An American tale

Connections between Ireland and the US were numerous before, during and after the rebellion, which received enormous coverage stateside, writes Robert Schmuhl

US visits: Roger Casement and John Devoy in New York. Devoy was a key figure in providing financial support to help the rebels ahead of the Rising. He also founded the weekly newspaper The Gaelic American and became leader of Clan na Gael.

Padraig Pearse

Thomas Clarke

thumbnail: US visits: Roger Casement and John Devoy in New York. Devoy was a key figure in providing financial support to help the rebels ahead of the Rising. He also founded the weekly newspaper The Gaelic American and became leader of Clan na Gael.
thumbnail: Padraig Pearse
thumbnail: Thomas Clarke

One of the most engrossing witness statements in Ireland's Bureau of Military History records is Diarmuid Lynch's day-by-day account of the Easter Rising.

A member of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Lynch was the last person to evacuate the heavily damaged, still smouldering GPO after he tried to make sure that unexploded bombs wouldn't detonate when the rebels retreated.

Originally, as he phrases it, "sentenced to be shot", Lynch escaped the death penalty, receiving instead "10 years' penal servitude". He was released from prison in England a year later as part of the amnesty.

Lynch was a naturalised American citizen, where he had lived for over a decade until 1907. This biographical fact might seem a small point, but Thomas J Clarke was also a naturalised citizen of the United States, and he, too, had spent several years living and working there.

Take the two men together, and the last fighter to flee the GPO and the first signatory of the Proclamation (read by Pádraig Pearse at the beginning of the Rising) had both declared allegiance to the US before returning to Ireland and becoming involved in the republican cause. Essential decisions leading to Easter Week of 1916 took place on Irish soil, but American connections to the Rising abound in the preparation and aftermath of the insurrection.

A key figure in providing financial support to help the rebels was John Devoy. Born near Kill in Co Kildare, Devoy was an unwavering Fenian from youth through to old age, and he spent his last 57 years scheming to launch an uprising while residing in his adopted country of America.

Founder and editor of weekly newspaper The Gaelic American, Devoy became a leader of Clan na Gael (the US counterpart to the IRB) and surreptitiously used couriers to send an estimated $100,000 (about €2.3m in today's money) to Ireland for the purchase of arms and other supplies for the Rising.

Remarkably, five of the seven Proclamation signatories travelled to America for sojourns. In addition to Clarke, Pearse, James Connolly, Seán Mac Diarmada and Joseph Mary Plunkett - all of whom fought in the GPO - crossed the Atlantic in the years prior to 1916 and learned from first-hand experience what it was like to live in a republic with its freedoms.

A century ago, around one-fifth of the entire US population claimed Irish heritage, according to census records. With first-generation or more distant Irish Americans numbering about 20 million people then (compared to nearly 4.5 million in Ireland), the Rising had explosive effects in the United States.

Almost immediately, associations and groups scheduled what the press termed "monster meetings" to support the Irish in their native land and to oppose British tactics and reprisals. A shrewd observer of the US then was Sir Cecil Spring Rice, Great Britain's ambassador in Washington.

After the rebels' surrender and the executions at Kilmainham Gaol, he sent a dispatch to superiors in London, which included this pointed assessment: "The attitude towards England is changed for the worse by recent events in Ireland... If we are able in some measure to settle the Home Rule question at once, the announcement will have a beneficial effect here, although I do not think that anything we could do would conciliate the Irish here. They have blood in their eyes when they look our way."

A major factor contributing to the change of attitude and producing the blood in American eyes came from the enormous attention Stateside journalism devoted to the story unfolding across the Atlantic.

Throughout the 19 days encompassing the Rising and the executions, news about Ireland and the Irish-American reaction was impossible to avoid. Front-page coverage appeared in The New York Times on 17 days, in The Boston Globe for 16, in The Washington Post on 13, and in the Chicago Tribune and The World (of New York) for 11.

Interestingly, The New York Times, striving at the time to become the country's newspaper of record, devoted front-page attention to news about Ireland for 14 consecutive days (April 25 through May 8). On April 29, the Saturday of the surrender, the Times published eight separate articles about the Rising on page one, with four of those jumping to the next page.

Eight other reports appeared on page two, and, except for three small ads, every word of news copy on that page concerned Ireland. In addition, an editorial and a column of commentary ruminated on Irish matters on the opinion page.

The extensive press coverage in large-city newspapers can be explained, in part, by the concentration of Irish-Americans in US urban areas - but there was another compelling journalistic reason.

Many people on the western side of the Atlantic seriously wondered whether a new front in the Great War was beginning to take shape.

Despite all the attention and interest, one significant American tried as assiduously as he could to keep from getting involved in what he considered an internal skirmish within what was then known as "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was seeking re-election to the White House, and he didn't want any foreign controversies to complicate his campaign. Neutrality for the US regarding the war was his lodestar, and voters kept hearing the slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War".

In front of certain audiences, Wilson made a point of emphasising his Irish roots - both of his paternal grandparents came from Co Tyrone. Given the devotion of Irish America to the Democratic Party, which he led as standard-bearer, it made political sense for Wilson to appear cordial and close to this sizeable constituency.

Behind the scenes, however, Wilson did next to nothing to solve the Irish Question. In the summer of 1916, as many Irish-Americans and others pleaded with him to intervene and stop the execution of Irish nationalist Roger Casement, Wilson's private secretary Joseph Tumulty, an Irish Catholic, instructed the White House secretarial staff to send a formal reply signed by him to people who wrote supporting Casement.

"The president wishes me to acknowledge receipt [of] your telegram in the case of Sir Roger Casement and requests me to say that he will seek the earliest opportunity to discuss this matter with the Secretary of State. Of course he will give the suggestion you make the consideration which its great importance merits."

Though non-committal and not specific, the message reflects an open-minded willingness to deal with the case at the highest levels of the administration. It really, though, was a façade.

When Tumulty gave Wilson a letter sent from London about Casement's trial, which reported "a personal request from the president will save his life", the president in his reaction of July 20 was emphatic.

The handwritten response said: "It would be inexcusable for me to touch this. It w'd [would] involve serious international embarrassment."

Wilson's hands-off approach with Casement foreshadows his refusal to introduce Ireland as a subject at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Though he played his own Irish card to win votes, he avoided doing anything substantive.

Despite Wilson's decision to let Britain figure out the future of Ireland, the American people themselves took actions to assist the Irish. For instance, the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) established what was called the Irish Relief Fund shortly after the last executions, collecting an estimated $350,000 in humanitarian aid, according to one account.

This was followed by the FOIF's 'Irish Victory Fund', which raised more than $1m and involved Diarmuid Lynch, who had returned to the US and become national secretary of the FOIF.

Among other benefactions, this fund launched the American Commission on Irish Independence, which dispatched three representatives to the Paris conference in an attempt, albeit unsuccessful, to convince Wilson to place the Irish Question on the agenda there.

However, another president, serving four decades later, put the contributions of Americans in a proper perspective with authority and eloquence. In June of 1963, John F Kennedy became the first White House incumbent to visit Ireland.

After a ceremony at Arbour Hill, where executed leaders of the Rising are buried, Kennedy travelled to Leinster House and told the Oireachtas: "No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States. And no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters."

Proudly American and Irish, Kennedy emphasised what the people in his republic, rather than its government, had accomplished decades earlier. Through his heritage and study of history, he understood the connections that bound the US and Ireland together during the Easter Rising and for the decades that followed.

Robert Schmuhl is professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Ireland's Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising, which will be published in March by Oxford University Press. This article is adapted from his book.

Famous five and life in the US

A century ago, the US press ­dramatised comparisons ­between the Easter Rising and the revolutionary activities against British rule that exploded in the American colonies near the end of the 18th century. Parallels to the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington appeared ­frequently, and Pádraig Pearse was often ­likened to George Washington.

Of the seven signatories of the ­Proclamation announcing "The ­Provisional Government of the Irish Republic" on Easter Monday 1916, five spent time in the States.

Pearse voyaged across the Atlantic on a speaking tour in 1914 to raise money for the school, St Enda's, that he'd started in Dublin six years earlier.

In Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure, Ruth Dudley Edwards calls Pearse's US sojourn "the most formative three months of his life", adding that he "discovered a natural aptitude for extreme rhetoric" in addressing Irish-American audiences.

Tom Clarke lived for a much longer period in America, ­emigrating twice: in 1880 (until early 1883) and then in 1900 (until late 1907). When Clarke returned in 1900, he worked on business affairs of the physical-force-minded US organisation Clan na Gael before becoming assistant editor of The Gaelic American, a weekly periodical based in New York City and strongly republican in its viewpoint.

James Connolly resided in the US from 1902 until 1910, ­dedicating most of his time to trying to develop a more powerful labour movement. A gifted speaker and writer with special appeal to Irish-American workers, Connolly travelled throughout the States on behalf of the Socialist Labor Party and later the Socialist Party of America.

Though well-known and respected in labour circles, Connolly never felt at home abroad, referring at one point to the US as "this cursed country".

Seán Mac ­Diarmada made his Atlantic crossing in 1912 to ­attend that year's Clan na Gael ­convention, which was held in ­Atlantic City, New Jersey. A close ­associate of Clarke in Dublin, Mac ­Diarmada was the delegate of the Irish Republican ­Brotherhood (IRB) and stayed several weeks on the East Coast, getting to know some of the most fervent ­republican ­sympathisers.

Mac Diarmada travelled under the assumed name of "Burke" to maintain the secrecy that both Clan na Gael and the IRB tried to protect.

The fifth signatory, Joseph Mary Plunkett, arrived in New York during August 1915 to discuss specific Irish plans for the upcoming Rising. Plunkett, a poet who would later carry the title of director of military operations for the IRB, was suffering from tuberculosis at the time and was initially denied entry into the US at Ellis Island.

Besides reporting to Clan na Gael leaders that the uprising would take place in the near future and include cooperation from Germany - Plunkett had recently been in Berlin to talk about arrangements - he had an opportunity to spend time with some American literary figures.

All five rebel leaders knew and discussed republican dreams and activities with John Devoy, who had been exiled to the US in 1871 at age 28 but always referred to Ireland as "home".

Devoy is buried in the patriots' section of Glasnevin Cemetery. Under his name, there's one word, 'Fenian'. Another side of the headstone carries the description 'Rebel'. The third says simply 'Patriot'. A year before the Rising, Pearse wrote an essay that included the prediction that history would judge Devoy, a naturalised American citizen, "as the greatest of the Fenians".

Robert Schmuhl