Irish Home Rule in North America

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Home Rule, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Volume 15

‘An Appeal for Aid’
The first notice presented the contents of a cablegram sent to John Fitzgerald, president of the Irish National League, from members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It referred to the Plan of Campaign that was then under way and emphasised the urgent need for funds to help to deal with the increased number of evictions that were taking place.
The ‘Appeal for Aid’ indicated that John Fitzgerald was located in Lincoln, Nebraska, where an Irish community had been established by the Irish Catholic Colonisation Association. That organisation had been formed in Peoria, Illinois, in April 1879 by Bishop Spalding of Peoria, Bishop Ireland of Minneapolis and Bishop O’Connor of Omaha, along with wealthy laity. The Association encouraged Irish immigrants to move from the crowded eastern cities to the rural Mid-West, and a substantial number went to Dakota, Holt and Greeley counties in Nebraska. One of the prominent promoters of the movement was ‘General’ John O’Neill, who, after the end of the American Civil War, had led the Fenian invasion into Canada in June 1866. O’Neill subsequently got involved with the colonisation movement and established his first colony in Holt County in 1874 in the town that now bears his name. He brought out more settlers in each of the next three years.
John Fitzgerald, president of the American branch of the Irish National League from 1886 to 1891, was an Irish immigrant who arrived in Nebraska via New York State, where he had worked on the Erie Canal. He established a contracting business in Nebraska and his many interests included banking, stockyards and railway-building. He was reputed to be Lincoln’s first millionaire. Patrick Egan, a founding member of the Land League in Ireland, was another prominent member of the Nebraska Irish community. After fleeing to France in 1881 to avoid imprisonment, Egan went to the United States in 1883 and became an American citizen. After visiting Nebraska on a speaking tour in 1889, he settled in Lincoln, where he started a successful grain elevator business.  President Benjamin Harrison appointed him the US minister to Chile from 1889 to 1893. Egan played a key role in the commission of inquiry that was then under way to review allegations that Parnell was involved in the 1882 Phoenix Park murders. Egan had kept some of his Land League correspondence and recognised the handwriting on some of the material involved in the allegations against Parnell as being that of Richard Piggott, a shady Irish journalist. Eventually it was disclosed that Piggott had forged key documents and Parnell was vindicated, but not before the League had contributed £30,000 to his defence.

Appeal from the ‘Irish National League of America Toronto Branch’
The second notice illustrates the close connections between US and Canadian Home Rule supporters. The text emphasised the Plan of Campaign and the commission of inquiry, both of which urgently needed funds. The three officers named were prominent members of the local community. President J. (James) A. Mulligan was a barrister, solicitor and notary public whose office was on King Street, a main downtown location. His advertisements in The Irish Canadian indicated that he had private money for loan, and for some time he was a member of the Toronto Separate School Board. Treasurer R. (Robert) B. (Baldwin) Teefy, a member of a prominent Irish-Canadian family, was president of Branch 85 of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Society and an official of the Home Savings and Loan Company. In 1889 he was recognised at a dinner in his honour on the eve of his departure for California, where he eventually became president of the San Joaquin Bank. Teefy’s brother, Father John Teefy, became superior of St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto in 1889 and the editor of The Catholic Register, an influential Irish-Canadian newspaper that began in 1893. His father, Matthew Teefy, born in Newport, Co. Tipperary, in 1822, had been brought to Canada at the age of five. After working at The Patriot, a Toronto newspaper, he became a justice of the peace, a notary public and a division court agent, and was appointed postmaster of Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, where he remained for over 60 years. At the time of his death in 1911 he was Canada’s oldest civil servant. Secretary J. (James) J. Travers is thought to have been a builder, as is recorded for someone of that name in contemporary Toronto directories. He became prominent by opposing the Separate School Board’s decision to participate in Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebration in July 1887.
Parnell provided encouragement to his North American followers by making periodic visits across the Atlantic. His first trip, in 1871, was a social one to visit an American lady friend, Miss Woods from Rhode Island, whom he had met in Europe the year before. His second visit in 1876, on which he was accompanied by John O’Connor Power, was to congratulate the United States on the centenary of its Independence. His third visit in 1880 was a major fund-raising tour for the Land League. He and John Dillon covered 10,000 miles and visited 62 cities between January and March. On 2 February he addressed a joint session of Congress and two days later met with President Rutherford Hayes. The tour raised about £40,000 (at that time equivalent to c. $200,000). An interesting sidebar to the 1880 tour was the arrival of 24-year-old Timothy Healy, who had been brought over as an organisational assistant. In Montreal, at the end of the tour, Healy introduced Parnell as ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’, the title by which he subsequently became known.
These two notices provide glimpses of the North American arm of the Home Rule movement and of the Irish community in Nebraska and Toronto. In both cases the leaders appear to have been wealthy and prominent people who had maintained their interest in Irish affairs. No doubt the significant amounts of money sent across the ocean benefited the movement and helped to pay for the commission of inquiry, but in the final analysis they did not result in Home Rule.

George Nicholson is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, and a Canadian civil servant.


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