The Irish Diaspora in America and the Easter Rising

“wherever green is worn”

The Easter Rising of 1916 did not did not take place in a vacuum. The Irish Diaspora in America, and elsewhere throughout the world, took part at some level in its planning, financing or implementation.

The Kimmage garrison, comprised of approximately 90 Irish emigres from England and Scotland, took a direct role in the Rising.  Argentina-born Eamonn Bulfin raised the flag of the Irish Republic on the Prince Street corner of the GPO and the other flag, the tricolor, was raised by one of the Liverpool Volunteers from the Kimmage Garrison. Not to be forgotten were the two seamen, a Swede and a Finn, who showed up outside the GPO at the onset of the Rising on Monday asking for permission to join the fight.

Apart from those brave Volunteers who bore arms and shed blood for the Irish Republic, many more individuals, in faraway places, and especially here in America, dug deep into their pockets and purses for the same cause; an Irish Republic. 

By 1916, per the United States census data, 20 million people living in the United States claimed Irish heritage.  Of these 20 million, approximately 2 million had migrated here in the proceeding (70) years owing to the devastation caused by the Great Hunger of 1845 thru 1851, the land wars of 1879 thru 1882 and the subsequent evictions and dispossession of tenant farmers and tenement dwellers by the British enabled ruling elite.  Many of these exiles and their children harbored a historic enmity of the British usurper, whom they considered to be the root cause of their misfortune and exile.

These exiles and their children, who settled in every corner of the United States, supported their cousins left behind in Ireland through every catastrophe and crisis they endured at the hands of the British tormentors.

They raised money and agitated for the release of the Fenian prisoners of 1865/67; they contributed funds for the “Catalpa” rescue of the forgotten Irish-born British soldiers, turned Fenians, from the notorious Fremantle prison in Australia; they contributed funds to feed and house the evicted tenant farmers during the Land Wars of the 1880’s; they arranged speaking tours for visiting Home Rule advocates and contributed funds for the Home Rule campaign during the last decade of the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries; they contributed funds to  arm the Irish Volunteers, and prior to the Easter Rising of 1916, raised substantial funds to help launch the Rising. 

The organization most responsible for rallying these donors and activists was Clan na Gael (the Clan) who came into existence in 1869 because of the dysfunctional factions within the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Its aim was the same as that of the IRB, simply put, to rid Ireland of the British presence. Amongst its most famous accomplishment was the planning, financing and implementation of the Catalpa rescue.  In 1879, it entered an alliance with the Irish Parliamentary Party dubbed the “New Departure” that resulted in members of the IRB taking seats in the British parliament aiming to achieve land rights for tenant farmers.  The Clan was also the main force behind the Irish Race Conventions held in Europe and the United States between 1881 and 1994 to promote Irish Nationalism.  However, its primary focus was on raising funds and procuring arms for a Rising in Ireland.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Irish Carmelite Friars, who came to New York in 1889, involved themselves in the Irish struggle for freedom and independence. The bonds that formed between the Carmelites and people involved in the Irish Freedom struggle were unique and complex; born of empathy, a sense of justice and humanity. They maintained safe houses, hid arms, provided secure communications, and reinforced ideas of Irish culture and independence Their priory's in Manhattan and the Bronx were places of worship and refuge for Irish Republicans visiting New York. Their schools and halls were available for socials, fund raising events and memorials to the executed Republican leaders of the Easter Rising, War of Independence and the Treaty War. Their contributions to the cause of Irish Freedom must not be forgotten by Irishmen and Irishwomen of goodwill who value sacrifice and noble deeds.

Foremost amongst the individuals who dedicated so much of their life’s work to the quest for an independent and sovereign Irish Republic was, Kildare born, John Devoy whom Padraic Pearse referred to as “The Greatest of the Fenian”. Devoy served five years of a fifteen-year prison sentence for his Fenian activities in 1866 before being released and exiled in the general amnesty of 1870.  A learned man, he was employed as a journalist in New York where he took up residence. He became a member of Clan na Gael and had overall responsibility for the Catalpa rescue in 1876. 

In the years leading up to the rising he raised money and worked surreptitiously with another dedicated Kildare-born Fenian, John Kenny, Roger Casement and others to acquire arms from the Germans.  His fundraising was the main source of funds for the Rising.  Some months before the Rising he was visited by Joseph M. Plunkett and informed of the date for the pending Rising and per some sources was responsible for the insertion of “and supported by her exiled children in America” into the Proclamation.

In response to a request by Padraic Pearse in 1914 when he visited the United States, Tyrone- born Joseph McGarrity, another Clan na Gael leader from Philadelphia provided the funds to purchase the 1,500 Mauser rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition used by the Irish volunteers in the Easter 1916 uprising.  (The rifles and ammunition were brought into Howth Harbor in Dublin from Germany in July of 1914 by Erskine Childers, his American-born wife Mary Alden Osgood and Mary Spring Rice  aboard Erskine’s yacht, Asgard.

Waterford-born Dr. Gertrude Kelly primary focus was on the downtrodden and poor working women and their families. She treated everyone equally irrespective of gender, race or religion. To that end she set up a medical clinic in Chelsea to provide for their basis medical needs.

 In addition to the all-consuming task of caring for the downtrodden she found time to set-up the first branch of Cumann na mBan in America and organize protests against every British perpetrated atrocity in Ireland. Her enormous contributions to Irish causes have been ignored by Irish-American politicians and organizations in New York.  Not so, in so far as Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia was concerned who, in 1936, dedicated a playground in Chelsea, to her honor.

 Another Waterford-born activist was Marguerite Moore who was active in the Ladies Land league in Ireland. She traveled extensively through Ireland, England and Scotland informing large crowds of the plight of the tenant farmers and the suffering endured by the victims of landlord tyranny. After twelve months of hard work she was arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment in Tullamore prison for inciting discontent.

In 1882, shortly after Parnell made his infamous deal with the British to dismantle the Ladies Land League, Marguerite and her family of four girls and two boys, emigrated to the United States,

In the United States, she took a leading role in the suffrage movement. She also spoke out against the oppression of workers and child labor during the so-called Gilded Age. 

She was an outspoken advocate for Irish freedom and together with other Irish-American women activists participated in numerous speaking engagements, demonstration, strikes, and fundraising activities in support of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Brotherhood before and after the Easter Rising of 1916. Her pen was always ready to advocate for the poor and oppressed regardless of gender, race or creed.

American-born Joyce Kilmer was the most prominent poet in America to garner support for Irish independence during the historic 1916 Easter Week Rising.

He penned the poem “Easter Week,” about the Rising and a second poem “Apology,” in which he named the three poets who were among the Rising’s executed leaders.  He also helped to organize a rally of American poets in Central Park in support of the Rising and wrote one of the most powerful interviews with a young female rebel who fought in the GPO The interview was published in the New York Times

He identified as Irish American. He died in 1918, in WWI in France while serving with the 165th Infantry Regiment – better known as the 'Fighting 69th.'

This narrative is but a sketch of the involvement of the Irish Diaspora in the Easter Rising and for that matter in every other Irish Rising since 1798.  Also, one must not forget their sacrifices for America’s freedom, unity and prosperity down through the centuries, from Bunker Hill to the present day. 

As always, we must remember, first and foremost, that the supreme sacrifice was borne by the brave men and women who manned the various garrisons and outposts during that fateful week in April 1916  --- particularly the brave souls immortalized in W. B. Yeats poem “Easter 1916”.

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

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Posted 05/14/2017