Independence Day, July 4, is America’s biggest holiday. Its her birthday; but it doesn’t mark the day she won her independence, it marks the day when it was declared. And the Irish were there. We’ve often heard of the Irish in America’s Patriot Army, but lets look at the non-military – those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier, but contributed in other ways. The military won the war, but who led the march toward the battlefield? It was the settlers, merchants, and community leaders who were the real shapers of our destiny, for they were the ones who dreamt the dream, organized its creation, and supported its success.
In the late 1700s, England’s American colonies were changing. Increased Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, and among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. How many Irish were there in the American colonies? Well, they had been coming since the 1650s. The first noticeable influx into New England occurred in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as slaves. From that time, the shipment of men, women and children as indentured servants was common practice. Among the first to come of their own volition were those who fought the English theft of their lands and ended up hunted men; they were followed by those Catholics and Presbyterians who fled the Penal Laws and persecution by the Church of England; and lastly by those businessmen who had to escape the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown in order to benefit their British competitors. The destruction of the Irish wool trade is estimated to have ruined 40,000 families all over Ireland, while destruction of the Irish linen trade reduced the population of Ulster by half a million. And they came to America with their looms and spinning wheels, before the start of the American revolution, and gave strength to an industry that would be of great importance to the nation awaiting birth.
In the beginning, they came in such large numbers that one Massachusetts Court fearing the malignant spirit that has from time to time been manifest by the Irish against the English prohibited the Irish from its jurisdiction, and fined anyone who should buy an Irishman and bring him in. But they came anyway. Some altered their names, most settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down, and like Capt Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake – first white settlers in what is now Greenwich Conn. They also settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish American John Stark and Limerick-born Matt Lyons; in New Hamphire where Capt Maginnis commanded the militia; and other areas from Maine, home of the O’Briens who would capture the 1st British ship in the war that was yet to come, to Pennsylvania, founded by Wm Penn who had grown up in Co Cork.
They came and they made up the majority of many communities. In Pennsylvania, for example, a 1729 table of immigrants shows: 267 English, 43 Scots, 243 Germans, and 5,655 Irish. In 1728, it was reported that most of the 4,500 who landed at New Castle, Delaware were Irish. Philadelphia likewise reported that 3,500 people from Ireland had arrived in the first two weeks of August, 1772. They had obviously been arriving for a while since the city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was none other than Stephen Moylan of Co Cork – soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 1773, Irish immigration to the American colonies was over 18,500 and most were anxious to be rid of British colonialism.
There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Matthew Lyons, Patrick Henry, and other Irish and Irish-American orators used their eloquence to urge separation from England. When confrontations became frequent, it seemed that the Irish were always in the middle of it. Among those killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr; Boston Tea Party participants met at an inn owned by man named Duggan; and the tea was dumped at Griffin’s Wharf by a group dressed as Indians, some of whom had a notably Irish accent.
While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, raised money to feed and clothe the army, and advance the credit of the new government. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000, only France and Holland gave more. On July 1, 1776 after a full year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. Some wanted to settle grievances and resume amicable relations with the Crown, others including the Irish opposed them. A resolution was presented which read, Be it resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegience to the Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
After much heated debate, the vote was indecisive. They met again on July 2 to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question. On July 3, John Adams wrote to his wife that July second was the most memorable day in the history of America and would be celebrated forever. However, approval of the final draft of the document was made on the fourth. The Philadelphia State House was packed, despite the sweltering heat, as Secretary Charles Thomson of Co Derry read the formal document that Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Livingston had composed, and that he – Thomson – had drafted. It was a declaration explaining why their action was justified. After a full day of temper tantrums, modifying copy, shouting matches, further amendments and even more debate, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America’s Declaration of Independence was complete.
The formal copy would not be ready for signature until August, but the people first heard that document read in an Irish accent, as Secretary Thomson was the first to read it to an anxiously awaiting public. Philadelphia printers like Charles Dunlap of Co Tyrone rolled out copies that were snatched up before the ink was dry. And that is the event marked by the 4th of July – not the winning, but the declaring of our independence on a document. There would be many more years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on March 10, 1783, but America had made her stand. That last battle, by the way saw Irish-born Commodore John Barry defeat the British ship Sybil. He had been carrying a cargo of gold with which Congress would establish the new Bank of North America with the help of Irish-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.
Yes the Irish were there, and the fact that that they made loyal Americans is evidenced in the writing of Marquis de Chastellux who wrote after the revolution, An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, English and Scots were treated with distrust even with the best of attachment for the cause, but the native of Ireland stood in need of no other certificate than his accent. While the Irish emigrant was fighting for America on land and sea, Irish merchants purses were always open and their persons devoted to the country’s cause, and on more than one imminent occasion Congress itself, and the very existence of America, owed its preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.
It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington in 1828. He said, Ireland’s generous sons, alike in the day of our gloom, and of our glory, shared in our misfortunes and joined in our successes; With undaunted courage (they) brested the storm which once threatened to overwhelm us; and with aspirations deep and fervent for our cause, whether in the shock of liberty’s battles, or in the feeble expiring accents of famine and misery, cried from their hearts God Save America. Then honored be the good old service of the sons of Erin in the war of Independence. Let the shamrock be entwined with the laurels of the Revolution, and truth and justice, guiding the pen of history, inscribe on the tablets of American remembrance ‘Eternal Gratitude to Irishmen.’
At the time, support for America’s independence was a capital offense, so let us all remember all who had the courage to voice that support – rich or poor, soldier or civilian – on this Fourth of July!