America’s Birthday and the Irish


Thomas Jefferson once said, Rebellion is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. The American revolution of 1775 to 1781 inspired rebellions from France in 1789 to Ireland in 1798 and again in 1803. While Irish support existed, in a major or minor role, in each of these actions, it was a significant factor in the American Revolution. The Irish, both Protestant and Catholic, were a major part of Washington’s army from foot soldiers to high-ranking officers and those unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier, contributed in other ways. The military won the war, but it was the settlers, merchants, and community leaders who led the march toward the battlefield. They were the real shapers of our destiny, for they were the ones who dreamt the dream, organized its creation, and supported its success. In the late 1700s, when Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. But how many Irish were there in the American colonies?

Well, they had been coming since the 1650s. The first noticeable influx into New England occurred in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as slaves. From that time, men, women and children were sent as slaves and indentured servants as common practice. Among the first to come of their own volition were those who fought the English theft of their lands and ended up hunted men. They were followed by those Catholics and Presbyterians who fled the Penal Laws and persecution by the Church of England. Some were businessmen who had to escape the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown in order to benefit their British competitors. The destruction of the Irish wool trade is estimated to have ruined 40,000 families all over Ireland, while destruction of the Irish linen trade reduced the population of Ulster by half-a-million. And they came to America with their looms and spinning wheels bringing an industry that would be of great importance to the nation awaiting birth.

In the beginning, they came in such large numbers that one Massachusetts Court prohibited the Irish from its jurisdiction and fined anyone who bought an Irishman and brought him in, fearing the malignant spirit that has from time to time been manifest by the Irish against the English. But they came anyway. Some altered their names, most settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down, and like Capt. Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake – first white settlers in Greenwich, CT. They also settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish-American John Stark and Limerick-born Matt Lyons; in New Hampshire where Capt. Maginnis commanded the militia; and other areas from Maine, home of the O’Briens who would capture the 1st British ship in the war yet to come, to Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn who had grown up in Co Cork. They came in considerable numbers. In 1728, for example, it was reported that most of the 4,500 who landed at New Castle, Delaware were Irish. Philadelphia likewise reported that 3,500 people from Ireland had arrived in the first two weeks of August, 1772. They had obviously been arriving for a while since the city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was none other than Stephen Moylan of Co Cork – soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 73, more than 18,500 had arrived in the American colonies, and they were no friends of the British.

There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Matthew Lyons, Patrick Henry, and other Irish and Irish-American orators used their eloquence to urge separation from England. When confrontations became frequent, it seemed that the Irish were always in the middle of it. Among those killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr; Boston Tea Party participants met at an inn owned by man named Duggan; and the tea was dumped at Griffin’s Wharf by a group dressed as Indians, some of whom may have had a notably Irish accent. While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, raised money to feed and clothe the army and advance the credit of the new government. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised more than $300,000. which would be more than $8 million today.

On July 1, 1776 after a full year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. A resolution was presented which read, Be it resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.   After much heated debate, the vote was indecisive. They met again on July 2 to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question. However, approval of the final draft of the document was made on the 4th. The Philadelphia State House was packed despite the sweltering heat as Secretary Charles Thomson of Co. Derry read the formal document that Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Livingston had composed, and that he – Thomson – had drafted. It was a declaration explaining why their action was justified. After a full day of modifying copy, shouting matches and further amendments, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete. Among the signers were 6 Irish-Americans and 3 native Irish including James Smith, Matthew Thornton and militia Colonel George Taylor. The formal copy would not be ready for signature until August, but many first heard that document read in an Irish accent, as Secretary Thomson read it to an anxiously awaiting public. Philadelphia printers like Charles Dunlap of Co Tyrone rolled out copies that were snatched up before the ink was dry. There would be many years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on March 10, 1783, but America had made her stand. The last battle saw Irish-born Commodore John Barry defeat the British ship Sybil. He had been carrying a cargo of gold with which Congress would establish the new Bank of North America with the help of Irish-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.

In 1787, when Articles of Confederation to guide the new nation of 13 states were discussed, a convention met in Philadelphia to approve or amend them. A minority of 19 delegates, not satisfied with some of the amendments and knowing they couldn’t carry the vote, absented themselves preventing a quorum. Wexford’s John Barry formed a group called the ‘Compellers’ and forced the reluctant delegates back to the convention to form a quorum and a vote of 46 to 23 was passed and the Constitution of the United States of America resulted.

Yes, the Irish were there when America was born, and the fact that they made loyal Americans is evidenced in writing of Marquis de Chastellux who wrote after the revolution, An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, the English and Scots were treated with distrust even with the best of attachment for the cause, but the native of Ireland stood in need of no other certificate than his accent. While the Irish emigrant was fighting for America on land and sea, Irish merchants’ purses were always open and their persons devoted to the country’s cause, and on more than one imminent occasion Congress itself, and the very existence of America, owed its preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.

Even in Ireland, where funds were raised to support the American cause, the hopes of the Irish were with the American cause to such an extent that America’s success inspired a liberation movement in Ireland, and in 1798, the Irish attempted to duplicate the American example. Unfortunately it failed, and though young America was in no position to help, her hopes were with the Irish. Even President Washington wrote that the Irish need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have worn for so long.

It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington. At a St. Patrick’s Day dinner in 1828, he said, Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the day of our gloom, and of our glory, shared in our misfortunes and joined in our successes; With undaunted courage (they) breasted the storm which once threatened to overwhelm us; and with aspirations deep and fervent for our cause, whether in the shock of liberty’s battles, or in the feeble expiring accents of famine and misery, cried from their hearts ‘God Save America’. Then honored be the service of the sons of Erin in the war of Independence. Let the shamrock be entwined with the laurels of the Revolution, and truth and justice, guiding the pen of history, inscribe on the tablets of American remembrance ‘Eternal Gratitude to Irishmen.’ GWP Custis also asked the favor that when St Patrick’s Day is annually celebrated, that some generous Irishman would place a shamrock on his grave and say, God Bless Him. To this day, the Washington DC AOH present a Friends of Ireland Award in his name and place a sprig of shamrock on his grave in Arlington National Cemetery each year and say, in chorus, God Bless Him! Remember his words as you hang out the stars and stripes on our Fourth of July and remember the Irish who helped to create this nation that it represents.