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The Green Flag In America
For more than a century, Irish-Americans were whipsawed between love for their tormented native land and loyalty to the United States. But no more .
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
In 1881 Sullivan took the Clan leadership away from Devoy, who began a vitriolic feud with him. Under Sullivan a three-man executive committee known as the “Triangle” ran the dynamite campaign. The violence gave the Clan a reputation not unlike that the Mafia has today. It was romanticized out of all proportion to its strength, which never exceeded ten thousand members. The discovery that Sullivan had overruled the IRB in Ireland to start the dynamiting multiplied his enemies, who accused him of mulcting $40,000 of the $235,000 that the Clan raised between 1881 and 1884. When an especially vocal critic, Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, was murdered in 1884, the victim’s funeral attracted twelve thousand mourners, and the trial that followed made headlines across the country. A Sullivan henchman on the Chicago police force and two other men were sentenced to life imprisonment. After that blast of bad publicity the Clan seemed finished, an assumption that would prove premature.
While the violent Irish-Americans were acting out their hunger for revenge, the majority of the immigrants and their children clung to Daniel O’Connell’s faith in a peaceful solution to Ireland’s agony. This creed revived in the 1870’s when a far different man, Charles Stewart Parnell, took charge of the Irish Parliamentary party and taught it how to obstruct the machinery of the House of Commons until “the Irish Question” became the dominant issue of English politics. The aloof Protestant landlord from County Wicklow had a British-hating American mother. Parnell had visited America in 1871 and experienced the sting of nativist prejudice, which probably was a factor in creating his conviction that Ireland had to achieve dignity as a nation.
Parnell’s operation was run on American money. Without it, he could never have maintained his bloc of eighty-five Irish M.P.s in expensive London, for the House of Commons paid no salary to its members. Before Parnell created his American alliance, only rich Protestant landlords could afford to sit in Parliament. In 1880 Parnell toured America, speaking to huge crowds. He also addressed a joint session of Congress and was received at the White House almost like a visiting head of state. He conferred with Devoy and worked out an understanding that enabled the Clan chieftain to support him as part of a “New Departure” that attempted to fuse all the disparate factions of Irish-America into an anti-British juggernaut.
Much of the fuel for the engine came from the radical ferment produced by the American depression of 1873. Economic warfare, with strong socialist overtones, inspired the Land League, which sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support tenants who refused to pay exorbitant rents or fought evictions. “The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland,” was its cry, tirelessly embellished by Patrick Ford’s paper, the Irish World . When Parnell accepted the leadership of the Irish branch of the Land League, he became the uncrowned king of Ireland. But in 1890, with a suddenness that left Ireland and Irish-America gasping, the king came tumbling down, wrecked by the revelation of his long affair with the wife of a fifth-rate Irish politician.
Numbed by the double blow of Parnell’s fall and the scandal of Cronin’s murder, the Irish-American wing of the nationalist movement virtually collapsed. But in Ireland, home rule refused to die. In 1900 it arose from Parnell’s grave in the person of a weaker, more pliable man, John Redmond. Like Parnell, he depended totally on American money, supplied to him by a new organization, the United Irish League (UIL). In Ireland, Redmond preached patience and trust in a liberal England, which already had instituted substantial reforms in Irish land tenure and poor relief. “I deny I am a separatist,” he said. But in America Redmond had to appeal to the hatred of Great Britain bubbling in every Celtic breast. At a UIL convention in Buffalo in 1910 he said home rule was only valuable as a step toward “the great goal of national independence.”
Unfortunately for Redmond and Ireland, there was a fourth party in this game of political roulette—the Protestant Irish of Ulster. They were seldom heard from in America, except for attempts to disassociate themselves from the Catholic immigrants of the famine years. The Ulstermen created an entity called “Scotch-Irish”—that is, descendants of immigrant Scots—which often was denounced as an impossible mongrel by Irish nationalists. But in the United Kingdom, the men of Ulster were a powerful bloc in the Conservative party, which considered the 1801 Act of Union the linchpin of the empire. The Ulstermen listened to John Redmond talking out of both sides of his mouth and did not like what they heard.
In 1912, just as home rule seemed certain of passage in Parliament, the Ulster Protestants, with the connivance of the Conservative party, issued a thunderous no, and organized a volunteer army to prove they meant it. They boldly imported tens of thousands of rifles to arm their adherents and fomented a near mutiny in the British army in Ireland that paralyzed the Liberal government. Then the First World War exploded.
John Redmond and the Home Rule party, already shaken to its core by British inaction in the face of Ulster’s belligerence, agreed to the suspension of home rule for the duration and urged Irishmen to join the British army and fight against Germany. At first Redmond was able to hold the allegiance of 90 per cent of his followers in Ireland, but he almost instantly lost his Irish-American backers. Within a year the United Irish League and the Irish Home Rule party were both bankrupt.