Historical Happenings for March 2020

MARCH 17
Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

March 17 is a special day on our calendar because it marks the return to God of our beloved patron saint in the year 461 AD.  It was in that year that a humble missionary passed to his eternal reward.  Today he is revered around the world as Saint Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, the Archdiocese of New York, the nation of Guiana, and hundreds of towns and parishes across the globe. But there are many other events which occurred on this day throughout history which also make it memorable; for example on March 17:

1014, High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, marched from Kincora, his stronghold at Killaloe, Co Clare, bound for Clontarf, and the battle that would break Viking power in Ireland;

1737, the first St Patrick’s celebration in America took place sponsored by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston;

1763, before the United States was even established, the first St Patrick’s Day celebration was held in New York City;

1766, it is recorded that a Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner in New York featured twenty toasts, the nineteenth of which declared “may the enemies of Ireland be tormented with itching, without the benefit of scratching“;

1776, the British evacuated Boston leaving the city to the American patriot army. General George Washington made the password of the day “Saint Patrick”;

1804, Jim Bridger, American scout, fur trader, and mountain man, was born;

1858, in a Dublin back room, James Stevens and Thomas Luby founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was supported by the Fenian Brotherhood in America;

1871, the first professional baseball league – the National Association of Professional Baseball Players  was founded at Collin’s Saloon on Broadway and 13th Street in New York;

1889, Harry Clarke, the most celebrated stained glass artist of the age, was born in Dublin;

1899, An Claideamh Soluis (The Sword of Light), the official newspaper of the Gaelic League first appeared;

Many past march readings have discussed our Patron Saint, so this month we will focus on another great and glorious character from the pages of Ireland’s history and that is the first one listed above: the Emperor of the Irish: High King Brian Boru.  Brian mac Cennetig was the youngest son born to Cennetig (Kennedy) mac Lorcáin, King of Thomond, and a prince of the Dal Cais Clan.  His birthplace was near Killaloe, Co. Clare at about 940 AD.  At the time, Ireland was besieged by Viking warriors who raided up and down Ireland’s rivers from their strongholds at Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and other seaside settlements.  The tribal structure of the Irish provided no unified opposition  and, as a result, some clans sided with the Norse out of fear, some clans fought the invaders, but only when they were threatened.  Some clans even ignored the threat and continued to fight among themselves over local disputes. 

Brian’s brother, Mahon, became King of Thomond following the death of their father in 959 AD and attempted to cement relations with the Vikings and establish a lasting peace, but his younger brother Brian shared no such desire.  In fact, ever since Brian had learned of the death of his mother in a Viking raid when he was just a boy, he harbored a hatred against the Vikings that guided the rest of his life.  Too young to participate in Clan activities at the time and too old to be treated as a child, he was sent to be educated – most likely at Clonmacnoise.  There he studied Greek and Latin, but the parts he studied hardest were the battle tactics of Greek and Roman generals.  When he returned to the Dal Cais, he urged the study of Viking weapons and battle methods with the idea of waging war on the invaders, but Mahon could not be convinced.  When he was old enough, Brian broke away from his brother and with a band of followers, waged a guerrilla war on Viking settlements.  A skilled tactician, he made use of mounted cavalry, which had never been used by the Irish before.  He won many decisive victories and instilled fear in the enemy as well as the Irish clans who had allied with them.

Brian’s campaign gained popular support and many joined him, including his Brother Mahon, who finally renounced his truce with the Vikings. Their combined forces drove most of the Norse from Southern Ireland, including their leader Ivar.  Eager for revenge, Ivar returned ten years later and captured and killed Mahon. Brian succeeded his brother to the throne of Munster, bringing with him a re-fueled hatred of the Vikings.  Soon after, his forces met and defeated Ivar’s army, killing Ivar, and striking Viking influence in Southern Ireland a serious blow.  Brian returned to his boyhood home at Killaloe and in 1002 built his fortress stronghold.  It was called Kincora, deriving its name from the Irish Ceann Coradh, meaning ‘the head of the weir’.  It was located on a hill overlooking the Shannon – a site now occupied by the Catholic Church.  It guarded a part of the river that was wide enough to hinder an attack, yet shallow enough to drive cattle across.  Brian ruled from Kincora and exacted a tribute from the Munster Clans in return for his protection.  The cattle tribute was driven across that shallow part of the Shannon in the shadow of Kincora.  Tribute in Irish is Boroimhe, and from this, Brian became known as Brian of the Tributes or Brian Boru.  With this value from tribute, he paved new toads across the province, erected churches and rebuilt monasteries and monuments destroyed by raiding Vikings.

In the northern part of Ireland, Malachy the Second, followed Boru’s lead when his forces defeated a Norse army to take Dublin in 980 and Malachy became King of Meath. About the year 987, Brian was undisputed ruler of southern Ireland, yet he had no official title.  In Ossory, in Leinster, and in Connaught, his voice and his arm were felt everywhere. But a divided authority is favorable to invasion, so the Viking power began to loom up to its old proportions. Sitrick ‘silken beard’ one of the ablest of Viking leaders, was then at Dublin, and his constant raids were so formidable, that they produced an alliance between Brian and Malachy.  The alliance lasted three years, and in 997, with reinforcements  from the North, the Vikings were routed by Brian and Malachy in Wicklow, with the loss of 6,000 men and all their chief captains. Immediately after this victory the two kings, according to the Annals, entered into Dublin, and the fort thereof, and there remained seven nights, burnt the town, broke down the fort, and banished Sitrick from thence.

Finding Brian’s influence still on the rise west of the Shannon, Malachy, having vainly endeavored to secure the alliance of the Northern Hy-Nial, submitted to Brian allowing Boru to peacefully take over his lands.  Boru was granted the title “Ard Ri”, meaning “High King”. This made him one of the first – and last – kings to effectively unite Ireland under one monarch. The rivals to Brian Boru’s rule were numerous, however, both among the native Irish and the remaining Norse. In 1013, Maelmordha, King of Leinster, revolted and allied with the Vikings. They summoned reinforcements from Boru’s other Irish rivals and the Viking nations, as far away as Normandy and Iceland.  On March 17, 1014, Brian Boru led his forces out of Kincora headed for Dublin and the pages of Irish history.  The two forces met on Good Friday, April 23, 1014 on the field of Clontarf. Nearly 4,000 Irishmen were killed at the Battle, including Brian’s son Murrough, but the Viking/Leinster forces suffered even heavier losses.  At the end of the battle, what little remained of the Norse forces retreated to their ships. But before all the invaders fled, a fleeing Norse leader, Brodar, came upon Brian’s tent and attacked the Irish leader in prayer thanking God for the victory.  Then in his late seventies or early eighties, Brian was able to wound Brodar who struck Brian a mortal wound.  Brodar was captured by Brians attendants and left tied to a tree by his own intestines.

With Boru gone and his strong influence absent, Ireland soon fell into chaos and anarchy. There would never be another king powerful enough to rule all of Ireland.  In 1016, Connaught men raided and destroyed Kincora. As his descendants feuded among themselves in 1062 for the crown, Aodh O’Connor burned Killaloe and destroyed the rebuilt Kincora.  He claimed it for himself and feasted on the two sacred salmon kept in a pool within the walls of the palace

Historical Happenings for February 2020

FATHER TOM O’REILLY

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

On a trip to Atlanta some years ago, I met Father Thomas O’Reilly – figuratively, of course, – since Father Tom passed away back in 1872. Yet in March 2007, he was honored with the City of Atlanta’s Phoenix Award in appreciation of his heroism and outstanding contributions to the City and citizens of Atlanta. It simply just begged the question: who was this remarkable man?
Born in Drumgora, Co. Cavan, in 1831, Thomas O’Reilly graduated All Hallows seminary in Dublin and was sent to the American south as a missionary priest in the area of Atlanta where Masses were held in private homes. In 1848, a wooden-frame church was built by a fellow Irish missionary, Father John Barry. The people named it the Church of the Immaculate Conception. That was remarkable since it was dedicated in 1849, six years before the Church had even defined its official dogma that Mary had been conceived without original sin. During the 1850’s prosperity abounded in Georgia; cotton was king and new factories were the order of the day as well as a new influx of Catholics. In 1861 Father Thomas O’Reilly was appointed pastor of Atlanta’s first Church and its missions. 

                   Father Thomas O’Reilly

Then came the Civil War and Atlanta became the military manufacturing and supply depot for the South. The city also became a main medical center with at least ten hospitals where thousands of wounded were treated. These hospitals occupied much of Father O’Reilly’s time. In 1864, the Union Army, led by General Sherman, laid siege to Atlanta during which Father O’Reilly ministered to both Union and Confederate wounded. He became a hero to both sides, hearing confessions, answering letters, saying Mass and performing last rites. On 2 September, 1864, the city fell to General Sherman who evicted many residents to allow housing for his army. Many were Father O’Reilly’s parishioners, but Catholics among the boys in blue now crowded his church on Sunday.
In the autumn of 1864, General Sherman, planning his ‘total war’ march to the sea at Savannah, ordered the entire city burned. An outraged Father O’Reilly sent word to Sherman that burning homes and churches was beyond the normal rules of warfare. Sherman was unresponsive. Father O’Reilly pleaded for a compromise that would spare his church. Sherman rejected the request. Father O’Reilly sent word that a number of Atlanta’s merchants and tradesmen who had not gone to war stood ready to defend their churches and among them were an Irish group known as The Hibernian Rifles. Further, he warned Sherman that the Union army had a high number of Irish Catholics and stated, ‘If you burn the Catholic church, all Catholics in the Union army will mutiny and if not, they will be excommunicated’. Sherman considered having Father O’Reilly executed, but feared mutiny among his Irish troops and finally relented. Then, an emboldened Father O’Reilly asked that the other churches be spared, as well as City Hall and the Court House since they were in close proximity to his church and the fire might spread. Sherman changed his orders to spare City Hall, the Court House and five churches including Immaculate Conception, Central Presbyterian, St. Phillip’s Episcopal, Second Baptist and Trinity Methodist. As the Federal Army moved out on its infamous march to the sea, only one-third of Atlanta survived with about 500 brave people and Father Tom O’Reilly. From this they would rebuild.
Feeling that their old church would be out of place in the new city going up around it, the parishioners built a new church on the same spot which stands to this day. Sadly, Father O’Reilly did not live to see it completed. In 1872, the ravages of war which had ruined his health, caused his death at 41 in a Virginia sanitarium. His remains were brought back to his beloved parish for the largest funeral ever held up to that time. Father O’Reilly was buried in a vault prepared beneath the altar of the rising new Church. As a result of Father O’Reilly’s heroic stand, and the bravery of the Hibernian Rifles, the City of Atlanta deeded the Hibernians a burial plot in Oakland Cemetery in 1873. The five churches and the City also erected a monument to Father O’Reilly on the grounds of City Hall. On 10 December, 1873, the new Church of the Immaculate Conception was formally dedicated and local newspapers described it as one of the most handsome in the South and an ornament to our city.

In 1879, General Sherman returned on an inspection tour of Atlanta’s Fort McPherson. He was surprised at the progress of the city, to which he gave a toast at a local reception. Surely, as he rode through the re-born city, he noticed the new church and the memory of the gentle but persistent Father O’Reilly had to come to his mind, for religion had finally won in his own life as well ─ at the time his son was studying for the priesthood! Although never a religious man, Sherman’s foster mother, Maria Ewing, was a devout Catholic of Irish ancestry as was his wife, Ellen. Sherman now lies in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

On 18 October 1945, eighty-one years after his brave and defiant intercession, the Atlanta Historical Society erected a monument to Father O’Reilly in gratitude for saving the churches and City Hall in 1864. In truth he was like so many other courageous clerics from Father Murphy of Boolavogue to Archbishop ‘Dagger John’ Hughes of New York, but he was not as well known outside Atlanta. Ironically, his burial place was soon forgotten as the memory of this heroic priest began to fade especially with the new arrivals in the bustle of a growing metropolis. Then, in 1982, the Church of The Immaculate Conception caught fire and the roof fell in. It broke through the concrete floor of the church to reveal a long-forgotten crypt. In it were the coffins of Father O’Reilly and his successor Father Cleary. The discovery resurrected the story of this hero of Atlanta and the crypt was made accessible to pilgrims. A small adjacent room contains museum-style glass cases with artifacts of the Church’s history and the resurrection of Atlanta from the ashes of the Civil War. In one of those cases, beside a portrait of Father O’Reilly, lies his membership ribbon from Atlanta AOH Division 1!

Historical Happenings for January 2020

WASHINGTON AND HIS MONUMENT

By Mike McCormack, AOH Historian

George Washington held a special place in Irish hearts. No, he was not Irish, but he did have an Irish cousin named McCarthy by marriage.  However, he did appreciate the contributions of the Irish in his Colonial Army. During the revolution, he even issued a proclamation in honor of the high percentage of Irish under his command, declaring March 17, 1780 a holiday for the Army. It was their first holiday in two years and he wrote it was “an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence“. He also had two Irish-born Aides-de-Camp: Lt. Colonels John Fitzgerald and Stephen Moylan.  When the Revolution ended, no man commanded more respect than he. After building a fighting force that won independence from the most powerful kingdom on earth, in 1789 he was unanimously elected President and defined the new office. He denied the trappings of power by refusing a kingship and, despite considerable pressure to do otherwise, gave up his most powerful position after two terms since he felt that a President could never become as powerful as the king they just fought. Though many wanted him for a third term, in 1797 he retired and went home to build a business with Irish-born Lt. Col. Fitzgerald.

Progress towards a memorial in his honor began in 1833 – the 100th anniversary of his birth – as the Washington National Monument Society began collecting donations.  By the mid-1830s, they had more than $28,000 and they started construction believing that the appearance of the Monument would spur further donations. In 1848 a cornerstone was laid in an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony and construction continued until 1854, when donations ran out. The next year, Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 to continue the work but, they halted it before the money was allocated. The reversal came because of a series of shameful events.

The Society had also encouraged the donation of memorial stones to be used on the inside walls and organizations, societies, businesses and foreign nations donated blocks of marble, granite and sandstone. However, one stone stopped not only the Congressional appropriation but construction altogether.  In 1854, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of costly variegated marble from the Temple of Peace in Rome built in 366 B.C.  It bore the inscription, ‘From Rome to America’.  The stone, 3 feet long, 18 inches high and 10 inches thick was stored with other gift stones from across the States and the world, waiting to be installed.

On the night of 5 March 1854, several anti-Catholic Know Nothing nativists tied up the night watchman, stole the Papal stone, broke it with sledge hammers and threw it into the Potomac to insure that the monument would fit their definition of ‘American.’ Two stones donated by Ireland were also lost. The watchman was fired and the Society put up a $500. reward for the thieves.  They were never caught.  Know-Nothings then ran a fraudulent election and took over the Society whereby Congress rescinded its $200,000 contribution.  Know-Nothings added 13 parts to the Monument – all of which were of such poor quality they were later removed.  Unable to fund the project, they returned all records to the original Society in 1858. 

In 1876, the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Congress appropriated another $200,000 and the partial monument, which stood as a public embarrassment for 18 years, was now ready for completion.  Construction resumed in 1879 under Irish-American Lt. Col. Thomas Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers.  He strengthened the foundation to support more than 40,000 tons, followed the original plans and even incorporated the 170-foot tall pile of memorial stones which had been a target of ridicule by the media.  Casey recognized that the donors wanted them to be a part of the memorial, so he installed all 193 stones as part of the interior walls. However, he was unable to find the same quarry stone used earlier, resulting in the bottom third of the monument being a slightly different color than the rest.  On 6 December 1884, a 100 ounce aluminum capstone was put in place during an elaborate dedication ceremony. In the 1880s, aluminum was a rare metal, selling for $1.10 an ounce and used mostly for jewelry. All four faces of the pyramid-shaped capstone are engraved with related information and the words Laus Deo (Praise be to God) are prominently engraved on the east face. At the time, a 55.5 foot base and a height of 555.5 feet made it the tallest building in the world; it is still the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world and was, by law, the tallest building in Washington D.C.

I wrote this story in the Hibernian Digest and in conversation with our NY State Treasurer, Tommy Beirne, he informed me that the Pope’s stone had eventually been found and I should check out that part of the story.  Knowing that Tommy is well informed in Irish and American history, I did just that.  I learned that in June 1892, divers digging foundations for a new pier discovered the corner of a large stone.  It was a sharply cut and beautifully polished piece of variegated marble about six inches thick, a foot and a half high by three feet long.  One side had the damaged inscription: Ro—t—merica, cut deep in Gothic characters.  In the crowd of spectators was an elderly gentleman who struck the stone with his cane. Shouting, Where did that thing come from?  It’s the Devil’s own work and it’s come back from hell where it belongs, at which point the old man ran off.  He was obviously an old Know-Nothing leftover!  The stone was stored in a small shed nearby for safekeeping until it could be donated to the Smithsonian.  However, on the night of 19 June, the crew locked the shed door and left for a supper. When they returned, the stone was gone.  Nobody ever found out what had happened, although in May 1959, the local Evening Star printed an urban legend that the stone was buried under 21st and R Streets, N.W.  Our thanks to Tommy for the ‘rest of the story’.

Memorial stones are now accepted only in very rare circumstances, such as the admission of a new state to the union or replacement of a previously donated stone.  At any rate, a new “Pope’s Stone” was commissioned by a priest in Spokane, Washington and installed in the monument by the National Park Service in 1982. Later that same year, the Vatican did indeed donate another stone to replace the first.  It is made of shiny white marble and is now inside the Monument, at the 340 foot level, on the west wall of the stairway. The inscription is “A ROMA AMERICAE” (Latin for From Rome to America.) Although it’s not the original, it’s a good reminder of the resilience of those it represents.  Then on March 17, 2016 it was announced that the offer of a plaque from Ireland was accepted by the director of the National Park Service. The presentation was made in May 2016 by Senator Mark Daly of the Irish Seanad Éireann, Irish Spokesman for the Irish Diaspora.  After 183 years, the monument is now complete!

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.