Exiles and Expatriates
by Lucy E. Salyer
In Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt and Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship Lucy E. Salyer tells the riveting story of forty Irish Americans who set off to fight for Irish independence, only to be arrested by Queen Victoria’s authorities and accused of treason. It’s a tale of idealism and justice with profound implications for future conceptions of citizenship and immigration. This is a brief excerpt from the book.
“I am an American citizen,” [John] Warren declared in 1867, but also “I am an unmitigated Irishman, and love every blade of grass that grows on her soil.” Becoming American did not mean leaving Ireland behind — far from it. Sometime between 1858 and 1862, Warren took another oath of allegiance, solemnly swearing “by all the wrongs inflicted on Ireland and on my Irish Ancestors, that I will labor while life is left, to rid Ireland of English Government” and to “aid the men at home to put themselves in a state of preparation to fight England.” With this oath, Warren joined the newest Irish secret society, the Fenian Brotherhood, the American counterpart to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which sprang up among artisans and shop boys in 1858 and spread through Warren’s native southwestern Cork. One of approximately 250,000 Irish Americans who joined the Fenian Brotherhood, Warren threw himself into the cause, even as he fought in the American Union Army. He served as the “head centre” from Massachusetts for the brotherhood in 1863, naming his son born that year Robert Emmett after the famous Irish nation- alist martyr. In perhaps his proudest business venture, Warren cofounded with Peter O’Neill Larkin the fiery though short-lived newspaper The Fenian Spirit in 1864. Its objective: “to perpetuate our undying hatred of English oppression” and to free Ireland from its “accursed tyranny under which she has so long suffered.” The masthead, featuring a rising phoenix, a harp, and a cannon, promised Ireland’s rebirth through armed force.
The British claimed to be baffled by Fenianism. Perhaps the Irish had reason to complain of injuries done them in the distant past, but why now, in the 1860s, when conditions had so improved and administration of Irish government had become so much better? Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, according to the New York Herald, shared the British fascination and confusion about the rapid spread of “Fenian fever.” “The more the people hear about Fenianism,” remarked the Herald, “the less they appear to understand it.” The British and the Americans blamed each other for fostering Fenianism. “There can be no doubt that this disease has been imported from the West,” declared the Illustrated London News, carried over by swaggering “Yankee-Irish” from America who infected “the lowest class of the [Irish] community.” But the United States disowned Fenianism, too. Secretary of State William Henry Seward emphatically declared, “The Fenian agitation is a British and not an American movement.”
In truth, the Fenian movement sprang from the soil of both Ireland and the United States, the political expression of a new hybrid: the Irish American. Fenianism thrived among expatriates like Warren who left Ireland “with a vengeance,” viewing themselves as exiles from their beloved land, “driven away” by oppressive British policies. It was a vengeance that their American lives did little to ease, as the majority of Irish immigrants struggled to make a living in crowded and often inhospitable cities.
Since 1864, John Warren had urged his compatriots to be on alert for the coming Irish rebellion, when Ireland would be freed through a “baptism of blood.” He repeatedly warned: “The day is fast approaching,” “The important hour is at hand,” “The hour is near.” After pledging that 1865 would be the “year of action,” James Stephens, the leader of the Irish Fenians, had stalled, promising an Irish rebellion by January 1, 1867. When on December 15, 1866, Stephens tried to delay the rising yet again, warning that the Fenians were woefully short of funds and arms, his military advisors declared him a coward and deposed him. Colonel Thomas J. Kelly took charge of the Fenian cause in Ireland, and finally, on March 5, 1867, the long-awaited Rising erupted. Thousands of Fenians launched attacks on police stations and military installations, reaching from Drogheda in the north to Warren’s native Cork in the south, tearing up railways and cutting telegraph lines. Kelly’s ultimate goal: to take Dublin and hold it until reinforcements arrived from the United States.
News of the Irish rebellion electrified New Yorkers. Throngs of people crowded the New York Herald office, eagerly awaiting the latest news arriving through the new Atlantic cable, which allowed messages to fly across the ocean with lightning speed. Supporters filled the Fenian headquarters, spilling out onto the street, sharing any tidbit of news and speculating wildly on the progress of the long-awaited revolution. Even “lukewarm Irishmen” became ardent nationalists for the moment, sporting the green ties and scarves that popped up throughout the city. New York Irish rejoiced at the news of the establishment of an Irish Provisional Government, which issued a ringing proclamation declaring its determination to “repossess” Ireland or die trying. Fenian circles held emergency meetings, and 10,000 supporters showed up at a boisterous rally at Union Square on a bitterly cold and rainy night on March 13 to cheer on the “boys in green.” General James Gleeson reportedly ordered 2,000 uniforms of “bright emerald green” to clothe two Fenian regiments as they prepared for the anticipated battle.
Yet anxiety tempered the joy of Irish Americans, especially as the terse dispatches provided meager details, leaving the watchful in “a sort of maddening suspense.” News of Fenian defeats alternated with assurances that the Fenian rebellion was not only alive and strong but on the rise, throwing the Irish government into a fevered panic as its military forces dashed about the country trying to squelch the Fenian fire. New York newspapers and Fenian Brother- hood leaders cautioned repeatedly that discouraging news arriving from Ireland by cable was not to be trusted, as England controlled the dispatches. But even the most devout Fenian leaders realized that the rebellion in Ireland stood on shaky ground and tested the mettle not only of the Irish rebels but of Irish Americans as well. Without American support, the insurgency would soon collapse.
Time was of the essence, Fenian leaders urged, as they exhorted Irish Americans to unite and give aid — particularly money — to the rebellion in Ireland. Colonel Kelly, the American commander of the Irish rebels, prodded the pride and conscience of those sitting safely in New York: “If we sink before aid arrives, the wails of our men through prison bars should haunt the bed of every Irishman in America.” The Irish rebels would try to hold on until the much-needed money, men, and arms arrived from America, Kelly wrote in his letters of March 15 and 19. But he urged them to “hurry, hurry, hurry!”
The Fenian Brotherhood leaders in the United States tried to hurry, but rapid action proved difficult. They drew thousands of “wonderfully enthusiastic” participants to lively rallies but failed to pry much money from the pockets of Irish Americans, many of whom had little extra to share and had already given to the cause.6 Nor did the leaders find it easy to agree upon the best means to “help the gallant patriots” in Ireland. Irish American officers from the Civil War gathered at a meeting on March 9 to discuss possible strategies but quickly fell into “spicy debate.” Elected secretary of the meeting, John Warren had a front-row seat to what became a free-for-all. Some participants moved to expel Irish American officers who had served in the Confederate Army from the meeting. In a separate motion, Warren proposed that the group appeal to Irish millionaires to contribute liberally to the cause. These and other proposals generated “a row that lasted considerable time. Rebukes and counter-rebukes were now indulged in. The chairman had little control.” These were minor differences compared to the long-festering feud between the O’Mahony wing, favoring rebellion in Ireland, and the Roberts wing, focusing on the invasion of Canada. With an actual rebellion under way in Ireland, the Roberts wing faced considerable pressure to fall in line and throw their support and resources behind the cause. Warren, who had sup- ported both factions at various times, sought to unite the opposing forces even before the rebellion started. In an appeal published in the New York Herald on December 1, 1866, Warren warned that soon an “Irish army will be battling on Irish soil” so “in God’s name, . . . unite. Rally round them as one man,” he urged.
The Fenian leaders in America agreed on one thing: ships were crucial to the success of the Irish rebellion. Fenians in the O’Mahony wing had long threat- ened that a deadly Fenian fleet of warships and privateers would free Ireland one day and wreak revenge on Britain for its dastardly role in outfitting the Confed- erates with privateers in the Civil War. Anticipating a rush of Fenian mariners and ships, the Fenian Brotherhood drew up forms to commission privateers, authorizing them to seize British merchant ships and their cargo with the goal of driving British commerce “from the ocean.” The Roberts wing thought such plans foolish. Fenian vessels would find it impossible to “leave the United States and sail to Ireland without being apprehended,” much less “be able to land men and ammunition.” How could they take on the Royal Navy, the largest in the world? But the Rising gave new urgency to the call for a Fenian fleet. What Ire- land needed, wrote one New York merchant, was “two or three first class vessels- of-war — a Dunderberg or two,” referring to the new massive ironclad warship that had been completed too late to see service in the Civil War. Colonel Kelly, waiting for help in Ireland, agreed. “Where are those ironclads?” he demanded. “A landing in Sligo at the present time would be of infinite service.”