Ireland’s exiled children: America and the Easter Rising

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780190224288

Reviewed by: John Gibney


One of the most quoted phrases of the 1916 Proclamation comes in the second paragraph, in which its authors indicate that the various insurgent organisations were not acting alone: they also had the assistance of ‘gallant allies in Europe’, a reference that is accurately understood to mean Germany. What tends to be overlooked is the reference that immediately precedes this, that alongside the ‘gallant allies’ was the assistance and support of ‘exiled children in America’, an explicit statement from which Robert Schmuhl’s elegant book draws its title.

Ireland’s exiled children explores the US links to the Easter Rising, and the resonance of the Rising in the US, through four biographical essays that address differing themes through the lives of their subjects: John Devoy, Joyce Kilmer, Woodrow Wilson and Éamon de Valera. Readers familiar with the Rising might initially feel that the inclusion of Devoy and de Valera are far too obvious, but there are compelling reasons for this. There could have been no Easter Rising without John Devoy, and perhaps the most enduring myth about the Rising stems from de Valera’s birth in New York, which is widely assumed to have spared him from a firing squad (coincidentally, both men are buried within yards of each other in Glasnevin Cemetery).

Devoy is arguably the most important of the lot, for the Rising was essentially the work of the IRB. The idea of obtaining American support for Irish causes goes back to the struggle for Catholic Emancipation, but was bolstered by the rise of Fenianism from the 1850s on. They were a transatlantic organisation from their inception, whose early existence intersected with the mass emigration that came after the Famine; the US became home to a highly disgruntled Irish diaspora that offered compelling levels of support for the Fenians. Devoy was born in Kildare but settled in the US after his release from prison for Fenian activities. As the head of its US counterpart, Clan na Gael, he remained an implacable opponent of British rule in Ireland for decades; amongst his protégés was Thomas J. Clarke. Devoy essentially bankrolled the Rising and forged the links between its leaders, many of whom he knew, and Germany. It could not have happened without him.

A far less familiar figure—at least to readers in 2016—is the poet and journalist Joyce Kilmer, who is used to explore the way the Rising was perceived in the US (some contemporary commentators in the US framed the Rising through the experience of their own independence struggle: Patrick Pearse as George Washington and John Redmond as Benedict Arnold). While the journalist in Kilmer reported on the facts of the Rising (insofar as they could be accurately discerned), the poet in him responded to the symbolism of the Rising with a well-known poetic encomium of his own. Yet the reality of the war that provided Devoy and others with the opportunity for the Rising brought Kilmer’s life to an untimely end; he was killed as a sergeant in the ‘Fighting 69th’ on the Western Front in 1918.

The realities of the post-war world and Ireland’s role within it loom large in the lengthy chapter on Woodrow Wilson. Despite his lofty pronouncements on a new international order, Wilson did not deviate from his view that Home Rule was the natural resolution of the Anglo-Irish relationship, despite considerable pressure to include post-Rising Ireland as one of the ‘small nations’ with whose future he claimed to be concerned. If the chapter on Devoy explores the transatlantic conspiracy that led to the Rising, and that on Kilmer examines how it was perceived in the US, Schmuhl’s meticulous account of Wilson explores how the Rising impinged on US domestic and international politics. The final chapter, on de Valera, hangs on the old chestnut that his US birth spared his life. US citizenship had not spared Thomas Clarke (a naturalised citizen) from execution, and de Valera himself was of the view that his US birth had nothing to do with his reprieve (see Schmuhl’s article in HI 21.3, May/June 2013, pp 36–9). But the myth becomes a means of exploring another aspect of the US relationship to the Rising, especially with reference to the subsequent independence struggle and the myth-making that came after the event.

This well-produced and relatively slim volume offers an excellent overview of the US context of the origins, course and aftermath of the Easter Rising. Schmuhl’s background (Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame) is apparent in his sure grasp of the US context and the ease with which he deals with public commentaries on the Rising. The decision to structure it as a series of biographical essays gives it narrative drive, and it is written in a lively style, with great clarity and considerable insight, underpinned by impressive research. It makes for an enjoyable and illuminating read and is one of the more intriguing and distinguished of the raft of books published to mark the centenary of Easter 1916.

John Gibney is the author of A history of the Easter Rising in 50 objects (Mercier, 2016).


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