Ireland’s Allies – America and the 1916 Easter Rising, and Ireland’s Exiled Children: reviews
A book edited by Miriam Nyhan Grey and one by Robert Schmuhl spotlight US links to Rising
Ireland’s Allies - America and the 1916 Easter Rising
Edited by Miriam Nyhan Grey
University College Dublin Press
No one has put it quite so succinctly as Prof Joe Lee when he stated: “No America, no New York, no Easter Rising – simple as that.”
It would probably be only a slight exaggeration to substitute “John Devoy” for “New York” in that statement. Devoy permeates this truly excellent book, Ireland’s Allies – America and the 1916 Easter Rising, published in conjunction with Glucksman Ireland House of New York University and edited by its associate director, Miriam Nyhan Grey and with a most perceptive foreword by Prof Lee.
There are 24 chapters, each taking a different aspect of the American connection with the Easter Rising in 1916. The endnotes run to over 100 pages and the sources cited will be a treasure trove for a generation of scholars and lay readers alike. One of the more satisfying aspects about last year’s centenary celebrations and commemorations was the recognition that Devoy, exiled Irish rebel leader and owner and editor of the Gaelic American, has finally received for his role in 1916. Historians believe that his row with de Valera in 1920 in America, which is outside the scope of this book, led to him being relegated to little more than a footnote in Irish textbooks.
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There will be many names in this book unfamiliar to Irish ears but who were prominent 100 years ago in New York, including congressman William Bourke Cockran and Dr Gertrude Kelly, both of whom are typical of the Irish middle class there who had “made it” despite being Irish-born. They are presaged in the excellent chapter on the collapse of support in Irish America for John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Both had kept a close watch on events in Ireland and had supported Home Rule and Redmond. The break for them came after Redmond’s speech in Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow on September 20th 1914 when he urged Irishmen to enlist in the British Army “and go wherever the firing line extends”.
Tipperary-born Kelly was a political radical who founded, in December 1916, the Cumann na mBan of New York. This New York edition differed from its Irish counterpart in that Dr Kelly ensured that it was not simply a “ladies auxiliary “ type of organisation. This is accurate because this reviewer’s aunt, Alice Comiskey Carragher, who was treasurer of the New York Cumann na mBan Relief Committee subsequently, collected and disbursed monies (and demanded acknowledgments) independently of Clan na Gael.
Bitter anti-Catholic prejudice
Sligo-born Bourke Cockran, a great orator, was a mentor of Winston Churchill due to his friendship with Churchill’s mother. He championed and drew parallels between Cuba and Ireland and had even been asked by Redmond in 1903 to give up his seat in Congress and go back to Ireland and stand for Parliament.
Terry Golway’s incisive introductory overview of Devoy and 1916 is all too brief, given Golway’s deep knowledge of his subject. Also the subject of chapters are Tom Clarke, Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa, Joe McGarrity, Jim Larkin, Daniel Cohalan, the composer Victor Herbert, and lawyer and art patron John Quinn. The chapter on Roger Casement is marred by reliance on innuendo and dubious handwriting analysis to attempt to prove that Casement was a homosexual. His life as a cultural revolutionary and a fighter for indigenous peoples is not alluded to.
There is an excellent chapter by Robert Schmuhl on the American press coverage of the Easter Rising. The influence of the Rising on the radical black community in New York, especially Marcus Garvey, is examined as well as left-wing Irish nationalists such as Frank P Walsh and Dudley Field Malone. There is also a chapter on Irish suffragists in New York during that decade, especially Lucy Burns.
The chapters on New York’s Cardinal Farley, the reaction of the American Catholic hierarchy and the American Catholic press to 1916 are informative, but are effectively treated as a moment in time in isolation from the context of the history of the Irish in New York. No mention is made of Archbishop John Hughes who was, as Peter Quinn has called him, “an Irish chieftain” transplanted to New York in the 1860s. He had to do battle against bitter anti-Catholic prejudice.
These chapters might have discussed why Farley and Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore wanted so desperately to establish the “Americanism” of Catholics living in America. The proclamation of papal infallibility by Pope Pius IX in 1870 had reinforced the view then prevalent in America that the Irish could not be good Americans because they could not think for themselves. Pope Pius X, elected in 1903, had denounced the separation of church and state in France, Poland and elsewhere as well as modernism. This background might usefully have been explored in these chapters. However, this book will be a standard reference book for many years to come.
IRELAND’S EXILED CHILDREN
Ireland’s Exiled Children – America and the Easter Rising, by Robert Schmuhl, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, takes its title from the Proclamation of 1916 and concentrates on four personages: John Devoy, Joyce Kilmer, Woodrow Wilson and Eamon de Valera.
The chapter on Devoy is good, except where Schmuhl criticises Devoy for his lack of ethics for being both “a leading actor in the drama [of the Rising and] an applauding reviewer of the performance [in the Gaelic American].” The author apparently fails to understand the difference between an organ like the Gaelic American, which had as its raison d’etre the fomenting of revolution in a country, and a newspaper like the New York Times.
The choice of Joyce Kilmer is surprising. Not Irish himself, Kilmer is the author of a well-known, but bad, short poem called Trees. His connection to the Easter Rising begins in 1915 when he spends time in New York with Joseph Plunkett, later executed after the Rising. He would write about the “poets’ revolution” where its literary leaders went into battle “with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other”.
President Woodrow Wilson, the subject of the third chapter, was an Anglophile and possibly the most intellectual president ever to fill that office. Author, historian, political scientist and president of Princeton University before being elected governor of New Jersey, his once high reputation has been taking a battering lately for his racism, which the author does not mention.
Devoy and Irish nationalists in America had very little use for Wilson, who called them “hyphenated Americans”. Two of his grandparents were born in the north of Ireland. However, Wilson was a Democrat and needed the Catholic Irish vote in the big cities. To court the Irish vote Wilson would make vague calls for home rule in Ireland and self-deprecating jokes about his Ulster heritage. The author is very good on how Wilson tried to duck and dive on the Irish question and how his doing so came back to haunt him when he needed support for the League of Nations in the US Senate.
The final chapter on Eamon de Valera is poor and mostly taken up with the purely incidental question of whether de Valera was saved from the firing squad because of his American birth or because of mounting public disquiet. Schmuhl even mentions how a historical novel treats this question, perhaps to tip the scale in one direction.