Charles Underwood O'Connell  (1840-1902)

Charles Underwood O’Connell was born in Co. Cork, Ireland in 1840.  As the middle name of this little-celebrated, though famous Fenian suggests, his middle name ‘Underwood’ reflects the origin of his mother in a northern county. The New York Irish press of the period mentioned that his paternal ancestors were distantly related to Daniel O’Connell, but no evidence has been forthcoming.  According to the Irish American newspaper, O’Connell was “a near relative of Thomas Neilson Underwood, the associate of Issac Butt in the great Tenant Right movement, who for so many years kept the National flag aloft in the north.”

At age 18, in the early months following the creation of the Fenian Brotherhood he was selected by its leader in Ireland, James Stephens, to organize the Fenians, said to be 7,000 strong, in the Cork City, Blarney, Queenstown and Monkstown region.

Like many others of his time he witnessed the devastation and squalor caused by the contrived Famine of the 1840’s. In a letter to John O'Mahony in May of 1862 he described what happened to his family in the following excerpt;

'O'Mahony will be sorry to hear of the 'calamity that has befallen my father and family, who have been completely smashed to pieces;' as a result of almost total crop failure he was unable to meet the demands of his landlord and another party, who unmercifully refused to give him any quarter. All he asked for was a little time, yet nothing would do them but to reduce him to ruin and throw a large helpless family in the world.'

O'Connell arrived in the United States in 1863 to seek a measure of military experience. With the approval of John O'Mahony, the legendary Gaelic scholar, and leader of the Fenian movement in the U.S.,  O'Connell organized a company of about 100 men to be included in Colonel O'Mahony's fast-growing network known as the Phoenix Brigade. Though the brigade was not sanctioned as a State of New York military force, O'Connell's unit was incorporated into a formal State of New York militia force, designated as the 99th NY State Militia  -- in effect, an Irish Republican military unit sponsored by a sovereign state and which would shortly be activated by a federal government order to defend the northern states against the insurgent Confederacy.

 Among O'Connell's comrades in the 99th were two who would later become widely known as Fenian activists -- Captain William Mackey (AKA Lomasney) who was killed in the London Bridge explosion, and John Finerty of Chicago, organizer of Fenians in Ohio and Indiana and later U.S. Member of Congress from Chicago.  The 99th Regiment served at least one three-month  period under federal government control, including an emergency deployment in July 1863 at the time of the invasion of the North by the Confederate army that culminated at Gettysburg, PA.

O'Connell was among the several hundred Fenians  who went to Ireland soon after the American Civil War to participate in the  uprising of 1867 planned by James Stephens and the Fenian Brotherhood. The uprising was betrayed by informers, and as a consequence the British were on the watch for arriving Fenians from America. O'Connell was amongst those captured. He was put on trial for treason and sentenced to ten years penal servitude, notwithstanding the fact that he was an American citizen.

After serving five years of his sentence in both the infamous Pentonville Prison [where Sir Roger Casement was executed in 1916] and Chatham prison, O'Connell was amongst the Fenian prisoners released in the British government's general amnesty of 1870.  Behind the "generosity" of the English was heavy pressure by the U.S. government to free the scores of former U.S. Army (and several Confederate Army) personnel, including generals and colonels. The U.S. government intervention was the result of Fenian instigated pressure, primarily in letters from John Savage to president Ulysses S. Grant. 

 The prisoners released were required to leave the country and not return until the term of their sentence had expired. Some of them went to Australia, but O'Connell together with John McClure, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, John Devoy, and Henry Mulleda  who had been imprisoned together, came to America.  The  'Cuba Five', so-called after the vessel they sailed on, arrived  in New York in January of 1871 to a hero's welcome.

Shortly after their arrival the United States passed a resolution welcoming the 'Cuba Five' and their fellow Fenian prisoners to the nations capital. They were also received at the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant in a gesture of gratitude for the many Irish, including senior Fenians, who had served in his victorious Union Army.

After his return to the United Stated in 1871 he remained involved with the Fenian movement, and together with the other returning prisoners, was credited with keeping anti-British feeling alive in the United States. He also joined Tammany Hall politics and for the next 20 years was employed in New York by two divisions of the city's Court of Common Pleas (including its Naturalization Bureau) and later at the city Comptroller's office.

In 1998 he was sent to Ireland as the United States representative to the  Convention of the Irish Race.

Captain O'Connell died a tragic death on February 22, 1902, in a multi-victim disaster at the Park Avenue Hotel fire in Manhattan where he had become a long-time resident.

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

cemetery AND grave location

Name:        Calvary Cemetery                                           PHONE NO.      (718) 786-8002

ADDRESS:     49-02 Laurel Hill Blvd Flushing, NY 11377

GRAVE LOCATION:     Section 9, Row 54,


click on headstone to view inscription

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