Ask most Americans at what point their nation's history first touched Ireland's and the answer will likely be, "At the time of the Irish famine when all the immigrants came here." Few realize the Irish were in America before the American Revolution and that many were involved in the revolution. In fact, countless episodes of Irish history, and the history of the Irish in America, remain obscure to the average American. While nineteenth-century Ireland is somewhat scantily known for its Fenianism and for Charles Stewart Parnell, twentieth-century Irish history has been so romanticized in film and song as to cast it, as well, into a shadowy light. With this in mind, and conscious that the narrative of Walt Whitman's connections to and influence on the Irish must be placed against a backdrop of historical events, a brief overview is offered of events pertinent to that narrative.
The earliest point at which America can be said to have played a role in Irish history was when the Irish saw in England's distraction, at the time of the war between France and England from 1793 to 1802, an opportunity to press their own claims. Because of the similarities between their colonial status and that of the North Americans, Irish sympathy lay heavily with the colonies at the time of their rebellion. When American independence signaled to England the instability of its position relative to its colonies, there was a movement on the part of the Westminster Parliament to allow the Irish Parliament legislative autonomy. Ireland's parliamentary government was a product of the Middle Ages and represented the acknowledgment of a common need among the disparate peoples of that time. Under England's rule, however, the Dublin Parliament had lost the freedom to legislate for its own people.
Concessions made by England revived the spirit of a people who, in ancient times, had belonged to independent kingdoms until raiding Danes and Norsemen disturbed their civilization. The great Irish hero Brian Boru routed the Danes in the eleventh century, but by 1171 Henry II, with the blessing of a papal bull, began the conquest of Ireland for his Norman lords. For another hundred years the English and the Normans fought to retain hold of Ireland, with the English barely managing to hang on and, by 1400, reduced to inhabiting a circumscribed area around Dublin known as "the Pale."
Under succeeding kings, England managed to gain greater advantage and exert increasing control over the Irish, but things took a radical turn in the sixteenth century when Henry VIII separated his country from Roman Catholicism and established himself as head of the Church of England. The Irish, however, remained loyal to Rome. When Henry VIII made the Protestant Church of Ireland their official church they suffered for their resistance by having their lands taken from them and by being denied the right to hold public office. Never ceasing to agitate and never deserting their faith, the Irish rebelled repeatedly and each time were punished by the loss of more freedoms. The worst such punishment came when Oliver Cromwell landed at Dublin in 1649 and conducted a campaign of conquest that included the massacre and dispossession of thousands of Irish.
In the decade between Cromwell's arrival in Ireland in 1649 and the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, Joseph Whitman moved, in 1657, from Connecticut to Huntington, Long Island, New York. Joseph was nephew to John Whitman, who had arrived from England in 1635 on the True Love and settled in Massachusetts. Before long Joseph Whitman would own a very sizeable portion of the West Hills area surrounding Huntington, where Walt Whitman was born.
Later in the century Ireland thought it saw an opportunity to gain ground by welcoming England's Catholic king, James II, when he was forced to abdicate; however, both the Irish forces and James's were beaten at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This defeat, bitterly remembered by the Catholic Irish, was triumphantly celebrated by the Protestant Irish on each anniversary of the date. In the nineteenth century these celebrations, brought by immigrants from both sides of the religious conflict to the streets of American cities, became the cause of violent riots. The defeat at the Boyne would echo through the streets of New York City every July for a good part of the nineteenth century, with at least one such reminder terminating in a riot severe enough for Walt Whitman to comment on. On these occasions Ulster Orangemen (named for William of Orange, James II's Protestant son-in-law who helped drive the king from his throne) paraded through the most densely populated Catholic Irish areas of the city, a practice continued in Northern Ireland to this day.
The penal laws that followed the defeat of the Jacobites aimed at eradicating Catholicism in Ireland. Meanwhile, Scottish Presbyterians, who were planted in northern Ireland after what is known as the "Flight of the Earls" (the exodus of the most powerful northern families after their defeat in a futile effort against a southern enemy), took control of the land so that the 59 percent of Irish soil that had been owned by Catholics in 1641 fell to 14 percent by 1703.
In 1780, just a year after the birth of Walter Whitman Sr. and two years before Cornwallis's surrender to the revolutionary forces in America, Henry Grattan, a member of Parliament from Dublin, moved for an independent Irish legislature. Although the motion failed, it was successful in 1782, and for a time relations between the two parliaments improved. The revolution in France, however, reawakened a thirst for independence, which led an Irish barrister, Theobald Wolfe Tone, to argue for sweeping reforms of a kind the English Parliament was not ready to grant. Tone saw an advantage in uniting the interests of two groups, Irish Catholics and Protestant radicals who refused the claims on their allegiance of the established Anglican church. He also sought the help of France and in 1798 undertook a rebellion, which failed when the small number of French who arrived in August of that year were defeated along with the Irish revolutionaries in September. The rebellion was brutally put down, and Tone committed suicide rather than allow the English to hang him. In New York Rufus King, then serving as United States minister to England, learned that the British planned to banish the captured Irish rebels to America and protested against the United States becoming a new penal colony for England. In 1803 Robert Emmet attempted to revive the revolutionary fervor of 1798 but was hanged and beheaded for his fruitless efforts. While no direct evidence of this exists, it seems likely that Walter Whitman Sr. would have been as supportive and admiring of this revolutionary attempt as he was of all others directed against European tyrannies. It was in this democratic and dissenting atmosphere that Walter Jr. spent his formative years and which led to his veneration of such freethinkers as Thomas Paine and Frances Wright. Later he would add to these the Irish who fought to secure for themselves their own native land.
The immediate result of the 1798 rebellion was an enforced Act of Union in 1800 that created a United Kingdom in which Ireland's Catholic population was a minority among the combined Protestant populations in England, Scotland, and Wales. This United Kingdom of Great Britain lasted until Ireland gained independence in 1922. Ireland's north became the industrialized region, and Belfast soon took precedence over Dublin. Under the Union, Protestants were privileged over Catholics in all social and political institutions; most eggregious was the stipulation that Catholics were not allowed to serve in Parliament, a provision that was remedied in 1829 with the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Bill for which Daniel O'Connell, a Catholic lawyer and head of the Catholic Association, had fought for more than a decade.
Once emancipation was won O'Connell soon took his fight in a new direction, leading a movement to repeal the Act of Union by constitutional means. Though the movement was slow to gather momentum, by 1840 he had enough support to launch a Repeal Association. The association attracted a group of young literary men, Catholic and Protestant, who acquired the name "Young Ireland." This group was not interested in constitutional reform, and saw repeal as only a half-way measure toward full separation of Ireland from England. In the event of such a separation, however, they wished to see neither religious faction gain an ascendency in Ireland, so they sought to focus attention instead on a common national culture of history and literature.
One of their leaders was a Protestant attorney, Thomas Davis, who, with Charles Gavan Duffy, founded the Nation, a periodical devoted to fostering their ideals. Through the pages of the widely read Nation Davis became the spokesperson for a cultural nationalism, the aim of which was to free the Irish people of their cultural dependency on Britain and provide them with a set of values that were distinctively Irish. After Davis's death in 1845 Duffy assumed leadership of the group and split with O'Connell over the issue of O'Connell's determined belief in constitutional nationalism as the only viable position.
In these same years Walt Whitman was making his first impress on the city of New York, soon to become the refuge of thousands of Irish. In May 1841 he went to work in the printing office of the New York New World, a weekly newspaper, and in July he gave a speech at a Democratic Party rally in City Hall Park. These newspaper and political activities were leading Whitman in new directions so that he came to know such Irish champions of democracy as Mike Walsh, of the New York Spartan Band and one of the "Bowery b'hoys," and John L. O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan, best remembered for originating the words "Manifest Destiny," owned and edited the highly influential United States Magazine and Democratic Review, where Whitman published fiction pieces. After becoming editor of the New York Aurora in 1842, however, Whitman came out against the Irish in New York, a position he took because of strong democratic reasons of his own.
Soon after, in Ireland, both the Repeal movement and Young Ireland were overshadowed by a natural disaster of such proportions that it swept away all other concerns. In 1845 the potato crop was destroyed by a fungal disease that caused black spots to appear on the leaves of potato plants and the potatoes to wither and rot. These were the first signs of the famine that would blight large portions of Ireland in that year and again in 1846, 1848, and 1849. By the end of the decade the population of Ireland had declined by 1.6 million people who died of famine-related disease and starvation or who left the country. During these famine years mass emigration brought thousands of Irish to America, most of them from the country's southern counties where Catholics predominated. In New York Whitman became increasingly aware of the plight of these immigrants, finding himself particularly sympathetic to the public exposure of Irish women seeking employment.
The famine destroyed O'Connell's Repeal Association, and with his death in 1847 the movement came to an end. Young Ireland attempted an uprising in 1848, and a number of its leaders, notably John Mitchel, were arrested while others fled the country, some finding refuge in America. Mitchel was sent to prison in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) but escaped and made his way to New York in 1853. There, among the large population of Irish immigrants and with the help of other revolutionaries who had fled Ireland, he began raising funds for an organization that would undertake to free Ireland. Many years later, in 1881, Walt Whitman formed a close friendship with a veteran of that same prison in Van Diemen's Land, John Boyle O'Reilly, who, like Mitchel, had been sent there for revolutionary activities and had likewise escaped to America.
When Mitchel had sufficient funding he returned to Ireland, in 1858, to found the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood; a year later an American branch of the brotherhood, the Fenian Brotherhood, was established in New York. The dreamed-of revolution never took place and, except for the production of such remarkable leaders as John O'Leary and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, the brotherhood languished in Ireland. It rapidly gained momentum in America, however, where small militia groups formed and a rhetoric of Irish liberty developed. After the American Civil War began these militia quickly swelled the ranks of enlisted men (in armies of both North and South) in the belief that America's gratitude for such service would lead to full support of a military action against Britain. While serving as a hospital visitor in Washington, D.C., throughout the war years, Whitman met and tended to many an Irish and Irish American soldier. When he published Drum-Taps, a collection of poems related to the Civil War, he included his poetic tribute to Ireland, "Old Ireland." During these same years Whitman developed intense friendships with two men of Irish ancestry, Peter Doyle and William Douglas O'Connor.
At the war's end many former soldiers returned to Ireland ready to fight for its freedom. They were dependent on their American counterparts for arms, however, and with insufficient support from the American Fenians the idea collapsed. Before that, in 1866, the Irish Fenians undertook an attempted assault on Great Britain by invading Canada. The invasion was thwarted, but another attempt was made in 1870; equally unsuccessful, it heralded the decline and eventual end of the Fenian Brotherhood.
In Ireland, the decade of the 1880s was dominated by the land wars. The Protestant ascendancy of the late eighteenth century had been largely the result of their landownership. A century later these landlords controlled the Irish Parliament, while most of Ireland's large population in the south was forced by lack of industry to subsist mainly by land tillage. Industrial growth in the north gradually led to that region's becoming the provider of goods for both north and south, and the earlier reliance on land there was diminished. In the famine years, thousands in the south who were unable to pay rent were evicted; many never really had an opportunity to catch up even after that disaster had passed. In the postfamine years a change in family practices of land transfer, which posited ownership with one son rather than parcelling the land among many, proved to be a move toward stabilization and toward focusing greater power within the ranks of tenant farmers. Such stabilization was needed, for an unofficial policy developed of agrarian disturbance, which sometimes became violent, directed against landowners, many of whom were English. This unofficial policy was replaced in 1879 by the founding of the Irish National Land League, which sought specific objectives and had as its ultimate goal Irish ownership of Irish land. Though not Irish himself, James Redpath, friend and active supporter of Whitman, became a partisan of and fundraiser for the Land League, bringing to it the full force of his skills as writer and speaker.
It was two former Fenians, Michael Davitt and John Devoy, both of whom had been imprisoned for their activities in the brotherhood, who saw in the question of land distribution an issue that could influence the outcome of the larger political objective, Home Rule for Ireland, which in the minds of most Irish meant complete independence. The president of the Land League, Charles Stewart Parnell, took up what had been mainly an issue in the western counties and made it the Irish land issue by advocating fixed rents and an eventual right of landownership by the peasant population. In short, the object of the Land League was the abolition of landlordism and the return of the land to those who worked it. Parnell went to America in 1880 to raise funds for the Land League. While there he addressed Congress on the Irish issue and organized an American Land League that was strongly supported by the Irish population in America. A more revolutionary movement in both Ireland and America Was the Clan na Gael, founded in 1867 and later led by Rossa, who Instituted a terrorist campaign of dynamite sabotage against Londoners In the 1880s.
Excerpted from Whitman AND THE IRISHby JOANN P. KRIEG Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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