WADING INTO THE turbulent battle over immigration last year, former White House chief of staff John Kelly told NPR that undocumented immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” That followed a 2017 column in which Bill O’Reilly complained that many diversity visas “go to people from cultures that make it difficult to assimilate.”
There’s no small irony that the ancestors of some of the most prominent voices in the immigration debate once spoke with an Irish brogue, because few groups proved to be as challenging to assimilate into the fabric of American life as the Irish.
It’s hard to imagine that difficulty now; the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration feels almost as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. But Irish-Americans remained stubbornly separate from the mainstream for decades.
“For a long time they were fated to remain a massive lump in the community, undigested, undigestible,” historian Oscar Handlin wrote.
After the Great Hunger struck Ireland in 1845, famine refugees not only flooded Boston and other American cities in unprecedented numbers, they were unlike any newcomers the United States had seen before. They were not immigrants seeking political or religious freedom but impoverished refugees fleeing a humanitarian disaster. They were starving for food, not hungering for American ideals. Many practiced an alien religion, Catholicism. Some spoke a foreign tongue.
Integration into American culture took more than a generation — and it came with some violent spasms. After witnessing unspeakable horrors in a famine that killed 1 million people and forced 2 million more to abandon a shipwreck of an island, some Irish arrived in America “radicalized” — to use today’s parlance. In fact, one band of Irish immigrants was so militant that it undertook one of the most fantastical missions in military history — to hold Canada hostage and ransom it for Ireland’s independence.
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REVOLUTION — NOT ASSIMILATION — was foremost on the minds of dozens of Bostonians who boarded a train for St. Albans, Vermont, on the evening of May 24, 1870.
Even from a distance of 20 years and 3,000 miles, the trauma of the Great Hunger remained raw for these immigrants who considered themselves Irish first, Americans second. Their hatred of Great Britain trumped any love they had for the United States. For seven centuries, the British had taken away their land, their rights, and their freedom. And in the minds of some Irish, the British had also committed genocide by taking away their wheat, oat, and barley crops under armed guard and exporting them from famine-ravaged Ireland.
The potato peasants who fled to Boston once again found themselves subservient to an Anglo-Protestant ruling class. In the 1850s, cries of “America for Americans!” emanated from nativist “Know-Nothings” in Massachusetts who mandated the reading of the King James Bible in public schools, disbanded Irish-American militia units, and systematically deported thousands of destitute Irish.
The more threatened the Irish felt, the more they turned inward like a snake coiling itself for protection. The Irish had never assimilated with the British. That’s how their culture managed to survive centuries of colonization. So why should they behave any differently in the United States?
The Irish clung together in church parishes, fraternal organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Fenian Brotherhood, a semi-secret society that used the United States as a safe haven to plot a revolution in their homeland. The Fenian Brotherhood established an Irish government in exile with its own constitution, senate, and president. The Fenians printed their own bond notes in denominations between $10 and $500, which could be redeemed six months after the establishment of the Irish Republic. They even had their own opulent capitol building, dubbed the “Fenian White House,” right in the heart of New York City’s Union Square.
Detouring from the original plan for an uprising in Ireland, a Fenian Brotherhood faction decided instead to strike the British Empire at its closest point — the colony of Canada. Disregarding American neutrality laws that banned such activity, the Fenian military wing launched five attacks on Canada, known collectively as the Fenian Raids, in the wake of the Civil War. An 1866 invasion of the Niagara Peninsula by the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army delivered the first victory by the Irish over British forces in more than a century.
The subsequent attack staged from northern Vermont in May 1870, however, proved a total fiasco. The Irishmen made it all of thirty yards into Quebec before being forced to retreat by a vastly outnumbered Canadian home guard. A US marshal arrested the Fenian commander in the heat of the battle. As the Fenians returned home amid a shower of ridicule, newspapers joked that “I.R.A.” stood for the new Irish motto — “I Ran Away.”
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THE DEBACLE SHATTERED not only Fenian dreams of seizing Canada, but the romantic ideals of one of its most prominent members, 25-year-old John Boyle O’Reilly. Born at the onset of the Great Hunger along the banks of Ireland’s legendary River Boyne, O’Reilly as a child imbibed tales of patriotic ancestors who rebelled against the British. After being arrested for his role as an undercover Fenian recruiter inside the British Army, he was condemned to 20 years of penal servitude in Australia from which he staged a dramatic escape in 1869 and eventually arrived in Boston.
Reporting on the botched invasion for the Boston-based Pilot, the country’s leading Irish Catholic newspaper, O’Reilly wrote that the Fenians returned from Canada “sadder and wiser men.” That included the writer himself. The humiliating defeat did something that even banishment to the far side of the world failed to do: It tempered O’Reilly’s patriotic fervor. Instead of penning an ode to a band of Celtic warriors bravely striking the British Empire as he had intended, he instead scripted the Fenian Brotherhood’s obituary in detailing the “mad foray.”
Upon his return to Boston, O’Reilly used his platform in The Pilot to advocate for Irish assimilation into American society. He urged his fellow Celts to break out of their enclaves, assume their responsibilities as American citizens, and abandon militant expeditions that caused the rest of the country to question their true allegiance. “We can do Ireland more good by our Americanism than by our Irishism,” he liked to quip to audiences.
Through his essays and orations, O’Reilly bridged ethnic, class, and religious divides as if he were a human hyphen linking Boston’s dual Irish and American identities. The Irish-American journalist built friendships with the Brahmin establishment while also speaking out for immigrant rights — not just those of the Irish, but of Italian, Jewish, and Chinese newcomers as well. He introduced Oscar Wilde to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Julia Ward Howe. Although far from Mayflower stock, O’Reilly recited his poetry at the dedication of Plymouth’s National Monument to the Forefathers, a tribute to the Pilgrims who had come to Massachusetts to escape such papists.
That’s not to say that a rebel heart didn’t still beat inside of O’Reilly. He helped to plot the rescue of six Fenian prisoners from Western Australia aboard the New Bedford whaler Catalpa in 1876 and organized fund-raising rallies for Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt, and other leading Irish nationalists.
When O’Reilly passed away suddenly at the age of 46 in 1890, The Pilot mourned “the greatest of Irish-Americans.” “He assimilated himself so perfectly among us that we hardly turned to remember that he came to us an exile,” eulogized one speaker inside Tremont Temple where O’Reilly’s portrait was flanked by the American and Irish flags. Thanks in part to O’Reilly, the Irish had woven themselves into the tapestry of Boston by the time of his death and had even seen one of their own elected mayor. Some stitch work just takes more time than others.Christopher Klein is the author of “When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.