Three years ago, I was delighted to drive down to the Niagara Peninsula to be part of the very first Ridgeway Literary Festival. The other participants were Charles Foran , talking about his majestic biography of Mordecai Richler, and Andrew Westoll, telling us about his prize-winning book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.
It was great fun, although I missed the spectacular events of the Saturday, when the celebration of the Battle of Ridgeway went sensationally askew. According to my informant, the reliable David Wilson (biographer of D’Arcy McGee), the two proud Canadian regiments involved in the original battle (“headlong retreat” is not used in regimental histories) were unable to agree on who should march at the head of the line, following the historical route from the Ridgeway train station to the nearby battlefield.
In the end, the gallant lads from Hamilton flounced off, and the Queen’s Own Regiment led the way through cheering (well, ice-cream licking) crowds to where the new monument was to be unveiled. The local MP, Harper’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Nicholson, made a speech where he paid tribute to me as an impressive performer the previous evening at the Literary Festival named (long pause) “Doug (…..even longer pause) Wilson!”
The unveiling of the monument went no better, because the canvas cover had been tightly lashed down against high winds, and the ropes had to be slowly sawed through, whereupon the cover billowed and snapped like a sail until it was caught and hauled down, as I have described in a previous blog
Nevertheless, the Ridgeway organisers, led by the tireless Mary Friesen, had warm memories of me, and invited me back to Ridgeway this June. The occasion was not a Literary Festival, but a Literary Evening grafted onto a remarkable historical event entitled “THE FENIAN RAIDS HISTORICAL AUTHORS CONFERENCE” .
The people in attendance were historians from Canada, the United States, and Ireland, and for two days I sat and admired their professional skills as they explained the significance of this battle, which had taken place exactly 150 years earlier, to the day, June 2, 1866.
The background is this. Many Irish immigrants with bitter memories of British rule in Ireland fought for the North in the American Civil War. When the war ended, many of these hardened soldiers were persuaded by nationalist Fenian groups that an invasion of British Canada might pressure Britain to give up their rule of Ireland, to in effect swap Canada for Ireland. Inspired by this idea, these Fenians invaded Canada at several points, most famously across the river from Buffalo, to Ridgeway, beside Fort Erie.
The battle was a disaster for the Canadian volunteers, whose officers were so incompetent that they sent their men out in sweltering June weather in winter uniforms, and without canteens to give them water. I took a battlefield tour with Peter Vronsky, the author of the Penguin history of the battle, and the tales of military folly were predictably amazing. As the Canadians advanced, the Fenian general was luring them, Civil War-style, to a killing ground. But someone shouted out “Cavalry!” and the panicked Canadian commander had the chance to use his favourite parade-ground manoeuvre, which always brought warm applause from crinolined spectators,
“Form a square!” he bellowed. The troops loyally shuffled into position, ready to repulse the non-existent cavalry. The Fenians, with their inaccurate breech-loading muskets, could hardly believe their luck as their opponents clumped together to form an easy mass target.
Soon the Canadians were rushing back to Ridgeway. This hasty retreat meant that they avoided the planned killing ground, but nine Canadians died, while fourteen Irish Americans also lost their lives.
It was a fine historical conference, but many of the attendants were…er…deeply eccentric. One enthusiast, for example, had driven many hours from Vermont in a car bearing the licence plate FENIAN. Others were historical re-enactors. They are the sort of hobbyists all too keen to march around reconstructed battles in precisely correct uniforms, dying dramatically, arms outflung, until the announcer at such events intones through the microphone “THE DEAD MAY NOW ARISE.” I’m sorry that we had no such event at our Conference.
The musical entertainment in Ridgeway involved a famous Irish group, Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfetones. Their long-running tour of Irish America meant that their praise of all things Irish was without a trace of irony, and sentimental rebel songs full of weeping mothers were greeted with hoots of delight.
I like Celtic music.
Across Canada By Story tells how I came to sing a solo of “The Wild Rover” at the Royal Ontario Museum. But what, you may wonder, was I doing at this Ridgeway conference?
Well, the Literary Evening featured Guy Vanderhaeghe, whose last historical novel, A Good Man, featured a narrator scarred by his experience at the Battle of Ridgeway, who later encountered Fenians out west, when he was dealing with Sitting Bull’s arrival in Canada after The Little Big Horn.
My role was to interview Guy, or have an on-stage conversation with him. He’s such an old friend that we go back to Man Descending, his first book, which I published in 1982. Not only was our conversation a success, because Guy is such a thoughtful writer. Socially, it was a great time for us, from the moment when Jane and I picked him up at the Toronto airport on Thursday, until we dropped him off on Saturday.
I especially enjoyed our time together, roaming around downtown Ridgeway. We visited the fine bookstore on the main street run by Mary Friesen, where I was pleased to find that my photo (along with Charles Foran and Andrew Westoll) adorns her walls. Just a few minutes down the street, past The Flying Squirrel restaurant, I found the theatre where I gave my original show. It shares a building with a lively brewery that produces a beer named “Brimstone.” There may be a song there.
Certainly, the menu at our Fort Erie hotel deserves wider fame. For dinner, Guy noticed, it is possible to order a steak “grilled according to your likeness.”