Irish-America and the 1916 Rising
By Dr. Mimi Cowan
From the time of the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion, Irish-Americans supported Irish freedom. Throughout the 19th century, that support took many forms, from the donation of funds to the Irish Fenians, to attacks on Canadian British soil on the behalf of Ireland, to moral and financial support for constitutional nationalism and its proponents. In the years surrounding the Easter Rebellion, Irish-America’s support continued to play an influential role in the path to an independent Ireland.
One of the most influential Irish-Americans in terms of support for Irish freedom was John Devoy. Devoy was born in 1842 in County Kildare. By the mid-1860s, he was a leader in Ireland of Irish nationalism and, as such, was arrested and tried for treason in 1866. He was released and exiled in 1871 and came to America as one of the 'Cuba Five', a group of Irish nationalist prisoners who were released early on condition of exile. The group sailed together to America on the ship Cuba.
Irish-Americans welcomed the 'Cuba Five' with open arms. Both Devoy and another of the 'Cuba Five', Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, became leaders of Fenianism in America for the rest of their lives. In 1877 and 1878, Devoy, acting as a representative of the American Clan na Gael, met with Charles Stewart Parnell to discuss joining forces. Devoy later called the plan of physical force and constitutional nationalists 'The New Departure'.
Throughout the years, Devoy was an active fundraiser for Clan na Gael. In fact, in the late 1920s, he wrote that 'from 1871 to 1916 [Fenianism in Ireland] was maintained almost entirely by moral and material support from Clan na Gael' (Recollections, 392). Funds raised were then shuttled on to Ireland to be used by the IRB as necessary. Devoy himself estimated that in the years leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising, Clan na Gael supplied the IRB with nearly $100,000. Devoy said it 'was a small amount with which to start an insurrection, but it was larger than any sum every previously received by an Irish insurrectionary movement' (Recollections, 393). Surely, had the aged Fenian been able to raise more, he would have.
Aside from financial support, Devoy also instigated and took part in attempting to gain German support for Irish freedom after the breakout of World War I. Devoy and other Irish nationalist leaders on both sides of the Atlantic rightly viewed England’s war with Germany as a golden opportunity for Ireland. And so they courted the assistance of Germany.
Devoy and the other leaders of Clan na Gael met with Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the US in August of 1914. Devoy explained in Recollections that they made a point of saying that were not asking for money from the Germans but instead asked the Germans for a supply of arms and a 'sufficient number of capable officers to make a good start' (Recollections, 403). In response to this meeting, Count von Bernstorff sent a telegram to the German administration, announcing that a shipment of arms to Ireland could not be put off: it had to be Easter weekend, 1916. In addition to the meeting with the Count, a number of Irish-American Clansmen travelled to Europe with copies of the request.
At the same time, Roger Casement was drafting a letter for the German Emperor. Casement claimed to represent 'many millions of the people of this country, either of Irish birth or Irish descent' when he claimed that 'Irishmen in America…[had] sympathy and admiration for the heroic people of Germany' (Recollections, 404). Casement wrote that Britain’s domination of the Atlantic ocean rested upon the control of Ireland; therefore, if Ireland were to be freed from British rule it would be a 'sure gage of a free ocean for all who traverse the seas' (Recollections, 405). Devoy noted that, although Casement had penned the letter, the signatures of all of the Clan na Gael executive leaders were included.
Devoy and Roger Casement met with diplomats from Germany and agreed that if the Germans helped the Easter Rising by supplying guns and military expertise, an independent Ireland would remain neutral in the larger war. In one of the more tragic twists of historical fate, the IRB representatives sent to meet the ship accidentally drove off a pier and drowned. Then, the German ship was scuttled off the coast of Ireland and its shipment of guns was lost. Nonetheless, the Rising continued.
But not all Irish-Americans supported the Easter Rising and the rebels. In 1914, Roger Casement, in a letter to John Devoy, hoped for 'Irish-American manhood, courage and skill…to help an unarmed and enjailed people get rifles into their hands'. Perhaps a few Irish-American men sailed to Ireland when news of the rebellion broke, but if so, it is too few for the history books to recall. Similarly, no arms came to Ireland from America. When in 1916 the IRB alerted John Devoy, the Irish-American in charge of Clan na Gael, that the Rising would take place on Easter weekend of that year, they requested a shipment of arms to be sent from America.
Devoy was incapable of fulfilling that request. American and British secret services were keeping a careful watch on Irish-American movements in New York and throughout the nation and Devoy believed that, even if Clan na Gael had had the finances to purchase arms for the Rising, the shipment would never get past the American ports. Therefore, the bulk of material support provided to Ireland by America came before the Rising itself.
But Irish-America’s role in the 1916 Rising was more than financial. One important facet of Irish-American involvement was that many of the leaders of the rebellion had travelled extensively or lived in the United States, and some were even American citizens. Both Thomas Clarke and James Connolly had made lives for themselves for a period in the US and about a half dozen others, including Joseph Plunkett and Sir Roger Casement had made visits to and tours of the United States. One of the most well-known connections between one of the rebellion’s leaders and America was that of Éamon de Valera, who, on account of his New York birth and American mother, had dual British-American citizenship. His citizenship alone did not protect de Valera from execution, but it played an important role in saving the life of the man who was a future President of the Republic of Ireland and a major figure in Irish political life throughout most of the 20th century.
Moral support from America was important as well, and there was plenty moral support to be had in America in the weeks after Easter 1916. In May, the New York Times published an announcement from Matthew Cummings, the former President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, as he addressed the Boston Gaelic Society: 'While we mourn those Irish Volunteers as martyrs…what a glorious record, that, instead of dying like dogs on foreign battlefields for the British Empire, they gave up their lives at home fighting for freedom.' Much of the support from Irish-America was of the same kind as Cummings’: not only pro-Irish, but anti-British war effort.
The New York Times also published sympathetic narratives, detailing the events of the Easter Rebellion. In one four-column, two-page story, the Times introduced a woman named Moira Regan, a member of Cumann na mBan, who told the story of what had happened at the General Post Office from her insider point of view. First person narratives such as these brought the street fighting of Dublin to the hearts of Americans.
Although Clan na Gael’s financial support for the Irish rebellion had been, as Devoy said, 'a small amount with which to start an insurrection', these pre-Easter 1916 funds were not the last to come from Ireland in the course of the struggle for Irish freedom. When Éamon de Valera toured the United States in 1919 and 1920, he raised over $5 million for Dáil Éireann, a figure that was totally unexpected but proved that Irish-America still had a vested interest in Irish freedom.
Dr. Mimi Cowan teaches American History and Urban Studies at Lake Forest College