The Irish Revolution in America

Mary Spring Rice and Mary Ellen Childers on board the Asgard (inset) holding arms from Germany which were successfully landed in Howth Harbour, July 26, 1914.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2006

Tom Deignan explores the role that Irish America played in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Ninety years ago this month, in May of 1916, over 20,000 Irish-American nationalists and their supporters flocked to New York City’s Carnegie Hall. They were not there for a night at the opera. They went, instead, to voice their anger. Just one month earlier the ill-fated Easter Rising had occurred in Dublin. The rebellion, of course, was quickly suppressed. Nearly as quickly, the British had begun meting out justice. On May 3, rebel leaders Tom Clarke, Thomas McDonagh and Pádraic Pearse were executed by firing squad. For 10 days the executions continued –- 15 in all –- ending on May 12 with the injured James Connolly being strapped in a chair to meet his fate. Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Rising had managed to transform the likes of Pearse (whose brother Willie was also executed) from misguided dreamers into martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom. It was that cause that 20,000 Irish-Americans had on their minds at Carnegie Hall on the evening of May 14, 1916. Such a gathering — as well as one at Madison Square Garden a year earlier, which was aimed at both Irish Independence and keeping America out of the war, and drew as many as 100,000 — is a vivid illustration of Irish-American nationalism at the time of the Easter Rising. In fact, it could be argued that without the Irish in America, who supplied ideas, ammunition and cash, the Rising might never have occurred. There was a price to pay for all of this. Irish-Americans forged alliances with unsavory, even anti-American elements. Nationalist newspapers were banned from the U.S. mail and some Irish-Americans were charged with treason. Not for the first time, Irish Catholics in the U.S. saw their loyalty thrown into question because of the Rising. So, what role did Irish America play in the Easter Rising? To begin to answer that question, we should peak in on another gathering. This was not a massive rally for Irish freedom. Instead it was a secretive sit-down in the private room of the German Club in New York City, attended by members of the Irish nationalist group Clan na Gael, including John Devoy, described by his biographer Terry Golway as the “chief propagandist of the Irish revolution in America.” By meeting with German diplomats to discuss their common enemy — Great Britain — Devoy and his Irish colleagues were committing what many considered a violation of American international neutrality, if not outright treason. Nevertheless, Devoy explained what the Irish would need to bring down the British: weapons and soldiers for an upcoming rebellion in Dublin. Why didn’t the Kildare-born Devoy ask the Germans for money? That was already taken care of by a reliable source. “The American Irish would provide the cash,” is how Devoy’s thinking is described in Golway’s 1998 book Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom. By April of 1916, Devoy and his Clan na Gael colleagues in America had worked all the political, diplomatic and clandestine angles in their effort to make rebellion against British rule a success. Across the U.S., funds were raised by groups such as the Friends of Irish Freedom, formed by Clan na Gael in the weeks before the Rising to serve as the respectable public face of Irish nationalism. Meanwhile, Irish politicians, judges and power brokers lobbied both the Republican and Democratic parties. Britain, of course, entered into a “Great War” with Germany in 1914. It was the duty of the Irish political classes in America to keep the U.S. out of the war — thus weakening Britain to the point that (it was hoped) they could not defend a rebellion in Dublin. Finally, out of the public eye, shipments of arms were organized, loaded and unloaded from points all across the U.S. and Europe. From Boston, for example, Erskine Childers sailed his own boat, The Asgard, to England. The boat would later be used to ship German arms to Dublin. Ironically, sometime before he took on the cause of Irish freedom, Childers, who was upper-middle-class English, wrote one of the first books to warn of the German threat in his thriller The Riddle of the Sands (1903). Without the Asgard, “the Easter Rising, in 1916, might never have materialized,” is how a recent article in the Boston Irish Reporter put it. Not quite so successfully, Devoy and his Clan na Gael allies coordinated shipments of arms on a boat named the Aud. But the antiquated vessel was spotted by British authorities and after a meager attempt to outrun an English gunship, was forced to sink itself, rather than expose American-Irish-German collusion against the British. By the start of 1916, it was clear that sooner or later there would be a revolt in Dublin. But when? In early February 1916, Devoy received a secret message in code. When deciphered it read: “We have decided to begin action on Easter Sunday. We must have your arms and munitions in Limerick between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We expect German help immediately after beginning action.” The moment of action had arrived.

History of Involvement

The Easter Rising was not the first Irish revolutionary act planned in the U.S. The U.S. Civil War spurred the military training of the Fenians, who held their first convention in Chicago in 1863, and planned and launched an invasion of Canada from U.S. soil in 1866. Clan na Gael itself was founded in New York City a year later. As Timothy Meagher puts it in his new book The Columbia Guide to Irish American History, Clan na Gael was formed “to plan the kidnapping of Prince Arthur of Connaught [hoping] to hold the British prince as a hostage for the release of political prisoners in Ireland.” By the 1870s, John Devoy had gone to the U.S and would become the leading Clan na Gael figure. Many in Irish America saw 19th century Irish nationalism as a way to raise their own status in the U.S. Famed nationalist Irish Republican Brotherhood leader Michael Davitt told Irish-Americans that fighting for Ireland’s independence would “remove the stain of degradation from your birth.” Davitt later said Irish America should be seen as “the avenging wolfhound of Irish nationalism.” Nevertheless, factions of Irish nationalism in the U.S. were at odds as often as they were allied. In 1889, an ally of Devoy’s was assassinated in Chicago following a rift within Clan na Gael. The infamous Charles Parnell divorce scandal of the early 1890s further rent Irish nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic asunder. Still, when war broke out in Europe in 1914, Irish-American nationalists understood that the British were now vulnerable and that Ireland might just be liberated. That meant keeping the U.S. out of World War I, and convincing Germany that they had a friend in Ireland — and Irish America. Once the fateful Easter Sunday date was set, however, Irish-American plotters watched in horror as blunder after blunder threatened the Rising. Roger Casement, in Germany negotiating aid from Britain’s enemy, had been arrested. The Aud, and its precious arms, sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, thanks to a raid of the German consulate in New York City just before the Rising, authorities on both sides of the Atlantic seized more than enough evidence to uncover the rebellion’s most intimate details. Many nationalists thought it best just to abort the mission. However, following a 24-hour delay, 1,500 Irish Volunteers stormed Dublin buildings such as the General Post Office on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. They declared an Irish Republic on Easter Monday — and waited for the inevitable, and ultimately overwhelming, British response. When it came, Irish America’s job was to win the hearts and minds of those who believed the Rising was a foolish, even treasonous attack on a nation generally seen as an ally of America’s. Not surpassingly, American newspapers commonly reported the crushing of the Easter Rising with barely disguised glee. By and large, the mainstream American press was deeply pro-Britain, as was America’s president Woodrow Wilson. So, only nationalistic periodicals such as Devoy’s Gaelic American attempted to paint the rebels with any sympathy at all. That is, until the British began their executions. Swiftly, the tide turned. Even many in the Anglophilic American press were aghast. Nationwide, Irish-Americans who cared little about the Rising now rose up themselves, demanding an end to the executions, which ran from May 3 to 12, when James Connolly was killed. Eamon de Valera — born in the U.S. — was set to be executed next. But the British finally ceased amidst the international outcry. This, finally, was a silver lining amidst the dark cloud of the Rising. Clearly, a seed of Irish independence had been planted on Easter Monday, 1916. For now, however, there was more bad news on the horizon for Irish America.


The pro-British Wilson administration began arresting key Irish-Americans on charges of treason related to their work with Germany. Devoy was indicted and his Gaelic American was banned from the U.S. mail. Another leading Irish-American, Judge Daniel Cohalan, was described as a “Kaiser’s Adviser” on the front page of the New York Herald. America entered World War I on the side of Britain in 1917, ushering in a wave of patriotic fervor (captured, incidentally, in the music of Irish-American George M. Cohan). Woodrow Wilson’s famous remark maligning “hyphenated Americans,” whose loyalties were divided, seemed to be aimed at the Irish in particular. Meanwhile, the always fractious Irish nationalist movement in America began to splinter. De Valera boldly escaped from a British prison, and toured the U.S. in what was initially seen as a financial and public relations success. But de Valera soon made ideological enemies amongst nationalists in the U.S. As Michael Doorley notes in Irish American Diaspora Nationalism, his 2005 history of The Friends of Irish Freedom, Bishop Michael Gallagher (the Friends’ president) denounced de Valera as a “foreign potentate.” Irish America was equally split over partition and the subsequent Irish Civil War in the 1920s. As in Ireland, some in Irish America felt partition — which left the six Northern counties under British rule — was a sellout. When this issue led to Irishman fighting Irishman in 1921, Irish America was stunned and the bitter feelings quickly made their way across the Atlantic. For example, St. Patrick’s Day parades and other events organized by those who accepted partition (the deal struck by Michael Collins) were often boycotted by those sympathetic to anti-partition forces. Incidentally, Erskine Childers was one of the first republicans executed by the new Irish government in the civil war. The bitterness of the civil war ultimately led to another wave of Irish immigration — many IRA members on the run — to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. Sadly, for many years, Ireland would remain “the most distressful country that ever yet was seen.” Yet the fact remained that Irish forces had driven the British to the bargaining table. A path to independence had been paved. As Yeats put it, all had “changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty [had been] born.” It would not have been possible without Irish America.

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