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December 1918: Pittsburgh rally for Irish freedom

This is the third 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 general election since 1910. 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 effortsMH

***

On Sunday evening, Dec. 15, 1918, “friends of Irish liberty … crowding every available space in the Lyceum Theater,” a Pittsburgh vaudeville house, demanded that President Woodrow Wilson support their cause in the upcoming Paris peace conference.1 The event was one of the last of the nationwide “Self-Determination for Ireland Week,” which included a New York City rally that drew 25,000 to Madison Square Garden, and a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “the Irish question” in the U.S. Congress.

“A mass meeting in Pittsburgh” was foretold to the committee in a letter signed by representatives of the city’s United Irish Societies and Duquesne University, a Catholic institution.2 The committee also received letters from Pittsburgh’s Allied Irish-American societies and friends; Friends of Ireland; Ulster Society of Pittsburgh; and Brotherhood of Railway Clerks.3

This was the second time in seven months that Pittsburgh’s Irish packed the Lyceum. In the spring, they protested the forced conscription of their countrymen while Britain withheld limited domestic political autonomy, called home rule, from Ireland. The arrangement had been approved in 1914, but immediately suspended with the outbreak of the Great War.

Bishop Canevin

Dioceses of Pittsburgh Bishop Regis Canevin headlined the December rally, following the example of Boston’s Cardinal O’Connell at the Madison Square Garden event, and other Catholic clergy at the Washington hearing. Canevin echoed the theme that Ireland deserved the right of self determination for small nations, which Wilson proclaimed earlier in the year.

“Shall Ireland be free, or shall she be the only exception?,” Canevin asked. “If Ireland be the exception, then lasting peace is doomed to defeat. No pledges to other nations can be kept without freedom of Ireland.”4

Canevin asserted that despite seven centuries of “political oppression and tyranny,” Ireland remained deeply Christian (avoiding Catholic/Protestant division), with distinct literature, music, and other national characteristics. “Ireland had her place on the map for centuries as a nation.” 

Mary McWhorter, Chicago-based president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, also emphasized Ireland’s geographic separation from Britain: “The boundary line of the Irish nation is clearly defined: God, Himself, took care of that,” she said.

Three days earlier in Washington, McWhorter told the congressional committee of her travels to dozens of cities and towns in 30 states to visit Irish mothers with sons fighting with the American forces.5  

The Pittsburgh rally came a day after the Irish Sinn Féin political party won a record number of parliamentary seats in the first British election since the war began in 1914. Many of those in attendance would have read Pittsburgh newspaper coverage of the old-guard home rule party being “hopelessly beaten” by Sinn Féin, even in the moderate nationalists’ former strongholds.6 No longer willing to settle for home rule, Sinn Fein  refused to take their seats in London, declared an Irish republic, and established their own parliament in Dublin.

Anti-conscription rally

The “overflow audience” of the May 1918 anti-conscription rally “brought out the strong attachment that exists between the Irish cause and the Irish people and their beloved priests.”7 Rev. Patrick O’Connor of nearby St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, an Irish immigrant parish since the Great Famine, spoke of “the glorious record of past generations of Irishmen in defense of this great country.”

When America entered the war in 1917, Pittsburgh’s Irishmen ages 18 to 31 registered for the military, my grandfather among them. At the time, the city’s population of native Irish was falling from a post-Famine high of 27,000 in 1890, to about 14,000 in 1920.8

Thomas Enright

First generation Irish Americans now outnumbered their parents. Thomas F. Enright, the son on Irish immigrants in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield district, was among the war’s first U.S. casualties. At first buried on the French battlefield were he died, his remains later were returned to Pittsburgh and re-interred with military honors at St. Mary Cemetery.

Irish and Irish Americans not only sacrificed their blood, Father O’Connor told the Lyceum crowd, but also their treasure. He spoke of an Irish workman who earned $80 a month and purchased $500 worth of Liberty Bonds, or half his annual salary.

People without parallel

It is unknown to me, and probably unknowable, whether my grandfather, Willie Diggin, was among the 4,000 or so attendees at either of the 1918 Irish rallies at the Lyceum. He turned 23 a few months before he registered for the military in June 1917, four years after his arrival in Pittsburgh from Kerry. He was not drafted. 

Willie Diggin

In 1918 he was still six years from marriage. He was established in his job as a streetcar motorman with a regular route that terminated at St. Mary of Mercy, a few blocks from the Lyceum, and thus familiar with these streets. On Dec. 17, 1941–23 years after the second Lyceum rally–he died of a heart attack in front of the church; a priest summoned from inside to give him the last rites aboard the streetcar. He was a month shy of 48.

In the week before Christmas 1918, a month after the armistice and a month before the Irish War of Independence, a “burst of enthusiasm took place” among Irish freedom supporters packed inside the Lyceum as two soldiers marched onstage; one holding the red, white, and blue of Old Glory; the other bearing the green, white, and orange of the new flag of the Irish Republic. The Irish Club Orchestra, with pipes, and several soloists, performed patriotic and sentimental tunes between speeches.9

Perhaps Pittsburgh City Councilman P. J. McArdle best captured the spirit of the evening, and this brief period of peace between two wars: “We are here to make known the appeal without parallel for a people without parallel.”

The Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh, at middle of the block, in 1914.

NEXT: U.S. Press on Sinn Féin Win

PREVIOUS:

House hearing on’The Irish Question’

The bishop & the president

Pennsylvania pledges to Irish freedom in 1918 U.S. election

A month before the 1918 U.S. elections, a Philadelphia chapter of the Friends of Irish Freedom sent a questionnaire to Pennsylvania candidates for state and federal office that asked whether they would make this pledge:

Will you, if elected to the public office for which you are a candidate, openly and unequivocally support Ireland’s claim to Complete Independence–the form of Government to be determined by the whole male and female population of Ireland?

The Irish Press published the questionnaire,1 which featured seven “historical facts” about England’s subjugation of Ireland “based on force,” including a 250,000-troop “army of occupation … equipped with all the ruthless machinery of modern warfare.” English prisons were “full of Irish men and women” who refused to follow her “tyrannical decrees.”

Wilson

The questionnaire also noted that over 500,000 men of the Irish race were serving in “Uncle Sam’s Army and Navy.” And it included two 27 September 1918, quotes from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson about the rights of smaller, weaker countries to be free from the rule of larger, stronger nations.

Friends of Irish Freedom and other Irish groups had been building support for Irish self-determination since January, when Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress. He said the world should “be made safe for every peace-loving nation, which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world…”

Mass meetings and petition drives mounted through the spring and summer, especially as it became clear that Wilson’s statement likely included only those nation’s controlled by Germany and its allies. “It must be remembered that while President Wilson did not include Ireland, he said nothing about excluding [it],” was the hopeful formulation of one speaker at a May 1918 Friends’ rally at the Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh.2

As the November election neared, the Irish Press reported that responses to the Friends’ questionnaire were “gratifying to all friends of the cause” and also showed “in a conclusive manner” that 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters were “heartily in favor” of an Irish Republic. The Press continued:

This result should put a little ginger and backbone into the weak and vacillating men of our race who are willing to take anything that England should see fit to grant as a favor. Let our motto be that in the matter of self-determination nothing is too good for the Irish.

It is unclear how the Press determined the 70 percent support figure. There is no reference to voter polling independent of those candidates who returned the questionnaire. In two issues before the 5 November election, the Press named nine congressional candidates, plus the Democrat and Republican contenders for governor, as supportive of Ireland. Over 100 candidates were on the ballot for 33 congressional seats; plus dozens more for state legislative offices.

Letters of support

Focht

The Press reproduced two letters of support from congressional candidates.

“I wish to advise that I believe Ireland has suffered only too long the oppression of a foreign power, and that the day has come for her liberation …,” Republican Congressman Benjamin K. Focht wrote in a letter published on the front page of the Press. Focht was editor and publisher of the Lewisburg Saturday News in his district 60 miles north of the state capitol in Harrisburg.

Hulings

The paper also published a letter from Willis J. Hulings of Oil City, Pa., who was attempting to return to Congress after a two-year absence. Hulings said that he favored Irish freedom and that “sympathy with Irish patriots has been part of my life.”3 However, he did not see how “the United States Congress has any right of interference until after the Irish people have unitedly demanded separation from Great Britain.”

The Press editors acknowledged that Hulings position was shared “by many other honest Americans.” It added:

If Ireland must wait for freedom until Great Britain gives the Irish people an opportunity to unitedly demand separation, we should look for the establishment of the Irish Republic somewhere around the Greek calends.

Historian Joseph P. O’Grady noted that “what influence this [questionnaire and news coverage] had upon the campaign is difficult to assess; but the fact that candidates for high office would publicly endorse such statements [as the pledge] indicates, to some extent, the political power of the Irish at election time.”4

In the election, Democrats lost both chambers of Congress to the Republicans, a bad omen for Wilson, who had cast the midterm in strident personal and national security terms. Only three of the nine congressional candidates named in the Press, including Focht and Hulings, were elected. As the war in Europe ended the following week, the pressure campaign by Irish America continued to heat. The results of British Parliamentary elections in Ireland the following month would have an even bigger impact on the issue.

See archived stories about the Irish in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

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.)

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.

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.

Shamrock Fund and the Irish War Exhibit of 1918

In the last week of June 1918, the “Countess of Kingston” visited Pittsburgh to debut a traveling exhibit of war items intended to raise money for the Shamrock Fund, a charity for wounded Irish soldiers. The collection included “German Uniforms, Helmets, Military Equipment, Hand Grenades, Propaganda Literature, Iron Cross, Lusitania medal, British Battleship Vindictive Souvenir, German Prison Bread, and a Wonderful Collection of British War Pictures,” according to newspaper promotions.

Ethel Lisette King-Tenison, nee Walker was the daughter of the late Sir Andrew Harclay Walker, a brewer and former Lord Mayor of Liverpool. In 1897, she married Henry Edwyn King-Tenison, 9th Earl of Kingston, a captain in the Irish Guards. He was wounded in September 1914 at the Marne, the first major battle of the Great War, and recovered at their home, Kilronan Castle, in County Roscommon.

Lady Kingston, then in her 40s, established the Shamrock Fund soon after. As she recalled after the war:

When our soldiers began returning from the western front in France and from the barren waste of Gallipoli the horrors that we had shrinkingly read about were to be met face to face on our streets in Ireland. Men without eyesight, legless, armless men, wrecks of men it seemed for whom a miracle must be worked if they were ever to be restored to usefulness in this world. They might be restored, but it required money, and where was it to come from? We could not find it in Ireland, we could not burden England, already carrying an awful weight, and it was then I said: ‘I shall go to the United States, where there is plenty of money and plenty of Irishmen.

She arrived 5 November 1916, in New York City, for her first visit to America. The United States’ entry into the fight in Europe was five months ahead, the Easter Rising in Ireland seven months past. The New York Times reported “the countess said that the trouble was quieting down and that the streets of Dublin had been cleared of debris preparatory to erecting new buildings in place of those destroyed in the rebellion.”

She disembarked the ocean liner St. Louis “with a large supply of shamrocks and the names of many people, patrons and patronesses of her society, among them many Americans now living on the other side who are aiding her work,” the Times told its readers. For small sums, donors received paper shamrocks with pins; those who gave $1 or more received finer pieces of enamel. As for herself, the countess frequently wore a wedding gift shamrock, “in green enamel, set with diamonds, a K for Kingston, L for Lisette, her own name, a solitaire diamond dewdrop in the center and a coronet surmounting the whole.”

Lady Kingston told the Times that about 800 men were being cared for by the Shamrock Fund, but the numbers were growing daily. Men who lost limbs in the war received pensions sufficient for their support, but soldiers with lesser injuries received only $1.25 to $2.50 per week, she said, which was “inadequate” for their civilian survival.

“Our chief object is to start a home for men who have been discharged for tuberculosis, which they contract through the exposure in the trenches,” the countess said. “After the war there will be thousands of Irish soldiers and sailors who will need assistance.”

She was right about that. Some 200,000 Irishmen enlisted in the British military from 1914 to 1918. Upwards of 49,000 were killed, and tens of thousands more were injured, both physically and psychologically. As with all wars, casualty figures are highly imprecise.

Money for Soldiers

The Shamrock Fund opened an office at 39 E. 58th St., New York. later moved to 14 E. 60th St. In Ireland, the effort was coordinated through an office at 30 Molesworth St, Dublin. In October 1917, the fund was listed among dozens of other “war relief charities rendering satisfactory financial accountings,” according to the U.S.-based Charity Organization Society.

From November 1916 until shortly after the November 1918 armistice, Lady Kingston crisscrossed the United States to enlist the financial and volunteer support of high society women and others in the cause helping disabled Irish soldiers. There were a few missteps along the way. Actor Charlie Chaplin failed to show for a New York concert, generating discontent among those who bought their tickets in advance. Some volunteers in Spokane, Washington state, were arrested for “aggressive fundraising” when they charged $4 for a sprig of shamrock.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Shamrock Fund also drew the attention of Parliament. In May 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert McCalmont, an Antrim East M.P., raised questions about “the necessity for such an appeal to another country.” Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Pensions, told members the Shamrock Fund had donated £5,000 to the government’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Help Society (Irish Branch), which was providing its own training and help for disabled soldiers to secure employment.

The Irish War Exhibit was part of a new effort to raise $350,000. The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported that because of the assistance Lady Kingston received during her 1917 visit to the Pennsylvania city, then a major Irish immigrant hub, “and because of their interest, Pittsburgh was selected as the city in which the drive would be launched.” The display was free to the public 24-29 June, in the 11th floor auditorium of the Kaufmann’s department store. Someone donated a 200-year-old “Irish lace Limerick veil” for later auction, and at least $1,000 was raised in one day, according to newspaper reports.

From Pittsburgh, the countess and the war exhibit traveled west to Elgin, Illinois, and Des Moines, Iowa, during July; Butte, Montana, and Salt Lake City, Utah, in August; Seattle, Washington, in October; and Portland, Oregon, in November, among other stops, also typically at department stores. The war was ended by the time Lady Kingston and her collection of war curios reached the O’Connor, Moffat & Co., store in San Francisco, California, in early December.

As she prepared to return to Ireland in March 1919, Lady Kingston reported the fund had raised an audited sum of $71,400 and secured jobs for 2,630 men. A special hospital to help wounded soldiers also was established in Bray, County Wicklow. The countess said:

I have been everywhere and everywhere found friends and support. … While these broken men live their claim on Irish men and women is sacred, coming before every other claim. We Irish women (she reportedly was born in Scotland) realize what we owe them, and all we can do is pay something on account by showing them how to take up life again.

In the trenches of World War I.

NOTES:

Lady Kingston quotes and Dublin office address, New York Herald, March 23, 1919, page 58. … The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1916, page 11; Nov. 12, 1916, page 40; and Oct. 7, 1917, page 27. … Occasional fundraising troubles, from Little Book of Bray and Enniskerry, by Brian White, The History Press of Ireland, Dublin, 2016. No page numbers in online edition. … Parliamentary attention in May 1918, links to Hansard, the Official Report. … Pittsburgh details from Pittsburgh Daily Post, June 23, 1918, page 16; Pittsburgh Press, June 29, 1918, page 2. … Irish War Exhibit itinerary based on other local newspaper coverage, viewed via Newspapers.com.

Rare Irish atlas stolen from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library

UPDATE:

The former archivist at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and the owner of a rare book shop in the city are under investigation for theft, receiving stolen property and criminal mischief, according to hundreds of pages of documents unsealed 28 June 2018, in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

ORIGINAL POST:

In May 1798, British authorities preemptively arrested senior leaders of the United Irishmen in Dublin at the beginning of a summer-long rebellion that killed tens of thousands. It resulted in repeal of the Irish parliament, direct rule from London, and more than a century of additional uprisings.

Also in May 1798, London book publishers Robert Laurie and Jason Whittle produced a new edition of An Hibernian Atlas: or General Description of the Kingdom of Ireland, which first appeared in 1776, the year of another revolution against Britain. The book’s full subtitle described the detailed information contained between its leather-bound covers:

Divided into Provinces; with Its Sub-Divisions of Counties, Baronies, &c. Boundaries, Extent, Soil, Produce, Contents, Measure, Members of Parliament, and Number of Inhabitants; Also the Cities, Boroughs, Villages, Mountains, Bogs, Lakes, Rivers and Natural Curiosities Together with the Great and Bye Post Roads. The whole taken from actual Surveys and Observations By Bernard Scale, Land Surveyor and beautifully engraved on 78 Copper Plates by Messrs. Ellis and Palmer.

The book contained 37 hand-colored maps: a general map of Ireland, four province maps, and 32 county maps; with the county maps colored by baronies, the provinces by counties and the general map by provinces. An imprint at the foot of each map read “Published 12th May, 1798”.

Today, one of the 1798 editions of An Hibernian Atlas is among 173 rare books believed stolen from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. More than 590 maps and 3,230 plates from another 130 antiquarian books are also missing from the library’s special collection.

As if the theft of this historical material was not bad enough, it turns out that library officials were warned in 1991 (Yes, 27 years ago!) that the valuable collection of centuries-old maps and rare books would be much safer and better preserved in more secure, nearby research libraries, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Nothing happened, except the suspected crime.

Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant who forged his fortune in Pittsburgh’s 19th century steel industry, endowed 2,509 public libraries in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. His mission was to make books and other cultural material more widely available to the working class, including those who toiled in his mills. In Ireland, 80 branches were opened between 1897 and 1913, a decade before the island’s partition in the finally successful revolution against Britain. Many survive today.

Carnegie Library Falls Road, Belfast, during my 2016 visit.

In Pittsburgh, the missing books and maps were pilfered from the Carnegie’s “main branch,” which opened in 1895. The library and adjoining Carnegie music hall and art gallery are very familiar to me. My father introduced me to culture here in the 1960s. I researched Ireland for a book about my Kerry-born grandparents at this library, which is now part of the collection.

A 1798 edition of An Hibernian Atlas was listed for $8,500 (7,125 Euros) on Abe.Books.co.uk, as I published this post. Another online dealer offered a 1809 edition for $2,453. Several dozen copies of various 18th and 19th century editions of the book can be found at libraries around the world. Trinity College Dublin has also made it available online.

It’s a shame, however, that the copy is missing from my native city’s Carnegie library. It also appears to be a very serious crime.

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.

Continue reading

How an 1879 prisoner report won good press for the Irish

(This piece continues my exploration of Irish immigrants incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons and workhouses in the 19th and early 20th century. Here’s the original post. MH)

Irish immigrants in 19th century America were often characterized in the press as shiftless and criminal. In states with heavy concentration of Irish, such as Pennsylvania, there was some basis for the perception, as noted in this later historical account:

Since colonial times they had been heavily over-represented in the prisons and alms-houses. Widow, orphans and dependent people abounded among them. Their distress spurred their achievement.

As the Irish made the long climb to respectability in the late 19th century, detailed prison records helped erode some of the negative stereotypes. An example can be found in the August 1880 issue of The Penn Monthly, a Philadelphia-based journal “Devoted to Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” There, an article focused on a landmark report of the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities, the agency created in 1869 to oversee Pennsylvania’s vast network of charitable and correctional institutions.

The Board’s tenth annual report to the state legislature in Harrisburg noted that of the 3,417 people convicted of crimes in 1879, just 4.53 percent were Irish immigrants, fewer than the 5.09 percent of German-born lawbreakers, and only slightly more than the 3.40 percent native English prisoners. This prompted Penn Monthly to observe:

There is a very common notion that the Irish in America contribute more than their share to our criminal class. But this expectation is contradicted by all the statistics of crime in their own country–which is more free from offences against person, property and chastity than any other country in the world–and also by these Pennsylvania tables. On the other hand the English, who form but a small percentage of our population, furnish nearly as many criminals as the Irish.

Of the nearly 10.2 million people who immigrated to America between 1820 and 1880, almost 28 percent were from Ireland. Irish immigrants were 15 percent of the populations of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, totaling more than 100,000 people. They gathered in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, and railroad hubs such as Altoona.

That the percentage of Irish behind bars was less than their countrymen outside the walls had “an importance far beyond any honor it may do to the Irish portion of our population,” Penn Monthly suggested. This fact also refuted “specious objections” to the “Irish system” penal reforms as Pennsylvania officials reconsidered their own correctional operations.

Sir Walter Crofton, the mid-19th century chairman of the Board of Directors of Convict Prisons for Ireland, devised a three-stage system of prisoner confinement. Convicts moved from solitary cells to communal work camps and finally, supervised, intermediate release into the community, a forerunner of parole.

Penn Monthly alleged that Pennsylvania prison officials:

… shake their heads and hint that our prisons are full of Irish convicts, who have escaped from such lax custody, to renew their depredations in a new world. The statistics of such escapes are easily accessible, being reported periodically to Parliament. But they are never alleged by the opponents of the Irish system. Neither do they tell us that the Irish convicts in Pennsylvania prisons form less than 5 percent of the whole number.

Image of Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, set to close in June 2017, by Mugatu.

Popular perceptions of the Irish contributing more than their share of criminal behavior persisted for several reasons. Among the 83.24 percent of native-born convicts incarcerated in Pennsylvania in 1879, an unknown portion were first generation Irish Americans. Their Irish surnames would have stood out in police and court records, and in news accounts of notorious crimes, typically without any distinction of their place of birth.

It is also worth remembering that the Penn Monthly article appeared after seven years of headlines about murders, arson and other crimes alleged to have been committed by the Molly Maguires, a pro-worker, Irish secret society concentrated in the state’s coal region. Twenty Mollies were convicted of crimes and executed by 1878.

Back in Ireland, the Land War was well underway by 1880. The often violent struggle between Irish tenant farmers and absentee English landlords made frequent headlines in American newspapers. For example, a January 1879 story in the Pittsburgh Daily Post detailed Irish “agrarian crime,” including murder and intimidation.  A November 1879 report in the Post reported that “Irish-American Fenians are at the bottom of the trouble now prevailing in Ireland.” Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell toured America in early 1880, including stops in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to raise attention and money for the cause.

So regardless of the prison statistics, it must have seemed to many Pennsylvanians and other Americans that the Irish were creating unrest on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the Catholic-focused Donahoe’s Magazine sought to amplify the Penn Monthly story, quoting the same passages as above in its December 1880 issue. Donahoe’s suggested that the 4.53 percent figure of Irish convicts in 1879 was probably unusually high, “inasmuch as the unfavorable circumstances and evil influences under which Irishmen were placed … during the past few years in the state of Pennsylvania.” It did not mention the Molly Maguires or any specifics.

The Boston-based magazine also referenced how a June 1880 Milwaukee newspaper column quoted a Wisconsin politician as saying the majority of criminals in the local House of Corrections were Irish.

“And it ended there, without giving facts to substantiate its insults to the most law-abiding citizens of that city,” Donahoe’s huffed. “…[We are] hoping that in the future, when local reporters of secular papers are desirous of placing upon the Irish of this country the false imputation that they ‘build and fill the jails,’ they will substantiate their assertions by statistics from official reports.”

NOTES:

Clark, Dennis, “The Irish in Pennsylvania: A People Share a Commonwealth“, Pennsylvania History Studies No. 22, The Pennsylvania Historical Association, University Park, Pa., 1991. “Over-represented” quote, page 16. Immigrant population tables, page 32. From Griffin, William D., “The Book of Irish Americans” Times Books, 1990.

Erie, Stephen, “Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1995”, University of California Press, 1988. 1870 city percentages, page 18.

“Ireland’s Woes”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Nov. 22, 1879, page 1.

“Irish Agrarianism”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 17, 1879, page 3.

Irish Criminals in America: How They Compare in Number With Those of Other Nationalities“, Donahoe’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, December 1880, pages 492-493.

Tenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Public Charities of the State of Pennsylvania“, Lane S. Hart, State Printer, Harrisburg, 1880.

The Watch Over Our Charities“, The Penn Monthly, August 1880, pages 649-658.

“His Last Trip” was 75 years ago

About half seven in the morning of 17 December 1941, my Kerry-born grandfather braked his streetcar to a stop in front of St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, the inbound terminus of a trip to Pittsburgh’s city center.

As he stood to tug a cord that flipped an exterior sign to show his outbound destination, a heart attack dropped him to the floor of the motorman’s cab. Someone summoned a priest from the church to administer the last rites.

Willie Diggin was 47, a husband and the father of six girls. After a home wake, he was buried five days before Christmas.

I researched and wrote His Last Trip as a 12-part blog serial to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Willie’s 1913 emigration from North Kerry. The linked section also contains information about the similarly-titled book I later developed about Willie.

And this weekend, he is remembered with a Mass intention at St. Mary of Mercy.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord …

William Diggin.jpeg