Guy Fawkes Night, 1864
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Guy Fawkes Night, 1864

What happened when hundreds of Irish Canadians took to the streets on the fifth of November, “armed to the teeth with guns and pikes.”

Queen Street East, Yonge to Church streets, 186-. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Guy Fawkes Night was ordinarily a welcome celebration in the sectarian crucible that was 19th-century Toronto.

Traditionally, British and Irish Protestants would gather to celebrate the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt by a group of English Catholics to assassinate King James I of England (who was confusingly also King James VI of Scotland), with bonfires. Irish and French Catholics tolerated the celebrations as long as they didn’t include overtly offensive anti-Catholic messages.

But not all Guy Fawkes Nights would end peacefully. The events of November 5, 1864—during which hundreds of Irish Catholic nationalists gathered at Queen’s Park to protest the celebrations—demonstrate the deep and at times violent divisions that characterized life in Toronto 150 years ago.

Irish Catholic migrants who came to Toronto in the late 1840s to escape the Famine found themselves in a British and staunchly Protestant world. The municipal government was firmly in the hands of the Orange Order of Canada, an ultra-Protestant and fiercely anti-Catholic fraternity. Facing both official prejudice and a restrictive job market, Irish Catholics turned inwards, founding densely populated and impoverished neighbourhoods such as Corktown and Cabbagetown.

In his paper, the Irish Canadian, Patrick Boyle complained that Toronto “was in the hands of an Orange mob, aided in their work of blood and ruin by an Orange Mayor.” Boyle backed his claim by detailing transgressions committed by Orangemen in the past decade: an 1856 attempt to blow up the House of Providence, an 1858 St. Patrick’s Day riot that ended in the murder of an Irish Catholic, and an 1858 incident in which an Orange mob attacked the National Festival of Ireland.

The Hibernian Benevolent Society had been founded in 1859 to celebrate and protect Irish Catholics. Members of the Fenian Brotherhood, or Irish Republican Brotherhood, quickly infiltrated the Society and politicized its ranks. The Irish Canadian insisted that Irish Catholics “are a law-abiding, peaceable people, desirous that all classes of community shall enjoy the fullest political freedom” and warned the Orangemen that “the men whom you threaten are not school-boys, to be frightened by big words.” The Irish Catholics were not prepared to “lie tamely down and suffer the hell-child of Orange Ascendancy.”

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(Above: Detail from an Irish Canadian article quoting the Globe.)

In the days leading up to the Guy Fawkes celebrations of 1864, rumours began to circulate that the Orangemen were planning to burn effigies of Pope Pius IX, Irish politician Daniel O’Connell, and the recently deceased Duke of Newcastle.

Many observers feared street violence would break out. Invoking a riot that had killed 11 that spring in Belfast, the Irish Canadian claimed that on November 5, 1864, “the [Orange] lodges met and determined to follow the example of their brethren” in Ireland. The Hibernians publicly declared they would prevent any such demonstration, by force if necessary. It was only the intervention of Mayor Francis Henry Medcalf and several other Orange leaders that prevented the Order’s rank and file from carrying out their bonfire. Celebrations were held, but, save for a small flute band’s evening parade, took place entirely indoors.

The Orangemen’s restraint did little to cool the tempers of the Hibernians, who, in spite of the Catholic Church’s opposition, were determined to demonstrate that evening. Reports vary, but between 300 and 600 Irish Catholics gathered at Queen’s Park, “armed to the teeth with guns and pikes.” George Brown described the dramatic show of power in the Globe:

At about eleven o’clock…they seemed to have assembled according to a pre-arranged plan in three different localities, and after being marshalled into companies with military precision, they marched through several streets. One party, composed of a couple of hundred, was seen coming down the college avenue, armed with weapons of various kinds; another party, numbering about sixty, was seen about half past twelve o’clock passing down Queen street. They were marching four deep like a company of soldiers and…received the word of command from some leading man in the party.

At roughly two o’clock the next morning, the two companies respectively gathered at opposite ends of the city, fired a series of salvos in response to one another, and went home.

Although no one was hurt that night, the city’s shocked authorities immediately began searching for the men responsible. Panicked newspaper reports claimed that the Hibernians had the potential to cause “a scene of bloodshed such as Toronto has rarely seen.” The Globe wildly predicted that “a second ‘massacre of Bartholomew‘ may be expected” if steps were not taken to restrict further public demonstrations.

The Toronto police raided a tavern on Queen Street rumoured to be a Hibernian meeting place, where they found a stash of pike heads and wooden poles. When the courts ordered the police to return the seized weapons, the officers responsible for their safekeeping claimed that they had been lost. Boyle of the Irish Canadian continued to insist that the Irish Catholics had been goaded into the demonstration, writing that it was impossible to get a pro-Catholic verdict in Toronto with its “Orange Jury and Orange Crown Council.”

The upshot of Guy Fawkes Night was that Fenianism, a form of revolutionary Irish nationalism, became a legitimate public concern. Despite their insistence to the contrary, the Hibernian Benevolent Society included many Fenians wanting to liberate Ireland from British rule through violent means.

Anxieties about Irish nationalist violence turned to reality on June 2, 1866, when the Fenian Brotherhood launched the first in what would be a series of armed raids into the Canadas from the United States. The threat of Irish insurrection was a major driving force behind the passing of Confederation in 1867, as it was felt the provinces had to unite for protection.

And so the Protestants of Toronto had another reason to remember, remember the fifth of November.

Sources consulted: Michael Cottrell, “Green and Orange in Mid-Nineteenth Century Toronto: The Guy Fawkes’ Day Episode of 1864,” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (1993): 13-21; C. P. Stacey, “A Fenian Interlude: The Story of Michael Murphy,” in Canadian Historical Review (1934): 133-154; Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2011; articles from the Toronto Globe (7 November, 1864; 8 November, 1864; 19 November, 1864); and articles from the Irish Canadian (9 November, 1864; 23 November, 1864).

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