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. Read Part 2.

  1. Altoona Tribune, Sept. 26, 1895, 4, and other newspapers.
  2. The Pittsburgh Post, Sept. 27, 1895, 1.
  3. Pittsburgh Daily Post, Aug. 16, 1895, 3.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Irish poet William Butler Yeats. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923“.
  6. The National Library of Ireland (NLI) holds the “John Devoy Papers,” MS 18,000-18,157. NLI’s online finding guides offer short descriptions of each letter, but the full content can only be viewed at the library. John Dorney, a Dublin-based historian and editor of The Irish Story (who has published my work), in 2017 reviewed the letters for me and provided detailed notes, including contextual background. In 2018, I reviewed the letters myself in Ireland. The letters cited in this story are not included in the two-volume collection, Devoy’s Post Bag, 1871-1928, published between 1948 and 1953.
  7. NLI, Devoy Papers. Oct. 31, 1894, letter from Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  8. “On the Occasion of Father Sheedy’s Golden Jubilee in the Priesthood, 1876-Sept. 23-1926,” original commemorative booklet reviewed by author at Blair County Genealogical Society, June 29, 2017, and newspaper obituaries.
  9. Rev. Morgan M. Sheedy, “Ten Years on Historic Ground: Early and Later Days at the Pittsburgh Point.” Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, V. 5, No. 2, April 1922, 135-144.
  10. Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 21, 1887, 1.
  11. Altoona Tribune, March 18, 1891, 1.
  12. “John Madden Sheedy, MD, of Altoona, Pa.” Family genealogy compiled by Imelda Sheedy Clauss, 1987, reviewed by author at Blair County Genealogical Society, June 29, 2017, and newspaper obituaries.
  13. Cambria County Medical Society, Jan. 9, 1890, meeting minutes reproduced in “Medical Comment: Commemorating the Eightieth Anniversary of the CCMS, 1852-1932,” 28-29. Digital copy provided to author by CCMS.
  14. Altoona Tribune, Sept. 3, 1894, 1.
  15. Altoona Mirror, Jan. 11, 1897, 4.
  16. 1893 Altoona city directory, 372 (residence) and 464 (physician’s directory). U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
  17. J.F. Diffenbacher’s directory of Pittsburgh and Allegheny cities, 1895/1896, 837. Historicpittsburgh.org/.
  18. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 8, 1918, 2; and “Twentieth Century Bench and Bar of Pennsylvania,” approximately 1903, digital image provided to author by Allegheny County Bar Association.
  19. The Pittsburgh Press, May 9, 1904, 5.
  20. The Pittsburgh Press, March 28, 1908, 3.
  21. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 9, 1894, 2.
  22. NLI, Devoy Papers, Oct. 17, 1894, letter, John Sheedy to John Devoy.
  23. NLI, Devoy Papers, Oct. 22, 1894, letter, John Sheedy to John Devoy.
  24. NLI, Devoy Papers, Oct. 31, 1894, letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  25. NLI, Devoy Papers, Nov. 2, 1884, letter, John Sheedy to John Devoy; Nov. 8, 1894 letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy; and Nov. 19, 1894, letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  26. Terry Golway, Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 178.
  27. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 7, 1894, letter, M.P. Carrick to John Devoy.
  28. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 17, 1894, letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  29. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 3, 1894, letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  30. Charles B. Clark, Esq, Semi Centennial History of Blair County, Pa., 1896, reprint published by the Blair County Genealogical Society, Inc. Altoona, Pa. 1996, 81.
  31. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 7, 1894, letter, M. P. Carrick to John Devoy.
  32. Devoy associate Patrick Henry Cronin, murdered in Chicago in 1889, probably for his attacks on the Alexander Sullivan faction.
  33. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 1, 1894, letter, John Madden to John Devoy.
  34. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 13, 1894, 6.
  35. Ibid.
  36. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 9, 1894, meeting minutes included in Dec. 7, 1894 letter, M.P. Carrick to John Devoy, (The letter apparently was mailed at least two days later than dated.)
  37. NLI, Devoy Papers,Dec. 17, 1894, letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  38. NLI, Devoy Papers, Dec. 7, 1894, letter, Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  39. Chicago Daily Tribune, May 3, 1895, 5.
  40. The New Movement Convention Which Gave Birth To The Irish National Alliance; The Official and Authentic Reports, Compiled and Published by M.F. Fanning, Chicago, 1896, 166.
  41. Altoona Tribune, Jan. 22, 1902, 1.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Owen McGee, The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood From the Land League to Sinn Fein (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005) 239.
  44. Gerald F. O’Neil, Pittsburgh Irish, Erin on the Three Rivers (History Press, Charleston, S.C., 2015) 135.
  45. Pittsburgh Daily Post, Aug. 16, 1895, 3.
  46. Irish Examiner, Aug. 17, 1895, 3.