Historical Happenings for December 2018

CHRISTMAS IN IRELAND

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

The Christmas season in Ireland was a happy combination of modern and ancient customs that combine to bring a unique meaning to this special time of year.  While Christmas shopping, decorated trees, and Santa Claus are evident everywhere, traditional customs that signify the true meaning of this holy season still remain, especially in the small towns and villages where people still celebrate the holy feast as their ancestors had for generations.

On Christmas eve, the windows of the house were decorated with garlands of holly and ivy, with candles centered in each  – often in a hollowed-out turnip for support.  This holly encircled candle should be familiar since the Christmas Wreath we know today is an outgrowth of an Irish tradition that began back in 16th century, when Penal Laws outlawed the Catholic religion and clergy.  The Irish kept their faith though, and secretly met outlawed priests to celebrate Mass in the woods and mountains whenever they could.  Mass might be celebrated once a month, or even less, but one time they never missed was Christmas.  In spite of persecution, Christmas still brought hope.  An alien power may have controlled the land, but they couldn’t control the hearts of the Irish; they still had their customs, faith, and pride, and by God they would have their Mass.  Some of those customs, by the way, were older than the race that ruled them, originating back to pre-Christian days, like the ringing of doors and windows with holly and ivy.  That came from the ancient Celtic custom of ringing the openings of a dwelling with those magical leaves to ward off the evils of winter.  After all, holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, so they were deemed immune to the killing force of winter.  The custom carried into the Christian era as a decorative function and the Brits marveled at the hope that still burned in hearts they had tried so hard to discourage. During the Penal days when the Catholic religion was outlawed, the source of that hope was their faith and, in each community, courageous families would risk fine and imprisonment to attend a mid-night Mass celebrated by an outlawed priest. When an especially brave family agreed to host the celebration, the house to be used was kept secret until just before the Mass was to begin, at which time a lighted candle was placed in the window to signal the faithful.  Once the signal was given, candles were lit in windows of every house to confuse any who might try to interfere with the celebration.  To the Irish, the meaning of the candle was clear, but to the stranger, it was merely an extension of the pagan custom of holiday decoration.  The candle, eventually became part of the custom, remaining long after its need as a signal disappeared.  Today’s wreath serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors who placed a candle in a holly-encircled window to send out the message “The Lord is in this house tonight“.

In later years, as evening fell over the Irish hills on Christmas eve, the candles in each window cast a magical glow over the hillside like scattered jewels on Erin’s cloak of evening, the largest were the churches dotting the landscape and beckoning the faithful to Midnight Mass.  After Mass people returned home and retired for the night leaving their doors slightly ajar as a sign of hospitality insuring that no wandering couple seeking shelter would be turned away as was Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas eve.  A cup and saucer was placed on the table in each home with home-made soda bread for the wandering souls from Purgatory who were thought to come home for Christmas.  On Christmas morning, the candles would be snuffed out, preferably by someone named Mary.

On Christmas day came the Christmas meal – assorted vegetables and potatoes deliciously prepared to compliment the Christmas goose or turkey, followed by the Christmas pudding.  After dinner, the children would play games while the adults sat about the fire, reminiscing about Christmases past until it was time to cut the Christmas cake amid much excitement.  The reverent celebration of Christmas in Ireland did not conclude with the setting of the sun on Christmas day.  The season would extend for a full twelve days, and any feast that fell within that period was considered a part of the overall Christmas celebration. Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26, is one such feast.

In early times, the children of Ireland would begin December 26th  with a hunt for a small wren which they would kill and place in a little box. Today, a box decorated with feathers simulates the victim satisfying bird-lovers as well as saving the boys the trouble of the hunt.  Dressed in in old clothing and flour sacks with colored ribbons in as many combinations as imagination allows, they set off carrying the `victim’ and musical instruments centering around the Bodhran (a one sided drum) which is beaten with a wooden stick. They make their rounds from door to door, singing the traditional Wren Song and collecting pennies as a reward for their deed, and to `bury the wren’.  They are practicing a ritual that was old in western Europe before the Christian gospel was preached in the hills of Galilee. Originally of Celtic origin, with the coming of Christianity, its meaning was Christianized.  What had the little wren done to be hunted down through history?  The ancient Druidic version is that the wren was condemned to persecution by his fellow birds because, he used trickery to oust the eagle from the kingship of all birds; the story was used as a lesson to children about the virtues of honesty.  The Christian version related that the wren flew from a bush betraying the hiding place of St. Stephen who was captured and martyred as a result, which explains the custom falling on St. Stephen’s day, and why it is the duty of all good men to hunt and kill the little beast.  The tale associated with St. Stephen adds one more measure of religious significance to the season

January 6 is Little Christmas, when the visit of the Magi, or the three wise men, is celebrated by extended family (in-laws etc.) coming to visit. It is also the day for Christmas decorations to come down, not before, or risk bad luck for the rest of the year. Another custom has been formally attached to January 6. In recognition of all the baking, cooking and preparation for Christmas done by the woman of the house, in some small-towns, women would gather on that day in each other’s homes for a few stolen hours of relaxation while the men looked after the home. Today it is recognized as Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas and is becoming more wide-spread to include all women regardless of their effort at Christmas, but for their caring devotion all year long.

Christmas is celebrated in various ways in various countries but nowhere is it more beautiful or meaningful than on God’s emerald Isle where the true meaning of the season is not forgotten.  Nollaig shona dhuit, (Happy Christmas to you).

Historical Happenings for November 2018

The November Ending That Became A Beginning

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Theobold Wolfe Tone and French Fleet in Lough Swilley, County Donegal, Ireland

Inspired by the American Revolution, the United Irishmen, made up of Protestants and Catholics, rose in May, 1798 to free Ireland from England. On 21 June, France was at war with England and sent a force to aid the Irish. On 8 September, General Cornwallis met the Irish and their French allies at Ballinamuck, County Longford. Hopelessly outnumbered by a British army of 30,000, French General Humbert surrendered his 850 troops and 1000 Irish supporters. The French were repatriated back to France while the Irish were slaughtered to a man. Humbert was dismissed to a position in the French colony at New Orleans. Meanwhile, the southern part of the Rising had already been defeated at Vinegar Hill in Wexford on 21 June. Then, on 5 October, Lord Nelson defeated Bonaparte’s fleet in Egypt and Ulster Loyalists celebrated that France must now abandon all military ventures in Ireland. However, on October 12, Theobold Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen, arrived off Lough Swilly with a fleet of French reinforcements in yet another attempt to jump start the revolution. They ran directly into a waiting British fleet. After a 6-hour battle, the French fleet was destroyed and Tone was captured. On 16 October, James Napper Tandy, arrived with yet another fleet of 270 French reinforcements, and landed on Rutland in Donegal where he learned that Humbert had surrendered and Tone had been taken. He wisely returned to his ship and sailed back to the continent. The four and a half month conflict had ended – or had it?

As Tone was taken to Dublin in chains, he declared, “For the cause which I have embraced, I am prouder to wear these chains than if I were decorated with the Star and Garter of England.” At his court-martial on 10 November, he said, “I have sacrificed all in life; courted poverty; left a beloved wife unprotected and children whom I adore fatherless. After such sacrifice in the cause of justice and freedom – it is no great effort to add the sacrifice of my life.”  Wolfe Tone made that sacrifice on 19 November, 1798. He was buried in Bodenstown, in the grave which Ireland cherishes as a precious possession and which future revolutionary leader Padraic Pearse called ‘the holiest place in Ireland’.

The end of the rising was followed by a brutal pattern of vengeful death and destruction. The streets of Ireland were mobbed with widows and orphans of those who had fallen in battle as Catholic homes were burned to the ground. The violence continued into 1799 with disturbances in Galway, a rising in Clare, and shootings and church burnings in Wexford and Wicklow. Unemployed British yeomen took to robbery and no one prosecuted them as long as their victims were Catholics. A wave of emigration, reaching 50,000, headed for the slums of Glasgow and Liverpool where many fell victim to successive typhus epidemics and their children went to labor in the mills and mines of England. Political prisoners sent to the penal colonies in Australia and the Indies fared even worse as many died on the voyage. Others were pressed into service in the British Navy and Army and spent their lives on foreign battlefields. Those who remained in Ireland fared no better.

As winter came and Atlantic gales lashed the coast, Irish families who’d lost all they possessed huddled together in caves and bogholes as famine followed in the wake of revolution.  The remaining rank and file of the United Irish organization were pursued and eliminated. There was so much anger over British vengeance that Robert Emmet, brother of United Irishman, Thomas Addis Emmet, led another rising five years later, although it too failed miserably. Now with the military threat removed, the British showed their true colors. They demanded a union of Ireland with England, dissolving the Irish parliament completely, even though that parliament had limited ability.  Further, there would be no more talk of concession to Catholics. Author Seumas MacManus wrote: “people were coaxed, threatened, and bribed into signing petitions in favor of Union; under promise of pardon, felons in the jails signed; everyone holding a government job had not only to sign, but was compelled to make his relatives sign.”  British Historian Lecky noted that, “though defeated session after session, the Act of Union would always be reintroduced, and that support for it would hereafter be considered the main test by which all claims to government favor would be determined.”  Finally it passed and the grimmest joke of all, according to MacManus, was that the millions paid for bribes and favors was added to Ireland’s national debt – thus was Ireland made to pay for the razor with which her own throat was cut!

Ireland remained a depressed country for another generation until Daniel O’Connell raised the cry for Catholic emancipation once more, creating an audience for the voice of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders who revived the doctrines of Wolfe Tone who was finally recognized as the Father of Modern Irish Republicanism. As Tone’s spirit of nationalism began to beat in Irish hearts once more, a poem by Davis appeared in the April 1843 edition of the nationalist newspaper, The Nation.   It was called the ‘Memory of the Dead’, and it read:

“Who fears to speak of ‘98?  Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate, who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave, or half a slave who slights his country thus;
But true men, like you men, will fill your glass with us.

And the November 1798 death of Wolfe Tone did not end the message, but only caused it to silently smolder until it burst forth in a new beginning – a beginning that has yet to end! 

Historical Happenings for October 2018

Joseph Poole

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Joseph Poole

The 1800s was a time when Fenian activity was causing both outrage and fear among England’s political establishment.  Charles Stewart Parnell had become active in the Land League and in politics after the 1874 execution of three Fenians  known as the Manchester Martyrs, believing their execution to be a gross injustice.  In October 1881, 137 years ago, the Brits declared the Land League illegal and Parnell and other leaders were arrested prompting widespread violence.  Parnell was released on 2 May 1882 after agreeing to curtail the violence.  He also secured a promise from PM Gladstone to replace the hated Chief Secretary of Ireland and to adjust rents.  Gladstone appointed Lord Cavendish as new Chief Secretary.  However, Cavendish and Under-secretary Thomas Burke were attacked and killed by a splinter group of militants known as the Irish National Invincibles in Phoenix Park, Dublin, only 4 days after Parnell’s release causing major outrage against Parnell and the nationalist cause.  Parnell condemned the murders and brought the radicals in the movement under control, although with a good degree of difficulty.  Five members of the Invincibles were later hanged for the Phoenix Park murders.

Joseph Poole, armorer for a Dublin Fenian circle, was arrested in July 1882 and charged with killing John Kenny, a Fenian, who was suspected of informing on the Invincibles.  It was alleged that Poole was a member of a Fenian group known as the Vigilance Committee, tasked with eliminating informers, though he denied this.  Poole admitted drinking with Kenny on the night of his death but denied any part in his murder and was released for lack of evidence.  However, Poole’s roommate later alleged that Poole returned to his lodgings that night saying, ‘Kenny will tell no more’.  Poole was re-arrested in December 1882 and charged again with Kenny’s murder.  The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) sought the death penalty as they suspected that Poole also had a hand in shooting dead one of their constables earlier that year. The shooting had occurred as a result of a clash between two rival Fenian factions in a dispute over control of weapons caches in Dublin.  Shots were exchanged but the only casualty was a DMP man who was inadvertently shot when he tried to intervene.  A Fenian named Dowling was later charged with the shooting and served ten years in prison.

When Poole stood trial for the killing of John Kenny, the Crown produced his brother-in-law, William Lamie, a former Fenian, who testified to the factional divisions within the movement and Poole’s role in the ‘Vigilance Committee’.  However, evidence was circumstantial and the jury was unable to reach a verdict.  A second trial was quickly arranged and the jury was ‘packed’ with government supporters to ensure a conviction.  Despite no new evidence being presented, Poole was sentenced to death on 20 November 1883. To his father who wept at the verdict, Joseph said, ‘Keep up father, keep up, I am ready to die’.  He then told the court: ‘I believe it is on account of being an enemy, humble as I am, of the Government under which I have the misfortune to live, that I have been persecuted in the manner I have been. Still I am not afraid to die, or ashamed of what has brought me to the scaffold. It is not for murder, it is for being a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that has brought me to the scaffold, and I am prepared to die for it’. Then from the dock he called for ‘Three Cheers for the Irish Republic and to Hell with English tyranny!

Poole was hanged in the Richmond Bridewell on 18 December 1883 and Father Donnegan, the priest who attended him, reported that he showed, ‘the utmost fortitude’ on the scaffold.  A black flag was raised over the walls of the prison and the watching crowd gave ‘a wailing cry’, according to the press.  His body was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison.  Poole’s case became a notorious example of injustice in Ireland in the 1880s, as it was believed he was innocent and that the verdict had been achieved by ‘packing’ the jury.  The Irish Parliamentary Party even brought up Poole’s innocence in the House of Commons.  However, public opinion was really aroused when it was learned that Poole’s conviction was attempted by perjury.  Frank Grundy, a Fenian and friend of Poole, on completion of a two year prison sentence in August 1884, claimed that he had been twice approached by authorities and offered freedom if he falsely implicated Poole in the killing of John Kenny.  Grundy refused.  It was also learned that Lizzy Kearns, Grundy’s sweetheart, had also been approached by DMP Superintendent John Mallon and offered her boyfriend’s freedom if she swore falsely; she too refused.

Poole, the last man to be hanged in the Richmond Bridewell, became a potent symbol of misgovernment in 19th century Ireland.  During work on the prison in the 1890s, as part of its conversion into Wellington Barracks, Poole’s body was discovered in a casket marked ‘J.P.’.  His father recently dead, Poole’s mother and sisters petitioned Dublin Castle to reclaim the body and give it a proper burial.  John Mallon of the DMP denied their request and the body was reburied in another anonymous site within the Barracks.  The Poole family maintained their republican tradition and four of his brothers served in the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising.  In 1958, three of Poole’s younger brothers, by that time quite elderly, approached the Irish Army garrison at what was by then Griffith Barracks, with an exhumation order from the Department of Defence to exhume Poole’s remains for a belated decent burial.  However, despite a day of digging, nothing was found.  So, a plaque was erected to his memory in Griffith Barracks in 1968 by the National Graves Association.  Later put in storage, the plaque was re-intalled in 2007, following correspondence between the Poole family and Diarmuid Hegarty, President of Griffith College. Though we may never be able to lay a wreath on his lost resting place, we are not prevented from remembering him in our prayers as one of the patriots of his native land.

Historical Happenings for September 2018

Defensoris Fidei

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

The Irish have always been the primary defenders of the Catholic Church. To understand that, one must understand the devotion of the early Irish to their church.  It was a bond more than a dozen generations in the making.  The Crown had been trying to absorb Ireland since Henry II’s Norman invasion of 1171; they even enacted the Statutes of Kilkenny to ban Irish customs, but it wasn’t until Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1532 that the Catholic religion became one of the denounced customs and an indication of disloyalty to the crown.  When Elizabeth, who the Papacy denounced as illegitimate, took the Crown, she proscribed the Catholic religion altogether.  In 1649, Cromwell took control and brought  anti-Catholicism to a new level as he waged a total war against Catholics.  When William of Orange became William III, Penal Laws made it official in 1691 that Catholics were non-citizens with no rights, their Mass was forbidden and in 1697 outlawed their clergy.

When someone tries to take something you revere away from you, the harder you fight to retain it. This attack on their faith drove the Irish to near fanatical measures to protect it. They lifted their outlawed clergy to the level of heroes for their courage and bravery in defying persecution just to serve them. They defied the law to protect their clergy and to attend Mass in the woods and hills.  In one recorded instance they walked barefoot in an icy stream so that they would leave no footprints in the snow to betray their destination on the way to a forbidden service at a Mass rock in a glen – rocks held sacred to this day.  Each generation passed the obligation to promote, preserve and protect the faith on to the next and after 12 generations, from Henry VIIIs break with Rome in 1532 right up to the time of the Great Hunger in 1845, the faith became in intrinsic part of the Irish character.  No matter what other challenges they might face, the preservation of their faith became paramount

Many Irish immigrants came as exiles from persecution and poured into New York, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other ports along the eastern seaboard.  Yet they didn’t find the freedom from persecution that they sought.  Instead they found the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant legacy of colonial days still alive in the anti-Catholic Nativist or Know Nothing movement.  At first banned from the colonies, ‘papists’ were grudgingly allowed in but with restrictions, including exclusion from political power unless they swore a Test Oath denouncing their faith. Lies spread through books and pamphlets led to the Ursuline Convent near Boston being burned to the ground. Newspapers and Protestant clergymen, like Lyman Beecher, founder of the American Temperance Society, warned the influx of Irish would spread disease and crime and plot a coup to install the Pope as America’s ruler.  Writers and intellectuals had no hesitation bashing the Catholic Church; Mark Twain noted he was: educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic. Nativist prejudice grew from intolerance to violence. St. Mary’s Church in New York was burned to the ground in 1831; in 1832, 57 Irish railroad workers seeking medical attention near Malvern, Pennsylvania were not only refused, but were assaulted, killed and dumped into unmarked mass graves; in 1834 and 35, nativist gangs attacked the Irish neighborhood of Five Points in New York resulting in several major street brawls that lasted for days.  When their churches were burned they defiantly built new ones bigger and better and they defended them. In 1841 and 44, Archbishop Hughes in NY called on the AOH to protect old St. Patrick’s Church and the nativist mob turned back, but they weren’t as lucky in Philadelphia where in 1844, two Catholic churches were burned during a series of riots between May 6 and 8 and July 6 and 7.

This was America on the eve of Great Hunger. These new immigrants, who had just suffered tremendous indignity and oppression, were once again set upon for their faith. Though not officially proscribed by the government as it had been in Ireland, there were many Nativist politicians like PA Congressman Lewis Levin who not only blocked legislation to aid Ireland during the Great Hunger, but proposed legislation to prohibit immigrants from citizenship for 21 years.  In 1847 Congress even passed the Passenger Acts to restrict exiles from the Great Hunger from landing at American ports. Prominent historian and author, Kenneth Davis, acknowledged that at this time, There was a very, very deep hatred of Catholics. Yet they persevered.

My nephew, who settled in Montana, alerted me to an old church – apparently abandoned – in a sparsely populated area Gold West Country of the north Boulder Valley. The church stood beside is a graveyard with Irish names on most of the tombstones.  But it was the stone marker that caught his attention and he sent me a photo.  It read St. John the Evangelist Catholic church of the north Bolder valley built in 1880 – 1881 by the early settlers of this valley to practice a simple faith they learned as children in Ireland. This church is one of the oldest in Montana where the original structure remains.  I had to know more so I contacted Catholic Diocese of Helena, Montana and learned that St John’s was not deserted; Due to a decreased parish population, it is now listed as a Mission church and Mass is celebrated on Memorial, Day and once a month during the summer.  I called Mike O’Connor of the Montana AOH and asked if he would make the trip to St John’s on Memorial Day to get some more history of the church. Mike related that when he appeared at the service wearing his Hibernian jacket, he was treated like visiting royalty by the parishioners who were still largely Irish.

A long drawn-out pace of reform ensured that the question of religious discrimination dominated Irish life and was a constant source of division for years.  Even up to the 1920s, the growth of the Ku Klux Klan gave a new impetus to attacks on Catholics. Hugo Black, a KKK member and US senator, gave fiery anti-Catholic speeches before going on to become a so-called defender of our civil liberties on the Supreme Court.  There is even a record of an AOH attack on a KKK meeting in Chicago. Eventually, the growing power of Irish paved Al Smith’s election as governor of New York, but Nativist opposition helped sink his presidential bid in 1928. However, we did succeed with Kennedy who was also a member of the AOH. Today the press is at it again lambasting our clergy for the sins of a few. The Irish have stood as defenders of our faith many times before; it’s time to do it again!

Special Historical Happenings for August 15, 2018

A Day to Remember

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

August 15 is a special day for Catholics around the world because it is the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It is also special for our AOH cousins in Ireland who march that day to show pride in their heritage on ‘Lady’s Day’ as it’s called. However, on that day in 1995 an historic event also took place in Derry as the American AOH and LAOH joined with the AOH Board of Erin (BOE) to march in that parade.  Our National Presidents, Ed Wallace and Kathy Linton led the line of march behind the American and Irish flags alongside Hibernian leaders from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. It was an incredible show of unity, but only part of the reason for the American visit.

It all began at the Louisville, KY National Convention the year before when Ed Wallace was elected.  He authorized a joint project between the two Boards and BOE; BOE Treasurer Frank Kiernan was in attendance to carry the word home to Ireland.  The project was to be the first ever memorial in Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger of 1845 – 52.  Significantly, it was to be dedicated on August 20th the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the blight that killed countless millions and forced into exile millions more. A committee led by immediate Past President George Clough and Massachusetts AOH leader, Dave Burke liaised with BOE representatives and members of the Clare County Council as it was decided that the memorial should stand across from a deserted workhouse and mass grave on the Road between Ennistymon and Lahinch. The memorial was funded and erected by a combined effort of all three after a Mass in Ennistymon and a parade to the site. After moving speeches by Presidents Wallace and Linton, they unveiled the monument. Minister of State, Donal Carey, representing Dail Eireann, noted that this was the first national monument in all of Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger and it took the AOH to do it.  It was a proud moment for the AOH, and a visible indication of what can be done when the Irish at home unite with the Irish Diaspora.

The journey to that memorial was long and costly, but the AOH felt that it was worth the effort to erect a meaningful remembrance to those who suffered just as the Jews remember the victims of the Holocaust.  Every Irish person, at home or abroad, lost a relation in that tragedy, whether they knew of them or not, and the story of how their descendants remember their ordeal and commemorate their memory is a moving one, indeed. The monument was created by Alan Ryan Hall from Valencia Island, Co. Kerry, and depicts an account found in Book 4 of the Workhouse papers preserved in the Ennistymon Library. The account centers on a note pinned to the torn shirt of a barefoot orphan boy left at the workhouse door on the freezing morning of February 25, 1848. The note read:

Gentlemen, There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about being buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve” signed by Constable Robs.S.

One side of the memorial depicts a child standing before the workhouse door, while across from that is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched in frustration or anger above the sorrowful text of the pleading note. If you are fortunate enough to visit the memorial, breathe a prayer for the unnamed souls it commemorates and if you are a Hibernian, stand a bit taller!

Historical Happenings for August 2018

Sidney – Another Gifford Girl

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Support for Irish nationalism often ran in families. The Gifford sisters – Sidney, Nellie, Grace, Kate, Muriel, and Ada – were six of the 12 children of Frederick and Isabella Burton Gifford. As was customary in a mixed marriage, the boys were baptized Catholics and the girls were baptized Protestant. However, their mother, Isabella, a domineering woman, raised all of her children as Protestant. The boys retained that Protestantism while the girls, except for Kate, all converted to Catholicism. In a further conversion, while the parents and brothers remained loyal to Britain, the girls became Irish Republicans!

The best known of the girls were: Grace, who married 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett hours before his execution at Kilmainham Jail and remained an active Republican; Nellie, who was active during the Rising and was imprisoned in Mountjoy and Kilmainham jails afterward and Muriel, who married Proclamation signer, Thomas MacDonagh. Muriel, an active member of Maude Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann (daughters of Ireland) and supporter of women’s suffrage, accidentally drowned in 1917. Ada emigrated to the U.S. and was active in Republican groups there. Sidney, who wrote under the pen name John Brennan, was the youngest born August 3, 1889 and was as notable as any of them. All were members of Cumann na mBan – the Ladies Auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers.

Sidney wrote for the Sinn Fein, Irish Citizen, Irish Freedom and Cumann na mBan newspapers before emigrating to New York in June 1914 where she became involved in working for the Republican cause; the New York Sun even published some of her articles. At the outbreak of WWI, Britain ran a campaign to enlist American support in the war, so Sidney joined a campaign to downplay the Britain campaign and focus on Irish independence instead. During one meeting of Irish Americans, Sidney made an impromptu speech, explaining the situation in Ireland and particularly the need of arms for the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan. As a result, Dr. Gertrude Kelly, a dynamic feminist writer and activist and a prominent member of the Irish Women’s Council, asked Sidney to speak at a meeting she was organizing.

At that meeting, Sidney criticized the AOH. Afterward, the Chairman explained to the audience that Sidney was not referring to the American AOH, but the Board of Erin with whom she had bitter experience since they had broken up Republican rallies for Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Sidney saw the error of her remark and learned that the activist audience she was addressing consisted largely of members of the American AOH Ladies Auxiliary and that in America women had a greater influence in public life holding important positions in the professions and commerce. Impressed by the fact that the AOH had an active Ladies Auxiliary and the Clann na Gael did not, it was at this meeting that Sidney Gifford decided to form a branch of Cumann na mBan in America. She later wrote that, ‘the Ladies Auxiliary of the AOH proved to be some of our most valuable workers and the foundation of the first Branch of Cumann na mBan was followed by a second one, also in New York.’ Their chief activity was propaganda and fund-raising and Sidney became Secretary of the first American branch of Cumann na mBan.

In November 1915, James Connolly’s daughter, Nora, arrived in America with a letter from Countess Markievicz asking for Sidney’s aid in contacting the German Ambassador in Washington, which she did. Ever since England had declared war on Germany, Sidney received daily Irish and weekly Sinn Féin papers with news of arrests of prominent Republicans. She brought the papers to Patrick Ford of the Irish World newspaper. He was delighted to get them and published them with headlines and editorial comment. The result was that letters of support for Ireland flooded in from organizations and individuals all over the country. Ford asked Sidney to write on the leaders and organizations in Ireland and the articles that she wrote moved the paper’s aim to complete support for the Volunteer movement. Sidney married a Hungarian lawyer, Arpad Czira, a former POW who had fled to America. Their son, Finian, was born in 1917, but she and Arpad soon parted. When America entered WW1, anti-British propaganda ceased, but not support for the Republican militants right up to the Easter Rising.

After the Rising, the Irish tricolor had yet to be seen in America and at a big demonstration, likely in Carnegie Hall, to support Ireland, her sister Ada, who had spent the night sewing a tricolor, suddenly stood up in the balcony and swung it out over the audience. It received such an ovation that newspapers commented on it the following day. Bernard Shaw, asked to comment on the event, sent a cable which contained the words, ‘It was mad, glorious and republican.’ This also made headlines. The Gifford girls also introduced the tricolor to New York by flying it at the top of a Fifth Avenue bus and reported that it was quite encouraging to see NY Police recognize it and, at every intersection, stand to attention in salute.

In 1922, Sidney returned to Ireland with her son. As a member of Kathleen Clarke’s Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League she fought against the ill-treatment of Republican prisoners during the Civil War and continued to work as a journalist for the anti-Free State side in that conflict. In the 1950s her memoirs were published in The Irish Times and she worked as a broadcaster producing a series of historical programs. She died in Dublin on 15 September 1974 and is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery – one of the many Republican Women of Ireland who deserve to be remembered.

Historical Happenings for July 2018 – “America’s Irish”

AMERICA’S IRISH

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

Signing of the Declaration of Independence – 1776

Independence Day, July 4, is America’s biggest holiday. It’s her birthday; but it doesn’t mark the day she won her independence, it marks the day when it was declared. And the Irish were there! We’ve often heard of the Irish in America’s Patriot Army, but there were also those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier yet contributed in other ways. The military won the war, but who supported the march to the battlefield? It was the settlers, merchants and community leaders who were the real shapers of our destiny, for they dreamed the dream, organized its creation, and financed its success.

In the late 1700s, England’s American colonies suffered increased Crown exploitation driving them to protest; among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. And there were many Irish in the American colonies; they had been coming since the 1650s. The first major influx came to New England in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as servants. From then on, the shipment of men, women and children as indentured servants was 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 Catholics and Presbyterians who fled discrimination by the Church of England and lastly, by businessmen escaping the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown to benefit their British competitors. The destruction of the Irish wool trade ruined countless families all over Ireland, while destruction of the Irish linen trade reduced the population of Ulster by tens of thousands. They came to America with their looms and spinning wheels, before the start of the American Revolution, bringing an industry that would be important to the nation awaiting birth.

In the beginning, they came in such large numbers that one Massachusetts Court, fearing the “malignant spirit that has from time to time been manifest by the Irish against the English,” prohibited the Irish from its jurisdiction and fined anyone who should buy an Irishman and bring him in. But they came anyway. Some altered their names and settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down. They also settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord and where Capt. Maginnis commanded the militia; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish-American John Stark and Wicklow-born Matthew Lyon; in Maine, home of the O’Briens, who would capture the first British ship in the war that was yet to come; and in Pennsylvania, founded by Wm Penn who grew up in Co. Cork and where Thompson’s Rifle Battalion became the First Regiment of the new Continental Army as Wexford-born William Thompson was appointed its first Brigadier-General on 1 March 1776.

They became the majority in many communities in Pennsylvania where a 1729 table of immigrants shows: 267 English, 43 Scots, 243 Germans, and 5,655 Irish. In 1728, 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. The city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was Stephen Moylan of Co Cork ─ soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 1773, Irish immigration to the American colonies was more than 18,500 and most were anxious to be rid of British colonialism.

There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Patrick Henry, Thomas McKean and other 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 had a notably Irish accents. 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. Tyrone-born Oliver Pollack personally donated more than $300,000. (close to 4.5 million today), only France and Holland gave more.

On July 1, 1776 after a year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. Some wanted to settle grievances and resume amicable relations with the Crown; others opposed them, including four Irish-born members of the Constitutional Convention and six members of Irish descent. 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. On July 3, John Adams wrote to his wife that: July second was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever. However, approval of the final draft of the document did not occur until two days later. On 4 July, the Philadelphia State House was packed, despite a 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 debate, modifying copy and amendments, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete.

The formal copy would not be ready for signature until August, but the public first heard that document read on 8 July 1776 by Col. John Nixon, son of a Co. Wexford immigrant. Philadelphia printer Charles Dunlap of Co. Tyrone rolled out copies that were snatched up before the ink was dry. And that is the event marked by the 4th of July ─ not the winning, but the declaring of our independence on a document. There would be many more years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on 10 March 1783, but America had made her stand. That last battle, by the way, saw Wexford-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 Wicklow-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.

Yes the Irish were there, and the fact that that they made loyal Americans was evidenced by François Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux, a Major General in the French expeditionary force led by general Comte de Rochambeau. After the Revolution, Marquis de Chastellux wrote: An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, 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 merchant’s 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.

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 good old 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. Up to a few years ago, a sprig of shamrock was planted on his grave by the Washington DC AOH as they said in chorus, God Bless Him!

Historical Happenings for June 2018

From Dublin Drunk to Servant of God

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

In June the world celebrates Bloomsday, a day in the life of James Joyce’s fictional character, Leopold Bloom, as he walked the back streets of Dublin – an exercise in self indulgence which most do for the craic (merriment). Incredible as it may seem, in 1856, a man was born into those very same dirty Dublin streets who deserves more to be honored and revered than all the characters in Joyce’s book; more than even Joyce himself. His name was Matthew Talbot. One of 12 children he was reared in absolute poverty in north central Dublin at a time when there were no social services, and even water was fetched from public horse troughs. Semi-educated by the Christian Brothers who put him in a class for poor boys not likely to attend school for long; they were right for his schooling ended as soon as he found a job. A 12-year-old illiterate is lucky to find work at all, but young Matt took a job as a messenger for a wine and beer bottling company. He soon learned it was easy to help himself to a drink whenever he wanted, and by age 13, Matt Talbot was a confirmed alcoholic!

He earned a reputation as a hard worker, and for the next 15 years went from dock worker to brick layer and through it all he never stopped drinking. Alcohol claimed most of his wages, and he resorted to stealing and pawning to support his addiction. Then in 1884, Matt stayed away from work for an entire week, drinking heavily. Penniless and in debt to the local Pubs, he waited for his friends after work; surely they would buy him a drink as he had bought them many times before. But they didn’t want to know him. He found himself physically, mentally and spiritually bankrupt. He went home sober for the first time in years. He reflected on his life and concluded that it was out of control because of drink. He remembered his early religious teaching and a Pledge of Sobriety offered by the Temperance preacher, Father Theobold Matthew, a few years earlier; he decided to attempt it for three months to regain control of his life. It was a battle he was not ready for. The terrifying withdrawal symptoms of Alcoholism were not understood in those days, and Matt battled nausea, hallucination, and depression. Lost for a place to spend his non-working hours, he turned to the Church. It was the beginning of an intimacy that would last his entire life. He attended daily Mass and communion before work. When his parish changed its first Mass from 5 A.M. to 6:30, he quit his job and got a new one so that he could still start his day with a Mass. With great effort, he completed three months of sobriety. He immediately renewed the pledge for six more months, and then renewed it for life.

His willingness to work hard, assured him of work when there wasn’t much around. His spare time was spent in church or religious reading. The heavy drinking of his father and brothers showed him a side of drink he had never seen, and he left home to live alone in a one-room flat. When work and church were done for the day, Matt would retire to his room to read and pray. His sister Susan recalled that in his free time he was never off his knees. Though privately he was a very serious and penitent person, at work he was pleasant and outgoing. Co-workers remember him as a conscientious, strong, yet gentle man who smiled at everything except an off-color joke.

His work habits earned him above-average wages, which he gave away to his poor neighbors and to charities as far away as Father Drumgoole’s Catholic Orphanage in New York. He kept only 50 pence a week for his needs were few. As history was being recorded around him, Matt Talbot prayed for his fellow man. During the violent Tramworkers Strike of 1913, he shared his wages with the families of the men on strike, and during the Easter Rising of 1916, he made his way through the bombs, bullets and barricades to attend daily Mass.

In 1920, at age 67, he was hospitalized with a heart condition. Placed on light work through the intercession of friends, he continued sharing his wages until June 7, 1925. On his way to Mass, Matt Talbot suffered a massive heart attack and died on a Dublin street. While undressing his body, hospital attendants found a heavy chain around his waist, another around his arm, and yet another around his leg; he had worn them beneath his clothes as a reminder that he was a slave to Jesus. This remarkable discovery prompted an inquiry which disclosed a secret life of devotion and penance. His room had no more than the bare necessities of a monastic cell: an iron bed, a slab of wood for a mattress, covered with a half-blanket, a chair, table and crucifix. His meals consisted of dry bread and cold tea or cocoa taken three times a day, with some cold fish added for dinner; he spent his leisure time in prayer and study. Had he died at home, he may have remained unknown; instead, he became an inspiration to those who feel too weak to turn their backs on earthly pleasures. As his story spread, he became an icon for Ireland’s Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and soon became known to Irish communities and addiction clinics, youth hostels and more, from Nebraska to Warsaw to Sydney, have been named after him.

Today, there is a Matt Talbot Movement, under the direction of the Redemptorists, which consists of more than 144,000 people in Ireland, America, and Canada. And the source of that inspiration is Matt Talbot, a drunk who grew up in Leopold Bloom’s Dublin. A leader of Ireland’s Transport and General Workers Union, Stephen McGonagle, describes him as a beacon of light to Irish workers. A statue of Matt Talbot now stands at the south end of the Liffey by the bridge named after him. In 1931, a sworn inquiry was opened into claims of holiness; in 1947 the Apostolic Process at the Vatican began; in 1952 his remains were reinterred in a vault beneath the O’Connell monument at Glasnevin cemetery; and on October 3, 1975 Pope Paul VI declared him Venerable Matt Talbot, the first step on the road to sainthood – not bad for a one-time drunken Dublin dock walloper who finally found God.

Historical Happenings for May 2018

It Happened in May

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

On 16 May 1997, Brit Prime Minister, Tony Blair, visited Northern Ireland and gave the go ahead for exploratory contacts between government officials and Sinn Féin.  Working alongside US Special Envoy George Mitchell, Martin McGuinness was one of the main architects of an agreement that would bring peace to Northern Ireland.  A year later, in May 1998, on a visit to Dublin, members of our National Board, including Ed Wallace, George Clough, Dave Burke, Bob Collins and myself were invited to the State House for a discussion on that new agreement, which had just been reached the month earlier on Good Friday, 10 April.  They requested the AOH to organize Irish-American support for the agreement that would come to be known as The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) for it called for an honorable end to 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. The month of May was also significant for it was ratified in a referendum on 10 May 1998, as members of Sinn Féin voted to accept that peace agreement, effectively acknowledging the north-south border. The agreement set up a power-sharing assembly to govern Northern Ireland by cross-community consent.  It also called for a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The agreement was made between the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland; the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the GFA.

The agreement recognized that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and would remain so until a majority of the people both of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.  The agreement also confirmed a commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community”. The multi-party agreement specifically recognized “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity”, especially in relation to the Irish language, Ulster Scots, and the languages of other ethnic minorities, “all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland”.

On 19 May 1998, SDLP leader John Hume and his Unionist counterpart, David Trimble, joined U2 on stage at a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to drum up support for a massive Yes vote in an upcoming referendum on the agreement.  On 22 May, the Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed in two referendums: North (71%) and South (94%).  On 24 May, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams signaled that the war was over and that the gun could finally be removed from Irish politics.

A date of May 2000 was set for total disarming of all paramilitary groups. This was not achieved leading the assembly to be suspended on a number of occasions as a consequence of unionist objections. A series of rounds of decommissioning by the IRA took place in October 2001, April 2002, October 2003 and in July 2005 the IRA finally announced the formal end of its campaign. Loyalist decommissioning did not immediately follow.

The deal proved difficult to implement and was amended by the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006.  Key elements of that agreement included the full acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) by Sinn Féin, restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and a commitment by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to power-sharing with Irish republicans in the Northern Ireland Executive.

On 8 May 2007 the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness marked the end of almost four decades of conflict as they were formally appointed First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, British prime minister Tony Blair and other dignitaries, including former US president Bill Clinton and US Senator Ted Kennedy, witnessed the creation of a power-sharing government led by political polar opposites of the DUP and Sinn Féin. This was the first time that Northern Ireland was run by a government in which the main nationalist and unionist parties agreed to operate together.

In June 2009, the UVF announced it had completed decommissioning and the UDA said it had started to decommission its arsenal.  However after the death of Ian Paisley a number of scandals regarding DUP leaders led to Party resignations and on 17 December 2015, Arlene Foster became leader of the DUP and served as First Minister with Martin McGuinness.  Another round of DUP scandals led to McGuinness resigning as Deputy First Minister on 9 January 2017 in a protest over a DUP debacle in which businesses were given a financial incentive to burn resources needlessly and power-sharing collapsed.  It has been 20 years since AOH leaders sat with Dublin politicians and promised to support the GFA.  God knows, we are still trying.

Historical Happenings for April 2018

Paddy

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

By Nheyob - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39732088The name Patrick is one of the most popular names in Ireland, and that is quite understandable that parents would name their offspring after our patron saint.  In the Irish language, the name is spelled Padraic, which accounts for the nickname Paddy, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as Paddy Noonan and Paddy Moloney will tell you.  However, when an otherwise innocent word is used as a derogatory term to denigrate an entire race or nationality, it becomes a racial slur.

There is nothing wrong with `negro‘, the French word for black; and not all of our black brethren came from Nigeria, but the collective term, derived from either or both of those words, which was used to denote an entire race is an example of prejudice at its worst and insults our God-given intelligence.  Even sadder is when some members of the insulted nationality use that term themselves in ignorance of its meaning, or to impress those who employ them or for their own economic benefit.

Thankfully, anti-defamation groups within many nationalities have eliminated most of those terms from our national vocabulary by voicing objections to their use, whenever and wherever they appear, even when it’s not intended as an insult.  It was simply a process of education.

There was a time when all Irish were collectively referred to as Paddies, and it wasn’t always a nickname for Patrick used by a friend.  Just ask any Irishman who emigrated to England.  Mick is another term that was used.  It originated because so many Irish carried Mc (a Gaelic term meaning `son of ) as a preface to their names.  Even though the words, Paddy and Mick, are not unusual, the use of those terms in a derogatory manner made them a racial slur that carried the connotation that those whom it described were inferior.  It was associated with a stereo-typical character, unskilled, unlettered, and alcoholic.  As in most cases it was not the word that offended, but the stereotype that it represented.

Here in America, we are many years and many miles from the source of those terms, but that stereotypical `stage Irishman’ crossed the seas and almost became a part of our American culture.  In the early 1800s Irishmen were regularly portrayed with monkey-like features in Harper’s Magazine.  Fortunately, that has changed, and I dare say that no one intends an insult when they refer to March 17 as Paddy’s Day, nor do they know that it originally meant a day celebrated by the Paddies.  Otherwise who would advertise a Paddy’s Day Dance and expect a good attendance by the Irish.  Like other races that have fought the use of such terms, the Irish defeated the derogatory meaning by proving their worth in the lands where they settled, as well as in Ireland after Independence.  As for the unskilled, unlettered, alcoholic stage Irish image: museums around the world, hosting exhibitions of creative Celtic and Irish art, have helped to defeat the notion of unskilled; the fact that one Irish city has produced more Nobel Prizewinners in literature than most other countries, has defeated the impression of illiteracy; and recent EEC surveys show Ireland to have not only the highest percentage non-drinking population in Europe, but the second lowest nation for alcohol consumption with only 2.2 gallons per year.  Maybe we can document that we never deserved to be known as Paddies, but the stereotypical Stage Irishman unfortunately can still be found from time to time, often on St. Patrick’s Day cards.

While we have altered the meaning of Paddy as it is applied to Irishmen, there are still two issues we should oppose — and oppose vehemently.  One is the use of that stereotypical stage Irish image on signs, posters, and greeting cards; the other is the application of the term Paddy to our Patron Saint.  Even if no malicious meaning is intended, our patron saint should not be referred to by a nickname.  Our Italian brethren never call St. Anthony, St. Tony, nor do our Scottish cousins refer to St. Andy or St. Maggie.

To avoid sounding paranoid, I hasten to add that this practice is done more through ignorance than malice, so it calls for education.  If we hold St. Patrick in the reverent honor to which he is entitled, then let us protect his name, and let those who designate him as St. Paddy hear from us by mail or phone or in person.  Educate them to our feelings, and they will avoid that mistake in the future.  If we are effective, we shall never again see the insulting image of a bumbling drunk to represent us and our families, and we shall never hear the term St. Paddy’s Day again. . . As for the term Paddies itself, it should be a source of pride that we were able to change its meaning simply by exhibiting our true character.  It’s like the term Narrowback: originally a derogatory term to signify American-born Irish who were not as strong and as broad-shouldered as their immigrant fathers.  Today, it signifies the proud combination of American by birth and Irish by the Grace of God.