A 150 year-old medal, recently presented to the Brockville Rifles, provides a link with Merrickville’s role in defending Canada during the Fenian invasions of 1866 and 1870. It was awarded to William John Kirkland, an immigrant from Ireland who had settled in the Merrickville-Wolford area in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
In the summer of 1866, as politicians continued to discuss the terms under which the Dominion of Canada would be created, the Fenians launched an invasion of what is now the Niagara peninsula in southwestern Ontario. The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish-American organisation dedicated to the liberation of Ireland from British rule, and one branch of the movement planned to invade and hold territory in British North America to force Britain into negotiations on the future of their homeland.
The invaders were battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War, and their arrival on Canadian soil caused widespread panic and confusion. Militia groups were called up across the colony, including in Merrickville, where the Merrickville Rifles were included in the 41st Brockville Battalion of Rifles. The Rifles were not involved in repelling the 1866 raiders, who actually won their engagements against Imperial forces before having to withdraw to the United States after the American Government closed the border and denied them reinforcements and resupply.
However, when the Fenians threatened to return in 1870, this time along the St. Lawrence River near Huntingdon, Quebec, the 41st Brockville Battalion of Rifles was called out on active service from 24 May 1870 to 1 June 1870 and served on the St. Lawrence River frontier. William Kirkland served on both occasions, and when the Canada General Service Medal for service in the Fenian Raids was introduced in 1899, William applied for it, as every recipient was required to. William Kirkland received the medal with clasps for both 1866 and 1870 enlistments, and his brother, Hugh Kirkland, was awarded the Fenian Raid Medal for 1866.
As the Brockville Rifles came into existence due to the Fenian threat, they were glad to accept this very tangible link not only to their past, but to the history of Merrickville-Wolford, and the Irish immigrants who helped to make it the place it is today.