Historical Happenings for October 2019

CHARLES STEWART PARNELL

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

On October 6, 1891, Ireland lost her uncrowned king.  His name was Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant Squire from Avondale in Co. Wicklow, the son of an English father and an American mother. The maternal grandfather for whom he was named was Charles Stewart: Commanding Officer of U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) during the War of 1812; the U.S. Navy’s first Rear Admiral (an appointment made by President Lincoln in 1862); and a genuine hero. On February 20 1815, with a strategy described by James Fenimore Cooper as, the most brilliant maneuvering in naval annals, Stewart, heavily outmanned and outgunned, soundly defeated and captured two British ships off the coast of Spain. He was awarded the freedom of the city of New York and the thanks of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who presented him with a gold sword.

Young Squire Parnell was indeed of respectable stock and in 1875 was elected to the House of Commons where, it was expected; he would serve dutifully and create no great sensation.  Parnell however, inherited his grandfather’s strong sense of moral justice and he took up the cause of Home Rule ─ a program calling for an end to the British Parliament in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Parliament with full control of Ireland’s domestic affairs.  In taking up the cause, Parnell became the champion of the Irish people.

Landlords in Ireland, reacting to the changing European economy, were turning their holdings from farming to cattle grazing and thousands of tenant farmers were being dispossessed.  Parnell supported Michael Davitt’s Land League against the rack-renting landlords, and eventually became its President.  He urged tenant opposition to landlords through boycotts and rent refusal, and in 1879, sailed to America to address the U.S. Congress on the problem.  His sister, Fanny, set up an American Land League to raise and channel relief funds to the Irish League in order to defend the tenant farmers in court, making dispossession at least costly for the landlord.  The significance of this action is evident from British statistics which show that between 1849 and 1882, 482,000 families had been evicted.

In spite of the League’s limited success, a virtual land war continued between landlords and tenants.  The Crown reacted with arrests, but the situation remained tense. In order to avert open rebellion, the Land Act of 1881 was passed. It was a weak law, but it defused the situation until the government could act.  The Land League was declared illegal and its leaders arrested.  In the House of Commons, Parnell was accused of fomenting rebellion, but refused to answer the charge declaring that he drew his support from the people and he would only allow the people to judge him; he saw no need to defend his actions to England.  Referred to as the uncrowned King of Ireland, Parnell was at the height of his popularity, though his health was beginning to fail.  He threw his support to Gladstone in the 1886 British election, and engineered the defeat of the Tories.  He was now at the height of his power as well.  Gladstone fulfilled his promise to Parnell and introduced a Home Rule Bill, but it was defeated by the House of Lords.  Parnell demanded another; in the eyes of many he was becoming too powerful. 

Soon, a series of articles appeared in the British press accusing Parnell of instigating a crime-wave against the landlords and a special commission was appointed to investigate.  In spite of perjury and bribery, Parnell defeated his detractors but he made many enemies in Parliament, even though they dared not act against him.  Their opportunity came when an MP named Capt O’Shea filed for divorce from his wife naming Parnell as co-respondent.  Parnell, in typical fashion, gave no defense to Parliament. Instead of feeding the scandal, he chose to save his career by working harder than he had ever worked in his life despite his failing health.  Gladstone used the incident as an excuse to rid himself of Parnell and agitated against him.  The Catholic Church joined the detractors and publicly condemned him as an adulterer for his affair with Kitty O’Shea.  Parnell began to lose support among the Irish for the first time since he devoted his life to their welfare.

On Sept 27 1891, he attended a public meeting in Galway against the advice of his doctors.  He had promised to speak, and would not disappoint those who had remained loyal to him.  It was his last appearance; on October 6, he died. He was buried at Glasnevin beside Daniel O’Connell after a funeral procession that could only be termed magnificent.  In the eyes of some he had erred and was punished.  The tragedy of Parnell is that, in spite of his dedication and superhuman efforts, England was able to sow division among the Irish.  Parnell shall nevertheless be eternally remembered for the words he defiantly spoke in Parliament which are now engraved on his monument in O’Connell St, Dublin: No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say thus far shalt thou go and no further. We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood and we never shall! 

Historical Happenings for September 2019

ANNE DEVLIN

by Mike McCormack, AOH Historian

Ireland’s history is filled with the names of noble souls who fought and died to break her chains of bondage. Some who suffered and died for that cause are less known than others.  They led no insurrection; they made no memorable speech from the dock; they held no position of power; but theirs was a martyr’s role nonetheless. They were the common Irish whose quiet sacrifice nurtured and preserved the dream of freedom.  On September 18th 1851, Ireland lost one of her most courageous and dedicated daughters whose name should be as well-known as that of Emmet, Pearse, and Tone.  Her name was Anne Devlin.

Born in 1778, she was a cousin of two United Irish rebel leaders, Arthur Devlin and Michael Dwyer; she was also a devoted Aide to the bold Robert Emmet, leader of the second rising of the United Irishmen in 1803.  Posing as his housekeeper, she helped him plan the rising and carried correspondence between him and other leaders associated with the failed rebellion.  She was a proud and dedicated woman and Ireland’s freedom was her only dream.  When the rising was crushed, Emmet went on the run into the Wicklow Mountains and Anne saw to his well-being as arrangements were being made to smuggle him to France.  The Brits were aware that Anne knew the hiding places of Emmet and other escaped leaders, so she was arrested and tortured to get her to reveal their locations.  She refused and was locked in solitary confinement in Kilmainham Jail.

For three years, Anne was subjected to torture, bribes and the brutal indecencies that only women prisoners can suffer at the hands of depraved jailers.  Yet she was never broken. She remained loyal to the cause and betrayed not one of the men her jailers sought to capture.  In their efforts to make her talk, members of her family were incarcerated with her, including her 12-year-old brother who contracted prison fever and died in a cell near her own.  Her body and her heart were broken yet still she refused to betray Ireland’s heroes.  When Prime Minister Pitt died in 1806, there was a change in the British Administration in Ireland and Anne Devlin was finally released.  By then, she appeared like a broken old woman at just 28 years of age!  She had contracted a debilitating case of Erysipelas, which left her limbs numb and feeble and which plagued her for the rest of her life.  She disappeared into the slums of Dublin’s Liberties and married a man named Campbell who died in 1845 on the cusp of the Great Hunger, leaving her with a son and an invalid daughter.  She managed a meager existence by taking in wash.

In the 1840s, Dr. Richard Madden, researching the history of the United Irishmen, was directed to a poor old washerwoman living in a miserable hovel in a stable-yard in the Dublin Liberties.  He learned of Anne’s sacrifice and became an admirer, occasionally helping her with donations.  Unfortunately, Dr. Madden worked on government assignment and was transferred to Cuba, spending many years away from Ireland.  Upon his return, in September, 1851, he went straight to the Liberties to see Anne where he learned the sad story of her final days and death just two days earlier.  According to his writings, a woman in whose room Anne Devlin had once lodged, told him, The poor creature, God rest her, it’s well for her, she’s dead.  There was a coffin got from the Society for her and she was buried yesterday.  To his inquiry of what she died from, the answer was, She was old and weak, indeed, but she died mostly of want . . . She was very badly off, not only for food, but for bedclothes.  Nearly all the rags she had to cover her went, at one time or another, to get a morsel of bread.

Dr. Madden was heartbroken and found her grave in the pauper’s section of Glasnevin cemetery.  It was an incredibly tragic end to a most noble lady.  He had her remains exhumed and re-buried in the patriot’s section of the cemetery known as the Circle, right near Daniel O’Connell, and erected a memorial over her.  He left this account in volume III of his monumental history of the United Irishmen: The extraordinary sufferings endured, and the courage and fidelity displayed, by this young woman have few parallels.  She was tortured, frightfully maltreated, her person goaded and pricked with bayonets, hung up by the neck, and was only spared to be exposed to temptations, to be subjected to new and worse horrors than any she had undergone, to suffer solitary confinement, to be daily tormented with threats of further privations, till her health broke down and her mind shattered, and after years of suffering in the same prison, when others of her family were confined without any communication with them, she was turned adrift on the world, without a house to return to, or friends or relations to succor or shelter her.  The day will come when the name of Anne Devlin, the poor neglected creature who, when I knew her, was dragging out a miserable existence, struggling with infirmity and poverty, will be spoken of with feelings of kindness not unmixed with admiration.

 

But thankfully, the times are changing. In 2003 on the bicentennial of the 1803 Rising, Anne was remembered on one of three commemorative Irish postage stamps and in February, 2004, the South Dublin County Council proudly unveiled a statue of Anne in the village of Rathfarnam, just a few yards from the house in Butterfield lane where she served Robert Emmet and Ireland.  The statue caused some controversy as some historians wanted a statue of Emmet, but saner heads prevailed,  This beautiful statue of Anne Devlin not only adds character to Rathfarnham village, it highlights the significance of its history.  Irish-Canadian poet, Paul Potts, dedicated an entire chapter in his book of essays, Invitation to a Sacrament to all who helped her  and he wrote that, it is true that she was a servant girl; it is equally true that she was one of the glories of the world.  Because of her a light shines out, from the slums around the Coombe and from the ploughs on a Wicklow hillside, to equal the brightness of any star.  This Wicklow peasant working girl beat the British Empire.  They had been beaten by the spirit of an unconquered Ireland, housed in the heart and mind of a simple Irish girl.  Anne Devlin is an inspiration to all who hold freedom dear.

Historical Happenings for August 2019

THE QUEEN’S VISIT

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

By the mid-1800s, landlords held most of the fertile land in Ireland renting to native Irish tenants. The land was subdivided and rented in smaller plots to more tenants for larger profit.  The smaller plots forced the Irish to survive on a crop that could produce the most yield per acre – the potato.  It was a difficult life, but at least they weren’t starving, for potatoes are a remarkable source of vitamins and minerals.  Then late on August 20, 1845, a potato fungus was discovered at the Dublin Botanical Gardens.  The following day, August 21, is a date remembered in Irish history as the first day of An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger) a tragedy that saw millions lost to emigration, disease, and starvation.  Within the week, reports came in from other eastern counties that the potato crop had turned black in the ground.  It was the only crop affected, since everything else grew in abundance, but the other crops belonged to the landlords who protected them from the hungry Irish until they were harvested and exported for profit.

Parliament did little to help, quoting the economic doctrine of Laissez Faire and saying that the country was to be left to the effect of natural forces.  Many suffered in ‘45 awaiting a better harvest in ‘46, but it didn’t come.  The potato crop in ‘46 was totally destroyed across Ireland.  People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had with the result that when 1847 came, they had nothing to plant.  Many, on the verge of starvation, fell victim to the diseases which attend hunger.  When the sick and starving Irish couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted and their property confiscated.  Blight continued until 1849 and neither Parliament nor most landlords provided assistance.  Millions died of starvation and hunger-related disease on the roads, alongside prosperous farms.  A limited amount of aid was provided by charitable groups, but the tragedy was too vast to control. For two years, some soup kitchens were opened, but the cost of food was the conversion to the Church of Ireland.  It was a price too high for many and they turned their backs on the food, rather than turn their backs on their faith.

Parliament, denounced for not intervening in the tragedy, reacted by declaring the crisis over in 1849 since a few acres of potatoes had grown that year without blight.  After millions died and millions more had fled into exile, it was little good to those who had been evicted.  Although the blight slowly abated, the blight on the Irish continued.  Most historians estimate that the effects of the great hunger were not over for another 30 years as the lack of land or a living wage, food shortage and disease continued.  Emigrants sent money back to loved ones they were forced to leave behind and it helped them climb back to a stable life, but it would be a generation before many of the emigrants could establish themselves in the lands to which they fled.  In the end, most of the generation who suffered the Great Hunger, were gone before its effects were.

A benchmark event that marked that turn in history was the formation of the Mayo Land League in 1879. Founder Michael Davitt convinced MP Charles Stewart Parnell to join the land agitation and the Mayo Land League became the National Land League with Parnell as President and Davitt, as Secretary.  By the end of 1879 there was a formidable organization in place and a Land War began.to plan what became known as the Land War and it could be truly said that the Great Hunger was over for the Irish began to take back their land.

One of the most insensitive incidents to come out of the Great Hunger was the British government’s premature declaration of the end of the blight in 1849.  In conjunction with that declaration and in order to show that all was well, a massive publicity campaign was mounted, the highlight of which was a visit by Queen Victoria at harvest time.  As the Irish starved and died in the workhouses and on the roads, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent to beautify the roads on which she would travel.  Crowds of curious and angry onlookers were kept in check by British soldiers as reports were sent to the world that wherever she went, the Queen was cheered by her adoring subjects and headlines proclaimed that “THE FAMINE IS OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND.”  Ironically that report, although propaganda at the time, would eventually come true.

The truth of that statement lies in a most remarkable incident that occurred on the exact anniversary of the first day of the hunger, exactly 30 years after the blight had been declared over!  The date was August 21, 1879, and the place was the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Irish village of Knock in Co. Mayo.  On that evening, a small group witnessed an astonishing vision as three figures suddenly appeared beside an altar on which rested a cross and a lamb surrounded by adoring angels.  The witnesses knew that they were in the presence of St. Joseph, St. John and Mary, the mother of God.  Word spread, and shortly, others from the area arrived and saw it too.  No such heavenly visitation had ever before been reported in Ireland, and the people fell to their knees and prayed, oblivious of a soaking rain.  The figures remained, silent for nearly two hours, and then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.  In 1939, after many years of intense investigation, the apparition at Knock was granted canonical sanction by the Church.  Of the hundreds of visions reported, it is one of only ten to have received such recognition, and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage, yet it is the only appearance of the Virgin during which She remained silent.

Many have questioned why Mary said nothing, and only stood praying.  Praying for what, for whom?  Any student of Irish history should know the answer for there are clues in the date of the apparition.  Consider that the Great Hunger wasn’t really over for 30 years after 1849; Mary appeared in 1879 – exactly 30 years later!  And She appeared on August 21, the exact anniversary of the first day of the Great Hunger!  Is it possible that, since the Irish had suffered so much for their faith, that the Lord, in appreciation, sent His beloved mother and that She, as any mourner would, stood in silent prayer for the generation which had just passed away.  Think of it, the timing is incredible.  Not only is August 21 significant, but the year 1879 was truly the end of the great hunger for the Irish began taking their land back from the landlords through the Land League.  While the dates have an uncanny significance, there is yet another irony.  Since August 1879 marked both the historic end of the Great Hunger and the year in which Our Lady visited Knock, a 30-year old newspaper headline had at last come true: THE FAMINE WAS FINALLY OVER AND THE QUEEN HAD VISITED IRELAND – the only Queen that the Irish ever recognized!  The Catholic people of Ireland, who struggled so hard to keep their faith alive, had received a visit from heaven, and the Virgin had received a new title – Our Lady of Knock.

Historical Happenings for July 2019

HERCULES MULLIGAN

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

When celebrating this country’s independence, there is an almost forgotten hero who must be called to public attention.  He was born on 25 September 1740 in Coleraine, County Derry.  He came to New York City in 1746 where he became a major contributor to America’s Irish immigrant story. His name was Hercules Mulligan. He graduated King’s College and became a haberdasher, tailoring clothes for colonial aristocrats and British officers; he even married Elizabeth Sanders, a British admiral’s niece.  Yet, when a bankrupt Crown exploited its colonies with taxes he opposed them and in 1765 became a leader of the secret Sons of Liberty. He was a member of the Committee of Correspondence, a group that rallied opposition to the Crown through written media.  In August 1775, he and his militia captured four British cannons from the Battery; in 1776, he and the Sons of Liberty toppled a statue of King George III and melted the lead into bullets to return it to the Brits.

Earlier, in 1773, a penniless teen had arrived with a letter of introduction to Mulligan’s brother Hugh from a family he knew in St. Croix for whom the teen had clerked. Hercules took him into his home at 23 Queen St (now 218 Pearl Street) in lower Manhattan and sent him to King’s College. Mulligan’s anger over British oppression was contagious and his house-guest soon joined him in the Sons of Liberty and in 1775, even wrote a popular essay denouncing the British.  The boy’s name was Alexander Hamilton.

As violence intensified, Mulligan quietly endured the British occupation of New York since, while outfitting their officers, he engaged them in seemingly meaningless conversation and, asking the right questions, gained valuable insight into their plans. He would then put it in a note and sew it into the hem of a new shirt, pack it in a box and send his servant, Cato, off as if her were simply delivering an order. Cato was his equally patriotic African servant who served as a spy together with Mulligan. Acting the role of courier, he would pass through British lines by posing as a slave on an errand for his master; he was also known to the British sentries who frequented Mulligan’s shop.  As a result, Cato passed unchallenged and delivered the information to none other than Alexander Hamilton, who by now had become George Washington’s aide de camp.  On at least two occasions their information saved Washington from a planned ambush.

After a few years of freelancing as a spy, Mulligan was recruited into the Culper Spy Ring by Robert Townsend, a member of the ring and a successful merchant who traveled back and forth between the City and the Setauket, Long Island center of the spy ring. Mulligan often rode the 65 miles to Setauket to deliver information that couldn’t wait. In 1781, after Benedict Arnold betrayed West Point, he betrayed Mulligan by outing him as a spy. With no evidence to verify his accusation, the British who despised Arnold as a turncoat, weren’t about to give up their favorite Irish tailor and ignored the charge!  Mulligan continued collecting data.

When the Revolution was won, Mulligan, who outwardly appeared to be like all the other Loyalists, feared an act of patriotic revenge, but George Washington remembered his confidential informant. On November 26, 1783, Washington led an ‘Evacuation Day’ parade celebrating his return to New York. The next morning, the triumphant general stopped at 23 Queen Street and enjoyed breakfast with Mulligan announcing his savior as ‘a true friend of liberty.’ Washington then ordered a full civilian wardrobe.  Mulligan hung a sign outside his shop: Clothier to General Washington and his business boomed. After Washington’s Presidential inauguration in 1789, he went back to Mulligan’s Clothing Emporium where he hired him as the official Presidential Tailor.   Mulligan hung out a new sign and became wildly popular!

Mulligan eventually bought a large home off of the Bowery where he retired comfortably until 1825 when he died at eighty-five.  He is buried with his family in Trinity Churchyard at Broadway and Wall Street.  Time covered up the remnants of his life and since 1970 there is a 24-story building at 218 Pearl Street and it is not known what happened to Cato. However, on January 25, 1785, Mulligan and Hamilton became two of the founders of the New York Manumission Society to promote the abolition of slavery.

Finally, in 2016, Hercules Mulligan was given a page of his own on the U.S. CIA website and there is now talk of naming a small bridge in lower Manhattan as the Hercules Mulligan Bridge.  However, many may still not learn the truth because in 2015 a Broadway musical HAMILTON revised the history of this trio of conspirators. Sadly, they combined the characters of Mulligan and Cato into one; showing Mulligan as an African patriot thereby robbing Mulligan of his Irish heritage and the true African patriot, Cato, of his very existence.  How sad!  

Historical Happenings for June 2019

WHO ARE WE?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Recent revelations of a few AOH members dismissing Irish history as unimportant and even Divisions without an active historian, leads us to reflect on who we really are. We are the Irish who chose to be members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a choice that defines us. The AOH was created to defend a heritage born on a tiny island in the western ocean with the first pre-Celtic inhabitants whose engineering skill produced Newgrange, the oldest still standing man-made structure on the planet, and hundreds just like it – all astronomically aligned. It grew with those who mined and smelted tin with copper to create Bronze and produced artistic treasures so intricate they cannot be duplicated today. It was strengthened by Celtic warriors who discovered iron and were the first use it to rim their chariot wheels. And it was enhanced and formalized by the Christian gospel of St. Patrick and the many missionaries he inspired to make the tiny island renowned throughout the known world as the Isle of Saints and Scholars.
However, that valued heritage was despised by powerful forces that came across the sea from England. As strangers gradually took control of the land, they tried to erase that heritage. They forbid its practice by legislation like the Statutes of Kilkenny and Penal Laws, but the Irish secretly held on to what had been passed to them; for to deny their heritage would have been to deny their ancestors. When legislation failed, brute force was unleashed from Cromwell to William of Orange. Again they failed! And when the Irish fought the Crown to a stalemate and a treaty resulted, perfidious Albion broke trust as with the broken Treaty of Limerick and again assaulted the heritage so boldly defended. When the ancient heritage could not be erased, it became expedient to erase those who practiced it and that opportunity came with a fungus on the potato crop in 1845. The Irish had been forced to rely on that crop as a result of laws enacted by a landlord-dominated Westminster Parliament. There had been earlier failures, but an Irish Parliament eased its impact by thoughtful action. However, Britain eliminated that Irish Parliament 44 years earlier and this time the Irish were at the mercy of Westminster. Then followed the genocidal horror known as An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – when starving Irish tenants watched the abundant produce of their country taken under guard to the seaports to be exported for profit while their wives and children cried with hunger. The native Irish were then left with three choices: first, to accept the stranger’s ways and laws; second, to flee their beloved island; and third, to starve. A few did the first, millions did the second and millions more unwillingly did the third!
Through all the years of discord, societies had been formed to protect the values under attack. From the Whiteboys, who fought landlords in white shirts to identify each other on midnight raids, to the Ribbonmen, wore a special ribbon to show their similar goal – protection of a heritage and retribution to those who dared to destroy it. When the millions of Irish refugees who were forced to flee their homes landed in America, they were shocked to find the same bigotry awaiting them in the former British colony. It was manifested by nativists who awakened memories of former violence in riots against them and their church for no other reason than who they were! Repressive legislation similar to that which they faced in Ireland was proposed by nativists of the Native American Party in local and national governments.
Those immigrant Irish who had joined together in local benevolent fraternal societies, not surprisingly assumed the responsibility of protecting the values under attack and became the same type of secret societies that had protected them in Ireland. Then in 1836, the Ribbon Society in Ireland authorized branches of their society among former Ribbon emigrants in New York and Pennsylvania. By 1851, many more merged with the growing number of societies for the same protection of a centuries-old heritage. By that time nativists had replaced the British military as adversaries and employers had replaced landlords as antagonists. The societies morphed into a uniquely American national organization and thus was born, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Over the years, violence diminished but the bigotry continues in derogatory T-shirts and greeting cards, twisted anglicized versions of Irish history taught in American schools and the disregard of Irish contributions to America and the world. The attacks on our heritage continue and we, as inheritors of the ancient traditions for which our forefathers fought and suffered, are its modern defenders. That is why the Ancient Order of Hibernians exists, that is the reason its members were invited to join and that is what defines us!

TO DEFEND YOUR HERITAGE, YOU MUST LEARN IT!

Historical Happenings for May 2019

THE MASS ROCK (Carraig an Aifrinn)

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

The celebration of the Mass at a “Mass Rock” in Ireland

Rocks and stones have always been special to the Irish. The Stone of Fal, reportedly brought to Ireland by the Tuatha de Dannan, was said to have the power to roar – but only when a man fit to rule Ireland stood upon it.  The Rock of Doone, similarly only roared out under one fit to be a Chieftain of the O’Donnells of Donegal. Although these great rocks ceased to roar when Christ was born, their tales stir a sense of pride for they relate to traditions and great heroes whose courage we can admire, but few can imitate!   However, the most courageous stories in Irish history relate to another rock and the courage and fidelity of the ordinary people who made them so special.

These are the Mass Rocks – large flat-topped boulders found in the woods, hills and glens throughout the Emerald Isle, left over from the receding glaciers that covered Ireland during the Ice Age; or as one old woman told me, they were put there long, long ago in hidden places by God Himself for the people to use when the Mass was forbidden because He knew what was coming!

At any rate, it did come in the 17th century when England tried to usurp Ireland into its empire.  It was decided that the Irish had to become English and denounce their Gaelic culture, customs and traditions. When the Irish fought the theft of their heritage, Penal Laws were imposed to punish any who practiced Irish ways. One of those laws banned the Catholic religion and Bishops were outlawed under penalty of a year in a penal colony. If they returned after release, they would be hanged, drawn and quartered! The law also imposed penalties on priests, but many courageously remained, administering in secret.  The clerics who faced such persecution were heroes indeed, yet equally courageous were the people, whose passion for their faith led them to protect the outlawed clergy. That support made it possible for the priests to exist and administer to the faithful who even risked fine and dungeon just to hear the holy sacrifice of the Mass.  It was then that those natural rocks that God had left for them became altars for the forbidden Mass to be safely celebrated away from watchful eyes.

In sun or rain, sleet or snow, the faithful would trudge into the woods, climb up a hill or gather in a hollow wherever a large flat rock could be found! Exposed to the elements, they knelt as the priest offered the sacrifice of the Mass on that hidden rock.  Priest hunters, who received a bounty for any cleric they captured, were always a danger as was the British military, so sentries were posted to keep watch for any who might seek to arrest the faithful kneeling in prayer – and especially the priest!   Since those who attended the celebration were at risk of imprisonment, the locations of the Mass Rocks were a closely guarded secret.  Many took secret trails known as Mass Paths to worship at their secret stone.  In a glen near Drogheda during one harsh winter, it is recorded that the people even walked barefoot in an icy stream down into the glen so that there would be no footprints left in the snow to betray the location of their Mass Rock.

These are the people whose courage is inspirational. Certainly, the priests and Bishops were heroes for theirs was a difficult role. But it was the people – the mothers, fathers and children who refused to turn away from their faith no matter the cost – who are the unsung heroes. All they had to do was embrace the Church of England and they could have had employment, their children educated, and their bellies full. Some did; some took the soup, but they were very few.

Today the need for secrecy is gone, yet on special occasions the descendants of those courageous faithful of yesterday, will gather around one of the hidden Mass Rocks to hear a commemorative Mass and remember the sacrifices made to preserve the faith for the succeeding generations.  As for the Mass Rocks themselves, they are evocative symbols, reverently preserved as relics of a heroic past and a courageous people who would not surrender their faith, regardless of the persecution they faced if caught.  In 2008, the Kingston, NY AOH Division had a large stone delivered to the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural Center in East Durham as a replica of an Irish Mass Rock. It was placed in care of the local AOH Division who promptly adopted the name: the Mass Rock Division.  It was dedicated in 2009 as a reminder of the incredible courage and devotion of our ancestors who kept the faith alive during the Penal times.  Then, on 5 May 2019, members of the New York State AOH gathered at the Mass Rock replica in East Durham on the 10th anniversary of its dedication to remember our faithful ancestors and the gift of faith that they had left to us.

Historical Happenings for March 2019

Irish-American Heritage Month

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

On 28 February, a team of Suffolk County Hibernians appeared before the Suffolk County Legislature to request that the month of March be declared Irish-American Heritage Month in perpetuity.  As one of the speakers, I was asked to share the words I said with other members of the New York State AOH/LAOH.  The Bill by Legislator Steven J. Flotteron, listed a dozen famous Irish and Irish Americans as evidence of our contributions to America.  The towns I mention are, of course, towns in Suffolk County and I was only allowed three minutes to make my presentation.  As most of my brothers know, I can’t even do opening remarks in three minutes.  However, when it was my turn to address the assembly, I said:

“The bill before you lists only a few of the Irish and Irish-American contributors, if we were to list them all, it would take all day to read their names and all year to describe their deeds.  Suffice to say that at our beginning there were nine Irish who signed the Declaration of Independence and three of them were Irish-born, as was Secretary Charles Thompson who edited it, John Dunlop who printed it and Col Nixon who first read it to a waiting public.

As for contributions to our State, that started with the first Governor of the Province, Irish-born Thomas Dongan whose patents became the model for today’s New York State government and established many Towns including Southampton and Brookhaven. In fact his Charter is on display in the Brookhaven Town Hall on Independence Hill to this day.

As for our County, it was in the shipyards of Mattituck that Irish-born John Holland built the first successful underwater boat which he demonstrated in the waters off New Suffolk to the U.S. Navy who bought it as the first boat in the greatest Submarine Fleet in the world.

From the large number of Irish in Washington’s Army that caused Lord Mountjoy to tell the House of Commons: ”We have lost America through the Irish”, all the way up to Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael Murphy of Patchogue, the Irish and their descendants have defended this nation.  In March, 1863, the first Medal of Honor was awarded to Irish-born Bernard Irwin, since then 254 have been received by native-born Irishmen more than twice the number given to any other foreign-born nationality and that’s not counting the number received by Irish-Americans like Audie Murphy and Dan Daly of Glen Cove who received two of them.

The Irish also served in counter intelligence. The Roe brothers were great-grandsons of John Roe the Irish-born shoemaker who settled in Drowned Meadow as Port Jeff was known in 1667.  They were part of the Culper Spy Ring that operated out of Suffolk linked with Irish-born Hercules Mulligan in NY City whose intelligence saved Washington on at least two occasions.  From the Roe brothers to Wild Bill Donovan who developed the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, which became the CIA of which he is considered the founding father, the Irish were there.

Many of these facts are unknown and designating March as Irish-American Heritage Month would give us the opportunity to publicize them and many more.  Each year, the President declares March: Irish Heritage Month. But before March first, when we try to convince the media to share these facts with the public, they say they can’t allocate resources to something that’s not officially designated.  Then when the President designates it as such, as he does every March 1st, we’re told its too late because such promotions must be scheduled a month in advance. Asian-American History month, Hispanic Heritage month, Black History month and others are permanently designated and recognized; we would like to see Irish-American Heritage Month permanently designated as well, so that we may invite others to recognize these contributions in time to prepare a respectful celebration.

Thank you for the gift of your time.”

Historical Happenings for February 2019

John Philip Holland

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Did you know that an Irishman invented the first successful submarine?  His name was John Philip Holland and he was born on the eve of the Great Hunger on 24 February 1841 in Liscannor, Co. Clare.  He lived through An Gorta Mor and suffered poor eyesight as a result.  His father was a member of the Coast Guards and young John inherited a love of the sea, but his poor eyesight prevented him from following in his father’s footsteps.  However, he developed an interest in ship design and attended a Christian Brothers School where he came under the influence of Brother Dominic Burke, a science teacher, who encouraged that interest.  By the end of the 1850’s, John had drawn his first plans for a submersible boat.  When he left school, he joined the Christian Brothers as a teacher and studied the unsuccessful attempts of Bourne, Bushnell and Fulton at underwater sailing.  In 1862, he read an account of the first combat between armored ships: the historic confrontation of the Monitor and Virginia in America’s Civil War and noted English concern since their country’s strength lay in their wooden ship Navy which was now vulnerable.

Then, the Union ship Housatonic was sunk by the Confederate underwater craft Hunley.  Though it too was a failure and sunk with its entire crew, it verified the importance of Holland’s ideas. Unable to promote interest in Ireland, he left the Christian Brothers and emigrated to America in 1872.  He found a job teaching at St. John’s School in Paterson, New Jersey.  In 1875, he offered his plan for a submersible boat to the U.S. Navy, but it was rejected as a “fantastic scheme.”  He was sure if he could raise the money for a prototype vessel, he could convince the sceptics, but money was hard to find.  In 1876, as his brother and other patriotic young Irishmen had done before him, Holland joined the Fenian Brotherhood dedicated to freeing Ireland from British rule.

Here he found interest in his plans for a weapon that could sink the British Navy.  Delighted with the prospect of striking a blow for Ireland, the Fenians financed Holland’s project.  He constructed a prototype vessel and in 1878, a 14-foot, one-man, Holland I slipped beneath the waves of the Passaic river.  Impressed, the Fenians provided $23,000. for a full-sized version.  Earlier attempts had focused on delivering a mine on a boom projecting from the bow of the boat which operated only inches below the surface.  In 1881, Holland completed a completely submersible 31-foot, 3-man boat of 20-tons displacement complete with a torpedo tube and fittings for armaments.  Spectators stared as the sub went through its trials, and newsmen dubbed it ‘the Fenian Ram’ in recognition of its origin and purpose.  Holland continued to test and refine his design.  In 1882, an impatient Fenian leader, John Breslin, stole the Ram and took it to New Haven to be launched; unfortunately, with no knowledge of its operation, it sank and the Fenians abandoned the project.

Holland kept trying the U.S. Government and to maintain secrecy, moved construction to a shipyard at Mattituck, Long Island. In 1895, he finally won a $150,000. U.S. Navy contract to build them a submarine, but the Navy insisted on alterations which Holland said would make it unstable.  But the Navy said no alteration, no contract!  So, while building a sub to their specifications, the headstrong Holland also built the 53-foot, 63-ton, Holland VI to his own specifications.  After the Navy designed boat predictably failed, Holland floated out his alternative vessel.  The trials took place at New Suffolk on Long Island and were a total success.  In 1900, Holland VI became the U.S.S. Holland – the first American submarine, and the Holland Torpedo Boat Company received an order for six more, but Holland was too deep in debt to fulfill the contract.

Financier Isaac Rice and others backed Holland forming the Electric Boat Company in Grotan, Connecticut, later a division of General Dynamics.  The brainchild of the tenacious Irish immigrant became the prototype for the greatest submarine fleet in the world.  However Rice took charge and not only dealt with the U.S. government, but the British government as well, selling them the original patents much to the chagrin of their inventor and the Fenian brotherhood.  Holland spent years in costly litigation trying to reclaim his patents.  On August 12, 1914, he died in Newark, N.J. as the Germans and British were readying their respective Navies for war and the eyes of both fleets were submarines, built with Holland’s principles.  John Holland was soon forgotten.  For 61 years, he lay in an unmarked grave until public attention was focused on the historic oversight and in 1975 a memorial headstone was erected.  Years later, another was erected in its place, and the original stone was transferred to his home town of Liscannor, Co. Clare and dedicated there by the U.S. Navy Submarine Veterans.

As for Holland’s first sub, the Fenian Ram, it would have made Holland proud for it did strike a blow against the Crown; it was salvaged in 1916, and used in a fund-raising campaign for Ireland’s Easter Rising.  After that it was mounted on a pedestal in Paterson Park. Then after the Beatles 1966 record YELLOW SUBMARINE debuted, the Ram was painted Yellow by local teens.  The Paterson Museum put it in a shed behind their museum to protect it from vandals.  In 1988, the AOH National Historian learned of its location and asked the museum its intentions.  The museum responded that they had a plan, but a lack of funds kept them from creating a proper display.  The AOH National Historian’s office sponsored a nationwide fund-raiser and in 1990, presented the museum with a check for $12,000.00.  Today the Fenian Ram can be seen as the centerpiece of an elaborate exhibit to John P. Holland in a special section of the Paterson Museum.

Finally, a long overdue ceremony took place on April 8, 2000, when a monument was also dedicated to the memory of Holland’s accomplishment, at what is now recognized as the first U.S. Submarine Base in New Suffolk, Long Island.  Funding was organized by the U.S. Navy Submarine Veterans.

Historical Happenings for January 2019

Irish Contributions Mark New Year’s Eve

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

I’ll bet you all (or most of you) watched the big ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but did you know that there is a Celtic Connection with that tradition.  New Year’s Eve in Times Square had been celebrated for many years, but the addition of music came in 1888 and it took an Irishman to do it.  Back then, the triangle of land at the intersection of 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street was known as the Long Acre and it was there that Galway-born Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, leading what was publicly acclaimed as the greatest Brass Band in America, performed for a large audience on the first New Year’s Eve celebration ever, establishing a tradition.  Then he led them in a countdown, firing two pistols in the air at the stroke of midnight

In 1904 the celebration was expanded with the opening of The New York Times whose owner had the Long Acre renamed Times Square in honor of the new Times Tower which stood thereon, That New Year’s Eve, the celebration began with a street festival and ended in a fireworks display. At midnight came the cheering from more than 200,000 attendees listening to the music that had become part of the tradition thanks to the late Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.  After Gilmore’s passing, the tune Auld Lang Syne (old long since), became part of New Year’s Eve in 1929 when Guy Lombardo played it on a New Year’s Eve radio broadcast. That song owes it origin to our Celtic cousin – the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns – and became another part of the tradition.

However, the pre-eminent tradition became the dropping of a huge Ball to mark the New Year.  In 1907, the city banned the fireworks display and so a 5-foot diameter, 700-pound Ball made of iron and wood and adorned with a hundred 25-watt bulbs, was lowered from the tower flag pole exactly at midnight to welcome in 1908. A Ball has been lowered every year since, with the exceptions of 1942 and 1943, when a wartime “blackout” was imposed.  Yet, crowds still gathered and greeted the New Year with a minute of silence to the ringing of chimes from sound trucks to ring out the old and ring in the new.

In 1920, a 400-pound wrought-iron Ball replaced the original and in 1955, an aluminum Ball weighing just 150 pounds was used until 1980, when red light bulbs and the addition of a green stem converted the Ball into an apple for an “I Love New York” as the Big Apple marketing campaign. In 1988, after the Big Apple campaign, the traditional Ball with white lights returned. In 1995, the Ball was upgraded with aluminum skin, rhinestones and computer controls, but that was lowered for the last time in 1998. In 1999, for the coming Millennium, something really special was required and the New Year’s celebration returned to its Irish roots!

For the millennium celebration, the Ball was completely redesigned by Ireland’s world-renowned Waterford Crystal company, combining old and new in the most traditional of materials with the latest in lighting technology, to remind us of our past as we faced a new millennium. In 2007, as the 100th anniversary of the original Ball neared, Waterford Crystal crafted a spectacular new LED crystal Ball that increased the brightness and color capabilities. It measured six feet in diameter, weighed 1,070 pounds, and incorporated over 600 halogen bulbs, 504 crystal triangles, 96 strobe lights, and spinning mirrors. The ball went green in 2008, marking the centennial of its first appearance with a fifth design: 6-foot in diameter; 1,212 pounds; lit by 9,567 energy-efficient LED lamps with computerized color patterns; and the same Waterford crystal panels.

The Ball we see today is the sixth one and it was made in 2009.  It is absolutely massive with a 12-foot diameter; a weight of nearly 6-tons; 32,256 LED lamps; and 2,688 Waterford Crystal panels. This kaleidoscopic sphere is twice as large as its predecessor. The Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball is now a year-round attraction sparkling above Times Square in full public view January through December.  As we welcome each new year with the descent of the Waterford Crystal Ball and think of the Celtic connection to that unique tradition and icon that is viewed around the world, we smile at its Irish significance!

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).