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Fenians and the Secret Police

Story lecture to examine 1865 Irish revolutionary plan to invade Canada

Campus and Community

By Janet Harron

A professor of history and Celtic studies at the University of Toronto will deliver the George Story Lecture.

Dr. David A. Wilson will speak on the topic, State Security and Civil Liberty: The Fenians and the Secret Police, at Memorial on Thursday, Nov. 8.

Dr. David A. Wilson

In October 1865, the Fenians — Irish revolutionaries in the United States, dedicated to the independence of Ireland and the destruction of the British Empire — drew up plans to invade Canada.

“Trying to liberate Ireland by invading Canada seems crazy,” Dr. Wilson said during a telephone interview from his home in Toronto.

“But when you start looking at the assumptions and the information available to the Fenians at the time, you can begin to see a certain logic given what they knew and what they wanted to believe.”

Canadian presence

Dr. Wilson was working on a two-part biography of writer and politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee when he uncovered information in then-Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s papers that there was a widespread Fenian network in Canada during the mid-1860s.

“Within that network, a militant minority were prepared to take drastic measures, including taking Canadian cabinet ministers hostage, and preparing to destroy bridges, telegraph lines, burn down buildings, and infiltrate the army and militia. All of this of course constituted a significant threat to Canadian security,” he said.

The charge of the Fenians (green uniforms) under Colonel John O’Neill at the Battle of Ridgeway, near Niagara, Canada West, on June 2, 1866.
Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Would this then be considered a 19th-century version of what a contemporary audience might call “homegrown terrorism?”

Although Dr. Wilson says he would never argue that the Fenian brotherhood is analogous to Al Qaeda, he recognizes a similar pattern of an internal militant minority, connected with an international organization, intending to subvert the state.

“I felt it was really well worth exploring to see how the questions of state security and civil liberty were approached and to what extent they were resolved. How did Macdonald and his fellow politicians handle this crisis in the mid-1860s?”

Bringing history to life

The research Dr. Wilson will present during the lecture is part of a major book project he is currently working on.

A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Dr. Wilson is also the general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and the author of several award-winning books of non-fiction.

“David Wilson is everything you’d want in a public lecturer: passionate, engaging, provocative,” said Dr. Danine Farquharson who, along with Dr. Marica Cassis, is responsible for nominating Dr. Wilson as the George Story lecturer.

“While it sounds cliche, Dr. Wilson really does bring history to life. Anyone who comes to the Story lecture will leave better informed, highly entertained and primed for debate and discussion.”

The George Story Lecture takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8 in the Suncor Energy Hall, School of Music. A reception will follow. Free parking is available in lot 15B.

The late Dr. George Story (1927-94) was one of Newfoundland’s most distinguished scholars and teachers, whose scholarship ranged from Erasmus through Christmas mummering in Newfoundland to the lexicography that resulted in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. To commemorate and honour Dr. Story’s contribution to research and scholarship, Memorial University endowed the annual George H. Story Lecture in Humanities, which reflects the range and variety of Dr. Story’s intellectual interests.

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