The Draft Riots

As National Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, I am concerned that the 150th Anniversary of the 1863 Draft Riots in New York from July 13 to 15 will be commemorated using some of the bigoted information that appeared in the press at the time.  We all know that the anti-Irish Nativist mentality did not die with the demise of the Know Nothing movement in 1856 and many were quick to blame Irish Catholics as the rioters.  To make it seem even worse, the casualties were grossly exaggerated citing 1,155 killed when, in fact, later studies revealed 119 killed and 181 injured.

The bigotry of the time must be considered.  Many Americans, whose immigrant ancestors had climbed out of the poverty in which they  arrived, considered the poverty of the newly-arriving Irish immigrants to be a ‘function of their lazy character’.  To the contrary, the ambition and determination of the Irish insured the success of subsequent generations, but in the first generation, they suffered from outrageous prejudice.  America’s Irish population grew after 1845 as a result of the Great Hunger in Ireland and didn’t slow down until  after 1855.  This sudden influx of poverty-stricken, often diseased Irish Catholics alarmed the Protestant community, among whom were many so-called ‘nativist’ Americans.  They forced and held the new arrivals in social and economic limbo, denouncing them and their church in biased media, leaflets and forums.

Despite the unfair treatment, the Irish flocked to the defense of the Union when the Civil War broke out.  On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for volunteers amid rumors that a force of Confederates was moving up from South Carolina.  Lincoln’s problem was that new volunteers would take weeks to train and arm.  What he needed were well-trained units, already armed and led; and he needed them immediately.  One unit that fit the bill was the Irish 69th Regiment of the NY State Militia.  The regiment asked for 1,000 volunteers from the Irish community to support Lincoln’s call and before they realized their quota had been filled, 1800 had enlisted; the excess 800 were released to New York’s 37th Regiment which became known as the Irish Rifles.  They all rushed to defend Washington D.C. where they were visited by Abraham Lincoln, who thanked them for coming to his government’s rescue.  Just three weeks after the war broke out he sent them to the first battle of Bull Run!  Recognized for their courage, ferocity and resilience in that battle, the 69th was expanded into an entire Irish Brigade under the Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher.  Meagher added New York’s Irish 63rd and 88th regiments and in the fall of 1862, the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were added – all Irish and all volunteers!

The Brigade was fearless and in many battles was used as cannon fodder by unscrupulous and inexperienced commanding officers.  Casualties were horrendous.  In all, more than 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants and not yet U.S. citizens, voluntarily joined the Union Army.  Between 1861 and 1863, Irish casualties mounted and Meagher returned to New York several times to recruit replacements.  Out of a total enlistment of 7,000 men during the war, the Brigade returned to New York in 1865 with 1,000; one company was actually down to seven men.  In 1863, as Irish units were running out of manpower, so too was the Union.  That’s when Congress passed the first Conscription Act to draft men into service.

The draft was inherently unfair since it gave the wealthy a way to avoid service by buying their way out of serving by paying $300.  Unscrupulous politicians, trying to build their political base, told the working class, You will be drafted and sent to fight while freed blacks will take your jobs and the rich will buy their way out.   It should be noted that the Emancipation Proclamation has just been passed, at the time $300. was more than a year’s wages for a laborer.  Further, if a man was drafted there was no municipal social safety net for his family and a soldier’s pay was small and often delayed.  Impoverished workers felt that they would be leaving their families to starve.  It put the whole sacrifice of life, limb, health and home upon the poor and laboring classes who have the least at stake in the preservation of the Union, wrote Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune and a personal friend of the President on 5 March 1863. He added, there is no possible defense, justification or apology that can be made for this outrage.  Opposition to the law poured in from around the Union and the poor rebelled against the law in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit and other cities, but New York was the worst.

Many historians place Confederate secret service operatives behind the Draft Riots. In Civil War St.Louis, for example, D.H. Rule wrote, For now, bear in mind that a St. Louis Confederate courier enroute from Richmond to Canada made a stop in New York shortly before the Draft Riots began. This same agent’s stop in Philadelphia immediately preceded the most violent draft resistance in that city, too.  Coupled with this is the participation of Missouri agents (documented by a number of noted historians) in the attempted burning of New York.  The ethnic makeup of the St Louis mob was apparently different than the New York mob for several Germans were identified as participants.

By 1863, the ethnic makeup of New York’s Five Points, where the opposition originated, had changed and now included Germans, Jews, and Italians as well as native-born Americans; it was  home to the city’s impoverished though the Irish were still the most numerous among them.  Angered at the fact that the rich could buy their way out of the draft, the poor and laboring class of New York started a protest march headed for the offices of the Draft Board to destroy the ballots.  According to News in, Italian, German and Irish immigrants banded together to march in a protest that turned violentThe Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP.ORG) also recorded, German-speaking artisans, Native-born Protestant journeymen, and working-class Irish laborers attacked and burned the Provost Marshal’s office on 46th Street and 3rd Avenue.   It should be noted that many of the Irish also served in the Metropolitan Police force that was sent to stop the protest march.

When the confrontation became violent, the biased media of the day used it as another opportunity to defame the Irish, claiming that they were the disloyal rioters in spite of the fact that at the time, many  of the Five Points Irish were dying on the battlefield of Gettysburg as they had done at Fredericksberg, Antietam and other fields of conflict defending the Union.  The media also ignored the Irish makeup of the police and that Supervisor of Police John Kennedy was one of those killed by the mob or that the commander of the 11th Regiment State Guard who were called in to assist was Col. H.T. O’Brien.

Fueled by the fear that freed blacks would take their jobs, blacks became a target of the protesters and the media invented an Irish vs black prejudice in spite of the fact that they not only peacefully lived together in the Points, but in earlier times together they had invented tap dancing.  However, in August, 1863, even Harper’s Weekly uncharacteristically had to admit,  It must be remembered that in many of the wards of the City during the late riot, the Irish were the primary, and often only, friends of law and order. That it was the Irish that risked their lives at 43rd street and 5th avenue at the Colored Orphan Asylum to save the little children from certain death at the hands of the mob. That many of the police officers injured during riot were Irish.   And it must also be noted that Police Officer Paddy McCafferty put his body between the mob and 20 colored children and brought them to the safety of the 35th precinct at great peril to his own life.  Further, that to a man, the Catholic Priesthood which is almost entirely Irish in our city used their influence on the side of law and order.

One of the saddest incidents in modern history is the constant accusation in current published media that the Irish were responsible for the Draft Riots in July 1863.  They have used the biased media of the day as source data.  To those of us who know the true story, the authors of such tripe are only embarrassing themselves as Amadons (ignorant people) at best and Gombeen Men (those who seek the favor of the establishment) at worst.  Yet, if we would not be called Lackeys (those who mindlessly go along with the majority), it is up to us to educate the masses.  July 13, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the tragic event and you can be sure you will see anniversary articles by some ignorant authors.  Start now and send a letter, e-mail, or tweet to your local news media, radio or TV station, politician and/or school with the truth.  Remember, it’s your heritage, DEFEND IT!

America’s First Superstar

A TV documentary on the 1904 St. Louis World Fair mentioned how John Philip Sousa and his band dominated the entertainment, which included a young John McCormack singing at the Irish Pavilion.  It brought to mind a forgotten era when American superstars were not individuals with a current hit record, but band leaders – people with the ability to not only play, but compose, arrange, and lead a musical organization.  In the beginning, America’s first superstars were the leaders of America’s first marching Brass Bands, and though Sousa was certainly one of them, he was not the first.  That honor goes to a man whom Sousa himself called his mentor and whom he acknowledged as matchless.   He was a man who, in his day, was called America’s Greatest Bandleader, and The Musician of the People.  Sadly, today few remember his name, though most still know his works, and his life story would be a movie of epic proportions.

It began on Christmas Day, 1829, when a boy was born to the Gilmore family in Ballygar, Co. Galway named Patrick.  After a difficult childhood, having experienced the horror of Great Hunger in Ireland, he emigrated to America in 1848 at the age of 18.  His love of music led him to one of the many Brass Bands that were popular in America at the time, which he joined as a coronet player.  He settled in Massachusetts where anti-Irish bigotry was rampant and adopted the middle name of Sarsfield to rebuke the “No Nothings” of Horace Greeley in Boston by saying, You know little about Patrick Sarsfield and what he did to the British, but I do!

His talent overcame the prejudice and he eventually became the leader of the Charlestown Brass Band, then the Boston Brigade Band, and finally the Salem Brass.  In 1856, he started his own band, which he called Gilmore’s Boston Band, and began to change the image of American music.  At a time when the prevailing notion was the louder the brass the better the band, Gilmore became the first major bandleader in America to conduct brass band arrangements of classics by Mozart, Liszt, and Rossini.  When that made everyone sit up and take notice, he extended his repertoire to standard works, one of the most popular of which was his own composition, Seeing Nellie Home, inspired by his wife Ellen O’Neill, who was organist and choir director at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell, Mass.  Another of his compositions, written for a civil rights leader of the time, was called John Brown’s Body.  Most will recognize that as the song to which Julia Ward Howe later rewrote the lyrics to create the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Perhaps his most enduring work was a military march that he wrote to the air of an old Irish anti-war song.  Based on the tune, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, Gilmore created the classic: When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again written for his brother-in-law, Capt. Johnny O’Rourke from Limerick who was a prisoner of the Confederates.  Even the recent movie Lincoln features his song, We Are Coming, Father Abraham.

Despite his great fame as a composer and band leader, his crowning achievements were the organizing and directing of two of the largest music festivals ever held.  In 1869, he organized the National Peace Jubilee, and later, the World Peace Jubilee.  For sheer numbers of performers, nothing has ever surpassed that latter concert which consisted of 2,000 musicians, and a chorus of 20,000 voices.  He brought together leading bands from England, France, Germany, Belgium and Ireland.  The Irish band, by the way, was one he personally demanded after England insisted on sending only one band to represent the Empire, of which Ireland at the time was a part.  Gilmore told the Brits to send an Irish Band or stay home themselves.  Such was the power of Gilmore’s name; he not only attracted the world’s best musicians and singers, but he even convinced the renowned waltz king, Johann Strauss, to compose a special piece, The Jubilee Waltz, for the occasion, and to make his first trip across the Atlantic to conduct it himself.  One of the highlights of the event was the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Anvil Chorus, with one hundred Boston firemen hammering out the rhythm on blacksmiths’ anvils.

Shortly after this triumph, Gilmore left Boston for New York, where he became leader of the 22nd Regimental Band of the National Guard.  For the next 20 years he concentrated on developing what became universally recognized as simply the greatest band in the world.  In 1878, he became the first American bandmaster to make a concert tour of Europe.  It was a smashing success.  He returned to New York, and took over P.T. Barnum’s old Hippodrome building, and renamed it Gilmore’s Concert Garden.  It became the showplace of New York where he played nightly to a full house.  If you haven’t guessed yet, when he moved on, it became Madison Square Garden.  Everything this man did was colossal.   It was Gilmore who originated the tradition of ringing in New Years in Times Square, it was Gilmore who was musical director for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1886, and it was Gilmore who, in 1891 was invited by Thomas Edison to record on wax cylinders, thereby becoming the first band to make commercial recordings.

He never forgot Ireland or his fellow Irish either.  Acclaimed as an Irishman in American newspaper articles throughout his career, when Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt and their organizations needed to promote their policies it was to Gilmore that they turned for public endorsement.  Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his Concert Programs and even wrote a Ballad dedicated to Home Rule called Ireland to England.  He raised money for Famine Relief, Clan na nGael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, etc.  Gilmore spoke on the value of the Boycott to the Irish People and often declared publicly and proudly that he was an Irishman.

In 1892, Gilmore was named musical director of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but while on a national tour that year, he died of a heart attack on Sept 24 at 62 years of age.  He was mourned by the entire nation, and thousands lined the funeral route from his home on Central Park West to St. Xavier’s Church across town, and then to his final resting place in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.  The great Victor Herbert said that for the hard, but glorious struggle from the old bands of loud brasses and drums which made the most noise possible, to bands which interpret the works of the world’s great composers to satisfy the most exacting musician, most of the glory belonged to Gilmore.  It is sad that although many still know his works, so few remember his name; yet sadder still is that many who do see his name on his compositions, don’t even know that P.S.Gilmore was Irish.  Yet he was not only Irish, but one of the Irish who helped to shape America.  His musical legacy lives on to this day despite the demise of his memory.  Despite the fact that no Irishman ever left so many footprints of musical influence, there are only 4 memorials to America’s First Superstar worldwide: a street in St Louis, a Plaque in New Orleans, a Plaque in Ballygar and the P.S.Gilmore Marching Band in the Restoration Village at Bethpage, Long Island, NY.

Echoes of Irish History

The immigrant voyage of millions of Irish to America in the nineteenth century was staggering in its hardship.  Many know of the Coffin Ships during the Great Hunger and the incredible death toll associated with the 6 to 8 week journey on inadequate vessels designed for hauling cargo rather than passengers.  However, little known but just as significant were the tragedies attending those who fled the imposed cruelties in Ireland before the blight even occurred in 1845.  Before that tragedy, mass emigration from Ireland accounted for one- third of all traffic across the Atlantic.  Between 1825 and 1840, 220,000 Irish emigrated to the U.S. at a time when there were few maritime or immigration regulations in place.

Perhaps none who ventured across the Atlantic seeking a better life had as tragic an end as the 100 Irish men, women and children who set forth on October 16, 1836 on the ship Bristol and the 116 who followed 8 days later on the ship Mexico.  Little remembered today, both of these ships wrecked, with a loss of 216 lives, off Long Island’s south shore within weeks of each other.  The double-tragedy shocked all who read the spectacular headlines for months to come. The wrecks were among the deadliest maritime accidents in U.S. history up to that time.  Their fates brought about  sweeping changes in the government’s neglect of the maritime industry, with measures to insure safer travel, including tasking federal ships with sea rescues which evolved into the Coast Guard.  So many avoidable deaths so close to land and perishing so horribly, gripped the nation’s emotions.  Even  Walt Whitman  wrote about the event in his poem, The Sleepers, from Leaves of Grass.

I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the burst as she strikes,
I hear the howls of dismay, They grow fainter and fainter.

The Bristol departed Liverpool on Oct. 15 and reached the shores off Far Rockaway on Sunday, November 20 awaiting a pilot escort to guide them through the Narrows.  Local boatmen acted as pilots bringing arriving vessels into port safely.  Though licensed by the harbor, pilots were generally self-employed.  The ship waited for a pilot to arrive, but the New York pilots, who had little regulation and cared less for Irish immigrants, ignored the captain’s signaling, preferring not to work on Sunday!  Later that evening, a storm and strong currents drove the Bristol toward Rockaway Shoals.  The ship grounded and the captain told the passengers to go below and give the crew a better chance to work on deck.  In about an hour, a tremendous wave struck.  Life boats  and everything moveable were swept off the deck. The hatches were ripped off and the vessel filled with water.  Of the 82 steerage passengers below, none but a few close to the hatchways, were saved.  Not a sound was heard; death was instantaneous as 60 persons swam unprepared, into eternity.

The Mexico left Liverpool eight days later but had a more difficult crossing, encountering storms and pummeling seas.  She took twice as long as the Bristol, to reach New York.  Arriving on New Year’s Eve, Captain Charles Winslow signaled for a pilot, but callously, the pilots had adjourned to a Manhattan saloon to ring in the New Year.  Winslow tried to keep the ship away from the treacherous shoreline while he waited for a pilot to respond to his signals, but currents and a storm carried his ship to the Long Beach shore.  The ship was also overloaded with a cargo of iron bars and coal, which added to the difficulties in controlling her.  To the  owners, the passengers were simply another commodity, occupying a cargo deck leased to a passenger broker.  The crew, weakened by the weeks of battling high winds and flailing seas, and hampered by freezing temperatures, lost both lifeboats in launch attempts.  Not till 3 p.m. did a rescue boat reach the Mexico, led by 51-year-old local wreck-master Raynor Smith, who ignored the perils posed to his long boat and six-man crew.

He took in 8 survivors, including Capt. Winslow, 4 crew members, and 3 passengers who had volunteered to help the crew.  The remaining famished and terrified passengers were left behind praying that the boat, or others like it, would return for them.  As day turned to night, Smith, his crew and other would-be rescuers refused to risk another trip to the Mexico as the seas churned unabated.  The weather was so intensely cold, that it was difficult for anyone to remain on deck longer than half an hour at a time.  Fifteen minutes after the rescue boat had departed, the ship struck the bottom at Hempstead beach, not more than a cable’s length from the shore.  It is believed that none drowned, but all froze to death.

A correspondent for the Morning Courier and New York Express later reported: When (passengers) perceived that no further help came from the land, their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until one by one they diminished. The next morning the bodies of the many unhappy creatures were seen lashed to different parts of the wreck, embedded in ice.  Of the 104 victims, two-thirds were women and children, all of whom stood praying on the deck of their broken ship in zero-degree weather just 200 yards off Long Beach where they slowly froze to death in sight of the land of their dreams.  Only their tears made it to shore!


Thomas Francis Meager

On August 3, 1823, a boy was born who became a hero to three lands: Ireland, Australia, and the United States. His grandfather’s successful trading business made it easy for his father to own a small hotel and pub in County Waterford, where, Thomas Francis Meagher was born. Young Tom was educated at a Jesuit boarding school, and later at a Jesuit college in England where he earned a reputation as an effective orator.

He returned to Ireland in 1843, just two years before the Great Hunger, and saw his countrymen starve while the landlord’s crops grew in abundance for export.  Infuriated, he became a vocal opponent of the Crown’s policy of Laissez Faire, joined the Young Ireland movement, and began to preach insurrection. He wrote for The Nation newspaper, and earned respect as a spokesman for the nationalist cause. Upon his return from a visit to post-revolutionary France, he introduced a tricolor which Ireland eventually adopted as her national flag.

After an aborted rising in 1848, Meagher was arrested, and sentenced to life  at the penal colony in Australia.  After three years, he escaped to New York, where he received a hero’s welcome from the New York Irish for his part in the rising of 1848.  Meagher married in 1855, became an American citizen in 1857, and commanded a company in New York’s 69th Militia, locally known as Corcoran’s Irish Legion.  At the outbreak of the American Civil War, New York’s 69th was the first to volunteer.  Battered at the first Battle of Bull Run where Colonel Corcoran was captured, Meagher was asked to reorganize the regiment, but he did better than that; he organized a Brigade.  The Irish Brigade under the command of the newly-appointed General Thomas Francis Meagher, fought heroically at the bloodiest battles of the war; at almost every major engagement fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle.  By war’s end Meagher had earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most effective leaders.

After the war, President Johnson appointed him Secretary of the new Montana Territory.  In August 1865, the young Irishman and his wife, Elizabeth, left for Montana.  Upon arrival, the Territorial Governor handed him the  papers of office, saying he was unable to stand the rigors of the frontier and headed back to Ohio.  Meagher thus became the acting Governor of the Territory.  Having seen so much danger in his young life, one could hardly have blamed Meagher if he had turned his back on the responsibility just thrust upon him, but he was no quitter; President Johnson had asked him to bring Montana into the Union as a state, and he was determined to do it.

He was immediately opposed by powerful men who had carved a profitable empire out of the Montana wilderness, for statehood would threaten their private domains.  Vigilante groups threatened Meagher’s life and slanderous rumors were spread in an attempt to reverse his popularity. Yet he became popular with the people of Montana, especially the Irish who had migrated west after the Civil War, but when he called for a territorial legislature, he angered the profiteers.  With danger on all sides from vigilantes and local Indians, he convinced his old friend General Sherman, to send a shipment of rifles up the Missouri to Fort Benton.  Meagher and a few of his officers rode overland for six days in the heat of a Montana July to meet the shipment.  Dehydrated and  ill on arrival, Meagher retired to a stateroom aboard the G.A.Thompson, a boat piloted by an old friend, Johnny Doran.

As he lay his fevered head on the shipboard berth, he may have reminisced on the words spoken at a Virginia City rally six months earlier, Beware young Chief; you have done too much to bring the traffickers in the political market into disrepute and bankruptcy, not to have provoked their vengeance.  That night July 1, 1867, Thomas Francis Meagher disappeared.  His body was never found, and rumor mongers spread the story that he had fallen overboard in a drunken stupor and drowned.  There was no one to dispute the claim, but few who knew the man ever believed it.  His loving wife walked the banks of the Missouri for two months seeking his body in vain.

Then, in May of 1913, a dying man in Missoula, Montana, called for the local newspaper to witness his deathbed confession.  He was a local ne’er-do-well named Frank Diamond, and he swore that he would not go to judgement without clearing his conscience of an awful deed that he had been paid to do many years before.  Then he told the startled press that he had murdered Thomas Francis Meagher, under orders from the local vigilantes, and thrown his body overboard on that hot July night, 46 years earlier.  Members of old and prominent Montana families, who had descended from the early Vigilantes and profited from Meagher’s demise, swore that Diamond was an irresponsible liar, but men don’t lie on their deathbed.  Those who knew the character of Thomas Francis Meagher were relieved that the truth had finally been revealed, yet Frank Diamond, was never prosecuted for the crime.  He unexpectedly recovered from his malady, immediately recanted his confession and said no more about the incident.

Thus, the exact details of Meagher’s demise remain clouded by time and temperament, yet one positive consequence evolved from the controversy surrounding the confession.  In the eyes of many, the character of Thomas Frances Meagher had been exonerated.  He had not fallen overboard in a drunken stupor, but fallen in service to others: as he had served all his life – a life that began as an Irish patriot, continued as he broke his chains of bondage in Australia, and ended as an American legislator.  He was truly a hero in three lands.

International Hunger Remembrance

Where did it all begin?  Remembering the victims of Ireland’s artificial famine has been an ongoing event since it occurred; although at first, it was mostly in quiet, private and prayerful recollection.  Then, in 1859, workers constructing Montreal’s Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River discovered a mass grave.  It was the final resting place of Irish immigrants who had been released from the Grosse Ile Quarantine Station in 1847 and sailed on to Montreal, carrying early stages of Typhus.  Some 75,000 had been released and Montreal erected fever sheds at the water’s edge to house them.  By year’s end, 6,000 were buried in mass graves near the sheds.  The bridge workers, many of Irish descent, created a make-shift memorial with a 30-ton granite boulder over the spot to ensure the grave would not be forgotten.  Erected on Dec 1, 1859, that Black Stone Memorial was the first international monument to the victims of Ireland’s Great Hunger.  The City of Montreal installed an interpretive plaque, which states that 6,000 Irish immigrants were buried on the site in 1847.  A Mass and wreath-laying ceremony has been held at that memorial each May since 1904 and the AOH in Canada is the leading participant.

Then in 1909, another international memorial was added as the AOH erected a great Celtic Cross on Grosse Ile in memory of all the victims of An Gorta Mór, especially the more than 5,000 who never left the island and died there in 1847 alone.

The American and Canadian AOH made pilgrimages to Grosse Ile in 1997 on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy and in 2009 on the 100th anniversary of the Great Cross.

In 1995, the American AOH and the AOH Board of Erin collaborated and erected yet another memorial to the victims of the Great Hunger – this time in Ireland.  Located in County Clare, it was the first ever memorial of its kind to be located in Ireland.

In March of 2008, the AOH in America introduced the An Gorta Mór Awards to encourage individual jurisdictions to contribute to those less fortunate in memory of those Irish who suffered during Ireland’s greatest tragedy.   At the same time, Dublin resident, Michael Blanch, who had been pushing for a national commemoration in Ireland since 2003, led his annual procession from Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to the sculptures of famished Irish along the Liffey.  The Irish Government finally established an annual memorial day in Dublin in May 2008.  Apparently May was selected since it had been the month of the oldest international commemoration at the Black Stone Hunger Memorial in Montreal.

An Ad Hoc International Committee was founded with 3 members of the AOH, two members of the Irish American Unity Conference and two others including Michael Blanch in Dublin.  The Committee works to raise awareness and coordinate international commemorations with the Irish Government and get the word out to the Irish Diaspora.  The Committee waits for the Irish Government to announce their dates and coordinates from there.

In May 2009, the Irish National commemoration took place in Skibbereen, Co. Cork with parallel events held in Canada and Australia. International participants were encouraged to hold their own local events to commemorate the Great Hunger.  The AOH National and NY State Boards produced a one-hour, four-part DVD on the tragedy, especially for teachers, entitled The Reasons For Learning as the AOH part in the international commemoration.

In May 2010, the Irish National commemoration site was in Murrisk, Co. Mayo and even more members of the Irish Diaspora around the world celebrated masses and/or sponsored events as world-wide interest grew.  Masses were also celebrated and services held at Great Hunger Memorials across America.  The DVD Reasons for Learning was put on the AOH.Com national website for free download with a number of lesson plans and exercises in support of the DVD.  A number of divisions held public showings of the DVD on that weekend.  The Committee also got the Irish Consulates in NY, Boston and San Francisco involved and coordinated activities with them.

This year, a delay in establishing the date from Ireland was caused by the change of Government and the redistribution of Departments and the Committee couldn’t wait to establish dates.  Based on years past, the month of May was chosen and participants were asked to choose their dates within the month.  The main thing is that something be done in as many places around the world as possible.

In Dublin, Michael Branch has been in contact with Glasnevin Cemetery on establishing an appropriate marker near the mass grave of 40 to 60,000 victims lying beside babes of innocence in the Angel’s Plot.  There is also a mass grave with 30,000 victims approximately 50 yards from O’Connell’s grave to be marked as well.

In 2011, the 8th annual Dublin Famine Victims and Emigrants Memorial Day took place on May15th with a procession of people dressed in rags leaving the Garden of Remembrance led by a lone piper down O’Connell Street and up to the Famished Sculptures at Custom House Quay where the Lord Mayor of Dublin laid a wreath to their memory.  Bouquets of flowers were laid at the individual famine sculptures, a bouquet of flowers in the shape of a ship was lowered into the River Liffey to remember the Emigrants past and present and the Victims who died on the Coffin Ships at sea.  In the final part of the ceremony, singer/songwriter Pete St. John and Friends sang his composition, The Fields of Athenry, from on board the Jeanie Johnson Emigrant Ship in memory of the survivors of An Gorta Mór.

Among the American commemorations , The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Hudson County dedicated an 18-foot tall Celtic cross with various images and symbols representing Ireland and An Gorta Mór at Lincoln Park on May 7; on May 14th a commemoration in tribute to those who lost their lives during the Great Hunger took place on the steps of the Hackensack, NJ Court House; on May 21-22 in San Francisco, the California Irish Cultural Society and the Irish American Unity Conference coordinated with Consul General of Ireland Gerry Staunton to hold the Second Annual An Gorta Mór Commemoration to support Saint Anthony’s Dining Hall which feeds the homeless in honor of the victims of An Gorta Mór.  In Michigan’s Irish Hills, the AOH led a Mass and commemoration ceremony at the Great Hunger memorial that they erected to the memory of the victims of the tragedy and on May 22nd, a Mass and wreath-laying ceremony was conducted by the Massachusetts AOH at the Great Hunger Memorial in Boston.  In New York on May 22, the National Board of the AOH, assembled in lower Manhattan to remember the 175th anniversary of their Order, took time out to celebrate a Mass and lay a wreath at Ground Zero for those AOH members who lost their lives the World Trade Center and then went to the Great Hunger Memorial to hold a ceremony and wreath-laying at the Great Hunger Memorial at Battery Park City as part of the International Commemoration of the Great Hunger.



International Great Hunger Commemoration

In recognition of the considerable significance of The Great Hunger, the Irish Government established a National Famine Commemoration Committee, chaired by TD Eamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in 2008. The first National Memorial Day was held on 25 May, 2008 in Dublin. It was so well received that the following year it was extended to an International Commemoration and it was established that the National Memorial Day in Ireland would revolve between the four provinces.

On May 17, 2009, the Irish National commemoration took place in Skibbereen, Co. Cork with parallel events held in Canada, Australia and other Irish communities around the world. International participants were encouraged to hold their own local events to commemorate the Great Hunger while, in Ireland, all public and sporting events observed a minute’s silence on that day. The AOH National and NY State Boards produced a onehour, four-part DVD on the tragedy, especially for teachers, entitled The Reasons For Learning as the AOH part in the international commemoration.

In 2010, the Irish National commemoration site was in Murrisk, Co. Mayo on 16 May and even more members of the Irish Diaspora around the world celebrated masses and/or sponsored events on that date as world-wide interest grew. Masses International Great Hunger Commemoration were also celebrated and services held at Great Hunger Memorials across America. The DVD Reasons for Learning was put on the AOH.Com national website for free download with a number of lesson plans and exercises in support of the DVD. A number of divisions held public showings of the DVD on that weekend.

This year, 2011, the international commemoration is scheduled for May 21 and 22. Our National President has urged local AOH divisions to schedule some type of public activity in their local areas and to alert the media to the event. For those without access to the Internet, and who would like a copy of the DVD on the Great Hunger, it is still available at only $18. from the AOH Charities by contacting F. Kearney at (203) 980-9324.

There is nothing else in the history of the Irish people that can be likened to the Great Starvation of 1845 and beyond, either for its immediate impact on Ireland, its legacy of emigration, its effect on the United States, its cultural loss or the decline of the Irish language. The population of Ireland, which exceeded 8 million in the Census of 1841, was reduced by millions through death and emigration. In honor of those who died, those who refused to abandon their faith and those who fled Ireland in order to survive, articles can be submitted to local media and educational workshops can be held to inform people about the official apathy that caused a potato blight to become a man-made tragedy. Historians have proclaimed Ireland’s Great Hunger as the worst social disaster of the 19th century when people starved outside the gates of prosperous farms as tons of food was exported. Let’s remember the victims on May 21-22.


Presidential Proclamation–Irish-American Heritage Month, 2011




Our diverse Nation has been shaped by the sacrifices and successes of those who crossed both land and sea in pursuit of a common dream.  For millions of Americans, this journey began in Ireland.  In the wake of the Great Hunger, many sons and daughters of Erin came to our shores seeking a brighter day, with only courage and the enduring values of faith and family to sustain them.  Alongside many others who sought a better life in a new Nation, these intrepid immigrants built strong communities and helped forge our country’s future.  During Irish-American Heritage Month, we honor the contributions Irish Americans have made, and celebrate the nearly 40 million among us who proudly trace their roots back to Ireland.

From the earliest days of our Republic, the Irish have overcome discrimination and carved out a place for themselves in the American story.  Through hard work, perseverance, and patriotism, women and men of Irish descent have given their brawn, brains, and blood to make and remake this Nation — pulling it westward, pushing it skyward, and moving it forward.  Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy became our first Irish-American Catholic President and summoned an expectant citizenry to greatness.  This year, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s inauguration, we recognize our 35th President and the countless other Irish Americans whose leadership and service have steered the course of our Nation.

Seldom in this world has a country so small had so large an impact on another.  Today, the rich culture of Ireland touches all aspects of American society, and the friendship that binds Ireland and the United States is marked by a shared past and a common future.  As communities across our country celebrate Irish-American Heritage Month and St. Patrick’s Day, our Nation pays tribute to the proud lineage passed down to so many Americans from the Emerald Isle.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2011 as Irish-American Heritage Month.  I call upon all Americans to observe this month by celebrating the contributions of Irish Americans to our Nation.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-eighth day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fifth.



The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Mary Harris was born to a Roman Catholic tenant farmer and his wife in Cork city on May 1, 1830 according to her Autobiography published in 1925. Her family emigrated to Canada when she was 14 or 15 escaping the Great Hunger. After a Catholic education in Toronto, she became a teacher in a convent in Monroe, Michigan. She later moved to Chicago and then to Memphis, where in 1861 she married George Jones – no relation to the famous country singer; he was a member of the Iron Workers’ Union and Mary learned about the need for organized labor. She opened a dress shop in Memphis and had four children. Tragedy struck in 1867 when her husband and their four children (all under the age of five) died during a yellow fever epidemic. After the loss of her family, she returned to Chicago and began another dressmaking business. Tragedy again struck as she lost her home, shop and possessions in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

After her second tragic loss, she sought to keep herself active and turned to the emerging labor union movement. She joined the Knights of Labor which faded after the Haymarket Riot of 1886 over worker’s demands for an 8-hour work day. She then became affiliated with the United Mine Workers and often led picketing strikers, encouraging them to stay on strike when employers, backed by state and federal government police forces, brought in strike-breakers. Author Elliott Gorn maintains that her concern for the downtrodden stemmed from her Roman Catholic background and her brother, Father William Harris, who was among the best-known clerics in Ontario. Her militancy was also shaped by the exploitation of workers so rampant in nineteenth century America and the employers’ violent opposition to workers needs. Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country, she also organized the wives and children of strikers to demonstrate on their behalf. In 1902 she was arrested for ignoring an injunction on meetings by striking miners. At her trial the DA pointed at her and said There sits the most dangerous woman in America, she crooks her finger and twenty thousand men lay down.

She became known as Mother Jones and referred to the men she supported as ‘her boys’. She also became an advocate against the exploitation of children and fought child labor. After seeing that many working children had missing fingers and other disabilities and she attempted to get newspaper coverage about the abuses in child labor. However, mill and mine owners held stock in essentially all of the newspapers and the editors informed her that they could not publish such a disclosure because of that. Her response was, Well, I’ve got stock in these little children and I’ll arrange a little publicity. In 1903 she organized children to participate in the ‘Children’s Crusade’ – a march from Philadelphia, PA to the Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY home of President Theodore Roosevelt. They carried banners demanding We want to go to School and not the mines! However, permission to see President Roosevelt was denied by his secretary. Although Roosevelt refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the public. After organizing another children’s march, the United States Senate ordered an investigation into the conditions in the coal mines. Her Children’s Crusade was described in detail in the 2003 book, Kids on Strike!

In 1913, during the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, Mother Jones was charged with inciting to riot. Despite the fact she was over 80-years old and suffering from pneumonia, she was held under house arrest for more than two months. After her release she headed for Colorado to help organize the coal miners there. Once again she was arrested, imprisoned, and escorted from the state. However, after the subsequent Ludlow Massacre, in which the Colorado National Guard attack on striking miners and their families resulted in the deaths of 5 men, 2 women and 12 children, Mother Jones was invited to meet with mine owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr. That meeting prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines and introduce long-sought reforms.

Mother Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW into the 1920s and continued to speak on union affairs until her death. In her later years, she lived in Adelphi, Maryland where she celebrated her 100th birthday with a filmed interview on May 1, 1930. She died six month later on November 30. By her own request, she was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, beside the coal miners who died in the Virden, Illinois Coal War of 1898 that saw 13 killed and 35 wounded. Significantly, that action marked the beginning of the end of the mine owners feudal system.

Amid the violence directed at early trade unionists, Mother Jones motto was, pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living – words still invoked by union supporters more than a century later. She was called mother and the miners’ angel by her boys, but on the floor of the United States Senate she was called grandmother of all agitators, to which she replied, I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators. And her legacy still lives on.

In 1990, during the Pittston Coal Strike in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, the wives and daughters of striking coal miners called themselves the Daughters of Mother Jones and played a crucial role on the picket lines and in presenting the miners’ case to the press and public. Today, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School, in Adelphi, Maryland, is named in her honor and students at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia can reside in Mother Jones House, an off-campus facility whose residents must perform at least ten hours of community service each week. To coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March 2010 a proposal was made for a plaque to be erected in Mother Jones’ native city of Cork and was accepted by Cork City Council. In more familiar recognition, Carl Sandburg noted that the folk song She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain was a reference to Mother Jones and her travels to Appalachian mountain coal mining camps unionizing the miners. In 1931, Gene Autry’s first recorded song was The Death of Mother Jones and Woody Guthrie’s song Union Maid, called for women to emulate Mother Jones by fighting for women’s and workers’ rights. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to this ‘most dangerous lady’ is the newest song: The Spirit of Mother Jones on the 2010 album Abocurragh by the great Irish musician/singer/songwriter Andy Irvine.

Thus, have time and principle made the most dangerous woman in America into one of the most beloved women in American history.

Michael Collins

One of the most controversial figures in Irish history is Michael Collins. To those who loved him, he was The Big Fellow, Ireland’s greatest hero. Yet some believe that in settling for the Irish Free State, he betrayed the Republican cause. You be the judge.

Born at Sam’s Cross, Co Cork, on Oct 16, 1890 – (120 years ago this month), he was the youngest of 8 children. His father, 75 at the time, was a farmer with an enviable command of Greek, Latin, and French, who also excelled in math. He gave his youngest son his name, and a love of reading. As Michael grew to manhood, he read the prose and poetry of Nationalism, listened to patriotic discussions about O’Connell, Davis, and Emmet, and heard first hand accounts from his grandmother Johanna O’Brien of people starving on the roads during the Great Hunger. He started school at the age of 4-1/2, and was taught by an old Fenian named Denis Lyons. By the time his father died in 1897, the 6-year old well understood his father’s last words: I shall not see Ireland free, but in my children’s time it will come, please God. Michael finished school and left for London in 1906 as an apprentice clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank. In London, he joined the Gaelic League, the GAA, and the Geraldine Football and Hurling Club. He was sworn into the IRB in 1909, and later, the Volunteers. In 1915, he got a job as a clerk in the London office of the Guarantee Trust Company of New York. Then, on a trip to Dublin he met Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott who convinced him that something big was about to happen. He returned to London, quit his job, and sailed for Ireland the next day. The something big was the Easter Rising, and Collins was a part of that historic event as a soldier in the GPO.

When the Rising failed, Irish prisoners were rounded up and marched to a grassy knoll opposite the Rotunda Hospital where they were surrounded by British Officers. The officer in Charge, Capt Lee Wilson, recognized 58-year old Tom Clarke as one of the leaders, and pulled him from the ranks; he publicly stripped him nude to the taunts and jeers of soldiers and passers-by. Collins was unable to stop the brutality, but years later he found Capt Wilson serving as an RIC inspector in Wexford, and had him shot. Collins and his comrades were bundled off to a prison camp at Frongoch in Wales where his natural ability as a leader emerged. When all were released in a general amnesty at Christmas, 1916, Tom Clarke’s widow, Kattie, gave Collins the funds and information entrusted to her by the IRB Supreme Council before the Rising. Collins reorganized the Irish Volunteer and gave financial aid to the returning men. He made valuable contacts with Republicans all over Ireland, and they in turn knew that if they or their families ever needed anything, all they had to do was to see Mick. The reorganized IRB and its political party Sinn Fein renewed the struggle for independence. Sinn Fein members were elected to Parliamentary seats and, instead of going to Westminster, they met in Dublin calling themselves Dail Eireann – the Assembly of Ireland. England tried to disband them and Ireland’s war of independence was on, with Collins leading the resistance. Hunted day and night, he led a guerrilla war with many close encounters and daring escapes. In July, 1919, he formed a squad of trusted men for special assignments who were known as the Twelve Apostles. They were an intelligence unit built to infiltrate British agencies and execute special assignments. Collins was Minister of Finance in the new Dail as well as Director of Intelligence, Director of Organization, and Adjutant General of the Army. He was the most hunted man in Ireland.

His intelligence network was extremely effective, and his masterful stroke of identifying 14 top British secret service men operating undercover in Dublin, and eliminating them all at the same time on Sunday morning, Nov 21 1920, displayed a daring and organizational ability that shook the Empire to its very foundation. It also boosted sagging Irish morale for the war had been particularly brutal and demoralizing. Then in mid 1921, Dail President Eamon deValera was invited to London to confer with Lloyd George. On July 9, a truce was announced to explore the possibility of a peace. However, the British had made it absolutely clear that no treaty would entertain an Irish Republic. Dev knew that when he returned to Ireland to select a delegation to negotiate terms. He startled his comrades by refusing to lead the delegation himself; instead he chose Arthur Griffith. Griffith, a journalist and economist, was not a militant republican, and would have been happy with any reasonable offer as long as the fighting was over. The delegation included Erskine Childers, a former member of British Intelligence who had converted to the cause; Childers cousin, Robert Barton; George Gavan Duffy and Eamon Duggan – two lawyers; John Chartres, another former member of British Intelligence; Emmet Dalton, another ex-British Officer; and Michael Collins. The selection of so many men of English background to negotiate Irish freedom leaves many questions to this day, but one thing is certain: Michael Collins as the lone militant would have little voice in establishing terms. The Irish delegation was no match for the English delegation which included such trained statesmen as Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead, Sir Austin Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill. The British offered an Irish Free State – a 26-county self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. The question of the other 6 counties would be resolved by a border commission after the Brits were able to pull their interests out. The Irish refused, but the English, with a seasoned army just returned from World War I, offered no alternative but total war. Collins know that the Republican movement was almost broke and out of ammunition. They had bluffed their way to the negotiating table and now would have to bluff their way to any concessions. After months of negotiation the treaty was accepted. Collins considered it a stepping stone to full freedom, but realized many would not accept the fact that Ireland, though a self-governing dominion, was still under the Crown.

In Ireland, deValera, as President, repudiated the treaty after learning that a new election was one of the conditions. He claimed it was not the Republic that they fought for, but Dail Eireann put it to the people for a vote. In a general election, a war-weary people accepted it and elected Arthur Griffith President. DeValera and the anti-treaty Republican forces took up arms in protest, and in June 1922 a civil war began. Anti-treaty forces steadily lost ground, and by August, most cities and towns were in Free State hands. On August 12, President Griffith died, leaving Collins responsible for bringing the war to an end. On August 20, Collins headed for Cork to meet and negotiate a peace with his dissident former comrades – not as a conqueror, but as a fellow Irishman. He would offer positions in the Free State Army to those who wished them and give their leaders positions of importance in Free State service. Those who chose to continue fighting could go up north and fight the Orangemen who, at that time, were killing Irish Nationalists and burning them out of their homes. In a few years, when the new army was trained and equipped, Collins would dismantle the treaty bit by bit. It was a compromise none but the British could oppose – but they would not know. Unfortunately they did. According to a 1982 book THE SHOOTING OF MICHAEL COLLINS by John Feehan, when the Irish took over Dublin Castle, documents were found naming a British spy – code name Thorpe – who had been placed among the Irish. Just before going south, Collins learned Thorpe’s identity, and said he would deal with him when he returned. Sadly, he never did for in his own native county, he was the victim of an ambush by Republican forces. The invincible man was dead. In Kilmainham Jail hundreds of Republicans prisoners dropped to their knees in prayer for the man who had led them for so long, though now on the opposing side. The saddest part of the entire story is that one of the finest leaders Ireland ever produced was killed by an Irish hand – a hand that he would rather have held in friendship.

Building the Irish American Museum

In life it is said that the best ideas are the most obvious.  In the case of a small group of Irish Americans from Connecticut, their vision of building a national Irish American museum in our Nation’s Capital has been staring them in the face for years and now they are taking steps to make it a reality.  The Irish American Museum of Washington, DC will be a major cultural institution that will bring Irish-American history to life for visitors of all ages and for all American’s to see.       According to Carl Shanahan, a founding director of the Museum, The history of the United States is the history of Irish America and that history deserves its rightful place in our nation’s capital. He continued to explain that, The museum belongs in Washington to reflect the national character of our story; the Irish legacy is evident all across this country.

The museum will be one of ethnic identity and join the likes of similar museums in DC honoring African Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans and most recently German Americans.  The goal, according to Shanahan, is to explore the experience of the Irish people from immigrations through the evolution of their communities as well as to acknowledge their struggles and triumphs.  James Dougherty, another founding director, explained that The story of Irish America must be preserved and the story must be told. Every day a little bit of our history fades away. We must record and preserve that history before it is gone.

AOH National Historian Mike McCormack noted, How many times have we said I wish I could have been there to help during the Great Hunger, to fight with Pearse in the 1916 rising, to work with Michael Collins, or to lend a hand at any other crucial time in Irish history – but I was born too late.  Revise that thought!  We were born at just the right time to do all those things and more for to keep their memory alive for posterity is to aid them more than any aid they received in their lifetimes.  This museum is a critical effort and it’s what we are all about.  Now is our time to be a hero for Irish history.

Early plans for the museum include housing in temporary gallery space until a permanent building can be built; site locations for a prestigious permanent establishment are presently under investigation.  The museum will provide future generations of Irish-Americans with a proper sense of their history.  With very limited space for museums available on the national mall, the search will include property of historic significance in the early Irish history of Washington DC which also allows convenient access to visitors.

Education will be a key component of the museum to showcase 250 years of Irish-American history through innovative exhibitions, education and cultural programs.  This will be done in a state of the art facility designed to pay proper tribute to all those of Irish descent who played a role in the birth and development of the United States of America. The Museum will be a living and constantly developing entity. The core elements of the initial plan include exhibits of historical artifacts from the earliest Irish settlers up through the present.  Also included will be oral history projects recording the memories of individuals who contributed to the Irish American story; a library of donated and collected books, films, magazines, newspapers and recorded music; a historical research center; a genealogical research center; an auditorium for presenting plays and musical performances that tell the Irish American story and a gift shop where visitors can purchase books, films and other items of Irish American interest.  A cafeteria will serve quality food including dishes that would have been familiar to Irish immigrants.  A publishing department will also develop and publish books and films on the Irish American experience. Also planned is a state of the art cinema to present audio/visual material produced by the Museum and by outside sources on topics of Irish-American interest.

Raising money for such a facility and operation will take a significant amount of time and effort and it all began in 2007, when the Board of Directors of The Wild Geese, an Irish American cultural organization based in Fairfield County Connecticut, authorized its President and Vice-President to pursue the establishment of an Irish-American Museum as a standalone tax exempt organization.  They appropriated $30,000.00 as seed money to form the organization, and produce publicity material. The Wild Geese have subsequently granted an additional $5,000.00. The Museum has been incorporated and has been granted section 501(c)(3) tax exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.  According to Patrick Flaherty a founding director of the Museum, the organization must raise $10 Million to build, maintain and endow the museum in perpetuity.  They are soliciting funds from numerous sources including corporate sponsors, foundations, governments and individuals.

More informational can be found at their website which is also in the process of being expanded.