One hundred years ago, on April 24, 1916, more than 1,600 rebels stormed government buildings in Dublin shortly before noon on the Monday after Easter. In their famous Irish Proclamation, the rebels called on fellow patriots to rise up against British rule. Although it was quickly suppressed and found little support from the Irish public, many consider the so-called Easter Rising the start of Ireland’s march toward full independence in 1949. Less known, however, is that the day’s bloody events could not have occurred without the intervention of a colorful collection of Irish-Americans who made it possible for seven men to start a revolution.
From across an ocean, the Irishmen living in the United States were deeply embittered by what they saw as the exploitation of their homeland, which had been incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1800. The Great Famine of the 1840s led to the deaths of as many as a million Irish people, and more than a million more emigrated to escape it. Many ultimately landed in the tenements of New York City, Boston, and Chicago, soon emerging as some of those cities’ most industrious citizens. But, for some, the siren song of a free Ireland never stopped, a pull that left more than a century of questionable violence in its wake.
In 1892, the British spy, Henri Le Caron, would write of his profound contempt for the “modern Irish political agitator in America.” Le Caron went on:
Brave and blustering in speech, he advocates, in the safety of his American city, three thousand miles from the seat of danger, the most desperate of enterprises; and without the slightest pang of compunction or twinge of conscience he rushes his poor dupes across the water to their fate on the scaffold or the living death of penal servitude.
No doubt any prosecutor would agree with Le Caron and would say of Irish-American militants and their followers that — by fomenting hatred and financing the political violence that still poisons Irish life — they have been a force for evil since the mid-19th-century. The defense would argue that they have been idealistic, generous, and, more recently, a force for moderation. Both are right.
To this end, the Irish Fine Gael-Labour government has planned for this centennial to commemorate, not celebrate, the events of 1916 in all their complexity. Portraits on stamps, for instance, include two brothers, one who died in Ypres in 1915 in the British Army and one who died in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers in a battle in Dublin.
So if Ireland has matured, it should now be possible to have an honest debate about the seven founding fathers and the people who assisted them, as some believe, to organize a fight against tyranny. Or, as others might suggest, made the partition of Ireland inevitable and have encouraged killing for Ireland ever since. Irish-Americans would do well to embark on some similar soul-searching themselves.
Irish-Americans took the rich oral tradition of their homeland, full of songs and stories of both suffering and joy, and turned it into a persuasive narrative of martyrdom and perpetual struggle, feeding the republicans still in Ireland in what became a malignant cycle.
At the center of this fomentation was the brilliant propagandist John Mitchel, the son of a Londonderry Presbyterian minister, who famously fanned the flames of nationalism when he proclaimed: “The English created the famine . . . a million and half men, women, and children were carefully, prudently, and peacefully slain by the English government.” Mitchel was the most militant of the Young Irelander radicals, and his journalism got him transported to Australia in 1848. He ended up in America in 1854, where he wrote influential and violently Anglophobic material, such as his famous Jail Journal, and became an eloquent enthusiast for slavery. He was described by Patrick Pearse — the great propagandist of the Easter Rising — as “the immediate ancestor of Fenianism, the noblest and most terrible manifestation of this unconquered nation.”
Mitchel would prove an important influence on Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, born in 1831, the son of a Catholic, County Cork farmer. Rossa, along with coconspirator John Devoy, was imprisoned by the British in 1865. Both men were released in 1871 on the condition they live outside the United Kingdom. Both went to New York.
Rossa became known as a purveyor at every opportunity of memorable, ornately embellished tales of his suffering in “British dungeons.” Self-aggrandizing, alcoholic, wildly indiscreet, and prone to helping himself to funds, he wrote what have been described as “rhapsodies on dynamite” that constituted “one of the earliest modern statements of terrorist ideology.” He, along with Devoy and a new associate, Alexander Sullivan, were among those fighting for control of militant Irish-America, with Rossa set on sending waves of “skirmishers” to England to slaughter indiscriminately, cause widespread panic, and set the English against the Irish in their midst. Sullivan — born in Canada in 1847 to Irish parents — was a corrupt and violent Chicago machine boss as well as a fanatical Irish nationalist who also had a disturbing fondness for dynamite. Sullivan and Rossa pressed for terror campaigns that would deliberately seek civilian casualties, with the instruments of terror being single young men whose lives their superiors were happy to lay down for Ireland.
The Fenian Brotherhood, the American sister organization of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or IRB, was founded in New York City in 1858 with the objective of establishing an Irish Republic through the use of physical force. (The word “Fenian” to this day is an umbrella term for fanatical Irish republicans.) The brotherhood’s militancy included launching futile raids on Canada, which alarmed American public opinion, caused internal feuds, and led to the creation of a new organization called Clan na Gael, a secret society with Masonic rituals.
Devoy, who had been born in Kildare in 1842 to a Catholic smallholder and building constructor, was as single-minded and ruthless as Rossa and Sullivan and quite as ready to sacrifice others, but he was also a pragmatist who wanted results. A journalist who rapidly reached high office in Clan na Gael, he became a leading light in the formation of the “New Departure,” an alliance in Ireland between the IRB, Michael Davitt’s National Land League, and Charles Stewart Parnell’s parliamentary followers. At this time, Fenians who believed in a military code of honor and who were cautious about alienating public opinion found their voices drowned out by those who embraced terrorism. Although Devoy succeeded in having Rossa, now an enemy, expelled from the clan in 1881, he himself was displaced for some years by a triumvirate known as the “Triangle,” led by Sullivan.
Devoy had seized control of the skirmishing funds, so little came of Rossa’s loudly trumpeted plans — except to make the American public, thanks to media reports of the group’s ambitions, furious with Irish agitators.
Nonetheless, Sullivan was able to recruit dynamiters “to make assaults in all directions, so that the suffering, bitterness, and desolation which followed active measures should be felt in every place.” In 1883, he dispatched a group of bombers to London that included a young Irishman, Tom Clarke, who would be a key figure in the Easter Rising. Clarke, born in 1857 in Tipperary to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, a soldier in the British army, had been taken as a child to England, South Africa, and the bitterly sectarian Dungannon, County Tyrone, where he was recruited into the IRB. Having fled to New York after being involved in a riot, he was inducted as a member of the clan, groomed for murder for the cause of Ireland. In London, he was caught carrying dynamite and given a life sentence.
Prison at that time was grim, not least because in England and America it was widely believed that prisoners’ characters would be improved by silence and isolation. It gave Clarke plenty of time to brood and plan. After his release, he returned to New York where he became secretary to Devoy — now essentially the dictator of the clan — and helped him launch the Gaelic American newspaper. By now a trusted friend, he had Devoy’s financial and moral support when he returned to Ireland in 1907 intent on reviving the almost moribund IRB and grooming a new generation of revolutionaries.
During all these decades, exiled Fenians ruled the roost in New York, Boston, and Chicago, collecting dimes and dollars to incite, fund, and control revolution back home. Many of them did well in business, politics, and the law. Revered for having suffered when transported or imprisoned, they enlisted for their cause younger men who would meet such fates or worse.
Joe McGarrity, born in 1874 in Tyrone, had no personal experience of action, but having emigrated in 1892, he joined the clan, built up a prosperous business, and became a correspondent, mentor, and generous provider to young Irishmen recruited by Tom Clarke.
It was money from the clan and McGarrity that helped Clarke and his intimates — including the Easter Rising proclamation signatory Sean Mac Diarmada — take control of the IRB. It was the clan that financed arms for the Irish Volunteers rebel movement. And it was money from events organized by the clan that saved Pearse’s school, St. Enda’s, and the reactions of Irish-American audiences that in 1914 helped put the young wordsmith on the single-minded revolutionary path.
The climax turned out, unexpectedly, to be Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s death at age 83 in 1915. Devoy — who for many years had thought Rossa a dangerous lunatic — nonetheless tipped off Clarke about his death and persuaded his widow that he should have an Irish funeral.
Michael Davitt, who transformed Irish politics and society with his Irish National Land League, habitually referred to Rossa as “O’Donovan Assa,” describing him as “the buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics with no advantage to himself but with terrible consequences to the many poor wretches who acted the Sancho Panza to his more than idiotic Don Quixote.” Yet, this was the man whose body was used to inflame the passions of nationalist Ireland.
Clarke had learned much in America about how to organize for maximum effect commemorations of people and events. And he called on the most powerful nationalist orator of his generation, Pearse, to produce a eulogy “as hot as hell.” It ended with words that hundreds of thousands of Irish people would learn by heart just as they had learned parts of incendiary ballads:
They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
In 1914, the world found itself warring. Devoy encouraged and facilitated negotiations between the IRB and Germany that led to a shipment of arms that went disastrously wrong just before the rising two years later that would lead to the hanging of the intermediary, Roger Casement. Because of his pro-German activities and propaganda, Devoy would be denounced by President Woodrow Wilson as “a leading specimen of what he called ‘hyphenated Americans of questionable loyalty.’ ”
Yet, as Pearse read out the proclamation outside the General Post Office on Easter Monday, the contribution of Irish America was obliquely referenced. The rising, he read, was “supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, [Ireland] strikes in full confidence of victory.”
Not long before that day, Clarke, one of the proclamation’s signatories, told his wife that, after the revolution, the younger men would need “a man of iron, someone with a touch of Cromwell in him for the first five years” and suggested the 74-year-old Devoy. And indeed, while he never had an official role, Devoy died in 1928 on good terms with government of the Irish Free State, established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty seven years before. He is buried in Dublin.
McGarrity, who had split the clan, never changed his ways. He died in 1940, financing and encouraging IRA leaders to ally themselves with the Nazis.
During the years since, the clan has split and re-split over its attitude to various manifestations of republican violence — but there has always been Irish-American money available for various irreconcilable republican groups. It took 9/11 to turn most Irish-Americans off any kind of political violence, but there are still pubs in Irish quarters of places like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York where people engage in armchair terrorism.
Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of “The Seven: the Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic.”
Correction: A previous version of this article had the incorrect date of the Easter Rising. It took place in April 1916.