March 1, 2016
Third in a four-part series.
In Boston and other Irish-American centers in March 1916, few knew how close to armed rebellion the Irish Republican Brotherhood and an array of other Irish men and women in Ireland stood. Nationalists, socialists, workers, intellectuals, and proponents of women’s rights – all had their own agendas, and all were willing to fight for a free Ireland.
The turmoil in Ireland had some in Boston’s Irish wards hoping that John Redmond and other “cooler heads” still pushing for the limited sovereignty of an Irish Home Rule bill might prevail. Still, every attempt to pass Home Rule since Charles Stewart Parnell’s efforts decades earlier had failed in Parliament. The eruption of World War I and the intransigent opposition of Northern Irish Orangemen to Home Rule had convinced other Boston Irish that insurrection against the Crown and Parliament was the only route to a free Ireland.
In Boston, debates over the situation in Ireland filled parlors, dinner tables, pubs, church events, subway cars, construction sites, the State House, and everywhere else the local Irish gathered. Michael P. Quinlin, in his outstanding Irish America Magazine (Feb/March 2016) article “Boston and the Irish Rising,” points out that many members of the A.O.H. (Ancient Order of Hibernians) and especially Clan-na-Gael urged insurrection against Britain. More conservative organizations such as the United Irish League of America and the Charitable Irish Society – the oldest Irish group in America – cautioned that bloodshed would lead only to disaster for Ireland, as they had in 1798 – “the Year of the French”; 1803, Emmet’s Revolt; 1848, the ill-fated Young Ireland movement; and the Fenian uprising of 1866.
The movers and shakers of Boston Irish politics in 1916 scrutinized the events in the “old sod,” but even “Himself” – James Michael Curley – who railed against Britain’s centuries-old grip on Ireland, stopped short of advocating open revolt. He likened the British to his other favorite target, Boston’s Brahmins, suggesting that the rising clout of the Boston Irish in the face of entrenched Yankee prejudice offered a blueprint of sorts for Irish freedom. Conversely, Cardinal William O’Connell had little affinity for the “radicals” preaching rebellion in Ireland or their supporters in Boston.
In 1914, David I. Walsh had scored a momentous first by winning election as Massachusetts’s first Catholic governor, and while he supported the concept of a Free Ireland, he would later warn his fellow Irish across the Commonwealth that they must “remember to be Americans first.”
Since the guns of August 1914 had plunged Europe into a world war, the conflict’s impact upon Ireland had begun to tear at many of the Boston Irish. Any realistic chance of Home Rule languished as Irishmen marched off in the ranks of the British Army to the carnage of the Western Front. In Ireland and in Boston, questions arose as to just what Irishmen were dying for in the trenches of No Man’s Land. The sight of soldiers returning home with missing limbs or reeling from shell-shock (today’s post traumatic stress disorder) added to those questions. So, too, did Parliament’s imposition of economically crippling wartime taxes on Ireland, and if anyone in the 32 counties raised his or her voice in protest, the infamous Defense of the Realm Act meant that he or she faced imprisonment or deportation – without any semblance of legal process. British censorship hamstrung Irish newspapers and magazines from challenging the government and its prosecution of the war.
Among the leaders moving ever closer to revolt in Ireland, a few had actually visited Boston. James Connolly, a Socialist and fierce advocate for workers’ rights, delivered an impassioned speech on those causes at a packed Faneuil Hall in September 1902. For a time, he lived in Mission Hill. James Larkin, another of the men who would figure prominently in the Easter Rising, was a trade-union organizer who addressed a throng in February 1915 at Tremont Temple. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a friend and former schoolmate of James Joyce, came to Boston and Worcester in 1915 to lecture on everything from his support of women’s rights, his self-described militant pacifism, and his commitment to a free Ireland to his advocacy of a vegetarian diet.
John Redmond, the politician who had picked up the mantle of Home Rule from the once-revered but scandal-crushed Parnell, had set foot in Boston in 1884. John Boyle O’Reilly, the former cavalryman and Fenian rebel who had escaped hellish confinement in Fremantle, Western Australia, aboard a New Bedford whaling ship; had found success and fame as a journalist and then editor of the Boston Pilot; and had played a pivotal role in the rescue of six fellow Fenians from Fremantle by the whaler Catalpa, warmly greeted the young Redmond. O’Reilly, who had come to believe that a political solution for Ireland was a more realistic approach than the revolutionary fervor of his Fenian days, viewed Redmond as the successor to Parnell. Michael P. Quinlin, in his Irish America article, notes that O’Reilly “introduced Redmond to 5,000 people jammed into the Boston Theatre and compared him to Parnell. The cheering lasted several minutes before Redmond was able to speak.”
For Redmond, the triumphant fanfare of his visit to Boston nearly three decades ago was about to implode for the city’s Irish. The gathering fury of Easter 1916 would soon destroy his reputation in the wards and elevate that of Connolly and Larkin and that of men named Pearse, Collins, de Valera, Clarke, and their comrades in arms – not in the trenches of the Western Front, but on the streets of Dublin.
To learn more on the subject of Boston's role and reaction to the events of 1916, please refer to Michael P. Quinlin's article in the February/March 2016 edition of the magazine Irish America.