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Fenians OR Ballygiblins? Fighting Irish 101



Shiners from Renfrew County



I am the last one standing from the Knight and Crittenden family dynasty and come from a lineage that not even Heinz 57 would understand. My bloodlines are thick with British and Irish roots and a few other tree branches slipped in between. My mother’s side from the Call’s Mills and Island Brook area were all from Ireland, and as a child, tales were told on a weekly basis about our Irish ancestors.

My mother’s side in the Eastern Townships of Quebec were all from Ireland, and as a child tales were told on a weekly basis about what our Irish scallywags did when they came to Canada. Most came during the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849) and some ended up dying on Grosse-Île, where the Canadian immigration centre was situated. It is safe to say that 40% of all “Quebecers” and “Ontarians” have Irish ancestry on at least one side of their family tree– whether they choose to accept it or not

My favourite story was one about my great great aunt fighting off the Fenians during the fight at Eccles Hill on May 25, 1870. According to the Crittenden legend, she fought them off single-handedly using a spoon as a door lock. Knowing my mother’s side of the family, I assumed she probably invited them in to play cards and have a few pints.

Farmers in the vicinity of Eccles Hill near Frelighsburg, Quebec were constantly in dread of being robbed by the Fenians and complained that the Irish were invading the area like a hobby. Many of the locals took their valuable silverware to the woods and buried them in order to be safe. But, like the rest of my past dynasty, it seems that my family didn’t worry about their cutlery and used their silverware instead to lock their doors.

We all need to remember locking doors wasn’t a huge priority in those days. Even if they left home for a week or two, homes were unlocked as break ins didn’t happen that often. Knowing my family I am sure there were some big, scary looking dogs involved that would either deter robbers from trying, or ensure intruders would be caught and immediately maimed in the process. But these were the hopeless Fenians that were invading Eccles Hill, while presumably the Benny Hill Theme song was playing  in the background.

So how did this great great aunt of mine with nerves of steel do it? This family folklore has stuck with me since I was a child, and instead of wondering for the brief years I have left; I decided to finally find out the truth for once and for all. Upon doing research I found out how to open a door with a spoon, but nothing was coming up until I found a story of a woman who went to the last Olympics and her room had no locks on it so she used a spoon.

I looked at the photo once, I looked at it twice and shook my head– it was that simple. All those years wondering. That was it? Yes, that was all she wrote as they say. So many chapters in my life lost in this little family tale. Some families have Kodak moments, some families have wonderful memories,  but I swear my family has straight jacket moments.

Donald McBurneyEastern Townships Roots

I will tell you a story told to me by my father about 1870 the folks in East Clifton,high forest, low forest and surrounding areas heard the Fenians were coming from the U.S to Canada to attack and take over the country. They were under the mistaken impression that Canadians weary of the British yoke, would rise up and join them.the fenians later became the I.R.A.

Well,my great grandfather and many friends grabbed their guns, mounted their horses and rode to the border to disabuse them of the notion that Canada was theirs for the taking. It turned out alright. The U.S.did not want trouble with the British Empire and American cavalry stopped the Fenians at Colebrook. My great grandfather and friends returned home without a shot fired. Just a little history for those who care.

So today it is all about The Fighting Irish.

The Fighting Irish–The Ballygiblins- Lanark County Ontario

The ‘Ballygiblin Riots’ Carleton Place and Almonte, 1824

A series of disturbances between the early Scots arrival and established Protestant settlers jealous of government assistance to new Irish Catholic immigrants, mainly in Beckwith Township and the recent Irish settlers in Ramsay flared up in 1824. The Irish had gotten free farm equipment, medicine, cows and clothing. None of the earlier wave had received an extra thing.  The Irish originated from an estate of Cork, Ireland called Ballygiblin. After the first troubles erupted, a decisive struggle took place just outside of town on the clergy reserve in Ramsay, to the right hand side of the road, towards the lead mine.

Fighting broke out on Mill Street in Carleton Place, and the tumult continued for two weeks of reprisals by each side. The Ballygiblin’s leader was named Bartholomew Murphy, and he was what we would call a “scrapper”. First the knuckles came out, then the shillelaghs,  and assorted Lanark County stones were launched at each other. The Ballygiblins got the worst of the last fight and they quickly retreated to Shipman’s Mills (Almonte) where they some how found a gun.

Col.James Fitzgibbon and his militia got sick and tired of dealing with at least 100 fights and headed straight for the Shipman’s Mills Blacksmith shop to stop it for once and for all. Inside, someone fired a shot and the militia returned fire killing one man and wounding two others.

One of the wounded was indeed Batholomew, and he was arrested along with other Irishmen and two from the militia: James Rochey and Johnny McGuiness. In the end one immigrant was killed, several were injured, and a number of buildings were destroyed or damaged.  No one was ever charged for murder, just malicious shooting. Bartholomew Murphy was charged with throwing stones and ended up  accidentally drowning a year later in Kingston.

Photo from Bytown.net— By the way, this plaque was hijacked on the Central Bridge in Carleton Place and should be replaced

William Morris’s tavern has always been said to be next to the town hall. Today I found this.



Clipped from The Ottawa Journal,  03 May 1946, Fri,  Page 2


The Fighting Irish-Fenians- Eastern Townships-Quebec


A group of men gathered around a captured Fenian canon, 1870. (P020/003.06/002/312)

In Canada,  a Fenian was said to be a group of Irish radicals, a.k.a. the American branch of the Fenian Brotherhood in the 1860s. They made several attempts (1866, 1870, etc.) to invade some parts of Canada (Southern Ontario and Missisquoi County in Quebe) which were a British dominion at the time. The ultimate goal of the Fenian raids was to hold Canada hostage and therefore be in a position to blackmail the United Kingdom to give Ireland its independence. Because of the invasion attempts, support and/or collaboration for the Fenians in Canada became very rare even among the Irish.

Fenians at different points along the United States border caused great alarm to Canadians in 1866. Among the places attacked were Prescott and Cornwall  in Ontario, and Huntington, Pigeon Hill and Eccles Hill in Quebec.

Farmers in the vicinity of Eccles Hill near Frelighsburg, Quebec were constantly in dread of being robbed by the Fenians. Many of them took valuable silverware to the woods and buried them in order to be safe. That is everyone except a great great aunt of mine. According to the Crittenden legend, she fought off the Fenians single-handedly when the American Irish came across the US border at Eccles Hill trying to take over Canada.

The story told was: she fought off the Fenians with a fork and a spoon in her door lock and not one notation about her can I find in the history pages about the Fenian Raids. Knowing my mother’s side of the family, she probably invited them in to play cards and have a few pints. According to Einstein: Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.

In June of 1866 some 1800 Fenians crossed the border of Lower Canada and did considerable plundering at Pigeon Hill, Quebec. They ruthlessly killed animals belonging to the farmers in the vicinity  and destroyed some of their crops. The Canadian volunteer militia were soon on the scene of action.

The danger posed by the Fenian raids was an important element in motivating the British North America colonies to consider a more centralized defense for mutual protection which was ultimately realized through Canadian Confederation. Home guards were formed and farmers along the border met for drills. Soldiers were often called out on short notice, and one day not only did the required 10,ooo turn out to one fight, but an additional 3000 showed up also. However, supplies were not sent with them, and some soldiers needed boots and other things ten days after mobilization.

Even with little food and water, a change of underclothing and revolvers whose shooting powers were the subject of grave doubt they were able to repulse the Fenians plunderers at Pigeon Hill in Quebec.

One tragic incident occurred during 1866 when Margaret Vincent of Eccles Hill went to get a pail of water. Miss Vincent being deaf did not hear the British sentry on guard, and after not hearing the command to halt, the sentry fired and killed her.

In 1870 the Fenians attempted once again, assembling at St. Albans Vermont. The filibusters who made it to Eccles Hill came under fire by 30 local farmers and quickly retreated. The monument that still sits on Eccles Hill in the Eastern Townships can forever rest in peaceful confidence that there will be no further cause for trouble along the frontier.

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Thanks to my good friend historian Nic Maennling from Lanark he sent me this yesterday..We have a stereopticon slide marked
“W. Sawyer, Photo.,
113 St. Peter street, corner of Craig Montreal.
“Warm reception of the Fenians from Eccles’ Hill”
Kind regards,

Important Eastern Townships Fenian Raids

Mississiquoi County Raid

This Fenian raid occurred during 1870, and the Canadians, acting on information supplied by Thomas Billis Beach, were able to wait for and turn back the attack. The Battle of Eccles Hill was part of a raid into Canadian territory from the United States led by John O’Neill and Samuel Spiers of the Fenian Brotherhood. The army of the Fenian Brotherhood was defeated by local militia units based in Huntingdon on May 25, 1870.

Pigeon Hill Raid 

After the invasion of Canada West failed the Fenians decided to concentrate their efforts on Canada East. However, the American government had begun to impede Fenian activities, and arrested many Fenian leaders. The Fenians saw their plans begin to fade. General Samuel Spear of the Fenians managed to escape arrest. On June 7 Spear and his 1000 men marched into Canadian territory, achieving occupancy of Pigeon Hill, Frelighsburg, St. Armand and Stanbridge. At this point the Canadian government had done little to defend the border, but on June 8 Canadian forces arrived and the Fenians, who were low on arms, ammunition and supplies, promptly surrendered, ending the raid on Canada East.


Two Men Standing Over A Dead Fenian, 1870. (P020/003.06/002/294)

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Shelley Boomhower Slater– Battle of Eccles Hill if you google the directions. You take the Chemin de St. Armand Road from Frelighsburg until you see Chemin Eccles Hill on your left. It is on your right just before the road ends.. This was the old road to Vermont border so it is now a dead end. Hope this helps. If you go to the town of Pigeon Hill (St. Armand) you have gone too far. There should be a sign Approx. 10 minutes 7.8km from Frelighsburg. Great Cycle route.


Read more at Bytown.net

1.Letter from Rev. John Strachan,York

Like many of you I was shocked to hear of the recent Fenian attacks on Fort Erie. How can our government allow Irish immigrants to flow into this United Province of Canada while we continue to be terrorized by Fenian religious zealots? Every Sunday in Catholic churches across the land, radical preachers are whipping their flocks into a catachismic frenzy, urging them to cram their Nicene orthodoxy down our throats three different ways. On every ship coming into Montreal or Halifax, hidden among the malnourished, diseased Irish there are sure to be Fenian terrorists ready to slit your throat at the first opportunity. This needs to stop now.

We all know that the Irish are a bunch of uneducated, colonial savages with a primitive religion. How will our women and children be safe while hoards of drunken Irish flow into our cities and roam the streets? Meanwhile they breed like rabbits, all part of their plan of Papist domination. It is a scientific fact that if Irish immigration continues apace Canada will be a Catholic state by 1910. Enjoy having your wine with communion, because that’s all about to end. And if we let the Irish in, who’s next – Ukrainians? Chinese? Musalmen?

It is our sacred duty to preserve Canadian values now, before it’s too late. In 150 years your children’s children will look back and know that you did the right thing.

Be sure to share this leaflet with all your friends (or at least those of them who can read… and you can probably skip the women, not like they can vote anyways). Say yes to Canada staying Canadian. Say no to Irish immigrants!

Rev. John Strachan,York


60% of the immigration to Canada in the 1800s were Irish. The idea that John Strachen would be so anti-Irish and not Anti-American (which he actually was) in this letter is baffling.

2.–A suspected Fenian, Patrick J. Whelan, was hanged in Ottawa for the assassination of Irish Canadian politician, Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868, who had been a member of the Irish Confederation in the 1840s.

3.In Ontario’s Lanark County, the Carleton Place Rifle Company numbering more than 50 men was formed in 1862 to protect Canada during the Fenian raids. In Carleton Place a victory ball and supper “in a style not to be surpassed” was held for the volunteers in the stone building on the corner of Bridge and High Streets which was then William Kelly’s British Hotel.The monument that still sits on Eccles Hill can forever rest in peaceful confidence that there will be no further cause for trouble along the frontier.

4.  Former Cowansville High School Rob Forster added: Well Linda, the Fenian Raid at Pigeon Hill was met by a force of local militia who had bought military rifles and organized, that militia being composed of local farmers who were determined to be prepared after the first local raid. The Fenians were supposedly ‘ragtag’ but that was just to soften the blow to the Irish cause (and I suspect to diminish the role of firearms in Canadian history); the Irish were all battle hardened veterans of the Union Army who had fought in the US Civil War. Our local boys, among whom I am proud to include a family member, defeated them in quick order however, and as the photo shows captured their artillery field piece, the one now seen at the almost forgotten Pigeon Hill monument.


Related Reading:

When the Fenians Came to Visit

The Rare Fenian Medal of Private W. Rorison– Carleton Place Rifle Company
Fenians OR Ballygiblins? Fighting Irish 101

Fenian Raid Sale– Get Yer Boots Before You Have to go Fight Again

Debunking the Stories My Family Told Me

The Rare Fenian Medal of Private W. Rorison– Carleton Place Rifle Company

A Carleton Place Fenian Soldier’s Photo

Ballygiblin Riots in Carleton Place — Were We Bad to the Bone?

The Hidden Hideaway On Glen Isle

Samuel Hawkshaw- Carleton Place–Carleton Blazers of Bells Corners

So About that Ballygiblin Sign…. Fourteen Years Later!

Jamie Stewart
2h  · 

Shiners’ War
In the 1830’s the timber trade was a major source of employment in Ottawa, as the French and Irish would fight over access to work in lumber mills. Many a pitched battle was fought on Rideau St. that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs Of New York.