Irish nationalism’s “troublesome men,” Part 2 of 2

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. Read Part 1MH

View of Pittsburgh in the 1890s.

Newspapers across America reported the August 1895 Irish nationalists rally in Pittsburgh, including its criticism of the upcoming Chicago convention. In London, The Times carried a Reuters dispatch that attracted the attention of Andrew Carnegie.1 It “had naturally an unusual interest for me,” the industrialist wrote to the establishment newspaper from Cluny Castle in Scotland’s central Highlands. He lamented that “the Irish question is not exclusively a British, but, also, unfortunately, an American question, casting over our politics its baneful influence.”2

Carnegie certainly didn’t want more unrest in Pittsburgh, the city where he made his fortune. Only three years had passed since the bloody strike at his Homestead steel plant. Three months ahead, he would return to the city to open a new library, museum and art gallery “to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light.”3

His letter to the Times was not his first about Ireland to a prominent newspaper.4 In 1885, the businessman wrote to The New York Times in lieu of accepting an invitation to address the Irish League of Pittsburgh.

Andrew Carnegie

“I am indeed a friend to Ireland,” Carnegie penned from his summer home in Cresson, Pennsylvania, a mountain resort 80 miles east of Pittsburgh. “All that the wildest Irish patriot has urged against English rule is warranted. ‘The sacred right of rebellion’ cannot be denied to the Irish people. Resistance to English rule is a solemn duty.”5

Carnegie advocated an American-style federalist system, with Ireland “as a state of the British union, equal with England and Scotland.” An Irish republic of 5 million people “would be ridiculous,” he said. “I am as determined an opponent of secession in Britain as I am in America.”6

Chicago convention

As the opening of the Irish National Alliance convention in Chicago neared, more opposition to it surfaced beyond the Pittsburgh rally. In Philadelphia, the Ancient Order of Hibernians passed a resolution that accused the INA of trying to “forge to the front as politicians to further their own interests.”7 Altoona’s Robert Emmett Literary Society declared the Chicago meeting was only “to serve the selfish ends of certain persons, and not as avowed, to do any good for Ireland.”8

Irishmen gathered Sept. 20, 1895, at Pittsburgh’s city hall passed a second resolution to bolster their statement from the August rally. It said the Chicago organizers should be “watched with jealous care and attention” because “hundreds of thousands of dollars of hard earned money of Irish American servant girls and men of our race, in the mills, mines and factories of this broad land have been squandered by American politicians.” To keep an eye on the proceedings, the group selected Paul Sheedy, John Madden and Humphrey Lynch as delegates to the Chicago convention.9

Four days later, the Irish National Alliance convention opened inside a YMCA auditorium in Chicago. Portraits of Irish nationalist heroes decorated the hall, including Robert Emmet, executed in 1803 for treason after leading a failed rebellion against Britain, and the Manchester martyrs. Banners of the coat of arms for each of Ireland’s four provinces hung over the stage.10

Divisions among Irish nationalists were as noticeable as the decorations. “For over a year there have been mutterings of discontent among a large portion of the Irish race in this country,” The Pittsburgh Press reported. While “Irish societies of all kinds, political, social, beneficial and literary” were invited to the convention, the offer was “antagonized by an element of the race on the ground that it was more the forerunner of an Irish American political movement than a genuine effort on behalf of the mother isle.”11

Attention was turning to the 1896 U.S. presidential election as the nation remained mired in an economic depression that began a few years earlier. In Western Pennsylvania, basic industries remained hard hit, and mills and mines were either closed or worked only part time.12 High unemployment sparked frequent labor unrest.

At the same time, “a significant percentage” of Irish Americans had become integrated into the middle classes and were more concerned about acting as political spokesmen for the Catholic community than having anything to do with Ireland.13 Some of the Chicago convention leaders had ties to the U.S. Republican Party, which would nominate and elect William McKinley as president in 1896. The Irish National Alliance attracted lawyers, doctors, judges, politicians and businessmen primarily from the Midwest, South and Western states. Most East Coast Irish remained indifferent or hostile to the effort.14

Several Western Pennsylvania individuals and Irish organizations wired supportive telegrams to the convention, including John J. O’Donnell of Homestead; John Kellon and Phillip Duke of Irwin; Patrick McCarthy of Sharon; T. G. Herbert of Altoona, and a half dozen well wishers from Erie.15 About 50 men from Pennsylvania attended in person.16

The Philadelphia contingent included city son James Talbot O’Callahan, owner of a silk badge and banner firm;17  Henry Boylan, a County Fermanagh-born liquor wholesaler;18 Dublin native Martin P. Moroney;19 and Patrick O’Neill, referenced earlier as an enemy of John Devoy. Altoona’s Thomas Greevy and John O’Toole traveled to Chicago. The Western Pennsylvania delegation included Homestead councilman John J. Rattigan; County Kerry native and Pittsburgh hotel operator Cornelius Horgan; and John Flannery, a former miners’ organizer who became editor of the Pittsburgh-based Irish Pennsylvanian newspaper,20 as well as Madden, Sheedy and Lynch.

Chicago in the 1890s.

Troublesome men

The convention’s credentials committee, chaired by Philadelphia’s Moroney, denied Sheedy and Madden access to the hall. “These credentials were presented on behalf of some association of the AOH on a small piece of paper by somebody,” scoffed a Montana delegate. “We thought if we accepted such a thing as that we might have the whole of Chicago in.”21

Convention Secretary M. F. Fanning of Chicago was more blunt: “You can go to ____, but you can’t go into the convention.”22

Lynch and Flannery challenged the ruling. Flannery noted that he attended the Pittsburgh meeting that selected Lynch, Madden and Sheedy. “I think it is a disgrace that we should not be treated with some justice,” he said.23

An 1895 Chicago newspaper illustration of Madden and Sheedy.

Madden and Sheedy issued a protest statement, which pointed out that Lynch “was elected in precisely the same way, and was admitted on credentials exactly similar to ours.”24 They blamed their exclusion on William Lyman, the Sullivan ally they challenged the previous fall.

“There are plain indications of fraud in the methods of making up the convention, and that fraud is in the interest of the men whose action in the past has brought disgrace and shame to the national cause,” their statement said. “We warn all true Nationalists of the danger that confronts our cause, and ask them to take the proper steps to avert it.”25

Word quickly reached Pittsburgh that Madden and Sheedy were expelled from the convention. An emergency meeting of the city’s Irish groups was convened in the Wilkinsburg neighborhood.26 Carrick read a letter from Madden, dated a few days earlier, which predicted the rebuke. Others made “bitter speeches” and “roundly denounced” the convention.

The group sent a telegram to Chicago on behalf of “Irish citizens of Allegheny County, Pa., [to] demand the reasons for the rejection.” Another telegram to Madden and Sheedy said “the Irish organizations of Allegheny County are with you to a man.”27

Lynch attributed his colleagues’ rejection to their role in the Pittsburgh rally the previous month. When Lynch asked a convention official if the telegram from Pittsburgh was received, he received a curt reply: “It may have come, but if it has not it makes no difference.”28

The Chicago Tribune named two other Allegheny County delegates as having their credentials denied at the convention, and “the four men were excluded.”29 No reporting of two other men being ousted from the meeting appears in Pittsburgh newspaper coverage, however, and it is not mentioned in the convention’s official report, only Madden and Sheedy.

The wire service account of their rejection from the convention was widely published in U.S. newspapers, including the quote that they were “troublesome men.” The Los Angeles Times carried a brief about the hometown reaction headlined “Disgruntled Pittsburghers.”30 Most of the newspaper coverage focused on the militant rhetoric of John Finerty, a former Illinois Congressman and the convention chairman. “We’ll circle England with a wall of fire, which shall never be extinguished until Ireland is free.”31

The ouster of Madden and Sheedy was absent in Irish and British newspaper coverage of the convention, and the London press waved off Finerty’s speeches. The Pall Mall Gazette said his “threats only stiffen our back and dull our hearing.” The Times discerned the domestic political effort “to muster as many Irish societies as they can beneath the banner of their presidential candidate.”32

The aftermath

On Oct. 8, 1895, about 50 Irishmen gathered again at Pittsburgh’s city hall to voice their “indignation” about the Chicago convention. Some Irish National Alliance supporters also attended, creating a spirited atmosphere.33

Sheedy alleged the convention was packed with “ward heelers,” truck drivers and “men from the stockyards” who were paid to sit in place of prominent Irish businessmen who never set foot in the hall. He suggested many of the supportive telegrams also were bogus. “The convention was a fiasco and the movement it inaugurated was a farce,” he declared.34

A few weeks later, Sheedy and Madden traveled to Philadelphia to address the pro-Devoy United Irish Societies, which also condemned the Chicago convention.35 Madden ridiculed the idea that the U.S. government would allow any domestic organization to recruit an army to invade England for the purpose of liberating Ireland, as suggested in Chicago. “But there is no fear of the alliance ever amounting to anything,” he said.36

Privately, Madden wrote to Devoy that the Chicago organizers were “show patriots” who “made us appear ridiculous in the eyes of the American people.” He added: “I am proud that my section was not caught in the trap.”37

Sheedy informed Devoy that Flannery, the Irish Pennsylvanian editor who supported him and Madden in the credentials fight, had turned against them in a column published in the Chicago Citizen, an Irish newspaper owned by Finerty, the convention chairman. “I suspect [Flannery] was paid by Lyman to do his dirty work. He is ready to do anything for a dollar.”38

John Devoy

Devoy tasked Sheedy with mailing “circulars” to the presidents of 500 U.S. and Canadian AOH groups about an upcoming meeting. “It is pretty tedious work,” the doctor complained. “You are the choice of the men here, but I told them I did not think you could come.”39

Sheedy continued writing to Devoy into 1896. He inquired about Devoy’s health, opined about political developments in Ireland, and recommended potential new Clan “camps” in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling, West Virginia. He also invited Devoy to a 5 August Irish event he was organizing at Calhoun Park, near Homestead.40

“We meet in auspicious times, and no man in whose veins flows Celtic blood need be ashamed,” Sheedy said in a speech to about 2,000 people. “Ireland has had a great, but painful history; she is destined to a magnificent future.”41 

Five months later, he died of pneumonia, not yet 30. John Sheedy had his younger brother’s body returned to Altoona for the wake at his house. Rev. Sheedy presided at the funeral Mass, attended by delegations from several Irish groups.42

Devoy continued to work behind the scenes. By Sheedy’s January 1897 burial, his loyalists in the Clan na Gael had more than doubled to nearly 10,000 nationwide from about 4,000 in 1894.43 Madden, Lynch and other Irish nationalists in Western Pennsylvania lived to see Devoy reestablish control of the group as the rival Irish National Alliance faded into obscurity.

Pittsburgh’s “troublesome men” had picked the right side.

(Footnotes in this post are 47 – 90 of the full piece. They are listed 1 -43 here because the citation plugin code cannot account for the piece being divided into two parts. See Part 1.)

  1. The Times (London, England), Aug. 17, 1894, 5, and Sept. 2, 1895, 6.
  2. The Times (London, England,) Sept. 2, 1895, p. 6.
  3. Andrew Carnegie’s Nov. 5, 1895, dedication speech.
  4. The New York Times, Sept. 30, 1885, 4, and cited in David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie (New York, Penguin Books, 2006) 278.
  5. The New York Times, Sept. 30, 1885, 4.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21, 1895, 3.
  8. The Washington Post, Sept. 17, 1895, 6.
  9. Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 21, 1895, 2.
  10. The Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 24, 1895, 7.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Dr. Marian Silveus, “The Election of 1896 in Western Pennsylvania,” 99-124. The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 1, The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1933. The paper was read by Dr. Silveus during the Feb. 28, 1933, HSWP meeting.
  13. McGee, The IRB, 238, citing Fanning (ed), The new movement convention; D.N. Doyle, Irish America, native rights and national empires (New York, 1976).
  14. Ibid.
  15. The New Movement Convention, 20.
  16. The New Movement Convention, 76-77.
  17. The New Movement Convention, 359.
  18. The New Movement Convention, 248.
  19. The New Movement Convention, 326.
  20. The New Movement Convention, p. 325-326.
  21. Ibid.
  22. The Inter Ocean (Chicago), Sept. 25, 1895, 2.
  23. The New Movement Convention, 61-62.
  24. Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 26, 1895, 1.
  25. Ibid.
  26. The Pittsburgh Post, Sept. 27, 1895, 1.
  27. Ibid.
  28. The New Movement Convention, 113.
  29. Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 26, 1895, 3
  30. The Los Angeles Times, Sept. 26, 1895, 1.
  31. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 25, 1895, 4.
  32. Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 26, 1895, 1.
  33. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 9, 1895, 6.
  34. Ibid.
  35. The Times (Philadelphia, Pa.) Oct. 15, 1895, 4.
  36. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 18, 1895, 4.
  37. NLI, Devoy Papers, Nov. 11, 1895, letter of John Madden to John Devoy.
  38. NLI, Devoy Papers, Nov. 11, 1895, letter of Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  39. NLI, Devoy Papers, Nov. 2, 1895, letter of Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  40. NLI, Devoy Papers, June 9, 1896, and June 16, 1896, letters of Paul Sheedy to John Devoy.
  41. Pittsburgh Daily Post, Aug. 6, 1896, 2.
  42. Altoona Mirror, Jan. 11, 1897, 4, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 12, 1897, 3.
  43. Golway, Irish Rebel, 178.

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