Just after noon on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, seven men stood on the steps of Dublin’s General Post Office and touched off the Easter Rising, Éirí Amach na Cásca in Gaelic.
One of the men, Patrick Pearse, read, “The Proclamation of a Free Irish Republic.” “In this supreme hour the Irish nation must . . . prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called,” he said.
The fighting then began.
About 1,200 armed members of Irish paramilitary groups, including the women’s Cumann na mBan, seized City Hall, the General Post Office, a telegraph office, the workhouse, the courts and a railway station. They barricaded the streets and proclaimed the Irish Republic.
The British responded with thousands of soldiers, artillery and a gunboat. After six days of street fighting, the rebels surrendered unconditionally. British forces rounded up 3,500 prisoners, sending 1,800 to internment camps. They quickly executed nearly all of the instigators, sparing one of them, Eamon de Valera, because he’d been born in the United States.
It was the latest in a long series of failed Irish rebellions against English Rule. There’d been 1641, 1798, 1803, 1879-1881, as well as guerilla skirmishes and Home Rule campaigns. Like the others, the Easter Rising would fail, at least in the short term. But unlike the others, the Irish would continue to fight and ultimately prevail. The Irish in America who supported the war effort made the difference. The British couldn’t get at them.
From Irish communities throughout the Northeast came lawyers, guns and money for the cause of Irish freedom. And after a bloody war for independence, the Irish Free State came into existence in 1921.
The British had plenty of warning that Irish America would significantly aid the cause of Irish freedom. From New York, Patrick Ford, editor of the Irish World newspaper, warned the British, “You are now, unlike the past dealing with two Irelands. The Greater Ireland is on this side of the Atlantic. This is the base of operations. We in America furnish the sinews of war. We in America render moral aid.”
In Britain, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt observed the Irish were in Ireland during former rebellions. “We could reach their forces, cut off their reserves in men and money and then to subjugate was comparatively easy,” he wrote. “Now there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile, with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach and yet within ten days sail of our shores.”
Not all the Irish in America supported the Easter Rising, not at first. But many did. They hadn’t forgotten centuries of persecution nor the horrors of the Great Hunger. Still fresh were the memories of the famine ships, grinding poverty in American slums and bigotry embodied in the warning, “No Irish need apply.”
In some cases, an even more intimate connection existed between Irish New England and Ireland. James Connolly, one of the seven leaders of the Easter Rising, had lived and worked in Roxbury, Mass., for a time. Hartford police Det. Sgt. Daniel McAuliffe had had a childhood friendship with another Irish leader, Michael Collins.
One old New Bedford sailor, Henry C. Hathaway, had years earlier aided the cause of Irish independence. In 1869, as fourth officer of a whaling bark, Hathaway rescued the Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly from an Australian penal colony. O’Reilly had been recruiting men to a regiment of the Irish Republican Brotherhood when the British arrested him. After his rescue, he moved to Boston and advocated for the Irish community as editor of The Pilot.
A Mass Movement for Irish Independence
Before the Easter Rising, the Irish in America didn’t all support a violent uprising against British rule. Two Irish American groups in Boston made the difference clear. The United Irish League of America, founded by the professional and business class, raised money to support a peaceful transfer of power under Home Rule. But Ireland would still belong to the United Kingdom. The Clan na Gael (Fenian Brotherhood), founded in 1867 by Irish working-class immigrants, supported violent rebellion to win Irish independence.
In the wake of the Easter Rising, American newspapers reported how Britain put Ireland under martial law and ruthlessly quashed any dissent. That solidified support in Irish America for an independent republic, turning it into a mass movement.
The execution of James Connolly, one of the seven leaders, proved especially provocative. Severely wounded in the street battles, he had but a day to live when British executioners tied him to a chair — he couldn’t stand up — and shot him to death. Connolly’s daughter Nora came to New England to speak about her father and raise money for the cause. She did an interview with the Boston Globe and met with Mayor James Michael Curley, who gave her a purse full of money.
The American Irish Rise Up
The Easter Rising sparked mass rallies throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. In Massachusetts they rallied in Lawrence and Lowell, Fall River, North Attleboro, Brockton, Worcester, Chicopee, Springfield, Holyoke and Pittsfield.
Hartford held mass rallies and sent aid to the Republicans. So did New Britain, which sent rifles to Ireland.
A New Haven lawyer, John M. Sullivan, suffered in Kilmainham Jail after his arrest on the streets of Dublin. When Daniel McAuliffe returned from Ireland, the Hartford Police Department put him back on the force.
Branches of Friends of Irish Freedom formed throughout New England and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a free concert for Clan na Gael to raise money for widows and orphans. The concert opened with Beethoven’s march, “Dead Heroes.”
De Valera Comes to America
In 1918, a majority of newly-elected Ministers of Parliament from Ireland refused to take their seats in London. Instead, they convened at Dublin’s Mansion House, declared Irish independence and elected de Valera president of the new Irish Republic.
The Irish war for independence would continue for another four years. In the meantime, de Valera spent a year and a half in the United States. He spoke to large crowds, seeking financial support and international recognition for an independent Ireland.
He spoke to crowds in Connecticut and Rhode Island, then to 50,000 at Fenway Park. The Massachusetts General Assembly received him warmly, and New Hampshire Gov. John Bartlett invited him to Manchester. He gave a speech at the Lexington Opera House in Kentucky and spoke to a crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York. For 18 months he received warm greetings by crowds, official welcomes, the freedom of cities and two honorary degrees.
The British couldn’t get to him.
On Dec. 6, 1921, the Irish Free State came into existence. More years of struggle followed, but Ireland was well on its way to becoming a republic — with the continued help of Irish America.
Historian Catherine B. Shannon described the Irish-American aid as essential. “Support from Irish America, unified by the brutal British suppression of the Easter Rising, ultimately proved crucial in the subsequent War of Independence from 1919-1921 that secured freedom for the twenty-six counties that now constitute the Republic of Ireland,” she wrote.
With thanks to: The Easter Rising: CT Ties to Bloody Irish Revolt of 1916, April 24, 2016, at 11:35 a.m. | UPDATED: December 12, 2018 at 4:47 p.m. Hartford Courant. Also to De Valera in the United States, 1919 by James P. Walsh, Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Vol. 73, No. 3/4 (September, December, 1962), pp. 92-107 (16 pages).
Images: Irish Republican Brotherhood flag By Fred the Oyster – https://flagspot.net/images/i/ie_1798.gif, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35369203