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.
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.)
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.”
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.