holland Landing at the time of the Fenian Raids, later moving to Virginia. The Fort Erie Historical Museum acquired the paintings after they were discovered in a Virginia attic in 1994.

The detailed illustrations and captions tell the story of the largest Fenian Raid on British North America, when 800 Irish Americans occupied Fort Erie on June 1, 1866, moving on to defeat about 900 Canadian militiamen in the rural community of Ridgeway later that day. The following day, they marched back to Fort Erie, where they defeated another Canadian force. But although the Fenians won these battles, they ultimately lost the war. Ireland remained a British possession, and British North Americans united to form the Dominion of Canada one year and one month after the Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie.

Some of von Erichsen’s watercolours suggest that he was unsympathetic to the Irish-American cause. Among his interpretations of events before, during and after the battles are paintings of Fenians carousing in a New York tavern, and portrayals of heroic Canadian soldiers shooting or bayonetting the enemy. In one scene, a Fenian officer seizes a rifle from a Canadian soldier and swears the weapon will never shoot another Fenian. He smashes the rifle butt on a stone, causing it to fire killing himself.

The Fenians – Unintended Fathers of Confederation, developed by the Canadian War Museum in partnership with the Fort Erie Historical Museum, is on view in the Display Corridor of the Canadian War Museum from January 27 to September 4.

The Canadian War Museum is Canada’s national museum of military history. Its mission is to promote public understanding of Canada’s military history in its personal, national, and international dimensions. Work of the Canadian War Museum is made possible in part through financial support of the Government of Canada.

–­ 30 –­

Media contacts:
Yasmine Mingay
Director, Public Affairs
Canadian War Museum
Telephone: 819-776-8608

Avra Gibbs Lamey
Senior Communications and Media Relations Officer, Canadian War Museum
Telephone: 819-776-8607