Theobold Wolfe Tone

The closest that the Irish ever came to complete independence happened when Irish Catholics and Protestants united in a brotherhood of purpose for the benefit of all. It started at the time of the American Revolution.

The 1777 surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in the American Revolution was followed by the alliance of France to America’s cause. The British Parliament began to fear an invasion of either England or Ireland. In April 1778, John Paul Jones crossed the Atlantic, captured two British ships, then boldly sailed into Belfast Bay in broad daylight, and sank a British Man-0-War. England was painfully aware that their power in Ireland to repel such attacks was non-existent, so they gave in to a suggestion made by Henry Grattan’s Patriot Party in the Irish Parliament: the creation of a corps of volunteers to defend England’s Irish colony.

The Patriot Party had evolved in the Irish Parliament as a result of the Crown’s policies against dissenters. Church of Ireland members held all the privileged positions, and the predominantly Catholic native Irish were forced to the low end of the economic scale, but all other Protestants, including Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers who made up the growing middle class of professionals and tradesmen, were called Dissenters, and were likewise disenfranchised. As Turlough Faolain further revealed in his book, Blood on the Harp, Although the Penal Laws had been specifically targeted at the Papists, much of the legislation had been drafted in such a way to make the Dissenters subject to the same restrictions.

Throughout the 18th century, selfish exploitation incited violence in all corners of England’s colonial empire. In Ireland, angry Irish tenants formed secret agrarian societies like the Whiteboys and Defenders to punish the abuses of the Landlords.

Dissenters followed with secret Protestant societies of their own like the Steel Boys in reaction to Ascendancy outrages. In 1759, Henry Flood, a leader of Irish Protestants in opposition to England’s economic exploitation, was elected to the Irish Parliament, and he formed a faction called the Patriot Party. The Patriot Party attracted Dissenters seeking change, and England bought off Flood with the position of Vice Treasurer. Henry Grattan stepped in to assume that vacated leadership, and the Patriot Party became the opposition party in the Irish Parliament.

Within two years after approval to form a Corps of Volunteers, 100,000 men were armed by the loyal aristocracy. Catholics were initially excluded from the volunteers, but when Spain entered the American alliance in 1779, Catholics were not only invited in, but armed. The volunteers did not turn out to be the loyal army that the Crown had hoped for. Not only had the Catholics no love of the Crown, but the Presbyterians had grievance with England over unfair trade laws that favored British products and crippled the Irish woolen and linen trades. Thus when the volunteers came to strength, the first invasion they repelled was the invasion of British-manufactured goods. In 1779 Henry Gratten moved in Parliament for Free Trade for Ireland. Knowing that his supporters were in the minority, on the day of the vote the indomitable Napper Tandy could be seen from the windows of Parliament with his volunteer artillery corps in their emerald and scarlet uniforms. They were mustered on College Green with their cannon trained on the assembly! The Free Trade Bill passed and the embargo was lifted on Irish exports. England became more nervous as Ireland became bolder.

In 1780, Gratten moved a Declaration of Right to grant the Irish Parliament independent status under the Crown, but the measure was opposed. In October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown! Afraid that Ireland would erupt next, King George gave Gratten his Irish Parliament, although it was a shallow victory. Only 64 of the 300 seats were filled by elections; the remainder were peers, lords, and landlords, and was hopelessly corrupt. There was one however, who entered and challenged that corrupt body; his name was Theobold Wolfe Tone.

Inspired by the American and French revolutions, Tone worked to unite the Irish people. In September, 1791, he published a pamphlet An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland by a Northern Whig explaining that both Dissenters and Catholics had common cause and a common enemy – England! The pamphlet was so well received that he was invited by Henry Joy McCracken to meet with the Northern Whig Club in Belfast. On Oct 12 Tone met with Thomas Russell and William Sinclair and on the 14th he met with a Secret Committee to discuss his plan for organized political and economic opposition to England. From it sprang an organization known as The United Irishmen which held its first meeting on October 26. They began to lobby for Catholic rights. England, on the verge of war with France, acquiesced, and the Franchise of 1793 was passed granting limited rights to Catholics.

Though legally established, England was determined to break this new union called The United Irishmen and began to sew seeds of division. Religious propaganda was aimed at both sides – each denouncing the other, and in 1795, as a final solution, The Orange Order was formed among loyal Church of Ireland protestants to exterminate Catholic `troublemakers’. Homes were raided, murders committed, and farms burned to the ground. Tone and the other leaders of The United Irishmen remodeled their organization from a political to a military one. As Tone travelled to America and France for aid, Insurrection and Indemnity Acts were passed by Parliament and England’s war against The United Irishmen accelerated. Atrocities were commonplace and leaders of the organization were arrested. Tone secured French aid and led a fleet of 43 French ships to Ireland. A fierce storm prevented their landing and they returned to France with the broken-hearted Wolfe Tone who immediately began lobbying for the French to mount yet another expedition.

On March 30, 1798, England declared Martial Law in Ireland to break The United Irishmen or force them into premature action. By May 27, the tactic succeeded. The people were finally goaded into action in a disjointed rather than coordinated insurrection – the rising of 1798 had begun. The leaderless and unarmed people of Wexford followed, initially led by a simple parish priest named Father John Murphy. News of the rising reached Tone in France, and he frantically pressed the French to aid his people who were already in the field against overwhelming odds. A small force of 1,000 men was dispatched, to be followed by a larger force. They landed on August 22, but at the wrong place – Killala Bay in Mayo. England dispatched General Cornwallis (recently disgraced by his surrender in America to an army made up of many Irish immigrants) to redeem his honor in Ireland. He landed at the head of a massive army and overpowered the French and Irish forces. French prisoners were expatriated back to France while the Irish were put to the sword.

Tone arrived with the final French force off Lough Swilly and ran directly into a waiting British fleet. After a desperate 6-hour battle, during which Tone himself commanded a battery of ships guns, the French fleet was routed and Tone was captured. As he was placed in chains he declared, For the cause which I have embraced, I am prouder to wear these chains than if I were decorated with the Star and Garter of England.. After his court-martial on November 10, he said, I have sacrificed all in life; I have courted poverty; I left a beloved wife unprotected and children whom I adore fatherless. After such sacrifice in the cause of justice and freedom – it is no great effort to add the sacrifice of my life. Wolfe Tone made that sacrifice on November 19, 1798. He was buried in Bodenstown, in the grave which Ireland cherishes today as her most precious possession. Thus ended a glorious dream that had all started in October, 1791.

George Washington’s Irish

In this month (July) when we celebrate America’s independence, it would be good to recall the part played by the Irish in that watershed in history. The Father of our country had a great deal of respect for the Irish. It was a respect born of admiration for their dedication to the revolutionary cause. Early Irish settlers in America fled English tyranny in the old world and were determined it would not follow them to the new. Its no surprise therefore, that when separation from England was first proposed, the Irish were its most enthusiastic supporters. When the issue finally came to rebellion, that support became the backbone of Washington’s army. Charles Beard in The Rise of American Civilization, wrote, “Native Irish who came by the hundreds, if not by the thousands, bearing the scars of age-old conflict with England, flocked to the American Army when the standard of revolt was raised.”  When British forces left Boston to destroy the rebels at Lexington and Concord, their Major Pitcairn declared, “We will drive the Yankees and Irish to cover. ”  Not only were there 147 Irish among the minutemen that fateful Apr 19, but when the `Shot Heard Round the World’ was fired and the smoke cleared at Old North Bridge, among the dead were 22 Irish who had routed Pitcairn’s redcoats and given their lives in America’s initial bid for independence.

In July, 1775, when the Continental Congress was in need of finances, a plea was sent to the people of Ireland seeking support for the Irish in America. While Henry Gratten pleaded the cause in the Irish Parliament, funds collected in Dublin, Cork, and other cities were sent to America. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000 to help finance the revolution, and ended up in debtor’s prison for his efforts. War journalist George Clarke noted of him, “Pollack knew the British in Ireland and that was enough for him.”

The largest ethnic group to sign the Declaration of Independence were those with Irish roots, Charles Dunlop of Co Tyrone printed the first copies, and the first man to read it before Congress was Charles Thomson of Derry – Secretary of the Continental Congress. With the revolution underway, the Irish swelled the ranks of Washington’s rebel force in record numbers.

Dr. Davis Ramsey noted, “The common soldiers of the state were, for the most part, Irish.” British General Clinton wrote to his Secretary of War, “Immigrants from Ireland were to be looked on as our most serious antagonists”, and a letter from Ambrose Serle to the British Secretary of State went as far as to say, “Great numbers of Irish are in the rebel army”, and recommended that they be prohibited from leaving Ireland because “they add strength to the rebel army.” Even the Royal Gazette estimated that Washington’s forces were about half Irish.

The tenacity of the Irish was a great asset to the patriot cause. Froude, the eminent British historian, noted, “Washington’s Irish supporters were the foremost, the most irreconcilable, and the most determined to push the quarrel to the last extremity.” According to Major General Marquis de Chastellux, “On more than one occasion Congress owed their existence, and America possibly her preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.”  General Henry Lee’s memoirs noted that the Pennsylvania line, “might have justly been called the Line of Ireland.”  What more gallant group could Washington have asked for than John Brady, revolutionary scout; or Major John Kelly who destroyed the bridge at Stony Point saving the American retreat from Trenton; or Capt. William O’Neill who held the British in check at Brandywine. Ranked among Washington’s most trusted officers were Irish-born Generals Wayne, Sullivan, Irving, Shee, Lewis, Butler, and Commodore John Barry. Washington’s personal Secretary was Major Charles McHenry and his Irish Aides de Camp included Joseph Reed, Joseph Carey, Stephen Moylan, and John Fitzgerald indicating just how deep that trust was. When General Montgomery was killed leading the attack on Quebec, Washington publicly mourned his trusted and valued Irish friend.

After the war, Lord Mountjoy stated in the British Parliament, “America was lost through the action of her Irish immigrants.” George Washington acknowledged America’s debt to the Irish in a letter thanking them for the part they played in winning America’s independence. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that “the people of Ireland need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have so long worn.”

On the day of the British evacuation of New York, Washington sought out a man whose contribution was known to very few. Generally considered a collaborator, he was in fact Washington’s highest intelligence agent, and had been living an extremely dangerous existence in the middle of the British as a tailor to their officers and gentry. He was a daring Irishman with the unusual name of Hercules Mulligan; Washington revealed his identity and service by publicly taking Mulligan to breakfast.

Washington and the founding fathers continuously demonstrated their trust in America’s adopted Irish sons and daughters. The first President wrote of his pride in accepting membership in the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, and when Thomas Jefferson campaigned for President, he selected Thomas Addis Emmet – Irish rebel and brother of Ireland’s martyred patriot, Robert Emmet – as one of his campaign managers.

Ireland gave America soldiers to win her freedom, and those soldiers left another legacy in true Irish fashion. Alan Lomax, renowned American collector of folk songs noted the presence of the Irish in Washington’s continental army by the songs those soldiers sang. He wrote, “If soldier’s folk songs were the only evidence, it would seem that the armies that fought in the early American wars were composed entirely of Irishmen.”

The Easter Rising

The Easter Rising took place on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. It was yet the latest in more than a dozen attempts by the Irish to break the chains of bondage imposed on them by the Crown since the Normans first invaded in 1171. At least a dozen times in the previous seven centuries the Irish had organized military opposition and several times they had even tried parliamentary reform – all to no avail. With the dawn of the twentieth century, a new generation inherited the nationalist tradition of the past and was determined to keep faith with that tradition and try again.

To understand the significance of the Rising, one must start with the Gaelic revival early in the century. A literary movement, it sparked a renaissance in Ireland’s cultural heritage – language, history and arts. It planted the seeds of nationalism which led to a demand for Home Rule – a separate parliament for Ireland to govern herself. The government in Westminster depended on the Irish members of Parliament to ensure their power, so they acquiesced and promised Home Rule. However, loyalists in northern Ireland, who felt they would be a minority in an all-Irish Parliament, vowed to fight Home Rule if it were imposed. They formed a loyalist paramilitary militia called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1912 and became the first to import arms on a large scale as a force of 100,000 were armed and trained. In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed by members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood to counter UVF opposition to Home Rule. However, they were only a poorly armed force of about 10,000.

The key to what happened next was an American citizen from Long Island, New York. His name was Thomas J. Clarke. An unrepentant veteran of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary society in Ireland, he was imprisoned for anti-Crown activities. Released after charges of torture were upheld he was exiled from Ireland. He fled to America in 1898. He settled in New York and became active in Clann na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement. He was employed by an Irish-American newspaper edited by John Devoy – the most powerful figure in the Clann at the time. Highly respected for the suffering he endured for Irish freedom, Clarke became one of the Clan’s most trusted members. He became an American citizen and in Sept, 1906, retired to Manorville, Long Island. Though prematurely aged at 48, Clarke was not put out to pasture.

In December, 1907, he was sent to Ireland to rejuvenate the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had become inactive due to age and apathy. As the trusted link between the Irish exiles of Clann na Gael and the IRB in Ireland, he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the IRB and was one of its most powerful advocates of revolutionary action. He infiltrated the Volunteers, brought a young schoolteacher named Padraic Pearse into the brotherhood and recruited a young cadre to become a military council to further the goal of Irish freedom.

Home Rule was passed by Parliament, but with the outbreak of WWI, implementation was postponed; then, Northern politicians moved an amendment to exclude six counties of Ulster from the provisions of Home Rule and establish a separate state. John Redmond, head of the Irish Parliamentary Party believed that loyalty shown to the Crown at this crucial hour would result in the Crown acting favorably on behalf of Home Rule at the wars end, so he committed the Volunteers to serve in the British Army. This split the Volunteers and those who opposed service in the British Army reorganized under Eoin MacNeill.

IRB members within the Volunteer movement felt betrayed, and began to plot a rising. They were Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Kent, Sean MacDermott, led by the old Fenian, Tom Clarke. James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, a force organized to protect workers from police during labor disputes, was brought in on the plans. They set a date for a rising on Easter Sunday because of the symbolism of Christ’s rising from the dead and because all the military would be off on holiday. Orders were issued for training maneuvers throughout the country. When Volunteer Roger Casement was captured trying to land arms in Kerry on Good Friday, MacNeill learned that the maneuvers were to be an actual rising and countermanded the orders in the public press, determined to keep the Volunteers as only a balancing force to the UVF. Clarke rescheduled the rising for Monday, but was unable to get the word to the Volunteers outside Dublin. The military council decided to rise anyway, believing that the rest of the country would rally when they heard of the fighting in Dublin.

The patriots marched into Dublin on Monday and the British immediately cut all communication lines out of the city. The word never got out. The rising was confined to Dublin, and for five heroic days, the insurgents held out against the might of the British Empire. In the end, battered by shot and shell, they surrendered. By the time the rest of the country found out what had happened, it was over. Then the British did a very stupid thing.

They separated the leaders from the mass of prisoners who had surrendered, lined them up against a wall, and murdered the noblest leaders Ireland had produced in that generation. Connolly, who had been wounded in the fray, was taken out on a stretcher, and propped up against a wall to receive the bullets. That foolish act of revenge brought the Irish nation to their feet as one angry mass against the Crown. The seeds planted by the Gaelic Revival burst forth in a nationalist fury that led to the War of Independence, and the ultimate treaty with the British that led to the modern Republic of Ireland. Although six counties in the north were left to the Crown, most of Ireland was free. As we know the struggle for the Erin’s remaining green field continues yet, but whether or not the current peace leads to the promised unification of Ireland, the men of Easter Week who gave their lives that Irishmen might control their own destiny must never be forgotten. Remember them in your prayers on April 24.

Throughout the hardship of seven centuries
brave Irishmen struggled and fought
remember the price already paid
and don’t let it be for naught!