The Green Flag In America

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O’Connell’s movement was backed by thousands of Irish-American dollars collected from Repeal Associations in almost every state. Prominent politicians like the future President, Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, former President Martin Van Buren, and Governor William H. Seward of New York spoke out on behalf of repeal. Horace Greeley placed himself and the New York Tribune behind it. Robert Tyler, President John Tyler’s son, became the Repeal Movement’s national leader. “All I know is that I love Irishmen and hate tyranny in every form,” he said.

Some of these men were sincere, but others were simply pandering to the already substantial Irish vote. The emotional Celts found irresistible, for instance, such bunkum as Alabama Democrat Felix Grundy McConnell’s 1846 House resolution, calling on the United States to annex Ireland.

 

The Irish-American agitation for Ireland collided with a growing hostility to the Irish in the United States, which soon coalesced around the Know-Nothing movement. During an 1841 visit to London, publisher George Putnam told the English that the repeal movement violated the “recognized policy and practice of the American people which from Washington to the present time has been opposed to all interference with the affairs of foreign states.” He added that repeal sentiment was confined to natives of Ireland who were not worthy of being American citizens. Numerous newspapers expressed similar sentiments.

But it was not the hostility of the Wasps that wrecked the repeal movement. Early in 1842 Daniel O’Connell sent an “Address to the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America.” Its central message was summed up in the words: “Join with the abolitionists everywhere! They are the only consistent advocates of Liberty.” Irish-Americans were appalled. Enrolled almost to a man in the Democratic party, they detested abolitionism. They had barely swallowed this apple of discord when O’Connell announced that home rule would make the Irish so loyal to England, they would fight her enemies anywhere, including the Americans in disputed Oregon.

The two statements virtually annihilated the repeal movement in America. The reaction crystallized two basic traits of Irish-American nationalism that were to change very little for the next century. Again and again, the Irish-Americans would find themselves whipsawed between love for their tormented native land and loyalty to the United States, the nation that had given them dignity, power, and freedom. A related theme was inexorable divergence between the Irish who stayed in Ireland and the American Irish. Ulster-born Archbishop John Hughes of New York, the leading American prelate, replied to O’Connell’s praise of abolition, “I am no friend to slavery, but I am still less friendly to any attempt of foreign origin to abolish it.”

O’Connell died in 1847, the same year the famine reached its height. It was now the turn of more violent men. The Young Ireland movement rose to challenge British power with guns and pikes. Its leaders were city and town liberals, including some Protestants as well as Catholics, who tried to make nationalism transcend sectarian hatreds. But they were long on rhetoric and short on organization, and had few contacts among the Catholic peasants who were their potential troops.

Knowing few if any of these facts, Irish-Americans saw Ireland on the brink of glorious revolution. Dropping all pretensions to nonviolence, the Repeal Confederation held a huge meeting in Washington, D.C., chaired by George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson of the Father of his Country. Among those seated on the platform was Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana thundered a prophecy: “Before the sun shall again have reached this point in his yearly revolution, he will, as he brightens with his radiance the rich verdure of [Ireland’s] soil, look down upon a still more glorious spectacle—her own Green flag floating free on every hill and rampart.” In New York, at another huge public meeting, a five-man directory was set up to raise funds in America and Canada to buy weapons for Ireland. On August 14, 1848, the New York directory staged a vast rally at Vauxhall Garden, the climax of which was the appearance of Archbishop Hughes, who contributed five hundred dollars to the war chest.

The news that shortly arrived from Ireland was anything but glorious. The British had smashed Young Ireland with ruthless efficiency, dispersing its shadow army in a single skirmish in a cabbage patch near the village of Ballingarry. Bitter humiliation was the diet of the American Irish for the next several months, while their nativist foes hooted and sneered. Archbishop Hughes and other members of the Catholic hierarchy vowed never again to trust revolutionary rhetoric.

With few exceptions the American Catholic clergy now became inveterate foes of a violent solution to Ireland’s sorrows. The arrival of Young Ireland leaders, some of them exiled by the British, others escapees from British prisons and penal colonies, only deepened the split. When the Young Irelanders tried to apply their abstract liberal principles to the complexity of Irish-America, they got involved in spectacular quarrels with bishops and politicians.