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John McDonagh and Martin Galvin speak to Dr. Ruán O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Limerick, via telephone about Irish-America’s contribution to the 1916 Rising. (begins time stamp ~ 31:24)
Martin: And with us on the line we have a premier Irish historian and University of Limerick lecturer, Dr. Ruán O’Donnell, who’s actually in the midst of an American tour. He had one last year on the 1916 Centenary and he’s doing a tour now on the influence of America, the Fenians, and Irish freedom beginning in 1867. Welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
Ruán: Hi, Martin.
Martin: I have to ask you – we’re going to get into a number of things about the American contribution – about how important America was to 1916 and The Rising that would occur – but while we have you on I have to ask you one thing that we are constantly asked, that’s constantly put to us: Why is it that in Ireland, particularly with official government commemorations of 1916, it seems like there’s so much concern about not offending the British? People here do not understand why there are walls where the names of those killed in 1916 would be put along side British troopers who were killed – as if those who fought against Irish freedom should be remembered and cherished equally with those who fought for Irish freedom and were executed. We had commemorations last year, there was an official government commemoration, I did not attend it, but somebody from Belfast called me and said they did not mention England, they did not mention Britain, much less mention anything to do with the part of Ireland that was still under British rule. Why is it there seems to be such a reluctance to really be proud of or celebrate 1916 and the fight for Irish freedom? Why is there such a reluctance about doing that and how it may offend British sensitivities?
Ruán: Well, that’s a very good question and it would take a very involved answer to answer fully but I suppose, to cut to the chase, there’s been a very significant effort made by the Irish Establishment, in other words the government and the civil service and the state controlled media, to basically nationalise Ireland, to be unpatriotic, by American standards, to discourage any assertion of Irish national self-determination due to the conflict in The North of Ireland. When Dublin was not in the position, or seemed to be incapable of resolving the matter, they tried to ‘contain the problem’, inverted commas, in The North itself. So we have considerable state censorship and manipulation of the national curriculum in schools and discouragement of Republican lines of analysis at third level effectively to keep us, as they would say, in a progressive, forward-looking programme and not dwelling on the past and not dwelling on the unfinished business of 1916 which, of course, is when we declared our Republic. Now to this very day, only twenty-six counties are part of the Republic of Ireland and six remain under British sovereignty so they’re causing huge trouble now with the Brexit controversy. So coming forward to the commemorations: There was a mistaken belief, and this is factually untrue, that the fiftieth anniversary of The Rising in 1966, obviously which did have a major state role, including military parades and all of that, led to a heightening of I suppose feelings that helped ignite The Troubles of 1968. That is a complete myth, completely different forces were at work, but this misconception has been widely portrayed.
One thing that’s considered absolutely untenable in modern Irish discourse, officialdom, is any criticism of the British at all in any capacity. So we’re not allowed to talk about imperialism, colonisation, expropriation, subjugation of our people in The North – none of that is considered politically correct. And it became quite clear in the advent of The Centennial that the government’s going to have a major programme of sanitising all these issues. Now I have to say: In fairness to what was originally planned, far more events took place at different levels of society than I even envisaged and overall the commemoration was very well and widely observed by people in all walks of life all over Ireland. I don’t think that had been planned in 2014-2015 but that was net result. Our events, the British Ambassador was present for many of the most important ones, including the state’s commemoration, which took place at religious Easter, quite deliberately, and not on the actual centennial, which some idiot referred to as the ‘calendar anniversary’ where in actuality the 24th of April 1916 to the 24th of April 2016 – that’s the centennial. Easter is used for commemorations but the official one is the 24th of April. A (inaudible) of this I might say before I give it back to you, there’s reluctance to declare the 24th of April Republic Day – it is something I was personally engaged in. I spoke on the matter and had the great honour to do so outside the GPO at The Centennial itself. They don’t want to do that (inaudible)
Martin: Okay. Ruán, are you still with us?
Ruán: I am.
John: Try to get to an area where you can get at least get three bars.
Martin: He’s all choked up and so are we from listening. Okay. Ruán, we want to talk about – you’re on a tour now and one of the things that we really were impressed by last year – you were on a tour, a centennial tour, and in that tour you mentioned something that is very seldom mentioned or not as mentioned as often as it should be about the impact, a leading role, a driving force played in America. Britain had this whole generation that they thought they’d gotten rid of. They thought at one time they solved the ‘Irish problem’ – you had the great hunger, you had the massive emigration to the United States, you had generations of people coming out to the United States – and the British figured they were done with them, these people were now, literally, beyond the pale, they were beyond The Atlantic and you’d never hear from them again. And that generation, many of them joined in the American Civil War, they used the leadership, the training they had gotten and became a driving force. They recognised that there would never be true peace and justice and economic sovereignty in Ireland without an end to British rule and they started to work in the 1860’s to make that a reality even when there were many people in Ireland who thought that that was an impossible dream. What’s your reaction to that statement that I made?
Ruán: You’re absolutely correct. Where the British miscalculated was the size and strength and prominence of the Irish community in the United States was a major, major asset for their countrymen.
And from, as you said, the 1850’s into the 1860’s it was legal and possible and feasible to coalesce here as a revolutionary movement. And that from, I suppose potentially, from ’58 this formal kind of alliance between the Fenian Brotherhood, aka Clann na Gael, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin.
And in that intervening years, the generation between the Civil War veterans who were very active in many capacities in this country and abroad, you have people like John Devoy in New York, Joe McGarrity in Philadelphia, later Luke Dillon in Philadelphia, J.T. Keating in Chicago and many others who basically realised that they were in a position to force the pace of events in Ireland.
And the catalyst for this was 1907, when Tom Clarke, a naturalised US citizen and ex-Fenian prisoner, was sent back to Dublin by Devoy to represent the American dynamic and that led to the bringing together of a more assertive and militant and coherent IRB leadership who launched 1916. And this is why, amongst other reasons, Clarke had the honour of being the first signatory of 1916 The Proclamation, which declared Irish independence from Britain.
Martin: Okay. I want to ask you about a few other individuals: We heard just a few minutes ago, there’s going to be a commemoration and it is going to be at the grave in the Bronx, in Woodlawn, actually a stone’s throw from where you’re speaking on April 19th, of Colonel Thomas Kelly. Who was Colonel Thomas Kelly and why is he so important to the issue, the whole driving force for Irish freedom?
Ruán: Well Kelly was a very significant figure and it’s actually remarkable how little known he is today. He deserves much more prominence.
But for a thumbnail sketch: Irish born. A Fenian. Rose to the rank of colonel in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Went back to Ireland in 1867 to participate in the Fenian Uprising which did, unfortunately, misfire in March of 1867 and effectively assumed control of the organisation when much of the domestic leadership had been arrested or forced to go on the run. He himself, when visiting Fenian Circles in Manchester, was arrested along with Captain Deasy, another Irish-American veteran of the Civil War, and they were then dramatically rescued from a prison van in Manchester. This resulted in two things: One was the escape back to America of Kelly, where he remained prominent in such matters, and the other is the execution of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien, the people who gave us the famous phrase ‘God Save Ireland’ – the motto of the Fenians and the subject of a very famous rebel song that was one of Ireland’s unofficial national anthems and certainly not ‘God Save the King’. So Kelly was a key figure. He survived into old age and he represented the continued, direct involvement of the Irish-American diaspora in the revolutionary aspirations of the Irish people themselves.
Martin: Okay. And one of the things that was remarkable – I was reading about the Manchester Martyrs, who you’re going to be talking about, was the presence of so many Corcaigh-born Civil War veterans. Timothy Deasy, who was rescued along with Kelly, was a captain in the American Civil War. Edward O’Meagher Condon, who was the organiser of the rescue, was another Corcaigh-born American Civil War veteran and one of the three people who you’ve just mentioned: O’Brien, who was executed – one of the three Manchester Martyrs, was another Corcaigh-born American Civil War veteran. It’s amasing the impact of people who had come to the United States, involved in the American Civil War and were so prepared, after that struggle, to try to work for the freedom, to get the freedom for Ireland that they had seen and enjoyed in the United States.
Ruán: Well you have to remember, Martin, and it’s something you know very well, we’re talking here about deeply ideological people that a set-back or even (inaudible) to the end that they would never receive until final victory. ‘Not for Nothing’ was the Fenian motto ‘Beir Bua’, which basically means ‘we will win’ and in more recent times it was re-articulated by Bobby Sands as ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ – ‘our day will come’. It’s certainty of final victory because there can be no regression, or let up or abandonment of the principle until it (inaudible) so it’s perfectly consistent for men like Kelly to have more than one campaign in them if that is the only way forward. And they lived it. They risked their lives for it. And they were prepared to fight and die. It’s not something that’s often articulated because it’s a little bit seditious but nonetheless it’s the truth of the matter. And we can see this as a factual record.
Martin: Okay. I want to ask you about a name you mentioned, somebody that I think has been neglected by history to a great degree – somebody that I think of the same way, he’s like the Michael Flannery of this generation in America, he was for many years had the same sort of impact in terms of leading to the Irish Rebellion and that’s John Devoy. How important was John Devoy in terms of there being a 1916 Rising?
Ruán: John Devoy was absolutely crucial. He was the single most powerful figure in the Clann na Gael organisation in the US and he was one of the three-person Revolutionary Directorate, the ‘Triangle’ as such.
Now the Clann had a public presence across the United States and would frequently hold their, every second year, it would hold their convention in Atlantic City, which was convenient for many of the east coast resident persons but people from as far away as Portland Oregon would come in person to attend. But the Revolutionary Directorate itself was the inner circle that was plotting the revolution in Ireland. Now Devoy, after a number of scuffles with others, emerged as the clear, prominent figure by the early 1900’s. He was able the bear the full weight of the national platform of the IRB’s secret revolutionary leadership in Ireland which whom they were basically a natural – they were tied, and had been, for decades. This is why as soon as Clarke is sent back by Devoy Clarke immediately became the treasurer of the Supreme Council of the IRB. And in that capacity he received from Devoy in excess, certainly, of one hundred thousand dollars for clandestine purposes in addition to other funds raised publicly and disbursed in a public manner. So it’s hard to envisage the successful creation of the Irish Volunteers by the IRB without the direct involvement of Devoy. Moreover, in the early first months of 1914 several key people were sent by Clarke back to the US to represent the new leadership of the Irish Volunteers, aka Óglaigh na hÉireann aka the Irish Republican Army, and this represented the fruition of decades, and in fact many decades, of assiduous work by men like Devoy of whom he, himself, was the single most important.
John: Ruán, I wanted to talk about the easy access of everyone going back and forth – I just finished a book there about the wives of the revolutionaries or the signatories and it was amasing with Connolly and everyone else the ease of which they were just getting on boats and going back and forth all the time – that they weren’t stopped in the United States. England? They were going in through Liverpool or coming in through Corcaigh or Queenstown and into Dublin – how was this allowed because we know the British had informers all over the place within the Clann na Gael and with the Irish Republican Brotherhood but it was the ease that everyone was traveling, even bringing back the body of O’Donovan-Rossa from New York for the funeral in Dublin. Why was all this allowed because, years on, you just couldn’t see this happening – that some government would have blocked it.
Ruán: Well, you’re quite right and O’Donovan-Rossa is an interesting case in point. If it was possible to have direct shipping links with Ireland, normally Cobh – in other words the greater Corcaigh area – that was relatively straightforward even though there was, of course, a major police intelligence representation in all those ports. However in 1914-1915, the British government was attempting to divert the trans-Atlantic liners from Cobh to Southampton and other English ports. That was a major cause célèbre in Irish-America and was seen almost as a act of war against the Irish people here who required the capacity to cross in both directions with frequency and ease. Now, we have to remember something important: The British did not know the relative importance of the individuals we’re discussing. They would have known, of course, that Clarke must have been important as an ex-prisoner – they were watching his premises night and day and following him everywhere – but they weren’t watching Pearse very closely and Pearse was the Director of Military Organisation of the IRB. They didn’t know he was. The upper leadership was not penetrated to any significant extent that we can see and if it was they didn’t utilise operation intelligence. They didn’t make a difference. They didn’t interfere in any way that mattered. Now in the case of couriers, many of the liners had men on that whose job was was to transfer coded messages in both directions. And as far as I’m aware none of them were ever unmasked or intercepted. Certain persons, like Seán Mac Diarmada, would, on occasions, travel under an assumed identity. In some cases they would, and I don’t specifically mean him, but one of the methods was to assume a role working on the ship or impersonate another individual. Checks and balances were taken. And as you say, a large quantity of American war material, including revolvers and shotguns, was illegally smuggled into Ireland in small packages and various ruses were used to do this. I’m not aware of any (inaudible) port but the appearance of American weaponry in Dublin did excite the interest of the Special Branch, the political police. However despite all of this, money flow was the most important thing and besides the diaspora and those who were supporters were such that they effectively bank-rolled the Irish Republican Movement and that made it that much more easy for the people of the fighting side, if you’d like, to concentrate on the task at hand and not have to worry about you know, robberies and forgery and things like that.
John: How was the money going back and forth – or heading in one direction – how did that happen? Was it through banks or individuals bringing the money over in cash?
Ruán: Individuals would carry, believe it or not, quantities of gold and cash and cheques. I wouldn’t be an expert on this aspect of it – I don’t know how some of those cheques were negotiated but remember – this was legal money. This was money raised here openly. The Irish Volunteers had a fund you could deposit money in at Manhattan. Most major American cities would have had legal funds for the – it was called ‘the Equipment Fund’ of the Irish Volunteers and that was money especially meant for weaponry. And had matters gone differently, in other words if the First World War had not broken out, my expectation is that large quantities of modern weaponry would have been purchased here and imported into Ireland which at various times was actually not illegal. The UVF for instance, the Ulster Volunteer Force who were created by the British government to basically stymie the aspirations of eighty percent of the population, they were able to equip themselves quite readily by buying and importing German weaponry. Then an arms embargo was placed to stop the Irish Volunteers emanating it but that did not work. An American-backed shipment – monies raised in London but backed by Devoy was of course the famous importation into Howth and then Kilcoole in 1914 – fifteen hundred rifles were purchased but much larger sums would have been shipped had the war not broken out.
Martin: Okay. Just – you mentioned John Devoy – just recently there was a monument put up in Kildare and just like the money for The Rising, the money for that monument was put up – Mike Flood, the Kildare Association here, was the driving force behind that monument and again, it seems to be another example about how America has to be a driving force in terms of being proud of its Irish patriots and the Irish government – an individual who did this so much, who was in American for decades, who never gave up on getting an Irish Republic until a rising had occurred in great measure because of money and efforts that he had contributed and it had to be Americans, the Kildare Association in the United States, particularly in New York, which was the driving force financially before that individual, John Devoy, being memorialised in his own home town of Kildare.
Ruán: Yes, you’re quite right and earlier the very, very fine statue of James Connolly – that was primarily an Irish-American project – I know Joe Jamison of the AFL-CIO (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) and many other figures were tremendously involved in getting that to happen. And sometimes the moral support and financial support of the American diaspora has been the critical factor. For instance, it’s a bit difficult to get planning information for such memorial in Ireland – and again, it’s that sort of ‘don’t mention the war’ situation and even ‘don’t mention the last war’ situation so I’ve been involved fund raising memorials myself. I’ve published a number of items where the proceeds went to the National Graves Association and I got in trouble for it! I mean I’ve been criticised on the front page of the Irish Times for financing an IRA memorial in Wexford. Well it is an IRA memorial but it is a memorial to the 1950’s campaigners. So on the one hand you sing (inaudible) and The Patriot Game but once you start putting things into stone the reactionary elements get very het up. It’s easier in a way if the stimulus is for (phone line evaporates)
Martin: Um, Ruán, are you still with us?
John: Well, we’re going to have to wrap it up anyway. There’s only two or three few minutes left. (ends time stamp ~ 52:18)