Photo feature: Old St. Patrick’s, Pittsburgh

By coincidence, my travels this month have allowed me to revisit two historic St. Patrick’s churches. Here’s my earlier photo feature on St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

My August essay, “An Irish … American … Catholic … tragedy“, mentioned that the Ancient Order of Hibernians would dedicate a new outdoor statute of Ireland’s patron saint at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh, the oldest parish in my home city. The dedication happened 13 October 2018.

For years, AOH Division 9 of Allegheny County has collected and spent tens of thousands of dollars and many volunteer hours to repair the 1936 church and maintain the beautiful landscaping of the front Monastery Garden, a green oasis in the city’s gritty warehouse district. The new statue replaced one that was badly aged, moved inside for now.

More work remains to done at Old St. Patrick’s, and Division 9 has a new mission: prepare the church for the 2022 opening of the AOH’s national convention in Pittsburgh. If you can help, contact the group.

The new St. Patrick statue was dedicated Oct. 13, 2018.

About 50 people extended their hands in blessing.

The old statue of St. Patrick has been moved inside the church.

The new statue.

Troublesome men: The Irish nationalist feud in Western Pennsylvania, 1894-1896

This two-part post explores the late 19th century feud among Irish nationalists in America. The 1895 Chicago convention of the Irish National Alliance is well recorded, but the divisions among pro-independence Irishmen in Western Pennsylvania leading to it, and the ouster of the Pittsburgh delegation, is a lost story of this period. This account is based on letters to exiled nationalist John Devoy, held at the National Library of Ireland, contemporary newspaper coverage, and other sources. MH

Drawing of Pittsburgh in the 1890s.

In September 1895, two Pittsburgh delegates to a highly-publicized Irish nationalists convention in Chicago were kicked out of the meeting hall. “They are troublesome men; we don’t want them,” someone shouted.1

Lawyer John Madden and physician Paul Sheedy, both Ireland natives who supported the convention’s goal of overthrowing British rule in their homeland, expected the boot.2 Six weeks earlier, they proclaimed their opposition to the convention at an Irish rally near Pittsburgh.3 Thousands of cheering supporters endorsed their resolution, which described the upcoming Chicago event as “for no other purpose than to deceive our people, and advance the special and political interests of its originators.”4

Internal division was rife among Irish nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 19th century. In 1893, the London parliament defeated a second legislative attempt to give Ireland limited domestic autonomy, called Home Rule. The rejection prompted new calls to use terror-style violence to break from Britain once and for all. For the Irish in America, debate over how to support their homeland also was increasingly tangled in U.S. domestic politics.

An 1895 Chicago newspaper illustration of Madden and Sheedy.

Madden’s and Sheedy’s conflict with the Chicago convention leaders sprang from their loyalty to Irish nationalist leader John Devoy, who was exiled to America in 1871 for treason against Britain. In the 1890s, Devoy and rival Alexander Sullivan were locked in a feud for control of the Clan na Gael (Family of the Gaels), a U.S.-based fraternal organization intent on establishing an Irish republic.

Their fight began in the 1880s as Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell made the first attempt for a Home Rule deal with British Prime Minister William Gladstone. A Sullivan-supported “dynamite campaign” directed at civilian targets in England became a fiasco of negative publicity. One of Devoy’s associates alleged the Sullivan faction embezzled $100,000 of Clan funds. Sullivan’s side claimed the accuser was a British spy, and his murder soon after deepened the feud. Then, in 1890, revelations of Parnell’s extramarital affair derailed Home Rule and split his political party. The disgraced leader died the following year.

Afterward, “a disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned from parliamentary politics” and entered “a long gestation” toward the violent revolution that erupted from 1913 to 1923.5 In America, the Clan feud simmered, mostly behind the scenes, but is revealed in the numerous letters to Devoy from Sheedy, Madden and others in Western Pennsylvania in the months before the 1895 Pittsburgh rally and Chicago convention. Their surviving correspondence, held at the National Library of Ireland,6  documents the Clan’s organizational strategies, finances, recruitment, internal fighting, gossip, and even a death threat.

“Madden and I are thoroughly in sympathy with your side,” Sheedy wrote to Devoy on Oct. 31, 1894. He vowed to “remain in the organization and fight things out until the bitter end.”7

Key participants

Sheedy, Madden and other key participants in the 1895 events immigrated to Western Pennsylvania after Ireland’s Great Famine. Most were educated men with successful professional careers, the vanguard of a growing Irish middle class. They had the money, connections, and inclination to get involved with politics in Ireland and America.

Paul Sheedy was the youngest and last of three brothers to arrive in the region from Liscarroll, County Cork. Morgan Sheedy, the oldest, was a Catholic priest, ordained in 1876.8 He became rector of St. Mary of Mercy Church at the corner of Third Avenue and Ferry (now Stanwix) Street, gateway to the Pittsburgh’s “Point,” then an Irish ghetto with an “unenviable reputation” as “the underworld,” as the priest recalled.9

Rev. Sheedy attended an April 1887 Pittsburgh rally against injustice in Ireland, and signed letters supporting Parnell and Gladstone.10 On St. Patrick’s Day 1891, at a “Faith and Fatherland” talk at a packed church hall in Altoona, he recalled the “English-made famine” of 40 years earlier, criticized oppressive coercion laws, and suggested “the present difficulty in the Irish party is only transitory and will soon pass away.”11

John Sheedy obtained a medical degree from the Royal University of Ireland. He got married in August 1884, and immigrated to Altoona later that year.12 In May 1889, he and other volunteer physicians from Altoona traveled 40 miles to flood-devastated Johnstown to give of their “time and abilities to the cause of distressed humanity … and soothe the agonies of many sufferers.”13

In September 1894, Dr. Sheedy helped to organize the first “Irish reunion” of the John Boyle O’Reilly Literary Society, named after the Irish nationalist poet and journalist who in 1875 conspired with Devoy to help six Irish rebels escape from an Australian prison. Altoona newspapers did not report any political speeches at the reunion, held at the Wopsononock resort in the Allegheny Mountains west of Altoona,14 but Irish freedom was surely discussed among the 1,500 people who enjoyed music and dancing, bicycle and foot races.

Altoona in the late 19th century, with Pennsylvania Railroad shops in the foreground.

Paul Sheedy also became a physician. He emigrated in 1892, about age 24,15 and briefly practiced medicine with his brother John from the same Altoona address.16 By 1894, Paul moved to Pittsburgh’s Wilkinsburg neighborhood,17near his other brother, Morgan, the St. Mary’s pastor.

All three Sheedy brothers mixed at social and political events with other Irish nationalists. Among them: 

  • John Madden, an 1868 Drogheda, County Louth, emigrant who was admitted to the Allegheny County (Pennsulvania) Bar in 1879, and belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish-Catholic fraternal group.18
  • Limerick-born Michael Patrick “M.P.” Carrick, a leading painters and paperhangers labor organizer.19
  • Cork native Humphrey Lynch, a shoemaker later elected alderman in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side.20

Paul Sheedy, the young newcomer, did not shy from voicing his opinions among these older, more established men. In October 1894, he “created quite a stir” for criticizing an Irish nationalist member of the London parliament. Carrick “strongly denounced” Sheedy as “trying to import dissensions and contentions from Ireland to the Irish people of Pittsburgh.”21

The letters

In addition to their public activity covered by newspapers, Paul and John Sheedy, Madden, and Carrick also knew each other from their membership inside secretive Clan na Gael chapters, called “camps.” Their surviving correspondence to Devoy begins in October 1894.

John Sheedy wrote of his camp’s upcoming vote on whether to follow Devoy or the Chicago-based Sullivan faction. “I am worried it means causing a split,” Sheedy said.22 A few days later, he wrote again to say that a committee was appointed to investigate “one among them who was trying everything in his power to break up the organization.”23

Paul Sheedy wrote to Devoy about his confrontation with William Lyman, a Brooklyn building contractor and owner of the Irish Republic newspaper. Lyman was running Sullivan’s ground operation and had become the faction’s effective leader by the time he visited Western Pennsylvania.

“I attacked him [with questions] very pointedly, assisted by John Madden and others,” Sheedy wrote.24 Lyman “could not give a direct or satisfactory answer and he contradicted himself several times. His visit did greater injury to his cause than if he had remained at home. He had thought there would be a lot of jackasses in Pittsburgh.”

John and Paul Sheedy wrote several November 1894 letters to Devoy about a “black list” of defectors to Sullivan and Lyman. They invited Devoy to address an upcoming commemoration of the 1867 execution of three Irish rebels accused of shooting a prison guard while trying to help another nationalist to escape in Manchester, England. “It would be a good opportunity for you to speak to the members about the split of men running the organization to which we belong,” Paul Sheedy wrote.25

To reassert his control, Devoy spent most of the winter of 1894-95 traveling to Irish-dominated cities in the Northeast and Midwest.26 He attended the Nov. 25, 1894, “Manchester Martyrs” commemoration in Pittsburgh.27 Paul Sheedy advised him to stay at the Central Hotel in Altoona (“the owner is an Irishman”) during December 1894,28 as agitation intensified between the Clan factions in Western Pennsylvania.

When anti-Devoy forces charged Paul Sheedy, Madden, Carrick and others with “treachery,” the accused members shifted to John Sheedy’s camp.29 It is unclear from the letters whether these groups were based in Pittsburgh or Altoona, but the 120 mile distance between the two cities was easily mitigated by up to a dozen scheduled daily trains.30

John Devoy

Carrick warned Devoy that “O’Neill of Philadelphia” is “pumping you” for information. “…I am convinced these people are going to whip you by manipulation. I hope you understand who you are dealing with in this state,” Carrick wrote as he pledged loyalty to Devoy. “If you leave here the battle throughout the country will be lost.”31

Madden received an anonymous note with a pencil drawing of a skull and crossbones at the top. It contained this threat:

If you try to breake [sic] up our camp you will meet the fate of Cronin32and other spies. Warn Carrick, Sheedy and the others that the revolvr [sic] and bludgeon is ready. Signed Rory

Madden reported the threat to Devoy. “I am certain that the coward who sent it does not know me, if he did he would know that fear is not part of my nature,” he wrote. “[The threat] is the best weapon in my hand to accomplish the end desired … If the coward had been a friend of mine he would not have helped me half so well.”33

Then on the evening of Dec. 12, 1894, Carrick was attacked as he left Humphrey Lynch’s home in Allegheny City. “Two men grabbed him and dragged him through an open gate into a yard in the rear of a vacant house. … Quite a tussle followed, during which Mr. Carrick’s clothes were badly torn,” the Post-Gazette reported.34Carrick and Lynch had met to discuss the squandering of Clan funds,35 likely the “thousands of dollars [used for] political and gambling purposes” alleged at a Dec. 9 meeting.36 After the attack, Carrick “lost his head completely,” Paul Sheedy wrote to Devoy.37

Sheedy also admitted to being “a little dubious” about Madden, supposedly his ally. “The other side might promise him things and flattery has great sway with him.”38

Devoy’s reply to these letters, if made in writing rather than through messengers, is not available. As an experienced nationalist leader, he was a secretive man who gathered more information than he shared. Devoy did not mention these episodes in his memoir, “Recollections of an Irish Rebel.”

Divided Irish

By autumn 1894, word spread that the Sullivan/Lyman faction intended to launch a “new movement,” called the Irish National Alliance (INA). By spring 1895, these “physical force Irishmen” declared the parliamentary movement was dead and that many people believed “the time has come for Irish Americans to inaugurate a new and bolder policy in the interest of Irish independence.”39They wanted to raise an army to drive the British from Ireland.

Newspapers named more than three dozen prominent Irishmen who supported the group’s inaugural national convention in Chicago. From Altoona, supporters included Mayor Samuel M. Hoyer; attorney Thomas Greevy, the son of County Roscommon parents;40and alderman and magistrate John O’Toole, formerly of County Armagh.41 Patrick O’Neill of Philadelphia, the man Carrick warned Devoy about, was named, but no supporters from Pittsburgh were listed.42

Photo of Pittsburgh in the 1890s.

Devoy prepared his Pittsburgh loyalists for a preemptive strike against his rivals’ upcoming convention.43 Part of that effort included the Aug. 15, 1895, Irish rally at McKees Rocks, five miles west of Pittsburgh.

At the time, McKees Rocks was an industrial suburb growing from less than 2,000 residents in 1890 to more than 6,000 in 1900. Streetcar service to the area began in 1894, which is probably how most people reached the rally at Phoenix Park, which shared the name of the historic Dublin green where in 1882 Irish rebels murdered two British officials.

Bernard McKenna, Pittsburgh’s first Irish Catholic mayor,44presided over the rally. John Madden and Paul Sheedy called on “all true Irishmen and Irish-Americans … to unite to strike an effective and decisive blow, by any and all means within our power, at England’s domination in Ireland.” They also warned against the deceptive, self-serving “military convention” at Chicago.45

Stories about the rally appeared in newspapers across America, the crowd typically estimated at several thousand. In Ireland, a Reuters account noted the Pittsburghers’ willingness to use physical force, and their denunciation of the Chicago convention.46 In Scotland, the coverage also caught the attention of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who made his fortune in Pittsburgh.

NEXT: Andrew Carnegie’s view, the Chicago INA convention, and the aftermath in Pittsburgh.

Photo feature: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

This week I returned to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for the first time since before the church’s massive exterior and interior restoration from 2012 to 2016. This year is the 160th anniversary of the laying of the church’s cornerstone on 15 August 1858.

Great Catholic Ceremony,” The New York Times headlined its front page coverage the next day. “Intense Assemblage of 100,000 Persons”  … “Magnificent Ceremony — Unlimited Enthusiasm“. The story suggested that the proposed “ecclesiastical structure … if completed … will have no parallel on this continent.”

The church opened 20 years later, and the twin spires were added in 1888, then the tallest structures in New York. Here are a few images of this stunningly beautiful and popular worship space.:

Himself, thinner, more humble-looking than most statues of the saint.

The main sanctuary.

Shamrock detail on front doors. 

The twin spires at night.

See the St. Patrick’s Churches section of the blog for more photos and links to other worship spaces dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Froude-Burke

This is an extra installment of my “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” blog series, which explores aspects of American journalist William Henry Hurlbert’s 1888 travels in Ireland. The full series, including background material and a related article published outside this blog, are available on the project landing page. #IUCRevisited

***

“…of one episode of that mission, no man living perhaps knows so much as I, and I make no excuse for this allusion to it here …”
–William Henry Hurlbert

In his 1888 book, Hurlbert claimed a behind-the-scenes role in the notorious 1872 American lecture series that pitted English literary historian James Anthony Froude against Irish Dominican priest Father Thomas Nicholas Burke. Sources suggest that Hurlbert wasn’t overstating his closeness to both men, or to the event, which 16 years later influenced his views about Irish nationalist activities on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1872, Hurlbert was the highly-regarded editor of the New York World. America was still recovering from the civil war. Ireland was a generation past the Great Famine and slowly building toward the agrarian uprising and nationalist agitation that erupted in the 1880s.

Father Burke

Hurlbert’s “esteem” for Froude’s “rare abilities” dated to the Englishman’s novel, The Nemesis of Faith, published in 1849, the year Hurbert obtained a divinity degree from Harvard. His friendship with the Galway-born Father Burke began when both were in Rome during the 1867 Feast of St. Peter, the eighteenth centenary commemoration of the saint’s martyrdom. Hurlbert fondly noted his time with Burke during an 1878 visit to Ireland. Their friendship “ended only with his life,” in 1883, at Tallaght, near Dublin.

Froude’ autumn 1872 lecture tour was arranged to promote his book, The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. His book and lectures emphasized why the Irish required English supervision and were transparently anti-Catholic. Writing 16 years later, Hurlbert said he worried the lecture tour “would do a world of mischief, by stirring up ancient issues of strife between the Protestant and the Catholic populations of the United States [that would] be answered angrily, indiscreetly, and in a fashion to aggravate prejudice.”

Only Father Burke, who happened to be in America on other matters in 1872, could respond “temperately, loftily, and wisely,” Hurlbert reasoned.

“…his appearance in the arena as the champion of Ireland, would lift the inevitable controversy high above the atmosphere of unworthy passion, and put it beyond the reach of political mischief-makers. How nobly he did his work … is now [a] matter of history.”

Hurlbert “begged” Burke “to find or make time” to produce a series of lectures replying to Froude’s speeches. Burke agreed, Hurlbert reported, only after “consulting with the highest authorities of his Church, and with two or three of the coolest and most judicious Irish citizens of New York.” And while the Irish priest’s brogue was “a memory as of music in the ears of all who heard it,” his criticism of intemperate Irish nationalism sounded even sweeter to Hurlbert, especially on American soil.

To illustrate his point, Hurlbert reported that while Froude was giving lectures in Boston, “all the Irish servants of the friend with whom he was to stay had suddenly left the house, refusing to their employer the right to invite under his roof a guest not agreeable to them.” Hurlbert revealed that he learned of this in “a letter from Boston,” which he shared with Burke, who “read it with a kind of humorous wrath.”

At his next lecture, Burke prefaced his remarks “with a few strong and stirring words, in which he castigated with equal sense and severity the misconduct of his country-people,” Hurlbert wrote in 1888, a claim confirmed by the newspaper coverage of 16 years earlier. On 26 November 1872, at the Academy of Music in New York, Father Burke told his audience that earlier that day he had been “handed a paragraph,” or clipping, from the New York Tribune about the Boston incident. He said:

“The reading of it causes me very great pain and anguish of mind, for it recorded an act of discourtesy offered to my learned antagonist, Mr. Foude, and supposed to be offered by Irishmen in Boston. In the name of the Irishmen in America, I tender the learned gentleman my best apologies. I beg to assure him for my Irish fellow-countrymen in this land that we are only too happy to offer him the courtesy and the hospitality that Irishmen never refused even to their enemies.”

I couldn’t find any reporting of the servants’ walkout in that day’s Tribune, but it was described in The New York Times, which added that Froude also had been “bustled by some rude persons” in New Haven, Connecticut. “We do not know what truth there may be in these stories; but we much fear that Mr. Froude is not in an earthly Paradise,” the Times reported.

In his 1906 biography The Life of Froude, Herbert W. Paul wrote that Froude was the Boston guest of George Peabody, “equally well known in England and the United States as a philanthropist.” During the visit:

“…politicians had to think of the Irish vote, and the proprietors of newspapers could not ignore their Catholic subscribers.The priests worked against him [Froude] with such effect that Mr. Peabody’s servants in Boston, who were Irish Catholics, threatened to leave their places if Froude remained as a guest in their master’s house. Father Burke, who had begun politely enough, became obstreperous and abusive. Froude’s life was in danger, and he was put under the special protection of the police.” (My emphasis.)

Froude

There is one problem here. Boston financier George Peabody died in 1869, three years before Froude’s trip to Boston. W.H. Dunn, in his 1960s biography of Froude, corrected Paul in a footnote that speculated Froude had stayed with George H. Peabody, shown in the city directory at 76-78 Milk Street. I found an 1872 Boston newspaper account that mentions “Dr. Peabody of Harvard” among “several prominent gentlemen” who occupied the stage of the “half filled” Tremont Temple for one of Froude’s lectures.

Paul and Dunn each noted that Froude witnessed the historic 9 November 1872 fire, which killed 13 to 20 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings over 65 acres in Boston’s city center. The fire was stopped near Milk Street. Both biographers quote from one of Froude’s letters that described the tragedy. Paul wrote that Froude donated $700 to the relief effort, which included help for many Irish immigrant families displaced by the fire.

There is other evidence that Irish domestic servants protested Froude’s visit to America. In William J. Fitzpatrick’s 1886 biography, The Life of the Very Rev. Thomas N. Burke, the author states:

“It was at this time that a memorable incident occurred–the strike of the Noras and Biddys. The female servants of different hotels agreed among themselves that Mr. Froude’s bell must not be answered; and in one case they threatened to leave in body unless the ‘Masthur’ got rid of the enemy of their country.”

Fitzpatrick’s biography also cites letters from two people who confirmed Hurlbert’s role in the lecture drama. One is Major Patrick M. Haverty, a Dublin-born friend of Father Burke who came to America in the late 1840s. Haverty assisted General Thomas F. Meagher in organizing the Irish Brigade during the U.S. Civil War, and was an established publisher and bookseller in New York at the time of the priest’s 1872 visit.

Father Burke and Hurlbert: “…were great friends; visited the art galleries together; and enjoyed their mutual criticisms,” Haverty wrote. “When Father Burke came to New York one of the first to call on him was Mr. Hurlburt (sic).”

Patrick James Smyth, an Irish Home Rule M.P for Westmeath at the time of Froude/Burke lectures, was the second source. He wrote that Hurlbert had tried to arrange a dinner to introduce the visiting Englishman and Irishman before the lectures got underway. Father Burke was about to accept, Smyth wrote, but: “I advised him to wait until his lectures were over, because I knew that he was so impressible that if he were once brought into friendly contact with his opponent he would not have the heart to deliver such stunning and keen thrusts when he appeared against him in the forum.”

Father Burke’s lectures easily carried popular opinion in America, which still harbored deep anti-Anglo feelings a century after its own revolution against England, and were more recently inflamed during the Civil War. Americans bristled at Froude’s anti-democratic and anti-Catholic rhetoric. Besides, they liked an underdog, in this case, Ireland. 

A few years after his return from America, Father Burke said that any Irishman living abroad would experience “a yearning and a craving and a love for Ireland … that he never felt before.” But he never became a strong voice for Irish independence that some hoped. “Advanced nationalists often made it a source of complaint and resentment against Burke that after his return to Ireland he confined himself to priestly functions,” Fitzpatrick wrote. Hurlbert observed that the 1882 murder of two English government officials by militant nationalists in Dublin’s Phoenix Park “went near to breaking the heart and hope of poor Father Burke” a year before his death.

Hurlbert insisted “the strike of the servant girls at Boston” was a “precursory symptom” of the “social plague of boycotting” that he found so prevalent in Ireland during his 1888 visit. His friend’s 1872 rebuke to the Irish workers, Hurlbert concluded, anticipated the papal decree against such activity issued during his travels.

Hurlbert added that he didn’t expect any immigrant “to divest himself of his native sympathies or antipathies,” but once in America he was required to divest “of the notion that he retains any right actively to interfere in the domestic affairs of the country of his birth. For public and political purposes, the Irishman who becomes an American ceases to be an Irishman.”

NOTES: 

Burke and Froude from pages 4-6 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Additional information on Burke from pages 41, 54, and 222.

“The reading of it …”  The New York Tribune, Nov. 27, 1872, page 1

“We do not know what truth…”  The New York Times, Nov. 27, 1872, page 4

Herbert Paul, The Life of Froude, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, London, 1905, pages 223-228.

Waldo Hilary Dunn, James Anthony Froude, A Biography, Vol. 2, 1857-1894. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1961-63: footnote, page 611; fire, page 384.

“Dr. Peabody of Harvard…” The Boston Globe, Nov. 15, 1872, page 8

William J. Fitzpatrick, The Life of the Very Rev. Thomas N. Burke, Vol. 2, New York, 1886: “Nora and Biddys…”, pages 77-78; “he was so impressible…”, page 77; “visited the art galleries together…”, page 62; and “An Irishman abroad” and “advanced nationalists…”, page 78-79.

“carried popular opinion…” Wayne C. Minnick, 1951, “The Froude-Burke Controversy” in Speech Monographs, 18, pp. 31–36.

The Irish servants walkout in Boston resurfaced in Andrew Urban’s 2017 book, Brokering Servitude: Migration and the Politics of Domestic Labor During the Long Nineteenth Century. Urban cited Hurlbert as his source, in addition to earlier English newspaper reports about Irish worker protests in America.

Catching up with modern Ireland: September

Before getting to this month’s roundup, I want to thank the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore and those who attended my 15 September talk on Ireland’s Famine Children ‘Born at Sea’. Also this month, year-to-date traffic on the blog surpassed last year’s total. Thanks for reading. MH

  • September began with the 99th annual Dublin City Liffey Swim, a 2.2 K (1.3 mile) “towards the sea” race underneath a dozen key bridges.
  • A confluence of events has shunted unification on to the political agenda.” From Talk of a united Ireland is rife. But is it a fantasy?
  • The four-volume Cambridge History of Irelandpublished in April, received its American launch this month with events in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston.
  • For a few days early in the month it appeared that U.S. President Donald Trump was going visit Ireland as part of trip to Paris to mark the end of World War I. Within two weeks, the Irish leg was cancelled.
  • By almost every measure Ireland today is a more inclusive, progressive and safer place to live than it once was, and the oppressive control exerted by church and State have been dramatically lessened. People live longer, cars are safer, roads are better, homes – if you are lucky enough to have one – are warmer and food is better and cheaper than it was.” From Is Ireland a better place to live now than 20 years ago.
  • The BBC reported on the dwindling number of iconic red telephone boxes in Northern Ireland, though some have been re-purposed as mini libraries, defibrillator kiosks, and information centres.
  • Travel to Ireland increased by nearly 8 percent in the eight-months through August, compared to the same period in 2017, the CSO said.
  • Listowel, in Kerry, the home of the late John B. Keane and the annual “Writer’s Week,” is this year’s All-Ireland Tidy Town, topping 883 entries in the 60th annual competition.

“Tidy Town” winner Listowel, from the Listowel Connection blog.

GAA’s “American Invasion” began 130 years ago

On 25 September, 1888, a delegation of Irish athletes arrived in New York City for an “American Invasion Tour” intended to raise money and promote awareness for the sports of the four-year-old Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

The New York Times reported that “50 stalwart young lads with remarkably well developed limbs sprang down the gangplank of the steamer Wisconsin … (carrying) blackthorn sticks and ‘hurling’ clubs in their hands … Their sticks commanded universal respect, and a big policeman eyed them with special interest …”

The 1888 hurling team. Image from Haverford College.

The visiting athletes were greeted by “many friends … and representatives from several Irish societies,” the Times reported. “Almost all trades and professions are represented among the young men.”

Their arrival coincided with a period of increased Irish immigration to America due to ongoing domestic agrarian unrest and political turmoil. These issues were now receiving extra scrutiny from a special commission that opened in London a few weeks earlier. American journalist William Henry Hurlbert also published a book about the “Irish problem” based on his travels in the country earlier that year. (See my “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” blog serial.)

“One of the main ideas considered by the founders of the GAA was the revival of the ancient Tailteann Games, An Aonach Tailteann,” the organization says in its online history. “However, terrible weather and infighting between the two athletic organisations in America resulted in low attendances and gate receipts.”

The GAA tour was to have included exhibitions in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Trenton, Newark, and Patterson, New Jersey; Providence, Rhode Island; and Lowell, Massachusetts. But dates were cancelled and the tour ended in just five weeks. The GAA had to borrow money from agrarian activist Michael Davitt help the athletes return to Ireland. About half the young men decided to stay in America.

Two years ago, the diary kept team member Pat Davin, brother of GAA co-founder Maurice Davin, emerged in public and was put under auction, as reported by The Irish Times. In one passage the diarist complained about “very plain-looking” American women at a New York dance; in another, about the lack of strong drink at a Massachusetts banquet.

1888 Invasion medal.

Davin’s dairy went unsold at the 2016 auction and remains in the hands of the private owner, said County Kilkenny-based Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers. A commemorative medal from the 1888 tour sold in May for about $2,200, slightly less than was paid for a similar medal eight years ago.

 

“Although the tour was deemed a failure in some regards, its overall cultural impact was noticeable and lasting,” according to Haverford College“The tour was well received by Irish American communities in general and eventually resulted in the formation of several GAA branches.”

During his travels in Ireland, Hurlbert obtained a copy of the newly published Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland, which included “Marching Song of the Gaelic Athletes.” The poem by Irish nationalist Douglas Hyde later became the GAA anthem. It begins:

We, the numerous men of Eire,
Born beneath her pleasant skies,
To our gatherings on our mountains.
In our thousands we arise.
See the weapons on our shoulders,
Neither gun nor pike we bear,
But should Ireland call upon us
Ireland soon should find them there.

(Poem continues)

Swimming across Walden, remembering the shanty Irish

I was swimming west on Walden Pond
towards the ghosts of pre-Famine Irish workers
near Concord village in the sun on the first day of September.

–After Paul Durcan’s “On the First Day of June.”

In late June 1844, New England newspapers reported that service on the Fitchburg Railroad had reached Concord, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American revolution. A new noise replaced “the shot heard round the world.”

The repose of that quite venerable town … was suddenly broken by the shrill note of the engine and a hundred passengers alighted from the train of freight cars laden with materials for the line. The route from Boston to Concord is most picturesque and pleasing, passing [among other locations] the clear waters of Walden Pond. The regular trains will now commence running to Concord, and the track is rapidly progressing towards Vermont, and Canada.

A year later, Henry David Thoreau moved into the cabin he built near the pond’s shoreline. As noted in his book, Walden, he procured the boards for his abode from the “uncommonly fine” shanty of Irish railroad worker James Collins, who was moving up the line with the transportation project.

Irish railroad workers, former slaves, and other outcasts lived in the Walden woods for years before Thoreau. And it wasn’t all bucolic wilderness, either, as many nearby acres had been cut for timber and cleared for farming and the railroad. As Thoreau noted, the Fitchburg Railroad “touches the pond about a hundred rods [a third of a mile] south of where I dwell.” He continued:

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk over a farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous county traders from the other side.

Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond. Note the unfinished Fitchburg Railroad line at top right. His cabin was located about where the arrow’s fletching is at the middle right. I swam from A to B, and back.

In another passage, Thoreau mused on the term “sleepers,” the wooden ties that support the railroad tracks, as a metaphor of the workers’ oppression and their potential redemption:

Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them and they are covered with sand, and cars run smooth over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. … And I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

Waves of unskilled Irish arrived in America during a “forgotten era” of immigration before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They were cheap labor for the dirty and dangerous work of building the nation’s canals and railroads. A decade before the Fitchburg line was laid, 57 Irish railroad workers died of cholera–though some were probably murdered–at Duffy’s Cut, near Philadelphia, where they were buried in a notorious mass grave.

Irish people are referenced throughout Walden. Thoreau described the “clumsy Irish laborers” who cut blocks of ice on the pond in winter, and “Poor John Field … born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty.” He wrote, “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” Scholars have debated whether Thoreau was prejudice against the Irish. One University of Notre Dame professor blames such interpretations on “hasty reading” of the book.

Swimming Walden

I visited Walden on the first day of September, as near to the autumn equinox as the date of Paul Durcan’s poem is to the summer solstice. With the air and water temperatures each about 80 F. (27 C.), I welcomed the challenge from my wife and some friends to swim the half-mile length of the pond. In the book, Thoreau made several mentions of bathing in the pond during summer, even “swimming across one of its coves for a stint.”

I am a confident, year-round pool swimmer, but I rarely get the chance to stroke through open water. Given Walden’s smooth surface and historical significance, this was an exhilarating opportunity. I entered from the sandy beach at the east end of the 65-acre oval.

Aerial view of Walden, with commuter rail right-of-way at bottom right, which is west. Photo: Walden Pond State Reservation.

For the next 20 minutes, I alternated between freestyle and breast strokes, the former to cover the distance more quickly, the latter to make head up navigational adjustments. There are no lap lanes across Walden Pond.

About three quarters across, during a stretch of breast stroke, I watched a train streak left to right on the horizon ahead of me. It was the commuter line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority on the former Fitchburg Railroad right-of-way. There was no shrill whistle; no belching smoke from a coal-fired locomotive; only the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, riding over the sleepers kept down and level in their beds by gangs of men. The rapid, unbroken notes drifted over the water:

“kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. … ”

Then silence. Then water rippling around my ears. My breathing. I dropped my head and stretched forward my right arm to begin the final segment of freestyle to the shore. There, I rested a few moments.

I thought about James Collins, John Field, and the other Irish who lived at Walden more than 170 years ago. Perhaps this spot is where Thoreau salvaged “a raft of pitch-pine logs with the bark on, pinned together by the Irish when the railroad was built.”

A raft for fishing? A raft for sledding blocks of pond ice? Or perhaps, looking eastward as I was, a raft for their imaginations to drift across Walden, across the Atlantic, all the way back to Ireland, even as their starving countrymen began sailing westward in the dark holds of equally dubious vessels.

Thoreau wrote “a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land [exclaimed], ‘What, is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

I waded into the shallow and plunged into the pond to begin the half-mile swim back to my wife and friends. Back to the 21st century. I am now another ghost of Walden; one who never built a railroad, a shanty, or even a simple raft. I am digging with my pen, as poet Seamus Heaney wrote; I am building my railroad on sleepers of words.

Along the shores of Walden
once home to shanty Irish workers
on the first day of September in the heart of New England
my ripples disappeared.


“Forgotten era” is the section title for the immigration period 1700 to 1840, in Jay P. Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008. More than one million people left Ireland in the 30 years before the Famine (p. 35), and up to 60 percent were unskilled laborers (p. 37). Irish workers helped to build America’s canal system in the early 19th century, then shifted to railroad work as that mode of transportation became more practical and profitable to commercial interests. In both cases, migrant Irish laborers lived in shanty communities near the project sites (pgs. 42-46).

‘Born at Sea’ talk is Sept. 15 in Baltimore

Thanks to Luke McCusker of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum for inviting me to make this presentation, and for those who attended. Contact me via the “Leave a reply” function if interested in a talk on this subject, or my other Irish work. MH  

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I am giving a talk about “Ireland’s Famine Children Born at Sea” this Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore.

The presentation is based on my story in the Winter 2017/18 issue of the National Archives & Records Administration’s Prologue magazine. It includes additional research since the piece was published earlier this year.

Register for the free event, which begins at 11 a.m. The museum is located near downtown Baltimore at 918 Lemon St., a group of five alley houses where many Irish immigrants lived from the mid-19th century.

Here’s my earlier post about the museum, which is worth visiting anytime.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

Trump to visit Ireland in November

UPDATE:

It appears as of 11 September that the visit is being scratch. There is confusion and conflicting statements from the White House and media sources.

UPDATE:

Protesters say a giant “Trump Baby” blimp will fly over Ireland during the U.S. president’s November visit.  … Of more than 2,500 people taking Irish Central’s online poll, 71 percent said Trump “shouldn’t visit” Ireland.

ORIGINAL POST:

Not two weeks since Pope Francis left Ireland, it has emerged that U.S. President Donald Trump will visit the country in November. The timing will be either just before or right after Trump attends a Paris event marking the centenary of the armistice ending World War I.

Trump will visit his golf course in Doonbeg, County Clare, and Dublin, according to press reports. His itinerary also will have to accommodate the scheduled 11 November inauguration of the Irish President, as well as a planned Irish commemoration of the 1918 peace.

The timing is within days after U.S. elections on 6 November, when Trump could face a rebuke if Democrats take one of both chambers of Congress. As it turns out, I also will be traveling in Ireland, 7-13 November, for the 2018 Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland Conference, “The Press and the Vote.

Talk of massive protests against Trump is quickly beginning to stir, along with push back from opposition leaders in the government and members of the current Irish administration.

“Yes, we have strong disagreements with [Trump’s] policy decisions but we also have a very friendly relationship with the United States,” Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told The Irish Times.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t have direct discussions from a policy perspective. That is how mature countries interact with each other. Rather than taking approaches that are unhelpful and will damage a relationship, we will have blunt, straight and honest discussions with a friendly country.”

Obviously, this story will develop over the next 10 weeks.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the White House during the annual St. Patrick’s Day ceremony.

Catching up with modern Ireland: August

Pope Francis’ visit dominated the news from and about Ireland in August, but there were other developments. Here’s my regular monthly roundup:

  • Northern Ireland set a new world record on 29 August for the longest peacetime period without a government, 590 days and counting, the Associated Press reported. The Catholic-Protestant power-sharing administration at Stormont collapsed in January 2017. People gathered across the North to protest that “Stormont is Dormant.”

  • The number of Irish people returning to live in the Republic of Ireland has overtaken those leaving the country for the first time since 2009. See full details from the Central Statistics Office.
  • The Drinks Industry Group of Ireland reported there are nearly 1,500 fewer pubs in the country than in 2005, a 17.1 percent decrease. Off licenses increased by 11.6 percent, and wine-only establishments increased by 3.1 percent.
  • A statue of former U.S. President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled at Barack Obama Plaza, a fast-food and petrol station on the outskirts of Moneygall, County Offaly.
  • Kirsten Mate Maher of Waterford was crowned the 2018 Rose of Tralee. She is the first African-Irish “Rose,” and the third mixed-race woman to win the title, according to The Irish Times.
  • Wild fires revealed a giant EIRE sign carved into the ground at Bray Head, County Wicklow. The World War II relic was created to warn Allied and Axis pilots of Ireland’s neutral status. In July, a previously undiscovered henge, or circular enclosure, close to the neolithic passage tomb Newgrange, emerged as the result of exceptionally dry weather.
  • A major fire gutted the 233-year-old Primark building in Belfast city centre. It was not immediately clear whether the remaining sandstone facade of the historic five-story building could be saved.

Flames billow from the Primark store in the Bank Buildings on Castle Street, in Belfast city centre. Image from BBC.