Exploring Irish Nationalism with ACUA: An Academic Resource

To study modern Irish history is to study rebellion. Ireland and her neighbor England have a long and fraught history, dating back to Roman times. Tradition says Patrick, the famous evangelist of the Irish, was a British Roman citizen from captured by raiding Irish pirates. The Scoti, one of the numerous “barbarian” immigrants that gave post-Roman England so much trouble, came from Ireland. The tables were turned later in the Middle Ages, and here is where the traditional republican narrative of Irish independence begins. In 1169 King Henry II of England, reeling from the recent murder of Thomas Becket, invaded Ireland under the banner of reforming the Irish church and began the slow process of English control over the Irish people -- though few historians today would consider this the direct cause of Fenianism, as the nineteenth-century John O’Leary did. The crisis of the Reformation, as England made her monarch Head of the Church while Ireland, increasingly under English control, cleaved to Rome. These religious tensions came to a bloody head during the English Civil War, when Cromwell enacted a brutal reconquest of the western isle. Fully one-fifth of Ireland’s population was killed between 1649 and 1652 as direct or indirect results of Cromwell’s campaigns. Cromwell’s policies also transformed the land ownership of the Irish countryside, granting large plantations to Protestants (largely English and Scottish), reducing the native population to dependent tenant status. Further laws banned Catholic religious services and Catholics from serving in any official function in Ireland. Though the popular imagination tends to link Catholic identity and Irish nationalism, as evidenced by the sad legacy that continues to this day in Northern Ireland, the truth is more complicated. The rebellion in 1798 was organized by The United Irishmen, a republican group that welcomed both Catholic and Protestant members. The Easter Rising of 1916, as well, was organized by a group more concerned with political sovereignty: the Irish Republican Brotherhood. 1916 was not the first year of bloodshed in Ireland since 1798, nor was the Easter Rising the longest rebellion or the most successful -- just the opposite.


In brief, the Easter Rising was an armed resistance to British rule in Ireland from 24 April (Easter Monday) through the following Sunday. Most of the drama of the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, but nationalists in such places as  Cork, Ashbourne, Galway, and Enniscorthy mustered (and, in some cases, clashed) against British forces. The Rising was, in the end, a failure, as the national forces were broken and arrested, the leaders were executed, and Ireland remained -- for a few more years -- part of the British Empire. Any chance the Rising may have had was squashed by bad luck, inadequate planning, and indecisive or unimaginative choices. The leaders of the revolt have been excoriated by some historians, who are openly baffled by events surrounding the uprising. Historians, including Fearghal McGarry, openly raise the question: did the Easter rebels even think or hope they had a chance, or did they rise up in a “symbolic act of blood sacrifice”?


Regardless of intentions or success, the Easter Rising fired imaginations, both in Ireland and abroad. In the United States, a sizable population of Irish heritage tended to sympathize with the Rising -- and the political desires that motivated it. And while Irishmen and women may have had mixed, or even negative, feelings towards the Rising itself, the valour of those who died for it and their principles inspired a new wave of Irish nationalism. Irish independence became a drum that never failed to beat. The Sinn Féin party, many of whose members had taken part in the Rising (so much so that the British Government and newspapers dubbed it “the Sinn Féin Rising”), grew in prominence, gaining  73 of Ireland’s 105 Parliamentarian seats on a platform of Irish independence and absenteeism from Parliament in the December 1918 election. Instead of traveling to Britain, the Sinn Féin representatives went to Dublin, calling the First Dáil into session on 21 January 1919, the same day the Soloheadbeg Ambush occurred. These actions proved to be the first maneuvers in the war that would end in a Free State in Ireland and, ultimately, independence for the modern Irish nation.

Here, at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, we have two collections in particular that reflect Irish Americans’ interest of and sentiment for their home country: the James Aloysius Geary Papers and the Thomas Joseph Shahan Papers (“papers”, in an archival context, mean these are unofficial records collected by an individual, as opposed to the official records accrued by an institution). Both men, in their own way, were keen observers of the Irish nationalist movement, and participants in the revival of traditional Irish (“Gaelic”) culture. We have made some significant examples from both collections available here, in the hopes that it will prove beneficial to scholars, students, and anyone who seeks to better understand this pivotal time in Irish history.