When Maine Nearly Became Britain’s ‘New Ireland’

When Maine Nearly Became Britain’s ‘New Ireland’

By Daniel Malloy


Because if not for a few historic twists, Mainers might be Canadian.

By Daniel Malloy

The doctor goes on at length about the navigable rivers, good fishing, fertile soil, plentiful game and sturdy timber of eastern Maine, predicting a flood of settlers before long. “[T]he Royal Navy, the West India Islands, and other parts of His Majesty’s Dominions, [would be] well and plentifully served for centuries to come, from this District with every article above mentioned, without being obliged to other Powers for the same,” John Calef writes in a 1781 report for London’s movers and shakers.

Calef had fled to the north of what was then part of Massachusetts after revolution broke out, maintaining his loyalty to the crown. A surgeon and sometime chaplain, he had set himself up as a pillar of the outpost he hoped would become a crucial piece of the British empire: New Ireland.

A refuge for hundreds of loyalists who found themselves financially pinched and socially ostracized by America’s rebellion, New Ireland was named because of its location between New England and Nova Scotia (aka New Scotland). “A permanent settlement such as New Ireland would provide loyalist refugees with an independent means of subsistence,” writes James S. Leamon in Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine. “In the process, new settlers could readily produce masts, for which the British navy was desperate.” Britain’s decision to send backup for its loyalists came at a turning point in the Revolutionary War. France had entered the conflict on the side of the Americans, adding military heft to the ragtag colonists.

It was pretty clear to [the British] that this new republic was going to fail in a short amount of time …

Liam Riordan, history professor, University of Maine

In June 1779, the British landed a 700-strong force at the mouth of Penobscot Bay and built a fort. Badly outnumbered, they withstood a three-week siege by the Americans, the biggest British naval victory of the war. With the British navy blocking their exit, the Americans were forced to abandon their ships near Bangor and walk home. New Ireland attracted more loyalist exiles — or refugees, depending on your point of view — through the rest of the war.


In many ways, it would have made sense for the British to hang on to the area. Aside from its natural bounty, Maine would make geographic sense as part of what is now Canada. Land passage from Montreal to the coast now requires either an international border crossing or a massive northern detour. But the Brits had different priorities during the 1783 peace negotiations in Paris. They wanted to marginalize their longtime foe France in cutting a deal directly with their former colonists.

“It was pretty clear to [the British] that this new republic was going to fail in a short amount of time, but they were very worried about enhancing French power,” says Liam Riordan, history professor at the University of Maine. “From the British point of view, giving generous concessions to the Americans about where this boundary line was drawn in a region of very sparse settlements didn’t really matter.”

But it mattered plenty to the people of New Ireland, who were forced to move yet again across the St. Croix River into what became the new loyalist colony of New Brunswick. Some New Ireland residents took apart their homes and floated the pieces on ships up to the newly founded town of Saint Andrews, where they reconstructed their homes on British soil in modern-day New Brunswick.

Maine once again became disputed territory during the War of 1812, when the British seized Castine — the former New Ireland — and gobbled up much of Maine. This second attempt was treated more like a military occupation than a legitimate territorial claim, Riordan says, as the British collected customs duties during their Maine reign. But once again, a peace treaty ceded the territory back to the Americans, and the St. Croix River border was restored in 1815. Continental politics were still at play, with the Napoleonic Wars occupying British attention. Both sides agreed to honor the pre-1812 boundaries and move on. Those lines pretty much stuck through the next two centuries, and American lobster lovers continue to reap the benefits.