Category Archives: Religion

December 1918: The bishop & the president

This is the first in a series of short posts exploring December 1918 events that became a turning point in the struggle for Irish independence. In Ireland, the republican Sinn Féin party routed the 19th century home party in the first parliamentary elections since 1914. This set the stage for the Irish War of Independence, which began in January 1919. In America, Irish immigrants and their first-generation offspring submitted hundreds of letters and petitions, and held public rallies, to pressure the U.S. government to support Irish freedom. A U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing highlighted their efforts. MH

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Ireland and other small nations seeking independence from imperial rulers seized on the January 1918 words of President Woodrow Wilson: “National aspirations must be respected. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

Supporters of Irish independence in Ireland and in America, whether immigrants or their offspring, embraced “self-determination” more than any other ethnic group. And they weren’t shy about demanding it.

Shahan

Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, rector of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., wrote a Nov. 30 letter to Wilson.1

In keeping these words of truth, we hold that the right of Ireland to ‘self-determination’ is immeasurably stronger than that of any other nation for which you have become the advocate. Moreover, Ireland’s claims are a hundredfold reinforced by her centuries of brave, though unavailing, struggle against foreign domination, tyranny, and autocracy.

A similar appeal by “the principal Irish societies of Washington” also was delivered to the Wilson White House, The Washington Post reported.2 “It voices the opinion of a public meeting, held by representatives of the Irish societies, that the American nation, through its president, has a unique opportunity to enforce this fundamental principal for the freedom of Ireland at the upcoming peace table, and the president is petitioned to use his good office to that end.” 

The signatory groups included the Friends of Irish Freedom; Ancient Order of Hibernians; Ladies Auxiliary of the AOH; Irish-American Union; Gaelic Society; Irish History Society; Irish History Study Club; and Shamrock Club.

At the time, the Irish were the largest ethnic group in the U.S. capital, representing about one fifth of all foreigners.3 Nationwide, Irish immigrants were about 10 percent of the foreign-born population, down from the one third post-Famine peak of 50 years earlier. First-generation Irish Americans far outnumbered their immigrant parents.

Bishop Shahan was the New Hampshire-born son of Irish immigrants. His letter to Wilson (grandson of an Ulster-Scot) was read at the Dec. 12 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “The Irish Question” by  Professor Joseph Dunn of the Catholic University of America faculty. Dunn testified that Wilson “not only acknowledged receipt of the bishop’s letter, but replied in such a sympathetic tone as would make interesting reading for members of this honorable committee.”4

Wilson

This was an optimistic interpretation of Wilson’s Dec. 3, 1918, note to Shahan; barely 100 typed words on White House stationary that never mentioned Ireland by name, only generalities:5

…it will be my endeavor in regard to every question which arises before the Peace Conference to do my utmost to bring about the realization of the principals to which your letter refers. The difficulties and delicacies of the task are very great, and I cannot confidentially forecast what I can do.

Once Wilson got to Paris, the self-determination of countries formerly ruled by vanquished Germany was easier to support than pressing ally Britain to loosen its grip on Ireland. By summer 1919, Wilson’s reluctance to support Ireland disappointed the Irish, by then at war with Britain. 

Shahan remained an “ardent supporter of Irish independence,” according to the Catholic University of America archives of his papers. His concerns were “not only as a source of personal interest, but also because religious matters were inextricably bound into the struggle for freedom and recognition for Ireland.”

NEXT: House hearing on the ‘Irish Question’  

Catching up with modern Ireland: November

I made my second trip of the year to Ireland in November. As in February, the weather was delightfully mild and mostly dry. As in America, more and more people seemed transfixed by their smart phones. In the West of Ireland, I noticed more wind turbines sprouting from fields and hilltops to supply electrical power to keep those phones charged. At several churches, Mass attendance remained thin, especially at the massive Galway Cathedral. (Below and bottom of the post.)

Here’s the monthly roundup for November:

      • “Successive Irish Governments have abandoned rural Ireland. Their vision is of a prosperous elite, big cities and a trickle down of wealth. A trickle that runs dry before it reaches rural Ireland,” Sinn Féin  President Mary Lou McDonald said. … “Rural Ireland isn’t dying. … The situation is far from perfect, but in contrast to the grim days when rural Ireland raised its sons and daughters for the boat, these days a mix of foreign and indigenous industrial employers has penetrated deep into provincial Ireland with high-quality, interesting and engaging, jobs,” Donal O’Donovan wrote in the Irish Independent.
      • Medical devices now make up almost 10 percent of all Irish exports. The Republic is second only to Germany as the largest European exporter of such equipment, The Irish Times reported. Most of the firms are clustered around Galway.
      • “Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy,op-ed in The Hill.
      • Ireland is moving to reinstate birthright citizenship, bucking the trend in other Western countries to tighten restrictions on immigration, The New York Times reported.
      • Tourism Ireland announced it will increase 2019 spending by €10 million, to €45 million, and will launch its first new global advertising campaign in seven years to help attract more overseas visitors to the island of Ireland. The “Fill your Heart with Ireland” campaign will launch during December in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, then roll out more than 20 other markets in the new year. The promotional boost is driven in part by concerns about Brexit.
      • “Is Ireland Really A Startup Nation?”, column in Forbes.
      • The Irish Aviation Authority is investigating the 9 November spotting by several commercial airline pilots of an unidentified flying object over the Republic. Some have speculated the fast-moving lights were probably meteorites entering Earth at a low angle. 

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Killone photos

ENNIS ~ My “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” series explores aspects of the book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert.

The Charleston, S.C.-born, Harvard-educated, New York City newspaper editor traveled around Ireland during the first six months of 1888, a period of resurgent agrarian violence and nationalist political agitation. His book, published later that year, focused on these topics. Like most visitors to Ireland, however, Hurlbert also explored the country’s landscapes and landmarks, including the ruins of Killone Abbey in County Clare.

The American journalist leveraged his visit to the abbey ruins to criticize the violence in the land reform movement, as discussed in my original post about this section of Hurlbert’s diary. A year later, an Irish priest mocked the characterization in his Hurlbert unmasked rebuttal pamphlet.

See black and white images of the abbey, circa 1865, or more than 20 years before Hurlbert’s visit, at this link to the Robert French photography collection at the National Library of Ireland. Below, photos from my 11 November 2018 visit to the site, 130 years after Hurlbert.

Approach to Killone Abbey, November 2018.

The abbey opened in 1190 and abandoned in the 17th century.

Looking back toward the photo vantage above.

During his 1888 visit, American journalist William Henry Hurlbert commented about the “picturesque lake” and the “confusion, squalor and neglect” of the abbey graveyard.

I’m always drawn to the view from the surviving window frames of ancient ruins.

Photo feature: John F. Kennedy in Galway, 1963

GALWAY ~  John F. Kennedy, great grandson of an Irish emigrant and America’s first Irish-Catholic president, 55 years ago made this West of Ireland city the last stop of his historic homecoming to Ireland.

“You send us home with the warmest memories of you and of your country,” Kennedy said during 29 June remarks in Eyre Square. “Though other days may not be so bright as we look toward the future, the brightest days will continue to be those in which we visited you here in Ireland.”

He spent about an hour in Galway. Less than five months later he was assassinated in Dallas.

Below is a video clip from the Galway event; two photos of the memorial bust in Eyre Square; and two photos of the mosaic of Kennedy, located inside the Galway Cathedral, which opened two years after his visit.

Earlier and coming posts:

Between Duganstown and DallasA unique cohort of Irish and Irish Americans lived through the triumph of Kennedy’s return to Ireland; but died before the tragedy in Dallas.

I’ll have a post on the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza later this month.

On returning to Ireland, a look back at previous trips

I’m traveling to Ireland for the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2018 Conference, “The Press & the Vote,” at NUI Galway. Watch for my tweets (@markaholan) and posts over the coming week.

First, here are links to photo features from my last two trips.

February 2018

Douglas Hyde Center in Co. Roscommon.

July 2016

Belfast mural of nationalist hero Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981. (July 2016)

Ireland elections: Higgins returned, blasphemy repealed

Irish President Michael D. Higgins has been re-elected, and voters in the Republic also overturned the 1937 constitutional prohibition on blasphemy.


Higgins is the first incumbent in 50 years to face a challenge in his bid for a second seven-year term. He received nearly 56 percent of the vote in the field of six candidates. The last competitive race was in 1966, when Éamon de Valera narrowly won a second term at age 84.

“Clear choices are opening up as to what will be the character of our Irishness,” Higgins said in a victory speech. “Will it be a commitment to inclusion and a shared world or a retreat to the misery of an extreme individualism?”

In Ireland, the president is head of state without executive powers. The office holder has powers that make the position a guardian of the Constitution, not just a ceremonial head of state.

Higgins, 77, was born in Limerick city and raised in Clare. Read his official biography.

The non-controversial blasphemy repeal passed with nearly 65 percent support, winning in all 40 voting constituencies.  A lone constituency had bucked overwhelming decisions to allow same sex marriages and abortion in more highly-charged referendums in 2015 and earlier this year, respectively.

Blasphemy was defined as saying or publishing something “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.” There have been no prosecutions for the offence in Ireland since 1855, in connection with an alleged case of Bible-burning, according to RTÉ.

Higgins, at his 75th birthday in 2016.

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.

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.

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.

An Irish … American … Catholic … tragedy

It seemed fitting that the latest scandals buffeting the Catholic Church arrived during Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland. The stormy conditions surrounding the church are far worse than the rain that tamped down the expected number of Mass-goers at Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Turnout for Francis was never going to match Pope John Paul II in 1979, much less the enthusiasm of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, which firmly established Ireland as the most-Catholic of nations. Now, Ireland has angrily turned its back on the church due to clergy and other institutional abuses, and the rise of secularism. We all know the litany: child rape, Magdalene laundries, and Tuam graves; plus popular referendums approving divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion.

But it’s the explosion of negative headlines from the church in America–a report on decades of abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, and similar behavior by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick–that have amplified the Holy See’s troubles in Ireland and around the world.

Irish and American Catholicism are deeply intertwined. Waves of Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States from the mid-19th century famine into the 21st century. Until recent decades, Ireland provided hundreds (probably thousands) of priests to U.S. parishes. As members of their flock climbed the social-economic ladder, some of these immigrant, or first-generation Irish-American, clerics also became powerful bishops and cardinals. No U.S. or Irish prelate has become pope.

In 1990, the American-born McCarrick was selected as a representative of Irish immigrant families at Ellis Island. In 2006, he was succeeded as archbishop of Washington, D.C., by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who arrived from the dioceses of Pittsburgh. Within weeks of this summer’s revelations about McCarrick, Wuerl was accused in the Pennsylvania report of failing to protect children from abusive priests, many of whom … hate to say it … have Irish surnames.

Writing in National Review, Dublin-based Ciaran Burke has this slant on the U.S. and Irish churches:

To an Irish person who grew up amid the fallout of Catholic abuse scandals, the only surprising element of the Pittsburgh [sic.] (He means Pennsylvania.) grand-jury report is that it could happen in the United States. In Ireland, so great was the esteem in which the Church was held that it’s easy — though no less painful — to understand how clerical abuse could run unchecked by state authorities.

This description has never been true of the United States, though, where the Constitution and individual rights are supreme. … (The) abuses detailed in the Pittsburgh [sic.] report make a mockery of a society built on God-given rights. That any citizen could suffer such abuse in silence should outrage every American.

In the wake of the Pennsylvania report, Wuerl cancelled his scheduled appearance with Pope Francis in Ireland. He asked for his name to be removed from a Catholic high school in Pittsburgh, his native city. Now, as calls grow for his resignation, the Cardinal Donald Wuerl Division 9 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Pittsburgh must decide whether it too will drop his name.

Later this fall, the group plans to dedicate a new outdoor statue of Ireland’s patron saint at Old St. Patrick’s Church, the oldest parish in Pittsburgh, which once ranked with New York and Boston as a hub of Irish immigrants. The ceremony is now likely to be more subdued, even secular, than it would have been just a few years ago.

I will make a donation for the new statue once the date is set. I dearly love Old St. Pat’s in my native city, and have dedicated a section of this website to other similarly named churches, which are symbols of the once unabashed, if romanticized, Irish-American-Catholic identity. Like other Catholics in America, Ireland, and around the world, I am deeply angered and hurt by the church’s sins and crimes. But not as deeply as those who personally suffered the abuse.

Statue of Ireland’s patron saint outside Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh, 2013.