America’s Birthday

 

Independence Day, July 4th 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.  Great numbers of them filled the ranks of Washington’s patriot army from foot soldiers to high ranking officers, and those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier, contributed in other ways.  The military won the war, but the ones who led the march toward the battlefield were the merchants, and community leaders who really shaped our destiny, for they were the ones who dreamt the dream, organized its creation, and supported its success.  And there were many Irish among them as well.

In the late 1700s, when increased Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with.  That was significant for there were many Irish in the colonies at the time; 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 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 those Catholics and Presbyterians who fled the Penal Laws and persecution by the Church of England; some of whom were businessmen who sought to escape the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown in order to benefit their British competitors.  The suppression of the Irish wool and linen trades reduced the population of Ulster by half a million; and they came to America with their looms and spinning wheels.

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 some settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down, and Capt. Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake – first white settlers in what is now Greenwich Conn.  They 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 Hamphire where Capt Maginnis commanded the militia; and in other areas from Maine, home of the O’Briens who would capture the 1st British ship in the war that was yet to come, to Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn who had grown up in Co Cork.

They were a considerable presence in many communities.  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  Stephen Moylan of Co Cork – soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals.  In 1772 and 73, Irish immigration to the American colonies was more than 18,500 and they were no friends of British colonialism.

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 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, and raised money to feed and clothe the army.  Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000.00 – a considerable fortune at the time.

On July 1, 1776 after a 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 2nd to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question.  On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife that July 2nd was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever.  However, approval of the final draft of the document was not made until July 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 temper tantrums, modifying copy, shouting matches, further amendments and even more debate, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete.  Only Hancock and Thomson signed that day; the formal copy would not be ready for all signatures until July 19th.  Signing that Declaration carried enormous risk, for to the British it was an act of treason, punishable by death.  As Benjamin Franklin put it to the delegates, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  Among the courageous signers were 3 native-born Irish: James Smith, George Taylor and Matthew Thornton and many of Irish descent.  Philadelphia printer Charles Dunlop of Co Tyrone rolled out copies (now famed as the rare Dunlop Broadsides) that were snatched up before the ink was dry.  On July 8th the people first heard that document read – in an Irish accent – as Secretary Thomson read it to an anxiously awaiting public.

The event marked by the 4th of July is therefore, not the winning, but the declaring of America’s independence.  There would be many more years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on March 10, 1783, but America had made her stand.  That last battle, by the way, 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.

Yes, the Irish were there, and the fact that they made loyal Americans is evidenced in the writings 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.”

In Ireland, where funds were raised to support the American cause, the hopes of the Irish were with America 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 they were too close to England and it failed, and though young America was in no position to help the Irish, her hopes were with them.  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.  In 1828, he said, “Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the days 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.’

Today, it might seem that many of our elected representatives have forgotten the debt owed to the Irish, but we haven’t.  Remember that as you hang out the stars and stripes on the Fourth of July.  Many Irish fought and died so that you would have the right to do so, so do it with pride.  And it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you made a copy of this history and gave it to your children to bring in to their teachers.

Flight of the Earls

Four hundred years ago the last of Irish royalty left Ireland and the Gaelic system of government came to an end. It would be known in history as the Flight of the Earls and it happened on September 4, 1607. Most are familiar with the English incursions into Ireland over the years since the Norman invasion and the opposition of the Irish Chieftains. Some led rebellions, others sought cooperation, and a few tried both.

Up to the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), southern Ireland had been divided into properties ruled by ‘earls’ created by the Crown. They were mostly independent but Henry VIII introduced a new dimension to the status quo when he broke with the church in 1534 and declared himself the head of the Church of England. The Pope excommunicated him and many of Ire-land’s earls sided with the Catholic Church. The earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald, denounced his allegiance to Henry, arguing that excommunication had stripped him of legitimacy. Henry responded with force and in 1537 Fitzgerald and five of his uncles were executed in London. Henry made the Protestant faith a priority of his reign, a policy continued by his successors. Thus was the centuries-old struggle between the Irish and English transformed into one between Irish Catholic and English Protestant.

Henry’s plan for Ireland led to many conflicts. His successors, Mary (1553-58) and Elizabeth (1558-1603), fought many up-risings trying to impose British authority and the Church of England on the Irish earls. They fought Shane O’Neill (1560-67) and the Desmond Fitzgeralds (1569-73, and 1579-83), as well as daily violence against Crown loyalists. In 1587, Spain was preparing her Armada to invade England and Elizabeth realized she could not muster her full resources against the Spanish while the threat of rebellion existed in Ireland. Though Anglo Normans con-trolled the south, the major clans of the north remained un-conquered, and she was deter-mined to resolve that issue. The English decided to capture Enniskillen, Hugh Maguire’s fort at the Gap of the North the main access to Ulster. Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell, answered his call for aid, and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the Eng-lish before them; they broke through the Gap of the North, and recaptured Enniskillen, then routed the English at the Ford of the Biscuits. They next moved on Fort Monaghan, and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert, where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Clan O’Neill had taken the field, and at their head was Hugh O’Neill, England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone. He had announced at last, destroying an English company in the bargain. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains, the three Hughs of Ulster were now a national force with O’Neill commanding; he had 1,000 horse soldiers and 7,000 foot soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west. The Nine Year’s War had begun. O’Neill took the title, “The O’Neill,” essentially proclaiming himself high king – a position not held since Brian Boru’s death in 1014. His goal, he made clear, was to gain protection for the Catholic religion and to ensure that Ireland be ruled by the Irish.

The three Hughes scored victories against Crown forces, most notably at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598. But a huge British force under Lord Mountjoy eventually ended the Nine Years War at the Battle of Kinsale in late 1601 in which Hugh Maguire was killed. O’Neill kept up guerilla raids while O’Donnell went to Spain to negotiate aid hoping to outlive the aging Elizabeth who would be succeeded by the Catholic James Stuart. Offers of leniency were refused by O’Neill, but when he learned that O’Donnell had been poisoned in Spain, the greatest Irish Chieftain of his age came in, on March 30, 1603, to surrender to Lord Mountjoy. He pledged obedience before the Irish Parliament on April 3. Then, after the ceremony of submission he was told: Elizabeth of England had died on March 24! James Stuart of Scotland was now James I of England. O’Neill had won and never knew it. He and his nation had outlasted the Queen only to be tricked into submission by Lord Mountjoy before agreements with James could be ratified. O’Neill was allowed to keep his land, and his earldom, but lost his lordship over Ulster’s chieftains who were all made earls of the Crown, ending the Irish title of High King forever.

In the years that followed O’Neill’s rebellion, the restored earls of Ulster still possessed clan lands, but faced a growing number of English settlers and a hostile administration. Then, in 1607, London summoned O’Neill and O’Donnell’s successor to answer charges of planning another rebellion. Knowing that English planters were ready to seize their lands, O’Neill and O’Donnell surmised that their destruction was at hand. Their only course was escape. The hearts of the Irish were broken as the noblest princes of Erin Ruari O’Donnell and his brothers; Conor Maguire, brother of the slain Hugh; Hugh O’Neill and his three sons and 100 other earls sailed from Lough Swilly in what became known as The Flight of the Earls. The last Irish defense against English tyranny went with them.

They eventually landed in the Spanish Netherlands and from there proceeded to Rome. Their hopes of returning to liberate Ireland with a Catholic army soon dissipated and they lived out their years on meager papal pensions. O’Neill died there in 1616. The English government seized the opportunity and the fleeing earls were tried in absentia and convicted of treason, the penalty for which was forfeiture of their land. With 500,000 acres of land now in its possession, the Crown began a settlement program known as the Ulster Plantation. Its ultimate goal was to create a loyal population in Ulster through the settlement of thousands of non-Irish Protestants. Although it took a few decades to take hold, the Plantation of Ulster had a dramatic impact on the course of Irish history. Not only did it wipe out much of the province’s native Irish leadership by eliminating the holdings of the 101 Irish Earls who fled, but it threw open the province to settlement by tens of thousands of English and Scottish Protestants. By the 1630s, in six Ulster counties, Protestants owned 3 million out of the 3.5 million acres of land.