The 1916 Easter Rising: New York and Beyond

Book review by Frank O’Shea.

United Irish Counties Association of New York: The 1916 Easter Rising: New York and Beyond. UICA New York Inc.

RRP: US$33

UICAWhere did they get the money? I realise that it may seem a frivolous – impertinent – question but where would a few poets, a corner tobacconist and a trade union organiser get the finance to dare an empire in arms?

Dublin in 1916 was one of the poorest cities in Europe, teeming tenements of poverty and disease, a city still struggling with the effects of the recent labour lockout. The rest of the country was not much better, a population barely subsisting on small farms and casual trade. Yet, on Easter Monday, men were in neat uniforms, they were carrying arms, they had ammunition, there was organisation and printed materials.

So we are entitled to ask where the funds came from. This book and the research behind it go a long way to answering that question. It is the work of the United Irish Counties Association of New York who organised a group of citizen journalists and historians to research and record the role played by the Irish in the north-eastern cities of America in the lead-up to the Easter Rising.

The Irish Famine of the mid-century and the subsequent land clearances created what one writer here calls ‘an unforgiving generation’ of Irish emigrants in America. And they were prepared to back their feelings with money.

In the longest chapter in the book, historian John Ridge points out that there was a strong body of support for Home Rule and a thriving membership of respectable organisations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Individual county groups such as those from Wexford, Kilkenny, Westmeath, Cavan and Roscommon were strongly Redmondite; others like Armagh and even Cork – rebel Cork – had divided loyalties.

But there was also Clan na Gael, the American version of the IRB. Led by John Devoy, it included the diehard republicans O’Donovan Rossa, Thomas Clarke, Joseph McGarrity and Patrick McCartan, all US citizens. They were singleminded in their determination on an armed insurrection and had strong support from such county associations as Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Leitrim, Mayo, Dublin and not surprisingly Tyrone, the birthplace of Clarke, McGarrity and McCartan.

To return to the question of funds. Ridge’s paper details the efforts of the different county associations to collect money for Ireland. At dances and sports days and lunches, the amounts varied from $100 to $250, with some larger sums resulting from bigger functions.

Elsewhere we read of amounts in the region of $50 000 being sent to Seán MacDermott in Dublin by John Devoy. Writing afterwards about this transfer of funds, Devoy says that he used a merchant seaman named Tommy O’Connor:

‘On each trip that O’Connor went from Liverpool to Dublin, he delivered the money to Seán McDermott. Seán would make a note of the amount, without a signature, and this would be handed to me as a receipt during O’Connor’s next trip to New York.’

And to put all those numbers in context, $50 000 would be the equivalent of about $1.25 million today. So we know where the bulk of the money came from.

The book has individual chapters on the parts played O’Donovan Rossa and Patrick McCartan as well as three who were in the GPO: Diarmuid Lynch, Sam O’Reilly and John Kilgallon. There is also an individual section on each of the Irish rebels who lived in or visited New York in the lead-up to the Rising: Thomas Clarke, Seán MacDermott, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Seán MacBride, Roger Casement, Thomas Kent and James Connolly.

The flow of funds did not stop with 1916. After the Rising, reports in the US media were highly slanted in favour of the British position, with Irish rebels receiving negative press. This, together with American involvement in the Great War, caused a fall-off in funds being collected for Ireland, and it was only after the end of that conflict that financial support began to flow again.

This is an outstanding example of citizen journalism at its very best. It is worth reading alone for a short, three-page introductory chapter explaining the background to the Rising. Titled ‘Revolutionary Plans on Both Sides of the Atlantic’, it covers the political, social and cultural context of the Rising, the kind of summary that will explain to anyone with an interest in the subject, even someone who knows little about Ireland, why Easter 1916 happened.

Books such as this, produced by committee, can often be poorly produced or badly edited. There can be no such criticism here. This is a thoroughly professional job that brings credit to the organisers and the writers. It is a book that deserves to be widely read.

Frank O’Shea

Frank is a regular contributor to Tinteán, The Irish Echo and the Fairfax press. His brother, Gerry, is one of the contributors in the book.