The Green Flag In America


John Mitchel, perhaps the most intellectually gifted of the Young Irelanders, started a newspaper in which he urged the American Irish to back revolution everywhere, including the Italian fight to oust the Pope from the papal states. Archbishop Hughes, a ferocious controversialist, unlimbered his heaviest rhetorical artillery, and Mitchel’s paper collapsed overnight. The revolutionaries also were dismayed by the Irish style in Democratic party politics, with its “go along to get along” philosophy and its casual attitude toward corruption. Occasionally one of the rebels tried to run for office on a rival ticket. He invariably was trounced. Realism was not the revolutionaries’ strong suit: one chose to run for the New York State Senate against William Marcy (“Boss”) Tweed, then near the height of his power.

Yet neither political defeat nor clerical scourgings disqualified a revolutionary as a spokesman for Ireland’s woes. Under the pressures of necessity, most Irish-Americans evolved a triple-decker mentality to handle their situation. The clergy were heeded on matters sacred, the Democratic party on matters secular, and the revolutionaries on matters Irish. When any of these parties attempted to invade another’s bailiwick, he usually was ignored.

The harsh sentences handed out to the Young Ireland leaders and their heroic speeches in the dock, coupled with the horrors of the famine, intensified many Irish-Americans’ hatred of England. They envisioned a war between England and America that would enable Ireland to act on the dictum of the 1798 revolutionary, Wolfe Tone, “England’s time of trouble is Ireland’s opportunity.” The Irish-American press and politicians repeatedly called for war in the antebellum disputes with England over Texas and Oregon. When the Prince of Wales visited New York in 1860, Michael Corcoran, the colonel of the 69th Regiment, refused to parade for him and was court-martialed.

Quite aside from Anglophobia, another reason for the endurance of nationalist fervor was the humiliation many Irish experienced in America. Young Patrick Ford, destined to be the most influential Irish journalist of the nineteenth century, trudged the streets of Boston in the 1850’s and often saw notices that read: “ NO IRISH NEED APPLY .” Ford concluded that even in America he was a victim of the “poverty and enslavement” that gripped Ireland and “it was necessary for everyone of Irish blood to do all in his power to change that state of things.” The belief that the Irish would never win respect in America until the stain of degradation was erased in Ireland soon became one of the fixed ideas of IrishAmerican nationalism.

How to achieve an independent Ireland was a topic that absorbed Irish-Americans for the next eighty years. Hearts and heads were broken over it. The fundamental division was still between the spiritual heirs of Daniel O’Connell and the revolutionary descendants of Young Ireland of 1848—between believers in the ballot and worshipers of the bullet. Partly because of the Irish temperament, partly because of British intransigence, the violent men prevailed at first.

In Ireland their movement was called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB). In America it was the Fenian Brotherhood, so called because its leader was a Gaelic scholar, John O’Mahony, who loved the sagas of the legendary Irish warriors, the Fenians; and eventually the name was applied to the movement in both countries. The Fenians’ goal was armed revolution and the creation of an Irish Republic. At first they were a secret society, with an oath of loyalty, “circles” led by a “centre,” and each circle divided into cells led by captains. Almost immediately the Fenians were attacked by Catholic priests and bishops, who were hostile to all secret societies. The American Fenians gave ground before this ecclesiastical criticism, and became far from secret. They held public meetings advertising their goals, and transformed themselves into an imitation American government, with a president, senate, and house of delegates.

The Fenians soon went even further in this imitation, and split into two quarreling parties. One, the “men of action,” wanted to use the thousands of Irish veterans from both sides of the Civil War to invade Canada and hold the dominion hostage for the freedom of Ireland. But the original Fenian founders wanted to keep the movement focused on a carefully plotted, well-supported revolution in Ireland, using local troops with Irish-American Civil War veterans as officers.