The wearing of the green: Fenian uniform from Canada, 1870

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, General, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), Volume 16

Green jacket worn by a Fenian soldier during the second (1870) invasion of Canada.

Green jacket worn by a Fenian soldier during the second (1870) invasion of Canada.

After the American Civil War, the Fenian movement decided to attack Britain by launching a raid north into Canada in 1866, and again in 1870. If they could not capture Canada, the Fenians hoped at least to provoke an international incident between Britain and the United States; if successful, Canada could be bartered for Irish independence. In June 1866 John O’Neill, a Fenian organiser born in County Monaghan, led nearly 900 well-armed volunteers over the Niagara River into Canada. Confronted by about the same number of Canadian militiamen, the Fenians defeated their inexperienced opponents at the Battle of Ridgeway.

With gold edging on the collar.

With gold edging on the collar.

Many of the Fenian soldiers appear to have been well equipped and properly uniformed, and had their own green regimental flags. On display in the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland (Collins Barracks) are a percussion musket made by the English company Westley Richards, with ‘1st New York Fenian Volunteers’ inscribed on the barrel. Also on display is a green jacket of a Fenian soldier, based on the US Army’s shell jacket, with gold edging on the collar and along the edges. Most striking, however, are the six brass buttons inscribed ‘IRA’—the first time that we see the use of the term ‘Irish Republican Army’—and surrounded by shamrocks.
This is believed to be the only surviving uniform of any of the Fenian invasions and is on loan to the Museum from Parks Canada, which are responsible for the Canadian national parks. The uniform would also have had a hat called a ‘green Kepi’ with it, again based on the US Army’s. We do not know who owned the uniform, but it was taken from a prisoner with the rifle during the second invasion of Canada in 1870 by Prince Arthur of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s third son, and presented to a regimental museum in England before being purchased by Parks Canada in the 1980s. The second

invasion took place in May 1870, when John O’Neill again attacked Canada, this time north of Vermont. His forces were quickly routed at Eccles Hill, however, and he was arrested by the American authorities, spending seven months in prison before receiving a presidential release. Ironically, the invasion created a greater sense of nationalism amongst Canadians and accelerated the establishment of Canada as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire.

Brass buttons inscribed ‘IRA’, the first use of the term ‘Irish Republican Army’. (Parks Canada)

Brass buttons inscribed ‘IRA’, the first use of the term ‘Irish Republican Army’. (Parks Canada)

Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland.

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