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The Rising of the Moon - A Review of a Novel About Irish Americans and Canada

Updated on December 13, 2012

History is Best When it is Presented as a Story

History is a subject that can be either fascinating or boring.

Everyone likes a good story and it is interesting that the word story makes up the last five letters of the word history.

When presented as a story history can be fascinating. However, all too often both as taught in schools and in family histories (genealogies) compiled by people, history is nothing more than a boring mass of dates and the names of people and places.

Hub 13 for 30 Hubs in 30 Days Challenge

My assistant, Chika, and I trying to write and publish 30 Hubs in 30 Days
My assistant, Chika, and I trying to write and publish 30 Hubs in 30 Days | Source

While names, dates and places are important for the context and setting of an event, it is the story that makes history fun and interesting.

It is for this reason that historical novels are often one of the best ways to get hooked on history.

The basic story already exists in the form of an event or events tied to people, places and a specific time period.

Unfortunately, the historical story usually contains gaps so the novelist has to fill in these gaps with a few fictional characters.

While the novelist can take some liberties with the fictional characters, he or she is forced to carefully research the real characters as well research both the big event or events at the center of the story as well as the little details of everyday life in order make the events in the novel as realistic as possible.

I First Learn about The Fenian Invasion at the Family Dinner Table

The invasion of Canada by the Irish-American Fenian Brotherhood is one of those less than well known events of the latter half of the nineteenth century that was well known at the time but is now mostly a historical footnote.

Battle of Ridgeway Ontario - June 2, 1866

Fenian Army Engages British Forces at Ridgeway, Ontario on June 2, 1866 where the Fenian forces were victorious.  (Public Domain photo courtesy of )
Fenian Army Engages British Forces at Ridgeway, Ontario on June 2, 1866 where the Fenian forces were victorious. (Public Domain photo courtesy of )

I first heard of the Fenians while still a child at the Sunday dinner table.

Earlier that week my Father, in a discussion about our family's Irish roots, had mentioned that he thought that his mother's uncle, who had been born in Ireland and moved to Canada with his parents and then moved to the U.S. as an adult, had fought with the Union Army in the Civil War.

At Sunday dinner we asked my grandmother about this and she answered:

"Yes, he was in the Union Army and fought in a number of battles. Then, not having had enough of war he joined some group called the Fenians and tried to conquer Canada with them".

She then added "and he got into a lot of trouble over that one".

While she had other stories to tell about her Uncle, Patrick O'Connor, all she know about his participation in the invasion of Canada was what she told us at dinner that Sunday.

Of course, the invasion in which Patrick O'Connor had participated had occurred in June of 1866, thirteen years before my Grandmother was born.

Grave of Patrick O'Connor's Father, Charles O'Connor in Phillipsville, Ontario Canada
Grave of Patrick O'Connor's Father, Charles O'Connor in Phillipsville, Ontario Canada | Source

An Ambitious Plan to Conquer Canada and Trade it for Irish Independence

The large June 1, 1866 Fenian invasion of Canada failed, as did the smaller invasions from earlier in 1866 through 1871.  

The objective of these invasions was the conquering of Canada, which was a British colony at that time, with the intent of trading Canada back to Britain in exchange for Irish independence.  

While the Fenian Brotherhood failed in this, the 1866 invasion, in which my ancestor participated, did have some important secondary results.

A Step Toward Canadian Independence

First of all it gave the fledging movement for Canadian self-government a big boost.

Thirteen months to the day after the Fenian army crossed the Niagara River and landed on Canadian soil the British North America Act of 1867 took effect. As of July 1, 1867 Canada was allowed to elect its own Parliament and exercise control over its internal affairs.

Even though the British North America act of 1867 did not grant full independence to Canada, it did grant Canada a large degree of local autonomy and was a major step toward full independence.

Much of the impetus behind the passage of the British North America Act of 1867 was the fact that Britain did not have enough troops in Canada to defend it against the invaders which left the defense of Canada mainly in the hands of local Canadian militia units.

U.S. President Andrew Johnson

Library of Congress Photo of President Andrew Johnson taken by Matthew Brady.  (Public Domain Photo courtesy of,_c1870-1880-Edit1.jpg )
Library of Congress Photo of President Andrew Johnson taken by Matthew Brady. (Public Domain Photo courtesy of,_c1870-1880-Edit1.jpg ) | Source

President Andrew Johnson Uses Fenian Attack to Settle Alabama Affair with Great Britain

The Second major effect of the June 1, 1866 Fenian invasion of Canada was that it provided President Andrew Johnson the leverage by which he was able to force to British government to publicly acknowledge its military aid to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Known as the Alabama Affair after a British financed Confederate Naval vessel which destroyed over 60 Union merchant vessels before being destroyed itself by the Union Navy.

(See my Hub entitled Captain James I Waddell - The Man Who Fought the Civil War in Alaska for the story of another British financed Confederate warship that did millions of dollars worth of damage to Union whaling ships in the waters off the coast of Russian controlled Alaska).

President Johnson deliberately allowed the Fenians to build and supply an army on American soil and refused to halt this violation of International Law until the British government caved and agreed compensate the United States for the financial losses incurred as a result of actions by Confederate warships secretly financed and supplied by Great Britain.

The Rising of the Moon - A Novel of the Fenian Invasion of Canada

The Rising of the Moon - A Novel of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, a 1987 novel by British author Peter Berresford Ellis is a story about two brothers, Gavin and John-Joe Devlin who emigrated from Ireland to the United States with their parents as children.

Their Father is a medical doctor with a successful medical practice which has allowed the two brothers to enjoy the benefits of upper middle class life while growing up in New York City.

Gavin was an officer in the famous 69th Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, which was a part of the Army's famed Irish Brigade, during the Civil War where he distinguished himself as a combat leader. His younger brother, John-Joe, joined the Union Army as a lieutenant toward the end of the Civil War.

Following the war, Gavin Devlin is looking forward to a normal life with a career and family as he prepares to join the law firm headed by the father of his fiancee.

In contrast, his brother, John-Joe, still considers himself to be Irish and immediately upon discharge, headed to Ireland to join in an ill fated uprising against British rule.

However, Gavin Devlin's plans for his future life suddenly change when the impoverished widow of his former Sargent, who lost his legs due to wounds sustained while fighting under Gavin at the battle of Cold Harbor, comes to Gavin seeking legal help in suing New York's powerful and corrupt Senator Delancy and his son Brock following the Sergent's death after being run over by a wagon being driven recklessly by one of Delancy's employees.

Career and Romance Destroyed by a Powerful Senator

In Gavin's fight with Delancy we get a glimpse of life in New York City and Washington during the turbulent months following the end of the Civil War.

The Delancy's are very rich and powerful their business and political interests include his business in New York City, his seat in the U.S. Senate and a plantation in Delaware run by slaves.

It is important to note here that President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 only applied to those states at war with the Union at the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. In the border states which were slave holding states under Union control, such as Delaware, slavery remained legal until the passage and addition of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. It was the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude in the entire United States.

As a result of his battle with the powerful Delancy's, Gavin loses both his fiancee and his job with her father's firm and finds himself being drawn into the Fenian movement where he becomes active with many other friends and foes (numerous Irish fought in both the Union and Confederate Armies and many of these veterans, like my Grandmother's Uncle Patrick, joined the Fenian movement giving it a well trained and combat hardened army.

On June 1, 1866 Gavin and John-Joe cross the Niagara River and into Canada as a part of the 5,000 man strong Fenian invasion force.

As they row their boats across the river they are cheered on by sailors on the deck of the USS Michigan (which was later renamed USS Wolverine so the Michigan name could be given to a new Battleship) a naval vessel dispatched by President Johnson to monitor the situation in Buffalo, New York the jump off point for the invasion.

Also on hand is General Grant with a large contingent of regular Army troops and New York Army National Guard troops.

For the first time in over 1,000 years an Irish Army in green military uniforms and fighting under a green flag with a gold harp in the center takes to the field in battle.

Even though Ireland was not an independent nation, the leadership of Fenian Brotherhood had set up a government in exile in New York City, raised money for their army by issuing bonds and acted as the government of what they hoped would soon be an independent Ireland.

Naval Gunboat USS Michigan ( Photo courtesy of
Naval Gunboat USS Michigan ( Photo courtesy of | Source

President Johnson Changes Sides and Leaves Fenian Army Stranded in Canada

The Fenian Army under the leadership of General John O'Neill, an Irish born former Colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War, was initially successful and probably would have been victorious and succeeded in its goal of capturing at least a large part of Canada.

However, President Johnson's cynical tactic of using Irish American nationalists as leverage in his dipliomatic battle with Great Britain worked and the British government, knowing that Canada was not adequately defended and that it could not get reinforcements to Canada from Great Britain before the Fenians succeeded in their plan to capture Canada, quickly gave in to President Johnson's demands and agreed to pay what the United States was demanding.

Immediately after getting what he wanted from Britain, Johnson ordered General Grant to cut off the Fenian Army's access to supplies on the American side of the Niagara River and to prevent the Fenians from retreating back to the U.S.

Cut off from their supplies and access to their base in the U.S., General O'Neill and his army had no choice but to surrender.

Despite their uniforms, they were not a legitimate army of a soverign state and were thus nothing more than maurauders who had violated the soveriginity of the U.S. and Britain by illegally launching an invasion of a colony of another soverign nation.

This made them criminals subject to arrest and possible execution in both the U.S. and British controlled Canada. It was only the pleas and pressure from Irish and their supporters around the world that saved these men.

A great read for anyone who is interested in the Fenians, the United States in the immediate post Civil War period or just a good action novel.



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    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Eric B - Thanks for your comment and I am glad you enjoyed this Hub.

      I also have an ancestor who fought in the Fenian invasion of Canada only he was on the Fenian side and was a part of the main invasion force that crossed the Niagara River and posed a major threat to the small British regular force and Canadian militia until Britain and the U.S. came to an agreement on the Alabama affair (which involved the British government secretly funding the building of naval vessels for the Confederate side in the Civil War. Once Britain and the U.S. reached an agreement, President Johnson cut off the Fenian supply line on the U.S. side of the Niagara River leaving the Fenian troops in Canada without supplies. My ancestor, who was my grandmother's uncle, was among those captured and temporarily held in Canada before being sent back to the U.S.

      This ancestor had been born in Ireland and had come to Canada with his family when he was a young boy. The family brought a farm close to the St. Lawrence River near Lansdowne, Ontario. When he grew up he moved across the St. Lawrence River from Ontario to New Your State where he joined and fought in the Union Army during the Civil war. He joined the Fenian Army right after leaving the Union Army.

      I heard about the Fenians and their invasion of Canada from my grandmother when I was young. Her mother (who was born in Canada) and grandmother had moved to New York State following the death of my great-great-grandfather and her brother used to visit her regularly when my grandmother was a very young girl.

      Thanks again for your comment.

    • profile image

      Eric B 

      5 years ago

      In researching my family tree, I found the story of someone who moved from Ireland to L'Orignal south of Quebec. When the Finian invasion happened, he fought for Canada, and received a medal that someone on the west coast still has. In talking about this with a friend, she mentioned "The Rising of the Moon" which I found on Amazon. A fascinating read!

      And that's how I found you post, which is very interesting. And yes, when I tell people about this invasion, no one has ever heard of it!

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      mizjo - thanks for your comment.

      Actually many Canadians don't know about this either. While most of my ancestors came directly to the U.S. from Ireland one part of my Father's grandmothers' family spent time in Canada before the younger generation moved south to the U.S. and one of them, the Patrick O'Connor I mentioned in the Hub, fought in the Civil War and then invaded Canada with the Fenians.

      A few years ago a distant cousin on that side of the family located me and invited me to a reunion in Canada. While my direct ancestors had moved on to more distant parts of the U.S., much of the rest of the family had continued to live along the St. Lawrence River in both Canada and the U.S.

      I went to the reunion and when I mentioned about my grandmother's uncle having invaded Canada, none of them had ever heard of the incident.

      Actually, the invasion was one of the prime motivations for Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Quebec) joining together later in 1867 to form the Canadian Confederation so as to be in a better position to defend themselves.

    • mizjo profile image


      7 years ago from New York City, NY

      Great hub. Chuck. I used to live in Ireland with my Irish husband and heard a few stories of nephews, sons, uncles etc who had fought with both sides in the American Civil War.

      No one mentioned the Canadian story at all, so this is the first I've read of the Irish trying to capture Canada to trade for Ireland's freedom! This is a great story of the fighting Irish. My children would be so interested in this part of their Irish heritage. Who knows, they might unearth a relative who had participated in that movement.

    • MarkMAllen15 profile image


      7 years ago

      Informative hub.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Now Im an Irishman and never even heard about this in History class in Ireland..Thanks for the Update..great Hub

      Mike :0)

    • valbond profile image


      9 years ago from UK

      I didn't know that the Irish invaded Canada, but I do learn a lot of history from reading historical fiction and recently learnt a bit of Irish history when I read Allan Mallinson's 'A Close Run Thing' which highlighted the plight of the Irish tenants of absentee english landlords in Ireland.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Interesting as always, Chuck. Where do you find these topics? You found another great one. Thank you.

    • bobmnu profile image


      9 years ago from Cumberland

      Very interesting. As I was reading the hub I thought of today and the Muslim extremist. There are many similarities to what is happening today. The Fenian Army was a group of men with a common religion, similar to the muslims of today. Countries use them when it suits the national policy and will disown them when they are not needed.

      This is the beauty of history, it tends to repeat its self and if we don't learn from the past we are doomed to repeat.

    • gramarye profile image


      9 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      There is an historical fiction about Australia called "A Timeless Land" that has been made into a movie. Like you said, it has historical gaps, and fiction intertwined into the story, but it changed my life. I went to hospital (many years ago now) for 3 days that turned into 3 weeks and my friend brought it for me to read. I had been a reluctant reader, and this book got me reading, and drove a quest/thirst for knowledge that led to returning to study and then to university. The history in this book got me through 1st year Uni Australian History. That is how much historical fiction can change a life! Great Hub - thanks for the memories!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      9 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Well done my friend, I love stories with real historical facts, I am half Irish and proud of it. Thanks for sharing a fantastic hub

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Truly much that I didn't know. I agree with your theory of history. When I was in sschool history was the most boring subject in the world and that's saying a lot. It wasn't until my Junior year in college that I found a Professor who turned me on to an interest in the subject.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I didn't know that the Irish fought in Canada. They were truly fighters in the early days. Good research. My family were southerners!

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 

      9 years ago

      This is a great review.


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