Category Archives: Irish America

Ill-fated Irish Convention opened 100 years ago

Delegates to the Irish Convention outside Trinity College Dublin in July 1917.

A British government-backed convention to resolve “the Irish question” opened 25 July 1917, in Dublin. Delegates met through March 1918 as World War I continued to rage on the continent.

Sometimes called “Lloyd George’s Irish Convention,” after the British prime minister, it “was marked by his characteristic defects as a statesman,” County Cork’s William O’Brien wrote in his 1923 history, The Irish Revolution. “It was improvised, it was uncandid, and it was open to be changed into something quite different at a moment’s notice.”

And It failed.

I wanted to read U.S. newspaper coverage of the convention opening, especially in Pittsburgh. My maternal grandparents and other relations from Kerry arrived in the city shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered this 26 July, 1917, editorial assessment:

There will be no disappointment if the Irish Convention which opened in Dublin yesterday to try to formulate a Home Rule plan fails of agreement, for there is no hope that anything like a conclusion acceptable to all can be reached. … If [politicians of opposing views] can meet once and part without having engaged in a fist fight and widening the breach between the factions … they can meet again. And the oftener they meet … the better chance there is that there eventually will be a meeting of the minds leading to concessions, compromise and a willingness to give a trial to some scheme of self-government that will put an end to the factional fight of centuries’ duration.

The convention’s effort to deliver Home Rule, which had been promised just before the war began in 1914, was derailed in spring 1918, as London linked the deal to enforced conscription in Ireland. (Many Irishmen voluntarily served in the British military.) The death blow came after the war, as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson abandoned the Irish at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Irish War of Independence began soon after.

The 4-minute video below contains soundbites from several speakers at a Trinity College Dublin centenary symposium about the convention. In addition to their various historical points, it’s worth listening to the diversity of Irish accents.

Ballot & Bullet: Remembering Dev and Danny Boy

Two July 1917 events in the west of Ireland shaped the county’s struggle for independence from Britain. A century later, however, both seem to have be mostly forgotten, prompting criticism from at least one historian.

The first and most significant event was the election of Sinn Féin candidate Éamon de Valera in County Clare. The by-election was called to fill the seat left vacant when Irish Parliamentary Party member Willie Redmond was killed in World War I. The IPP represented the late 19th century effort to secure limited domestic autonomy for Ireland, called home rule. de Valera, one of the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising who was released from prison in June 1917, belonged to the new generation of Irish republicans seeking a clean break from Britain, even if it required violence ahead of politics.

As John Dorney explains on The Irish Story website:

His victory marked a decisive breakthrough for the Sinn Féin party and the beginning of the eclipse of the constitutional nationalists of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The following year, 1918, Sinn Féin, headed by de Valera, won a crushing victory in a general election and early the following year, declared independence, leading the Irish War of Independence.

The post also features Dorney’s 35-minute podcast interview with Clare historian Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, who details the election and sets the context for this period between the Rising and the War. It’s a great listen.

O Ruairc raises the second event toward the end of the interview. While celebrating Dev’s victory in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, local man Daniel Scanlon was shot and killed by an officer of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Scanlon belonged to the Irish Volunteers, at the time transitioning to the Irish Republican Army. O Ruairc describes Scanlon’s death as one of the first of the War of Independence. (Read an account in the Bureau of Military History Witness Statement of William McCabe, page 3.)

The 100th anniversary of Scanlon’s death and Dev’s election appear to have been largely ignored by the Irish government and media. The historian complains:

We hear a lot talk from politicians about how important this period of our history is commemorated … As far as I can see the 100th anniversary of this guy’s death was not commemorated.  … This period of history is passing us by because the government’s official Decade of Centenaries [1912-1922] was disbanded after the last election a year ago, after the big 2016 centenaries. … It’s an indictment of the Decade of Centenaries that it was four years long; we went from 1912 to 1916 and then we stopped. I think what we are going to see for the rest of the Decade of Centenaries is that stuff that happened outside Dublin is not [considered] important. … It will be left to the people that always commemorate it, local historians, relatives, with not much state support behind it.

In fairness, the official Decade of Centenaries website does note de Valera’s by-election win in its 1917 timeline. He is hardly forgotten in Ireland, given the large role he played as the 26 counties became the Irish Free State and eventually the Republic. By 1963, the elder statesman was still on the scene to welcome John F. Kennedy to Ireland.

Scanlon, who was 24 in 1917, is easier lost in the Irish revolutionary period. The RIC officer charged with his death was soon acquitted. It also should be remembered that Scanlon’s death came 15 months after another Ballybunion native, Patrick Shortis, 26, was killed during the Rising in Dublin.

Both of these rebel deaths catch my attention since my grandfather emigrated in 1913, at age 19, from the same village. He joined several cousins and other North Kerry immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city’s daily newspapers carried numerous stories about de Valera’s victory, but not a word of Scanlon’s death that I can locate.

Both Shortis and Scanlon are remembered with small plaques on the sides of buildings in Ballybunion. A bronze statue of de Valera stands outside the courthouse in Ennis, Co. Clare, where his 71 percent to 29 percent ballot victory was tabulated a century ago.

The level of attention generated by last year’s 1916 centenary events would be hard to sustain over a decade. Through the end of 2018, there will continue to be more focus on the events of World War I. But O Ruairc has a point about the general decline of interest in historical events from the period between the Rising the start of the War of Independence.

The memorial to Daniel Scanlon in Ballybunion.

Happy Blogiversary: Five years, 500 posts

This is my 500th post since I launched the blog on 22 July 2012, with the goal of publishing “research and writing about Irish and Irish-American history and contemporary issues.”

This post also coincides with the publication of my latest story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s about Ireland’s Great Famine, based on several letters written to a Catholic priest in 1847.

The Published Stories section of the blog contains all of my Irish-related work for outside newspapers, magazines and websites since 2000. Best of the Blog contains my annual round up of each year’s most significant stories, and other favorites exclusive to the site. See the list of St. Patrick’s churches I’ve visited, and check out other Irish interest places to visit.

Angie Drobnic Holan, my wife, has lovingly contributed to this effort as webmaster and editor. She has been unfailingly supportive, including the many evenings when she implored, “It’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.”

I also want to thank my readers, especially those who subscribe to the blog via email. I appreciate the “Likes,” shares and re-tweets on social media. Sure, this blog doesn’t get the traffic of commercial sites, but l am grateful to everyone who stops by for a look, especially readers in Ireland.

Himself, at Carrigafoyle Castle, North Kerry, 2012.

In pursing my Irish history interests, I’ve been fortunate to visit numerous archives and libraries, where I obtained much valuable assistance. Among some of the places I’ve been able to visit:

My research also has benefited from the always-expanding menu of online resources. My laptop has become a time machine. It has whisked me back to 19th century Ireland and America through digitized documents and letters, newspaper archives, maps, photographs and vintage video.

Thanks again for reading the blog and supporting my work. Please keep coming back.

U.S. Navy steamed into Ireland 100 years ago

With vital sea lanes to protect from German U-boats, the U.S. Navy arrived in Ireland 100 years ago as America entered World War I. The first ships reached the harbour at Queenstown (now Cobh) on 4 May 1917, and included six destroyers from the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Division Eight, led by Commander Joseph K Taussig on board the USS Wadsworth.

“They braved rough waters, gale-force winds, and German U-boats to protect commercial ships around Great Britain and France,” Tim Forsyth, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ireland said during a centennial  commemoration. “Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans was a huge threat and the sinking of the Lusitania and several other U.S. merchant ships was on everyone’s minds.”

Other conferences, exhibits and articles about the American naval presence in Ireland include:

The U.S. Navy arrived in Queenstown in May 1917. Story and more photos at Visit Cobh. The church in left background is St. Coleman’s Cathedral.

An Gorta Mor exhibit going to Ireland in 2018

A large portion of the art and artifacts from the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., will travel to Ireland in 2018. The “Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger,” exhibition will be on view at Dublin Castle from March to June, and at the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen from July to October.

In addition to displaying paintings, sculpture and other items from this one-of-a-kind collection, the touring exhibition also will include a program of poetry and literature readings, concerts, theater and lectures.

The Ragpickers,, 1900, by Henry Allan, is part of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum collection.

The estimated cost of the exhibition is $800,000, according to the official website. Of this amount, Quinnipiac has committed $200,000, with the balance to come from corporate, foundation and individual donations, including one $250,000 “presenting sponsor” and three $100,000 “lead sponsors.”

It will be interesting to see who or what organizations pony up.

In March 2013, I spent a day at the museum and related collection of printed materials at the Lender Family Special Collection Room at the University’s Arnold Bernhard Library. The combination of narrative and visual materials made for a moving and engrossing experience.

I am sure these images and materials will have an even more profound impact back “home” in Ireland.

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

***

The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

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Celebrating the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth

John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy was born 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, near Boston, a year after the Easter Rising and a month after the U.S. entered World War I.

In 1960, Kennedy was elected president of the United States. He was not the first Irish American to win the nation’s highest office, but he was the first Catholic. Three years later, JFK made a triumphant return to Ireland, land of his ancestors. Five months after, he was assassinated in the U.S.

The end of May brings the official opening of numerous centennial celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.  The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., have partnered for a series of events and initiatives, including the “JFK 100: Milestones & Mementos” exhibition.

Here are some other links to JFK-related content, starting with my own work on the blog:

Here are other external links of interest:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, Boston (boyhood home)

The Kennedy Homestead,  Wexford, Ireland (ancestral home)

John F. Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. (centennial celebration)

Official White House biography

University of Virginia Miller Center (essays, etc.)

RTÉ Archives and The Irish Times (coverage of the 1963 Ireland visit)

 

JFK’s triumphant return to County Wexford, Ireland, land of his ancestors.

In praise of the Irish diaspora

I’ve been reading “The Princeton History of Modern Ireland,” edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride. It was one of the Irish history books under the Christmas tree five months ago.

The book offers 21 chapters by different historians that range from broad essays about major developments of Irish society and politics to more focused looks at specific factors that played an important role in shaping that trajectory, as Bourke writes in the Introduction.

Among the “standout entries,” Tom Deignan wrote in his August 2016 Commonweal review, are “explorations of the Irish language as well as the diaspora, topics that are often shoved to the margins but provide key insights into Ireland and its history.”

I especially liked Enda Delaney‘s “Diaspora” chapter, which concludes the book. These two passages caught my eye:

To write the Irish story without the diaspora is to render a partial account. It is worth remembering that in 1910 the Irish-born population of New York at 250,000 people was only exceeded by the populations of Dublin and Belfast. In other words, the third largest “Irish” city was across the Atlantic. (p. 493).

***

Irishness was never circumscribed by place of birth, as hundreds of studies of the diaspora clearly show, even if the venerable inhabitants of the “motherland” are sometimes less than keen to acknowledge this. (p. 502).

Immigrants at Ellis Island.

“Angela’s” Pulitzer: Catching up 20 years on

Margaret Cashill of Tampa, one of my former newsroom colleagues, suggested this blog post and sent along a few links. Thanks Margaret! MH

Columbia University President, George Rupp (left), presents Frank McCourt with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

In April 1997, Frank McCourt’s memoir of his “miserable Irish upbringing” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography. Angela’s Ashes had published a year earlier.

Twenty years on from the Pulitzer, there is a wave of developments associated with the book:

  • Angela’s Ashes: The Musical is preparing to open this summer, with performances in Limerick, site of the book, as well as Dublin and Belfast. “There’s a recognition of the brand across the world. … But this is a show I want to stand on its own two feet in Ireland,” producer Pat Moylan told The Irish Times.
  • Leamy House on Hartstonge Street in Limerick, the author’s old school, has been purchased by a Limerick businessman. The building hosts multiple tenants, including the Frank McCourt Museum, which the new owner plans to keep in place, according to the Limerick Leader.
  • The Leader also reported that hundreds of people have contributed to a large montage portrait of the famous Limerick writer.

McCourt was born in New York. His parents returned to their native Ireland during the Great Depression. He was 67 when Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer.

In a September 1996 book review under the headline “Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood,” The New York Times wrote:

“Writing in prose that’s pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we’ve walked its streets and crawled its pubs. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.”

McCourt later wrote ‘Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005). He died in 2009.

The troubled foundation of St. Patrick’s in Rome, 1888

ROME — The foundation stone of St. Patrick’s Church in the Eternal City was laid during a critical period of Irish history and the eve of a low-point in the country’s relationship with the Vatican.

I stopped by the church, plain by Roman standards, as part of my ongoing project of visiting as many St. Patricks as possible. As it turned out, the church’s foundation date of 1 February 1888 (St. Brigid’s Day) also dovetailed with my interest in Ireland’s late 19th century nationalist struggles and land war.

St. Patrick’s Church, Rome, April 2017. Mosaic of St. Patrick below Celtic cross.

The morning of the foundation ceremony, a delegation of three archbishops, 10 bishops and 300 other pilgrims from Ireland, America and other nations with significant Irish immigrant populations met with Pope Leo XIII. The visitors gave the pope “a magnificent chalice of Irish workmanship,” a photo album of “sights, churches and principal monuments” of Dublin and a nearly £16,000 donation to the Vatican exchequer. The pontiff blessed the trowel to be used in that afternoon’s building site ceremony and handed each of the guests a coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

The pope addressed the group in Latin, according to The Nation, which reproduced his text with an English translation. He assured the visitors that he had viewed Ireland “with paternal care” since the start of his pontificate 10 years earlier.

“We were moved by her many claims upon us, but most of all by the integrity of that Catholic faith which, established by the labors and the zeal of St. Patrick, was preserved by the unconquerable fortitude of your ancestors, and transmitted to you to be guarded as a sacred inheritance,” he said.

The mosaic above the sanctuary is by Rodolfo Villani and depicts St. Patrick converting the High King Laoghaire at Tara, using the shamrock to explain the Trinity. The banner UT CHRISTIANI ITA ET ROMANI SITIS (“Be ye Christians as those of the Roman Church”) — is from the writings of St. Patrick.

The pontiff also briefly discussed the “present state of affairs” in Ireland, noting that a year earlier he dispatched Archbishop Ignatius Persico to investigate the country’s troubles. At the time, tension between Irish tenant farmers and absentee landlords had been stoked by a protest strategy known as the Plan of Campaign, which sought to reduce rents by withholding payments. If tenants got evicted, the Plan called for peer-enforced social ostracism, or boycotting, to prevent others from leasing the land. Some Catholic clergy were tacitly supporting the movement by joining the simultaneous nationalist efforts to secure Irish political autonomy, called home rule.

Persico began his mission to Ireland in 1887 just as the Times of London published a sensational series of stories linking agrarian unrest to Irish leader Charles Steward Parnell. The prelate’s presence generated mixed reactions among the Irish hierarchy, according to their letters to Tobias Kirby, rector of the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, who acted as their representative to the Vatican. In July, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin wrote that he was “very edified” by Persico’s mission. In September, Rev. J. Hassan of Londonderry said he was “ashamed of the cold reception” some gave the Vatican visitor. In October, Msgr. Bernard O’Reilly of Dublin worried that Persico’s report would be “unfavorable to Ireland” and complained he was “the wrong man to send.” The next day, Rev. M. Mooney of Cahir wrote he was delighted by the “genuine spark of Celtic spirit in his [Persico’s] very tone.”

As if to underscore the troubles in Ireland, boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice was gunned down in a widely reported land-related murder a day before the February 1888 foundation ceremony. That may have been on the pope’s mind when he told the Irish delegation he ordered the Persico mission “that we may be aided by his report in ascertaining the actual condition of things, and the steps that in your interest it may be desirable to take.” The pontiff also suggested that he might help ease Ireland’s “difficulties” through his personal diplomacy, just as he diffused anti-Catholic tensions in Germany.

Back in Ireland, however, The Nation noted that there were “wide differences” between the situations in the two countries, and that a similar outcome was unlikely. “The German question was essentially a religious one; the Irish question is an essentially non-religious one. Nor is there in English politics any such commanding personage as Bismarck,” the paper wrote four days later.

Sanctuary statue of St. Patrick. The tabernacle is open because this photo was taken the morning of the Easter Vigil.

About 10 weeks after the St. Patrick’s foundation ceremony, Rome issued a Papal Rescript that condemned the Plan of Campaign and its associated violence and boycotting tactics. While Persico favored grassroots guidance by the Irish bishops, the decree reflected the top-down approach of the Vatican, which at least in part was trying to appease English Catholic elites and the conservative government in London, which soon opened a special commission on “Parnellism and Crime.”

The Irish bishops grumbled that the decree divided their loyalty to the pope with their ministry to the people. The directive also drew a harsh rebuke in the first issue of The Irish Catholic, the latest publishing endeavor of Timothy Daniel Sullivan, a Dublin-based MP who also owned The Nation. “We deplore that the Holy Office has been deceived into accepting as a description of the affairs of Ireland, one without any basis in fact,” the new weekly said in its 5 May editorial.

Two months later, Rome reinforced the rescript with a Papal Encyclical, Saepe Nos, which complained the original decree was “grievously perverted by means of forced interpretations.” The pontiff reminded his Irish readers that he had “carefully inquired” to “obtain full and reliable knowledge of the state of your affairs, and of the causes of popular discontent.” In other words, the Vatican was standing by its original orders against boycotting and the Plan.

The Irish hierarchy and populace only grew further enraged. By the end of 1888, 28 of 30 Irish bishops signed a letter to the pope stating that they could not enforce the decree without jeopardizing both his and their own authority in Ireland. The following year became “perhaps the worst period in the whole history of Irish relations with the Holy See.” The Irish bishops even balked at Vatican directives to hold special collections to help pay for building St. Patrick’s Church in Rome.

Lack of funds and other delays slowed completion of the church for 23 years. It finally opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1911, “in weather that was raw, and chill, and rainy, much resembling that of spring days in Ireland,” the Freeman’s Journal reported. Eight years after the death of Leo XIII, the Kerry People suggested the late pontiff “encouraged and most generously contributed” to the Irish-connected church. (The Nation folded 11 years earlier, and The Irish Catholic’s archive was not immediately available.)

Most of Ireland’s tenant-landlord disputes had been resolved by 1911, but an even more difficult revolutionary period was just about to begin. With it, there would be a new round of trouble between Irish nationalists and the Holy See.

NOTES in addition to material linked above:

  • Freeman’s Journal, 28 March, 1911, page 5.
  • Kerry People, 8 April 1911, page 9.
  • Larkin, Emmet: The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Fall of Parnell, 1888-1891 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1979. “Worst period” quote on page 3, plus other background.
  • St. Patrick’s Church, Rome.
  • The Nation, 4 February 1888, page 11.
  • The Two Edged Sword.