Independence Day, July 4th is America’s biggest holiday. Its her birthday; but it doesn’t mark the day she won her independence, it marks the day when it was declared. And the Irish were there. Great numbers if them filled the ranks of Washington’s patriot army from foot soldiers to high ranking officers, and those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier, contributed in other ways. The military won the war, but who led the march toward the battlefield? It was the settlers, merchants, and community leaders who really shaped our destiny, for they were the ones who dreamt the dream, organized its creation, and supported its success.
In the late 1700s, when increased Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. And there were many Irish in the colonies at the time; they had been coming since the 1650s. The first noticeable influx into New England occurred in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as slaves. From that time on, the shipment of men, women and children as indentured servants was common practice. Among the first to come of their own volition were those who fought the English theft of their lands and ended up hunted men; they were followed by those Catholics and Presbyterians who fled the Penal Laws and persecution by the Church of England; some of whom were businessmen who had to escape the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown in order to benefit their British competitors. The suppression of the Irish wool and linen trades reduced the population of Ulster by half a million. And they came to America with their looms and spinning wheels, before the start of the American revolution, bringing an industry that would be of great importance to the nation awaiting birth.
In the beginning, they came in such large numbers that one Massachusetts Court, fearing the “malignant spirit that has from time to time been manifest by the Irish against the English”, prohibited the Irish from its jurisdiction, and fined anyone who should buy an Irishman and bring him in. But they came anyway. Some altered their names and some settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down, and Capt. Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake – first white settlers in what is now Greenwich Conn. They settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish American John Stark and Limerick-born Matt Lyons; in New Hamphire where Capt Maginnis commanded the militia; and in other areas from Maine, home of the O’Briens who would capture the 1st British ship in the war that was yet to come, to Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn who had grown up in Co Cork.
They were a considerable presence in many communities. In 1728, for example, it was reported that most of the 4,500 who landed at New Castle, Delaware were Irish. Philadelphia likewise reported that 3,500 people from Ireland had arrived in the first two weeks of August, 1772. They had obviously been arriving for a while since the city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was Stephen Moylan of Co Cork – soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 1773, Irish immigration to the American colonies was over 18,500, and they were no friends of British colonialism.
There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Matthew Lyons, Patrick Henry, and other Irish and Irish American orators used their eloquence to urge separation from England. When confrontations became frequent, it seemed that the Irish were always in the middle of it. Among those killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr; Boston Tea Party participants met at an inn owned by man named Duggan; and the tea was dumped at Griffin’s Wharf by a group dressed as Indians, some of whom had a notably Irish accent. While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, and raised money to feed and clothe the army. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000.00 – a considerable fortune at the time.
On July 1, 1776 after a year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. A resolution was presented which read, “Be it resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” After much heated debate, the vote was indecisive. They met again on July 2nd to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question. On July 3rd , John Adams wrote to his wife that July 2nd was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever. However, approval of the final draft of the document was not made until July 4th.
The Philadelphia State House was packed, despite the sweltering heat, as Secretary Charles Thomson of Co. Derry read the formal document that Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Livingston had composed, and that he – Thomson – had drafted. It was a declaration explaining why their action was justified. After a full day of temper tantrums, modifying copy, shouting matches, further amendments and even more debate, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete. Only Hancock and Thomson signed that day; the formal copy would not be ready for all signatures until July 19th. Signing that Declaration carried enormous risk, for to the British it was an act of treason, punishable by death. As Benjamin Franklin put it to the delegates, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Among the courageous signers were 3 native-born Irish: James Smith, George Taylor and Matthew Thornton and many of Irish descent. Philadelphia printer Charles Dunlop of Co Tyrone rolled out copies (now famed as the rare Dunlop Broadsides) that were snatched up before the ink was dry. On July 8th the people first heard that document read – in an Irish accent – as Secretary Thomson read it to an anxiously awaiting public.
The event marked by the 4th of July is therefore, not the winning, but the declaring of America’s independence. There would be many more years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on March 10, 1783, but America had made her stand. That last battle, by the way, saw Irish-born Commodore John Barry defeat the British ship Sybil. He had been carrying a cargo of gold with which Congress would establish the new Bank of North America with the help of Irish-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.
Yes, the Irish were there, and the fact that they made loyal Americans is evidenced in the writings of Marquis de Chastellux who wrote after the revolution, “An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, the English and Scots were treated with distrust, even with the best of attachment for the cause, but the native of Ireland stood in need of no other certificate than his accent. While the Irish emigrant was fighting for America on land and sea, Irish merchants purses were always open and their persons devoted to the country’s cause, and on more than one imminent occasion Congress itself, and the very existence of America, owed its preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.”
Even in Ireland, where funds were raised to support the American cause, the hopes of the Irish were with the American cause to such an extent that America’s success inspired a liberation movement in Ireland, and in 1798, the Irish attempted to duplicate the American example. Unfortunately they were too close to England and it failed, and though young America was in no position to help the Irish, her hopes were with them. President Washington wrote that “the Irish need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have worn for so long.”
It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington. In 1828, he said, “Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the days of our gloom, and of our glory, shared in our misfortunes and joined in our successes; With undaunted courage (they) breasted the storm which once threatened to overwhelm us; and with aspirations deep and fervent for our cause, whether in the shock of liberty’s battles, or in the feeble expiring accents of famine and misery, cried from their hearts God Save America. Then honored be the good old service of the sons of Erin in the war of Independence. Let the shamrock be entwined with the laurels of the Revolution, and truth and justice, guiding the pen of history, inscribe on the tablets of American remembrance ‘Eternal Gratitude to Irishmen.’
Today, it might seem that many of our elected representatives have forgotten the debt owed to the Irish, but we haven’t. Remember that as you hang out the stars and stripes on the Fourth of July. Many Irish fought and died so that you would have the right to do so, so do it with pride.