Cleveland Women and Irish Nationalism - Irish American Archives

Cleveland Women and Irish Nationalism - Irish American Archives

Cleveland Women and Irish Nationalism Throughout the 19th century, the cause of Irish nationalism found ready supporters in Cleveland. Just as the Uni...

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Cleveland Women and Irish Nationalism Throughout the 19th century, the cause of Irish nationalism found ready supporters in Cleveland. Just as the United Irishmen of 1798 were inspired in part by the French Revolution, the so-called Young Irelanders of 1848 were in part inspired by a surge in revolutionary fervor that was sweeping across the European continent that year. The Young Irelanders were also incensed at the British government’s callous reaction to the Irish Famine. But like so many nationalist movements before it, the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 was quickly snuffed out and its leaders imprisoned or exiled. Several of the leaders of the Young Ireland movement made their way to the United States, where they set about rallying support for the cause of Irish nationalism. In 1852, as reported in the Plain Dealer newspaper, a group of Clevelanders invited one of the heroes of the Young Ireland movement to come to Cleveland to speak--Thomas Francis Meagher, a future Civil War general. In 1858, two of the Young Irelander exiles in New York formed the Fenian Brotherhood to stir up American support for the cause of overthrowing British rule in Ireland. Cleveland was one of many American cities that embraced Fenian ideals and set about organizing “circles” of support. Brief news items throughout 1865 and 1866 refer to the existence of a Fenian Sisterhood group in Cleveland, alongside several Fenian Brotherhood “circles.” Not surprisingly for the times, when women are mentioned in connection with Fenian banquets, picnics, and other events, they are usually only mentioned—and not by individual name--as presenting banners, singing songs, and managing the refreshment tables. However, the Plain Dealer of October 5,1865, contained a list of people who were authorized to collect money on behalf of the Fenian Brotherhood. And the list included almost as many women as men. Unfortunately, the women are identified by “Miss” or “Mrs.,” rather than by first and last name, so it’s difficult to find out more about them. Divisions arose within the Fenian movement about whether or not the Americanbased group should be supporting revolutionary activity in Ireland or should be taking action against the British government in neighboring Canada. After the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and Irish-born Civil War veterans began to return from battle, the idea of invading Canada began to gain adherents. A target date of June 1, 1866, was set for attacking Fort Erie, across the Niagara River from Buffalo. As Plain Dealer articles on May 29 and 30 indicate, Cleveland was designated as a transfer and collection point for Fenian “freedom fighters”—most of them Civil War veterans--coming from places west and south. Although the Fenians did capture Fort Erie in the Battle of Ridgeway, the US government cut off the Fenian supply routes and blocked reinforcements from joining the small advance force. The Fenian moment was short-lived.

IMAGES: An 1867 Currier and Ives print of the spirit of Irish nationalism as a woman; a list of Fenian fundraisers, Plain Dealer (October 5, 1865); Plain Dealer report of Fenians passing through Cleveland (May 30, 1866); 1869 painting of the Battle of Ridgeway.

The Ladies Land League in Cleveland After the Fenian invasion of Canada was halted by the US government, the Fenian movement began to crumble. The many Irish Americans who were still passionately committed to advancing the cause of Irish nationalism tended to focus their energies on two fronts. One was the clandestine Clan na Gael, a secret organization that emerged in America in the 1870s to support the work of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. The second was the more visible Land League movement. The Land League movement gathered steam in the late 1870s and early 1880s, in response to the pressures of the world-wide “Long Depression” of 1873-1879 and several seasons of bad weather and growing conditions, particularly in the west of Ireland. Most Irish householders were tenants, not landowners, and the Land League was focused overtly on obtaining fairer rents for tenant farmers. But the motto of the more radical wing of the movement, led by Michael Davitt, had nationalist overtones: "The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.” In practice the tactics used against the landlords often involved intimidation and the destruction of property. Irish-born Clevelanders and Clevelanders of Irish descent committed quickly to the Land League cause. Michael Davitt spoke in Cleveland in October of 1878, and Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the constitutional wing of the movement, visited Cleveland in 1880. Some of the Cleveland Land Leaguers had been active Fenians—most notably Patrick Smith, owner of a dredging and tugboat operation; Patrick K. Walsh, a shoe store owner and Civil War veteran; Martin A. Foran, a one-time cooper, lawyer and future judge and congressman; and William J. Gleason, a newspaper man and promoter of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square. Swelling their ranks were many recent immigrants who arrived in Cleveland in the early 1880s, fleeing the very conditions that prompted the movement. Another former Fenian and Land Leaguer in Cleveland may have escaped notice in the newspapers of the day—were it not for a run-in with Bishop Richard Gilmour, head of the Diocese of Cleveland. Her name was Mary Rowland; she was elected President of the Ladies Land League in Cleveland in May of 1882. The Scottish-born Bishop Gilmour was not as aggressive about Americanizing his flock as some bishops in other American cities were at the time. But he wanted his Irish Catholic parishioners to prioritize being Catholic over being Irish. While Gilmour sparred with the male Land Leaguers— attempting to block the non-denominational group from marching in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for instance—he seized on the Ladies Land League for condemnation. Bishop Gilmour believed that political agitation was unwomanly; the women of the Ladies Land League rejected his arguments. The conflict escalated to the extent that Gilmour excommunicated any woman who persisted in participating in the Ladies Land League. While Cleveland Land League supporters, both men and women, insisted that they would not back down, energy began to shift toward a new organization called the Irish National League, which advocated Home Rule for Ireland through the ballot box.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES: (Left) Bishop Gilmour’s opposition to the Ladies Land League, Plain Dealer, 5/22/1882; (Right) Mary Rowland’s defense, Plain Dealer, 5/29/1882

IMAGES: (Above) 1870 Census in Cleveland for Mary Rowland, age 22,living with her widowed mother and young adult siblings—all born in Ireland during the Famine years; (Left) Bishop Richard Gilmour

Cleveland Women Promote the Irish Republic In the early decades of the 20th century, Ireland’s long-held goal of independence was finally within reach. The dramatic events that transpired--the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish Treaty that was narrowly approved in January 1922 and the two brutal years of Civil War--were covered extensively in Cleveland newspapers of the day. Although the Irish Republic declared independence from Great Britain in January 1919, it took many years for Ireland to establish itself as a fully independent republic. An independent constitution was ratified in 1937, and membership in the British Commonwealth was terminated in 1948. Throughout those decades, Ireland continued to look to America for support for the cause of Irish nationalism. In 1919 Eamon De Valera, the president of the newly declared Republic, traveled to the United States for an extended 18-month stay in order to drum up support for Irish independence. Before returning to Ireland in October 1920, De Valera pressed for the founding of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR), in an effort to supplant the American-led Friends of Irish Freedom. De Valera visited Cleveland in 1919 and returned here again in 1928 and 1930 to encourage the work of the AARIR. Irish-born and Irish-American Clevelanders were quick to support this new organization, just as Clevelanders of earlier generations had embraced the Fenian and Land League movements. Cleveland women were particularly prominent participants in the AARIR on local, state, and national levels. Adelia (or Adele) Christy was born Adelia Thompson in New Jersey in 1873 to an Americanborn father and Irish-born mother. She came to Cleveland by 1896, when she married William J. Christy, a poultry dealer. She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and, by 1913, she had risen through the ranks to become national secretary of the LAAOH. The AARIR did not segregate men and women into separate divisions. Christy was part of its founding council and was named as the first state director for Ohio in November 1920. She chaired Ohio’s first organizing meeting of 200 representatives from all over the state. She was a prominent speaker at local events in Cleveland that promoted the cause of full independence for Ireland. In 1922 she visited Ireland. Although her passport application states that the purpose of the trip was “travel,” it’s hard to imagine that she was not traveling in her capacity as an AARIR leader. Mary Kay Duffy was born Mary K. McGarry in Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, Ireland, in about 1882. She immigrated in 1899, joining an uncle in Cleveland. When she first arrived in the city, she served as a maid in the household of Jeremiah Sullivan, a prominent banker. Here she met and married Martin Duffy, another Irish immigrant. An active, energetic woman, she helped her husband launch a real estate business in Collinwood in the 1920s. Dedicated to her native land, she joined the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1920 and organized an east-side division of the LAAOH. She was recognized as “Hibernian Woman of the Year.” Enlisting her fellow Hibernians in the cause, Mary Kay Duffy was the driving force behind the establishment of the Irish Cultural Garden in Cleveland. She also hosted a weekly radio show called Echoes of Erin on the WHK radio station. She joined the American Association for Recognition of the Irish Republic as well, serving as President of the local Benjamin Franklin Council of the AARIR, as First Vice President at the state level, and as a National Vice President. Mary Ellen Murphy was born in Cleveland in 1908 to Irish-born parents. She did not marry. Like Adelia Christy, she was active in Democratic Party politics in Cleveland. She worked most of her adult life at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. She joined the LAAOH and assisted Mary Kay Duffy in the maintenance of the Irish Cultural Garden. She shared many interests and activities with her brother, John G. Murphy, who was a Deputy Clerk at the Board of Elections and was a long-standing National Vice President of the AARIR. Joining the AARIR while still in her early 20s, Mary Ellen soon became a state secretary of the organization and chaired events such as an annual picnic sponsored by the AARIR at Euclid Beach Park featuring sports, music, and dance. The Cleveland AARIR councils, particularly the east-side Benjamin Franklin Council, also spearheaded Irish-American participation in the “Theater of Nations” and other nationality festivals held in Public Auditorium in the 1930s. Members of the Murphy and Duffy families, along with such other prominent Irish-Americans of the day as Thomas “Coal Oil” Masterson, newspaper editor Jim McCoy, and the father of Fr. Thomas Flynn, put on such plays as “Kathleen Mavourneen” to call attention to Irish culture and heritage.

Irish American Archives Society This display was researched and written by Margaret Lynch, Executive Director, Irish American Archives Society (, with the support of a grant from the Irish Goodfellows and at the request of the Cleveland Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians.