After the collapse of the Galway Rising, Easter 1916, its leader Liam Mellows managed to get to New York where he was embraced by the the influential American Fenian network, Clan na Gael, who regarded him as ‘the most capable man who had so far arrived in America’.
By 1900 it is estimated that almost 5,000,000 Americans were either Irish-born, or had Irish-born parents, with millions more claiming Irish heritage, and whose hard earned dollars were to play a central role in financing the Irish revolution.
Since Famine times, however, which saw a mass emigration of poor Irish peasants to the US, there was a strong Anglo-Saxon prejudice against the arrival of such large numbers, and it persisted well into the 20th century even after many Irish-Americans were settled, and making a positive contribution to American society.
When in April 1917, America entered World War I on the side of the Allies, becoming in effect a partner with Britain, Irish-American organisations had to face a challenge as to where their loyalties lay. Would they remain anti-British, or would they support the new reality of America fighting with Britain against Germany. Most of them put America first.
Spoke to their hearts
When Mellows arrived he was deeply depressed at what he what he believed was his ‘lamentable failure’ in his leadership of the Galway rebellion, his anger at the late cancellation of the Rising and the confusion it led to, and despite his pleas ‘to fight to the end’, the bitter blow of his men deserting him in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Only his closest friends were aware of his private frustration and depression, but once in America, with his welcome as a hero of the Rising, Mellows rose to the occasion. After all his primary mission in America was to raise money for weapons so the revolution would continue. He was given a job in John Devoy’s newspaper The Gaelic American, where he wrote a totally romanticised version, much of it fictitious, of the Galway Rising. Styling himself as ‘Commandant Mellows’, he became a talented orator. His descriptions of the Galway ‘battles’ and his ambitions for a free Ireland, were in high demand. He spoke to packed audiences in such famous venues as the Central Opera House, and Madison Square Garden.
Fr Peter Magennis, of the Friends of Irish Freedom, described seeing and hearing Mellows for the first time. ‘I was all eyes to see who was this man who seemed to have caught on to the heart of the people. I remember him springing up two steps at a time…I looked at him, there was nothing very amazing about his figure, he seemed quite commonplace, until you saw his wonderful head, his magnificent brow, the keen look in his eye, and when he spoke, I knew why the people wanted to hear him - he spoke straight to their hearts…’
Starvation and collapse
Barely a year later everything went sour. Against the wishes of the Clan, Mellows and another prominent member John Brennan, began their own campaign against Irish Americans being conscripted in the American army which was preparing to join Britain and France and their allies on the battlefields of Europe. Mellows was summoned to a meeting with the heads of the Clan, who gave him a choice: either toe the party line, or be dismissed from his job and from Clan na Gael. Without hesitation Mellows announced that he would continue his anti-conscription campaign on the streets of New York.
Things seriously began to go wrong for Mellows when, following Casement’s footsteps, he became involved in trying to buy arms from Germany to be sent to Ireland. He and his friend MacCartan were arrested with a Baron von Recklinghausen, a secret German envoy in New York. It was a big story at the time. Reuters News Agency announced that Mellows had a fake passport made out to P Donnolly; while the New York Times reported that the arrests ‘have frustrated Sinn Féin plans to stage a revolt to mark the anniversary of the Dublin rebellion next Easter.’
Mellows and McCartin ended up in the notorious city prison known as The Tombs, a grim 19th century fortress that rose high over Lower Manhattan, renowned for its frequent executions. It was built on a swamp. It smelled of decay, and was overcrowded and unhealthy. Clan na Gael were slow to bail him out. The two young men languished there for two months.
When the Clan eventually came to their rescue, Mellows was expelled from the American Fenian movement, and for a period, ceased his involvement in republican politics entirely. He became destitute and depressed. John Brennan recalled ‘After this he went out in search of a job and, after failing to find a suitable one, had to accept the heavy work of an unskilled labourer, for which he was not fit. One day he collapsed at his job. His weakness was due to starvation.’ According to his close friend Frank Robbins, ‘Mellows was subject to spells of despondency, and was inclined to be neglectful of himself.’
Next week: Dev comes to the rescue.
NOTES: I am leaning on Conor McNamara’s excellent
Liam Mellows - Selected Writings, published by the Irish Academic Press, on sale €18.95.