America’s Birthday

 

Independence Day, July 4th 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.  Great numbers of them filled the ranks of Washington’s patriot army from foot soldiers to high ranking officers, and those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier, contributed in other ways.  The military won the war, but the ones who led the march toward the battlefield were the merchants, and community leaders who really shaped our destiny, for they were the ones who dreamt the dream, organized its creation, and supported its success.  And there were many Irish among them as well.

In the late 1700s, when increased Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with.  That was significant for there were many Irish in the colonies at the time; they had been coming since the 1650s.  The first noticeable influx into New England occurred in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as slaves.  From that time 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 those Catholics and Presbyterians who fled the Penal Laws and persecution by the Church of England; some of whom were businessmen who sought to escape the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown in order to benefit their British competitors.  The suppression of the Irish wool and linen trades reduced the population of Ulster by half a million; and they came to America with their looms and spinning wheels.

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 some settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down, and Capt. Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake – first white settlers in what is now Greenwich Conn.  They settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish American John Stark and Limerick-born Matt Lyons; in New Hamphire where Capt Maginnis commanded the militia; and in other areas from Maine, home of the O’Briens who would capture the 1st British ship in the war that was yet to come, to Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn who had grown up in Co Cork.

They were a considerable presence in many communities.  In 1728, for example, 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.  They had obviously been arriving for a while since 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 73, Irish immigration to the American colonies was more than 18,500 and they were no friends of British colonialism.

There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Matthew Lyons, Patrick Henry, and other Irish and 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 accent.  While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, and raised money to feed and clothe the army.  Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000.00 – a considerable fortune at the time.

On July 1, 1776 after a year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options.  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 2nd to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question.  On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife that July 2nd was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever.  However, approval of the final draft of the document was not made until July 4th.

The Philadelphia State House was packed, despite the 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 temper tantrums, modifying copy, shouting matches, further amendments and even more debate, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete.  Only Hancock and Thomson signed that day; the formal copy would not be ready for all signatures until July 19th.  Signing that Declaration carried enormous risk, for to the British it was an act of treason, punishable by death.  As Benjamin Franklin put it to the delegates, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  Among the courageous signers were 3 native-born Irish: James Smith, George Taylor and Matthew Thornton and many of Irish descent.  Philadelphia printer Charles Dunlop of Co Tyrone rolled out copies (now famed as the rare Dunlop Broadsides) that were snatched up before the ink was dry.  On July 8th the people first heard that document read – in an Irish accent – as Secretary Thomson read it to an anxiously awaiting public.

The event marked by the 4th of July is therefore, not the winning, but the declaring of America’s independence.  There would be many more years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on March 10, 1783, but America had made her stand.  That last battle, by the way, saw Irish-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 Irish-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.

Yes, the Irish were there, and the fact that they made loyal Americans is evidenced in the writings of Marquis de Chastellux who wrote after the revolution, “An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American.  During the whole of the war, the 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 merchants 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.”

In Ireland, where funds were raised to support the American cause, the hopes of the Irish were with America to such an extent that America’s success inspired a liberation movement in Ireland and in 1798, the Irish attempted to duplicate the American example.  Unfortunately they were too close to England and it failed, and though young America was in no position to help the Irish, her hopes were with them.  President Washington wrote that “the Irish need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have worn for so long.”

It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington.  In 1828, he said, “Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the days 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.’

Today, it might seem that many of our elected representatives have forgotten the debt owed to the Irish, but we haven’t.  Remember that as you hang out the stars and stripes on the Fourth of July.  Many Irish fought and died so that you would have the right to do so, so do it with pride.  And it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you made a copy of this history and gave it to your children to bring in to their teachers.

Christmas in Ireland

The Christmas season in Ireland is 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 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. 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, and an especially brave family would host the celebration. Naturally, 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 every house window 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”

As evening fell over the Irish hills on Christmas Eve, the candles in each window were lit casting a magical glow over the hillside like scattered jewels on Erin’s cloak of evening, the largest of which were the churches dotting the landscape and beckoning the faithful to Midnight Mass. After Mass the people returned home and retired for the night leaving their doors slightly ajar all night as a symbol 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 with the name of 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 St. Stephen’s day 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. These Wren Boys, as they are called, dress in old blouses, pajamas, flour sacks, sashes and colored ribbons in as many combinations as the imagination allows. They then set off carrying the `victim’ and a collection of musical instruments centering around the Bodhran (a one sided drum similar to a large tambourine) which is beaten with a wooden stick as 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’. The Wren Boys are practicing a ritual that was old in western Europe before the Christian gospel was first preached in the hills of Galilee. Scholars suggest that it is of Celtic origin and that, 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 which continues until Little Christmas on January 6, when the visit of the Magi, or the three wise men, is celebrated. Years ago in some areas of Ireland, as in many areas of western Europe, it was this day, rather than Christmas, when gifts were exchanged in remembrance of the gifts of the Magi.

Lament for Art O’Leary

More than three hundred years ago, in 1691, the Treaty of Limerick was offered by the English to end hostilities between the Irish followers of King James and King William of Orange. By the terms of that treaty, all who took arms against William were to join the English Army or quit Ireland. If they agreed, religious freedom would be guaranteed to those who remained. On October 5, the Irish under Patrick Sarsfield, accepted the terms, laid down their arms and marched out of the besieged City of Limerick. Only 1,046 of the 14,000 Irish forces turned to William’s banner. The rest sailed away to form the Irish regiments in the armies of Europe. Ireland never saw them again, and their grieving families called them `na Gaena Fiadhainne’ – the Wild Geese.

History tells how well the English kept their word, for in 1697 they reversed the terms of the treaty and enacted The Penal Laws – which have been denounced as the most repressive laws ever enacted against a nation. It marked the beginning of a national persecution never before approached in its severity. Professor Leckey, a prominent British historian, stated in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century, It was not the persecution of a sect, but the degradation of a nation. And indeed, when we remember that the greater part of it was in force for nearly a century, that its victims formed at least three-quarters of the nation, that its degrading and dividing influence extended to every field of social, political, professional, intellectual, and even domestic life, and that it was enacted without the provocation of any rebellion, in defiance of a treaty which distinctly guaranteed the Irish Catholics from any further oppression on account of their religion, it may be justly regarded as one of the blackest pages in the history of persecution. The persecution began with the seizure of 750,000 acres of land and forbade the Irish their religion, an education, a profession, a vote, property, and countless other rights. One of the laws even forbid an Irishman to own a horse valued at more than 5 Pounds, and that was the cause of one brave man’s death.

Art O’Leary was the son of one of those Wild Geese and like his father, he entered the service of Austria. A brave and courageous soldier, he was soon elevated to the rank of Captain of Hussars in the Cavalry of Empress Maria Theresa’s Austrian Army. In 1773, he traveled to his ancestral homeland with his wife, Eileen O’Connell of the Derrynane O’Connells and aunt of the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. Since a good Cavalry Officer and his animal were inseparable, the Captain brought his mount – a beautiful brown mare with a white star on its forehead – with him from Vienna. In Ireland, the captain attended a local horse race; he entered and took the top prize much to the surprise of the local English gentry.

The local landlord approached him after the race and offered him 5 Pounds for his horse. The Captain laughed at the insulting offer, but the landlord, who was also the local magistrate, demanded the horse or the Irishman would be arrested for owning an animal worth more than the 5 Pounds that the law allowed. That a free-born Continental Officer should part with a fine cavalry steed at the behest of an alien landlord was more than O’Leary could tolerate; he again refused and departed. He was declared an outlaw and troops were summoned to apprehend him. On May 4, 1773, they caught up with the 26-year old O’Leary near the town of Carriganimy, near Macroom in Co. Cork, and shot him dead. His startled horse ran back to the courtyard at Rath Laoi where his family was staying. His wife ran to it, leapt into the blood-stained saddle and the horse took her back to Art’s lifeless body. Distraught, she reached into her very soul and, in an ancient Gaelic tradition, delivered a tearful caoine (lamentation) for her dead husband.

Art O’Leary was interred in the old Kilcrea Abbey in County Cork, built by Cormac MacCarthy, the builder of Blarney Castle. His wife, Eileen, expanded on her grief and left more than 400 lines of a traditional Caoine (keen) or lamentation in the Irish language. As a literary work, the Lament for Art O’Leary is one of the last of its kind and has taken its place as one of the great pieces of Gaelic Literature, translated centuries later by Frank O’Connor. Today, it serves to keep alive the memory of a proud Irishman, the terrible times in which he lived, and a love remembrance that began with:

Long loss, bitter grief
that I was not by your side
when the bullet was fired
so my right side could take it
my fine-handed horseman!

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.