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WNY Unknown Story: The Fenian Invasion | News

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WNY Unknown Story: The Fenian Invasion
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BUFFALO, NY - In the roar of the river and the cries of the gulls you can almost hear the echoes of history and an event, that after 146 years, is finally memorialized by a simple black granite marker.

"This is an incredibly significant episode in the history of, not only the United States, but also Canada, Ireland and Great Britain," says New York State Senator Tim Kennedy.

And on this St. Patrick's Day weekend, local leaders are remembering an incredible act of heroic patriotism that happened at the foot of Hertel Avenue on the Niagara River.

In the years following the Civil War, thousands of Irish ex-pats who had come over to earn money in the U.S. military found themselves in a foreign land, now trying to do what they could to help their home country. They were known as the Fenian Brotherhood and, in 1866, they devised a plan to drive the English out of Ireland.

Kennedy says they were, "Civil War veterans, American veterans, but Irish nationalists who felt so strongly that the British needed to get out of their country 3,000 miles away that they crossed the river here and invaded Canada to hold it hostage until Britain left their country."

The plan was elaborate.

Erie County Historian Doug Kohler says, "They were going to invade across at Cleveland, and up the Champlain Valley, and this would be an attempt to cross and seize the Welland Canal and, you know, force England to its knees. They'd have to create an independent Ireland because the Fenians had struck all across southern Ontario. In the end, this is the only invasion that goes forward."

It goes forward with as many as 1,000 Fenians from as far away as the Midwest, and here in Western New York gathering in South Buffalo, then making their way to the Niagara River, now known as the foot of Hertel Avenue, or Towpath Park.

They loaded onto steamships and engaged the crown forces at Ridgeway. Every year there is a reenactment of the battle, because, for Canada, still a British colony at the time, it was considered the first engagement and casualties of Canadian troops. The Fenians fought to victory at Ridgeway, then again at another scuffle at the ruins of Fort Erie. But then as quickly as it began, it ended.

"This is how incredible this story is," says Kennedy. "The Irish nationalists, the Fenian Brotherhood, the Civil War veterans who were still true to their commander-in-chief in the days after Lincoln was assassinated, it was President Andrew Johnson, came in here and said, 'Hey boys get out of Canada!' "

The Fenians obeyed the presidential order and retreated back across the river. And while they never captured Canada, this event set the wheels of change in motion.

"It not only opened British eyes, it opened Canadian eyes," says Kennedy. "A year-and-a-month to the date of the invasion later, on July 1st, 1867, Canada became a commonwealth ... in large part due to the momentum created by the Fenian invasion of June 1st, 1866."

"I think, on the Canadian side, it really stirred the sense of, we really need to be our own country, we need to be responsible for our own defense, we can't rely on the British to come over and bail us out," says Kohler.

And today, a long-overdue memorial will remember what had become one of the Unknown Stories of Western New York.

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