Historical Happenings for December 2019

GEORGE WASHINGTON’S CHRISTMAS IRISH

by Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian

There were a few Irishmen living in and around Trenton, NJ prior to the Revolutionary War. Among them were Paddy Colvin and Sam McConkey, who ran two Delaware River ferries; Paddy Lamb, who resided near Quaker Bridge on Assunpink Creek; and John Honeyman, a retired British soldier, now a butcher and cattle-dealer in nearby Griggstown. They were all there during a very special Christmas.

Toward the end of 1776, George Washington’s patriot army retreated from New York through New Jersey, headed for the Delaware River with the British army in hot pursuit. On 1 December, he sent a message to Congress in Philadelphia to quickly line up a fleet of boats at Trenton to get him across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Wexford-born Captain John Barry contacted his friend Cavan-born Paddy Colvin who set to the task. No bridges spanned the river and yet it had to be crossed quickly or the patriot army could be trapped on its banks. Colvin owned the closest ferry to Trenton and knew all the fords and obstacles of the river and how to avoid them. He also knew who owned other ferries and boats and where they could be found. He placed all this valuable information, as well as his ferry, at the service of Washington’s patriot army. On 3 December, Washington’s advance guard reached Trenton, and Colvin began ferrying them across the Delaware. Early on December 8, Washington crossed with the rear guard. Colvin was at his post continually and with his fellow ferrymen, got the army safely across, just as the British entered Trenton. A disappointed Cornwallis found all boats safely moored on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which was now an impassable barrier between him and the disorganized patriot army he had hoped to capture on the Jersey shore. Cornwallis left a force to hold Trenton and re-located to Princeton. Washington set up headquarters in Pennsylvania about half a mile north of Colvin’s Ferry.
Concerned that the British would build their own boats or bring them over land to attack him, Washington decided to cross the Delaware on Christmas and surprise them first, but he needed to know the disposition of the British in Trenton. He met with Armagh-born John Honeyman, a local butcher and cattle dealer who had retired from the British army, but was now supporting the patriot’s cause. As a butcher, Honeyman had traded with and was familiar to the British and their Hessian allies. From him, Washington learned of the meager force of Hessians left by Cornwallis to guard Trenton. Under the pretense of having escaped from Washington’s camp, he was sent back to the Hessian camp to inform their commander, Col. Johann Rall, that the colonials were in no shape to attack. He told Col. Rall that Washington’s men were demoralized, suffering dreadfully from the cold and hunger and that many were even unshod. Hoping that the Hessians had been lulled into a false sense of security, Washington chose that bitingly cold Christmas night to cross the ice-choked Delaware River and surprise the unprepared Hessian force who would likely have spent the previous night celebrating Christmas. Like most of Washington’s clandestine operators, few formal records exist of Honeyman’s activities, but his actions were recognized and celebrated by friends and family after the revolution.

Washington then arranged with Paddy Colvin to cross at a few ferries since Colvin knew the river better than anyone and was trusted as a friend of Capt. John Barry. Like Honeyman, Paddy Colvin’s name would have been forgotten were it not for Rev. A. Lambing who, in 1885, found a mention of him in an old Trenton paper. He resolved to know more about him, and made him a subject of investigation.1 Fortunately he did, for were it not for Lambing’s research, Colvin may have suffered undeserved anonymity in history just like Honeyman. From Lambing we learned that Patrick Colvin of Co. Cavan, bought a ferry on the Delaware River in 1772 and for 20 years, Morrisville, PA was known as Colvin’s Ferry. Considering the number of times that Washington’s forces were transported across the Delaware, it was most fortunate that the ferry was in the hands of a patriot like Colvin. Colvin’s Ferry – the oldest ferry on the Delaware – was less than 2 miles from Trenton. Other ferries were McConkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton, Howell’s ferry 4 miles above and Dunk’s ferry 10 miles below.
So it was that on Christmas night and the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, 1776, Washington quietly crossed the Delaware into New Jersey in a biting wind and snow storm, successfully surprised the Hessians and captured Trenton. Washington knew the importance of holding Trenton and that Cornwallis would soon be on his way back to recapture it. He decided to stand and fight, but the rest of his army was still on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Furthermore, he had about 1,000 prisoners to lock up. W.H. Davis in his History of Morrisville wrote: A long fatiguing march to McConkey’s Ferry would have been a great hardship to men so severely tried. There seems to be no escaping the conclusion that they crossed at Colvin’s Ferry. Thus, Washington re-crossed the river and mustered the rest of his forces to cross and fortify Trenton before Cornwallis could arrive. On 30 December, Washington crossed back into New Jersey at McKonkey’s Ferry, with his troops crossing simultaneously at several Ferries.2 All the necessary boats were waiting, but the river was still choked with large masses of floating ice being carried rapidly by the swift current and extending out from both shores. Navigation was near impossible but Colvin supervised the crossing with great skill.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis, hearing of the fall of Trenton, left two regiments to fortify Princeton and marched back to Trenton. Washington sent out small units, under Co. Offaly-born Col. Edward Hand, to harass the oncoming British. These small bands succeeded in slowing Cornwallis down, inflicting heavy casualties, but the British force still arrived in force by late afternoon on 2 January. Washington was ready. The Second Battle of Trenton began with the armies facing each other, only 200 yards apart at a small bridge on either side of Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis made three attempts to take the bridge, but each one failed and Cornwallis withdrew for the night. Hundreds of British dead and wounded were recovered from the bridge and Cornwallis told his army, Rest now, we’ll bag the fox in the morning.

That night, Washington’s army built up their campfires to burn all night and silently slipped away. A small group was left behind to noisily build fortifications as if they were planning to defend at dawn, but also to cover the sound of the rest of the army slipping away. Washington and his force led by General John Sullivan, son of Co. Kerry immigrants, snuck away in the night. Another local Irishman, Paddy Lamb, guided them along back roads around the British forces to launch a surprise attack on the British force left in Princeton. Cornwallis awoke in the morning to distant cannon fire as the attack on Princeton had begun. He quickly divided his army and sent a force to relieve Princeton but they were too late to prevent another American victory. Meanwhile, darkness put an end to the second battle of Trenton. The British were driven back everywhere. Assunpink creek ran red with British blood as the entire campaign was decided in the patriot’s favor. As Washington went into winter quarters, he was master of New Jersey. The war had finally turned in his favor and new recruits poured in thanks to a courageous group of Irishmen who helped Washington’s army when they needed it most.

McConkey, the owner of other ferry where Washington crossed some troops was also an Irishman by birth. Historian John D McCormack, editor of the Potter’s Journal whose painstaking research into the early history of New Jersey brought many obscure records of the Colonial period to light, was a native of Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary and no stranger to conflict. As a boy, he had been held by a British Police Squad that commandeered his family home during the Young Irelander uprising in 1848. McCormack wrote, Colvin was a Catholic and McConkey was a Presbyterian in religion. Yet I find that these two Irishmen, holding religious beliefs so divergent, laid their theological differences upon the altar of their country, and made common cause to secure our independence. It is a rule that has but few exceptions 3 and also a story that has few more laudable heroes. Washington’s army endured a bitterly painful Christmas so that we might enjoy a peaceful one. Let us remember their saving sacrifice this year as we celebrate the birth of our heavenly savior.

1 Catholic Historical Researches, edited by Rev. A.A. Lambing, July 1885, Page 19
2 Extract of Lawrence H. Hale letter written to Theodore W. Bozarth:
3 History of Bucks Co. PA, Chapter XLII & XLIII, 1804:

Historical Happenings for November 2019

THE IRISH BRIGADE COMES HOME TO NEW YORK

By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Prior to the American Civil War, the regular Army was small reflecting the logic that America was best defended by hundreds of volunteer militia units. Many were little more than glorified fraternal organizations, filled with men who liked to parade, drink, and sometimes drill.  New York had the Continental Guards, German Black Sharp-shooters and Hungarian Kossuth Rifles among others.  Not to be outdone, the Irish formed the O’Connell Guards, Irish Rifles and Irish Zouaves.  The more serious of these units were mustered into a formal state militia.  On October 12, 1851, the 69th New York State Militia Regiment was officially organized.  It consisted of eight companies of 643 men each, most of Irish birth or parentage. Within a year it topped 1,000. The regiment would go on to earn fame and glory during the Civil War as a key part of the Irish Brigade. The heroic sacrifice of the Irish in battle boosted the reputation of the Irish in America and provided a new and more ennobling meaning to the term “fighting Irish.”

When the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Regimental Colonel Sligo-born Michael Corcoran called for the American Irish to join the 69th.   More than 5,000 applied for only 1,500 billets and 11 days later, Corcoran and his regiment marched down Broadway and steamed away to defend the Union capital in D.C.  The first test for the 69th was the Battle of Bull Run.  In their first battle, the inexperienced Union army cut and ran back to D.C., but one unit that earned praise was the 69th Regiment who stayed to provide cover for the fleeing troops.  They were the last to leave the field suffering 97 casualties and 95 captured, including Colonel Corcoran.  The 69th returned to NY to rebuild their tattered ranks. Acting Commander, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, began recruiting from the Hibernian House on Prince Street. When thousands of Irish responded, Meagher requested permission to form a Brigade. The Army was against forming ethnic brigades, but since England was trading with the Confederacy, they felt that fielding an Irish unit might just give the British pause and so they agreed and the Irish Brigade was born. It included the 69th, 88th and 63rd NY regiments and, later, the 28th Mass and 116th Pennsylvania.  Some joined for the $300 signing bonus which was sent to family in Ireland, some out of a sense of duty toward their adopted land and some because of British support for the Confederacy. 

The Irish Brigade saw some of the war’s harshest battles and they earned a reputation as the most courageous unit in the Army of the Potomac. After one battle, President Lincoln visiting the troops lifted a corner of the Irish battle flag, kissed it and said, God Bless the Irish Flag.  Meagher had ordered 69-caliber smoothbore muskets for his men.  They were considered obsolete, but very effective at close range which was the style of fighting he wanted because they fired the more deadly buck and ball ammunition and could take down 3 men at a time.  Close up fighting made the Brigade fearsome, but also produced heavy casualties since they had to get up close to be effective.  The Brigade fought in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from the peninsular campaign in 1862 to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox in 1865.  At Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and every major battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle.  Between campaigns new Irish were recruited to replace the fallen.  Among all their battles the three most costly were Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  The Sept, 1862 battle of Antietam was the deadliest day in American history, with 23,000 killed and wounded. The Brigade suffered 540 casualties and Gen McClelland later wrote, The Irish Brigade sustained their well-earned reputation, suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with their enemies, as they drove them back.  Three months later, the Brigade assaulted Confederate entrenchments along Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg achieving international fame with the tenacity of their attack and eliciting cheers from their rebel adversaries, many of whom were Irish themselves.  The next day, only 280 of 1,300 men were able to report for duty. Gen. Robert E. Lee later wrote, Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry.  In July 1863 at Gettysburg they successfully countered a Confederate offensive near Little Round Top losing 202 men killed out of 530. When Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, the Brigade was there.  One rebel officer told a Union officer, the only reason you won was because you had more Irish than we had!  On May 23 and 24, 1865 they paraded in review in Washington D.C. and in the following months, they returned to their homes to celebrate the new national holiday declared by President Lincoln two years earlier — Thanksgiving.  Returning  to New York, they received a tumultuous welcome from not only the Irish citizens, but from all who had followed their courageous history.

In post-war America, the Irish still faced poverty but discrimination had diminished. Many Americans accorded the Irish a new level of respect since many thousands had made the ultimate sacrifice defending the Union and, as a testament to their bravery, 7 were presented with the Medal of Honor.  Soon it became unfashionable to discriminate against the Irish and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs began to disappear from Help Wanted ads.  And that was perhaps the greatest victory for the Irish Brigade.  Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded – more than ever served in its ranks at any one time. The 69th NY suffered 75 per cent casualties while the British Light Brigade memorialized by Alfred Lord Tennyson for riding into the ‘Valley of Death’ lost less than 37 per cent.  There is no famous verse for the Irish, but author Joseph Bilby in his book Remember Fontenoy wrote, The Irish Brigade was, many said, the best brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Some said it was the best brigade in the whole Union army and perhaps the best infantry brigade on either side. Today, others with the perspective of history have come to believe it may have been the best infantry brigade that ever was!

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 December 2018

CHRISTMAS IN IRELAND

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMERICA’S IRISH

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

Signing of the Declaration of Independence – 1776

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

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

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

They became the majority in many communities in Pennsylvania where a 1729 table of immigrants shows: 267 English, 43 Scots, 243 Germans, and 5,655 Irish. In 1728, it was reported that most of the 4,500 who landed at New Castle, Delaware were Irish. Philadelphia likewise reported that 3,500 people from Ireland had arrived in the first two weeks of August, 1772. The city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was Stephen Moylan of Co Cork ─ soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 1773, Irish immigration to the American colonies was more than 18,500 and most were anxious to be rid of British colonialism.

There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Patrick Henry, Thomas McKean and other Irish-American orators used their eloquence to urge separation from England. When confrontations became frequent, it seemed that the Irish were always in the middle of it. Among those killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr; Boston Tea Party participants met at an inn owned by man named Duggan; and the tea was dumped at Griffin’s Wharf by a group dressed as Indians, some of whom had a notably Irish accents. While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, raised money to feed and clothe the army and advance the credit of the new government. Tyrone-born Oliver Pollack personally donated more than $300,000. (close to 4.5 million today), only France and Holland gave more.

On July 1, 1776 after a year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. Some wanted to settle grievances and resume amicable relations with the Crown; others opposed them, including four Irish-born members of the Constitutional Convention and six members of Irish descent. A resolution was presented which read, “Be it resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” After much heated debate, the vote was indecisive. They met again on July 2 to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question. On July 3, John Adams wrote to his wife that: July second was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever. However, approval of the final draft of the document did not occur until two days later. On 4 July, the Philadelphia State House was packed, despite a sweltering heat, as Secretary Charles Thomson of Co, Derry read the formal document that Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Livingston had composed, and that he (Thomson) had drafted. It was a declaration explaining why their action was justified. After a full day of debate, modifying copy and amendments, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete.

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

Yes the Irish were there, and the fact that that they made loyal Americans was evidenced by François Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux, a Major General in the French expeditionary force led by general Comte de Rochambeau. After the Revolution, Marquis de Chastellux wrote: An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, English and Scots were treated with distrust even with the best of attachment for the cause, but the native of Ireland stood in need of no other certificate than his accent. While the Irish emigrant was fighting for America on land and sea, Irish merchant’s purses were always open and their persons devoted to the country’s cause, and on more than one imminent occasion Congress itself, and the very existence of America, owed its preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.

It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington at a St Patrick’s Day dinner in 1828. He said: Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the day of our gloom, and of our glory, shared in our misfortunes and joined in our successes; With undaunted courage (they) breasted the storm which once threatened to overwhelm us; and with aspirations deep and fervent for our cause, whether in the shock of liberty’s battles, or in the feeble expiring accents of famine and misery, cried from their hearts ‘God Save America’. Then honored be the good old service of the sons of Erin in the war of Independence. Let the shamrock be entwined with the laurels of the Revolution, and truth and justice, guiding the pen of history, inscribe on the tablets of American remembrance ‘Eternal Gratitude to Irishmen.’ GWP Custis also asked the favor that when St Patrick’s Day is annually celebrated, that some generous Irishman would place a shamrock on his grave and say, God Bless Him. Up to a few years ago, a sprig of shamrock was planted on his grave by the Washington DC AOH as they said in chorus, God Bless Him!

Historical Happenings for March 2018

MARCH’S SIBLINGS FOR FREEDOM

By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Terence James MacSwiney (McSweeney) was born on 28 March 1879.  Playwright, author and politician, in 1901 he helped found the Celtic Literary Society and in 1908 the Cork Dramatic Society and wrote several plays. He also wrote pamphlets on Irish history. His writings in Irish Freedom brought him to the attention of the IRB and he became a founder of the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and President of the Cork branch of Sinn Féin. He founded a newspaper, Fianna Fáil, in 1914, but it was suppressed after 11 issues. In 1916, he was to be second in command of the Easter Rising locally, but stood down on the order of Eoin MacNeill. In the internment sweep following the rising, he was imprisoned in Wakefield, moved to Frongoch, called ‘The University of Revolution’ and finally to Reading Jail, where he remained until December 1916. On his release, he resumed activity with the Volunteers and was again lifted in February 1917.  He was in internment camps until in June 1917. He returned to Cork and in November 1917, was arrested for wearing an Irish Republican Army uniform. Inspired by Thomas Ashe, he went on a hunger strike and was released four days later. In the December, 1918 general election at the end of WWI, he was elected unopposed as TD for Mid-Cork and took an active part in the formation of the first Dáil Eireann serving on the Foreign Affairs committee organizing the Dáil loan to finance the Republican government. His friend Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor of Cork on March 20, 1920, but was murdered in his home by disguised members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. MacSwiney was then elected Lord Mayor of Cork to succeed him.

On 12 August 1920, he was arrested for possessing seditious documents, court martialed and sentenced to two years’ in Brixton Prison. He immediately started a hunger strike to protest being tried by a military court. Eleven Republican prisoners in Cork Jail went on hunger strike with him. On the 39th day of his hunger strike, he wrote in a letter to Cathal Brugha, If I die I know the fruit will exceed the cost a thousand fold. The thought of it makes me happy. I thank God for it. Ah, Cathal, the pain of Easter week is properly dead at last. The pain he referred to was his anguish at not having played a part in the 1916 Easter Rising. He also wrote, It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer. On 26 August, as Thomas starved, the British felt that the release of the Lord Mayor would probably lead to a mutiny of both military and police in Ireland. MacSwiney’s hunger strike gained world-wide attention. The British government was threatened with a boycott of British goods by America, while four countries in South America appealed to the Pope to intervene; protests were also held in Germany and France. An Australian member of Parliament, Hugh Mahon, was expelled from the Australian parliament after condemning the actions of the British.

MacSwiney died on 25 October 1920 after 74 days on hunger strike. His death brought him and the Irish struggle to international attention. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru took inspiration from MacSwiney’s example and Mahatma Gandhi counted him among his influences. Even future North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, who was working in London at the time of MacSwiney’s death, said of him, A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.

Nine years his senior, Terence’s sister Mary had also been born in March; on the 21st in 1872.  After the death of their mother, she became the maternal caretaker of her baby brothers and sister and was as much a patriot as they were in later life sharing MacSwiney values and courage. Educated in the Ursuline Convent, she trained as a teacher at Cambridge University. She taught in Cork where she became a founding member of the suffragist Munster Women’s Franchise League and a member of the Gaelic League. In 1914, she helped found Cumann na mBan and became President of the Cork branch and National Vice-President of the organization for which she was also interned after the 1916 Rising. As a result of her imprisonment, Mary lost her teaching job and in 1917 she and her sister Annie founded St. Ita’s School for girls in Cork City, a sister-school to Padraic Pearse’s St. Enda’s in Dublin, where all subjects were taught in Irish. In 1917, she joined Sinn Féin and in 1918 was elected to the First Dáil for Cork. She was Vice-President of Cumann na mBan when they voted against supporting the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. She was also appointed to the Cabinet of the Second Dáil in 1922 and was twice imprisoned during the Civil War fighting on the side of a full independent 32-county Ireland. Like her brother, she underwent a 21-day hunger-strike in Mountjoy Jail. On 21 November 1922, her younger sister, Annie, was refused permission to see Mary so she  encamped at the prison gates and went on hunger strike as well!  Mary was released, but retaken again and held in Kilmainham Jail where this time she went on a 24-day hunger-strike. After her release she continued to maintain a republican position until her death on 8 March 1942; by then she was vice-president of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan.

Their brother Seán, also born in March, on the 19th in 1878, was an officer in the IRA and Sinn Féin politician. During the Irish War of Independence, he served as an officer in Cork No 1 Brigade. Captured in 1921, he was sentenced to death, later commuted to 15 years’ penal servitude, but in April 1921, he escaped. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and during the Irish Civil War, was quartermaster for the 1st Southern Division of the anti-Treaty IRA and served on the IRA executive. He evaded capture until after the IRA called a cease fire. In 1933, standing on a Republican ticket, he was elected to the Cork Corporation and died at Glenvera hospital, Cork on 22 January, 1942.  The month of March was a big month for birthdays in the MacSwiney household and they all had a part in Ireland’s birthday.

Historical Happenings for January 2018

JOHN O’NEILL

by Mike McCormack, AOH Historian

On 8 January, 1878 – 140 years ago – General John O’Neill breathed his last in Omaha, Nebraska.  Today, his memorial is greater than a tombstone and even greater than a monument – it’s an entire City!  O’Neill, Nebraska is the county seat of Holt County and Nebraska’s Irish Capital; it also has the world’s largest permanent shamrock, made of green-tinted concrete, covering the entire main intersection of the city. Who was this man that he be remembered so proudly?

John O’Neill was born in Drumgallon, Co. Monaghan, on 9 March 1834 to John and Mary O’Neill. His father died six weeks before he was born. His mother, unable to make a living in Ireland, emigrated to the United States in 1835 with two children, settling in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  John stayed with his grandfather, a staunch supporter of Irish Nationalism with a deep hatred of Englands presence in Ireland.  The grandfather saw to it that his grandson received a good education and made sure that he knew Irish history.  In December 1848, at 14, filled with his grandfather’s views on England, John left to join his mother.  After arriving in New Jersey he completed his education and took a job with a Catholic publishing company as a salesman.  He traveled throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. 

In 1855, he settled in Richmond, Virginia and opened a bookstore.  To meet other Irish exiles who shared his antipathy toward England, he joined the local branch of the Emmet Monument Association founded to train men who would free Ireland.  In 1857, he enlisted in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons and served in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), afterward moving to California where he met his future wife Mary Crow, an Australian of Irish parentage.  He later joined the 1st Cavalry and from March to July of 1862 served as a sergeant in the American Civil War’s Peninsular Campaign.  On 27 June, O’Neill was promoted from sergeant to second lieutenant for gallantry.  In 1863 he was promoted to first lieutenant in the Fifth Indiana Cavalry for his courageous leadership.  In December, he received a citation for bravery at Walker’s Ford, where he was wounded in the leg.  In the summer of 1864 he was appointed Captain in the 17th United States Colored Infantry, but was forced to resign due to the wound received the previous year.  Later that year he married Mary and settled in Nashville where they had three children over a span of ten years.

While in Tennessee, O’Neill reconnected with the Emmet Monument Association which had now become the Fenian Brotherhood.  When the Fenians split over the best way to free Ireland, he aligned himself with the group who wanted to invade Canada and hold it hostage for Ireland’s freedom.  He said, I have always believed in striking at England wherever we could reach her, and wherever the English flag floats and the English government is recognized and there are English soldiers in arms to defend the flag and maintain the government.  I hold that the Irish people, particularly the Irish Exiles whom her oppressive laws have driven from their native land, have a right to go there and make war on England.

General Tom Sweeny, a native of County Cork, was in charge of a plan which included a series of co-coordinated raids from Chicago, Buffalo and Maine.  Command of the Buffalo expedition was entrusted to O’Neill who crossed the Niagara River at the head of 800 men on the night of 31 May 1866 and captured Fort Erie.  He moved to Ridgeway where he defeated a British and Canadian force.  In the end the invasion was stopped by U.S. authorities who blocked supplies and reinforcements at the border.  The other crossings were also stopped.  Ridgeway made O’Neill a Fenian hero as it was the only success in the many Fenian campaigns against Canada.  The Brotherhood appointed him ‘General of the Irish Republican Army.’ and he became president at the end of 1867.  After two more failed attempts in May 1870 and October 1871, he turned his attention to his other great passion – the resettlement of Irish families from the slums of eastern cities.

He traveled throughout the west in search of the best place to settle and decided on Nebraska as it possessed an abundance of pure water, fertile land and millions of acres of free government land.  In 1874, O’Neill embarked on a lecture tour along the east coast, offering his impoverished countrymen a better standard of living if they would resettle with him in Nebraska.  He was convinced they could succeed in rural America better than in the poverty of the miserable slums in which they then resided.  In his lectures, he quoted from the writing of the Reverend Stephen Byrne, OSD, Let the crowded tenement houses of eastern cities, where the very atmosphere is poisoned by the occupancy in one house of 20 to 40 families and where morality itself is greatly endangered on account of association that cannot be avoided, answer.  Let the unnamed and unnumbered graves along the canals and railroads of the United States, answer.  Let the forlorn and forgotten creatures who, having neither homes nor friends, lie down and die in the common hospitals of the country, answer.  The response comes home to us in a hundred forms that as a people, while doing more than any other to build up this great Republic, we have been negligent, not to say reckless, in regard to our individual interests.

O’Neill set up the first Irish colony in Nebraska in Holt County in the city that today bears his name – O’Neill, Nebraska. His second colony in Greenley County was seen by him as just the start of many that would cover America’s plains with Irish families.  His legacy still exists in those successful farming communities especially in the spirit of Irish generosity that is part of their culture today.  In 1877 while on a speaking tour, John O’Neill the consummate Irish and American patriot, became ill and returned home to Nebraska.  His condition continued to deteriorate and after being admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Omaha in November, he suffered a stroke and died on 8 January 1878.

Historical Happenings for September 2017

A MONTH FOR BRAVERY

by AOH Historian Mike McCormack

On September 13, the members of the AOH celebrate one of the major holidays of their Order – Commodore John Barry Day.  It is not a day unique to our Order, for it has been commemorated on the American national calendar more than once.  There were even statues erected in his honor back in the days when Americans remembered with gratitude the contributions of this dedicated man.  Today, few remember his deeds.  The American Heritage dictionary doesn’t even list his name, and his statue in front of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, is just a platform for pigeons unnoticed by passers-by.  It is truly unfortunate that so few remember because, during his lifetime, Barry gave so much to America at a time when she needed it most.  It has even been said that had it not been for John Barry, the American Revolution would have been lost.  Dr. Benjamin Rush said in his eulogy at Barry’s grave side, “He was born in Ireland, but America was the object of his devotion, and the theater of his usefulness.”   A sea captain in colonial America, he seemed destined for a prosperous career in the colonies, but his integrity and sense of justice led him to risk all in the patriot cause.  With nine years’ experience as a seagoing Captain, and five successful commands to his credit, the young Irishman was warmly welcomed, and given command of a ship under the authority of the Continental Congress.  Eight months after the first shots were fired at Lexington, Captain John Barry took the helm of a new 14-gun vessel aptly named, Lexington.  He quickly trained a crew, and began the task of supplying and supporting Washington’s ground forces.

He captured British ships and took their cargo: he captured an armed British vessel when ammunition was scarce, and a supply ship when food was at a premium, he then came to Washington’s aid when the leader was planning to cross the Delaware.  He organized seamen and joined the land forces which crossed the river in boats supplied by his friend, Cavan-born Patrick Colvin.   Barry was held in such high esteem that Lord Howe made a flattering offer to Barry to desert the patriot cause. “Not the value or command of the whole British fleet,” Barry replied, “can lure me from the cause of my country which is liberty and freedom.”  The last sea battle of the Revolution took place as Barry was returning with a shipload of bullion from Havana, and was set upon by three British ships.  He destroyed one and outdistanced the other two, returning with the precious cargo which was used to establish a National Bank for the new nation. Even after the war, this courageous seaman assisted America by transporting Virginia tobacco to Holland to repay America’s war debts.

In recognition of his experience and bravery, Washington asked the popular naval hero to form and train a class of midshipmen, who would form the nucleus of the new American Navy.  Barry himself was named the ranking officer, and granted Commission number one making him Father of the American Navy. He died on Sept 13, 1803.  Today, largely due to the efforts of the AOH, a monument to Barry stands inside Barry Gate at the naval academy at Annapolis.

Years later, in 1920 to be exact, another Barry bravely fought the Brits — this time in Dublin during Ireland’s War of Independence. On Sept 21, a British lorry, heavily guarded by armed soldiers, was being loaded with supplies as a voice from the street called, Drop your rifles and put up your hands.  It was a group of Irish Volunteers.  Suddenly, one of the soldiers fired, then a fusillade erupted as Volunteers and soldiers dueled with revolvers and rifles.  When it was over, one soldier was killed and four wounded, and the Volunteers fled.  The British spotted a young man hiding under their lorry and pulled him out.  They threw him into the back with their wounded and sped off.  An official statement that day from British HQ stated that, One of the aggressors had been arrested.

The aggressor, as it turned out, was an 18-year old medical student named Kevin Barry.  Kevin had joined the Volunteers when he was only 15. His job was to cycle to various parts of the city delivering correspondence between officers of the movement.  As a courier, young Kevin knew all of the leading figures, and the British knew they had a prize catch in young Barry.  Questioning and persuasion began in earnest:  Kevin refused to betray the movement. He was offered amnesty and freedom, yet he refused.  He was tortured for days on end, and still he refused.  Finally, he was charged with murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

Late at night, Kevin was taken to see the scaffold that would end his life the following morning.  With incredible cruelty and mental coercion, he was again pressured to reveal the names of his officers and comrades.  In return he was promised a full pardon and his tuition paid at any Medical school in the world.  Kevin, visibly shaken, listened to the officer in silence, then glanced up at the beam from which hung the noose.  Yes, he said, I think that should hold my weight.

On November 1, at 8 AM, his hands tied behind him, a slender 18-year old boy was led to the gallows at Mountjoy Jail where his short life was ended.  Later Father Albert, one of Kevin’s last visitors, reported that Kevin’s last words were, Hold on to the Republic.

In this month of September, as we are reminded of two Barrys and Bravery, we are also reminded of the courage and bravery of those whose stories, unlike the Barrys, may never be told.  They lie forever in the rubble of the Twin Towers that were destroyed on September 11.  We may never know how many Irish died in that horror with their friends and co-workers, but we do know that in the rubble were found close to five hundred Claddagh Rings.  Remember them all in your prayers.

Historical Happenings for August 2017

THE QUEEN’S VISIT

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

By the mid-1800s, the Irish had become dependent on a crop that could produce the most yield per acre – the potato – since British landlord’s held most of the arable land. Then late on August 20, 1845, Dr. David Moore reported that 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 a month, reports came from all over Ireland 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 landlord.

The landlords protected their crops from the Irish until they were exported for profit. Parliament, quoting the economic doctrine of Laissez Faire left the country to the effect of natural forces. Many starved awaiting a better harvest in ‘46, but it didn’t come. The potato crop in ‘46 was almost totally destroyed. People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had to survive, many fell victim to the diseases which attend starvation and, when the sick and starving Irish couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted. The blight partially returned in 1847, but that year saw the largest death toll in a 5-year period since those who ate their seed potatoes had nothing to plant, those who were evicted had nowhere to plant, and the  victims of disease were unable to plant. The blight returned in 1848 and 1849 and neither landlord nor Parliament provided adequate assistance. Millions died on the roads beside prosperous farms. Some aid was provided but it was too little and soup kitchens were set up, but in some, the cost of receiving food was conversion to the Church of England. It was a price too high for many, and they turned their backs on the food, rather than turn their backs on God.

Parliament was denounced for not helping and they reacted by declaring the crisis over in 1849 when the blight on the potato began to fade, but the blight on the Irish continued. Most historians estimate that the effects of the calamity were not over for another 30 years as food shortage and disease continued. Emigrants sent money back to those they had to leave behind and it helped them climb back to a stable life, but it would be years before many emigrants could establish themselves in their new lands. In the end most victims of the Great Hunger were gone before its effects were. One of the most insensitive events of the Great Hunger was Parliament’s premature declaration of the end of the blight. 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 in 1849. As the Irish starved and died in the workhouses and on the roads, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent to beautify the areas she would visit. 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 headline, though propaganda in its time, would eventually come true for a most remarkable incident occurred on the exact anniversary of the first day of the hunger, exactly 30 years after the blight had begun to fade!  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, surrounded by a mysterious glowing light, 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.  They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.  Word spread and others 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 vanished. In 1939, after years of investigation, the apparition was granted canonical sanction. Of the hundreds of visions reported, it is one of the few to have received such recognition and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage, yet during her appearance the Virgin 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 the clues are 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.  In Daly’s Hotel, Castlebar on August 16th 1879 the Mayo Land League was founded by Michael Davitt. When MP Charles Stewart Parnell joined it became the National Land League and by the end of 1879, the Land War began. It was only then that it could be truly said that the Great Hunger was over and the Irish began to take back their land.

Yet, while the dates have an uncanny significance, there is 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 headline had at finally come true: THE FAMINE WAS OVER AND THE QUEEN HAD VISITED IRELAND – but it wasn’t Victoria; it was the only Queen that the Irish had ever recognized!  Millions have visited Knock since 1879 and numerous miracles have been reported at the shrine. 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 2017

Joyce Kilmer

by Mike McCormack, AOH NYS Historian

When America entered World War I in April 1917, War Department regulations required the NY 69th Regiment to triple its size and its ranks were filled mostly with Irish-Americans and New Yorkers.  It sailed off in late October 1917 to support the allies as part of the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division of the American Expeditionary Force, commanded by General John J. Pershing. All National Guard regiments received new “100 series” numbers and the 69th was renumbered the 165th Infantry Regiment.  However, they retained their Irish spirit and every non-Irish member was designated an honorary Irishman by Fighting Father Francis Patrick Duffy, who became the Regimental Chaplain in 1914.  He described them as Irish by adoption, association or conviction.  One of Father Duffy’s closest adoptees was the famous poet, Joyce Kilmer, author of such memorable classics as Trees (I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree).  Determined to join the war, Kilmer enlisted in the Seventh NY Regiment, but seeing no future action, requested a transfer in August to the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, stationed at Camp Mills in Mineola, Long Island.

Kilmer was of  English ancestry, descended from Thomas Kilburn, Church Warden of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cambridgeshire, who came to America in 1638.  He even told his father that he intended to study for the Episcopal Ministry.  In 1908 he married Aline Murray of Metuchen, NJ and five years later they both converted to the Catholic faith.  He was then  considered America’s premier Catholic poet.  His public writings in support of the 1916 Easter Rising endeared him to the Irish.  He wrote many poems about Ireland including Easter Week in which he criticized William Butler Yeats verse which claimed Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave and in his poem, Apology, he named three poet leaders of the Rising.  Author and editor, Robert C Holliday, speculated in his memoir: It is not at all improbable that had he been an Irishman, born and resident in Ireland, he (Kilmer) would have been among the martyrs of Easter Week.

With Sergeant Joyce Kilmer in their number, the 69th arrived in France in November and saw their first action on 26 February 1918 in the trenches of the Rouge Bouquet where they lost 21 men in a dugout collapse during a severe bombardment.  Kilmer memorialized the event in his poem Rouge Bouquet (In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet, there is a new-made grave to-day). He also wrote the Prayer of a Soldier in France (My shoulders ache beneath my pack; Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).  Though often recommended for a commission, Kilmer stated that he would rather be a sergeant in the Fighting 69th than an officer in any other regiment.  One companion wrote: He was worshiped by the men about him. I have heard them speak with awe of his coolness and nerve in scouting patrols in No Man’s Land.  On 30 July, during the Second Battle of Marne, Kilmer volunteered to accompany Major William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan when Donovan’s First Battalion was sent to lead the day’s attack. Kilmer joined Donovan in scouting the Oureq River Battlefield to identify German strong-points and machine gun nests.  The two separated as Kilmer assessed the area. When Donovan returned, he discovered that the poet of the regiment had been killed. According to Father Duffy: A  bullet had pierced his brain. His body was carried in and buried by the side of Lt. Oliver Ames. God rest his dear and gallant soul.  Kilmer died at at the age of 31 and Father Duffy retrieved the rosary that Kilmer always wore around his neck. The 69th led with distinction during that 4-day battle, suffering 264 killed, 150 missing and 1,200 wounded out of their 3,000-man regiment, but they broke the German line.  As the Germans were retreating, the Brigade commander, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, wanted to press forward.  He was informed by the other regiments that they were too fatigued, but the decimated 69th replied that they would consider an order to advance as a compliment.  MacArthur exclaimed, By God, it takes the Irish when you want a hard thing done!  For his valor, Kilmer was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) by the French Republic.

Kilmer was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, near Picardy, France and a memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.  Though he sleeps in France, he is not forgotten in America where a memorial stands to him on the Kilmer family plot in Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick, NJ.  Memorial Plaques to his memory can also be found at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Tree in Central Park, NY; in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, in the Joyce Kilmer triangle in Brooklyn and in Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium.  There is also a Kilmer Triangle in Rogers Park, Chicago; a Joyce Kilmer Road in Roscommon, Michigan; a Joyce Kilmer Memorial in Como Park, St. Paul, MN; and countless schools and libraries carry his name. Yet, there is one memorial to this beloved adopted Irishman which is undoubtedly the most sacred.  It is the cross from the rosary that Father Duffy retrieved from the neck of Joyce Kilmer.  It was given in trust to the Commander of the Fighting 69th Regiment and it has been passed down from Commander to Commander since that day.  For a time it was proudly carried in a special leather pouch by the commanding officer on every important occasion where the Fighting 69th was publicly mustered and carried in every St. Patrick’s Day Parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue led by the Fighting 69th

In 2014, it was decided to retire it from active use in muster and better preserve it for future generations. It is now encased in a special framed display box along with Kilmer’s photograph and the final stanza from his Rouge Bouquet poem which is read at the funeral of every member of the Fighting 69th.  The display box hangs in the Battalion Commanders’s office in the Sixty-Ninth Infantry Regiment Armory. According to Bert  Cunningham, 69th Regiment historian, It’s permanently in the case now out of concern for its fragility. It’s in good condition and we want it to be preserved in the best condition possible.  The same can be said of Joyce Kilmer’s memory.