James Connolly, a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation which declared the Irish Republic and one of Ireland’s most beloved socialist leaders who campaigned for the emancipation of the poor working class around the world, developed his burgeoning persona in the USA. A figure with little formal education at home, but who soon became intrinsically identified with the Irish labour movement, he was first invited to the USA in 1902 by the American Socialist Labour Party. In 1904, he furthered his ties with the United States when he moved his family across the Atlantic to New Jersey. Here, Connollyplayed out the battle between his revolutionary ideals and his need for a regular wage to support his family. He was not immune to the American Dream and did attempt to provide the best for his young family. However, his self-taught socialist views never faded and he soon became an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World when he moved to the Bronx.
In 1908, Connolly spoke before almost 8,000 workers assembled just north of Greenwich Village for an IWW rally. He campaigned tirelessly on improving working conditions, reducing hours to a 48 hour working week and banning children from employment in dangerous factories. It was not just the Irish-American lot that Connolly sought to improve, he encouraged other recent immigrant groups to follow suit and push for worker’s rights too. He learnt to speak Italian and German in order to further his reach during rally’s and undertook his largest tour of America in 1909-1910. Unlike most working class immigrants of that time, Connolly got to see hundreds of places in the USA, from California to New York, Texas to Minnesota, giving him a real understanding of the American life. In 1910 he returned to Ireland, taking up a trade union job in Belfast. He was instrumental in organising the Lockout strikes of 1913, which ground production to a halt but caused great suffering for the striking workers. Connolly’s contentious politics were not dissuaded, as he created the Irish Citizen Army in the aftermath of the Lockout and mobilised this force during the Easter Rising of 1916. Meeting his demise heavily wounded and tied to a chair, Connolly was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail for his part in the insurrection.
Éamon de Valera
In 1919, Éamon De Valera, a leading member of Dáil Éireann, the parliament of the illegal Irish Government, stowed away on passenger ship bound for New York. Once on US soil he began using the title of the President of Ireland and spent the next 18 months touring America. The purpose of this trip was to both, raise funds for the Irish Republic and to promote the legitimacy of Dáil Éireann as the official government of Ireland. A divisive figure, De Valera soon attracted both allies and enemies of prominent Irish-American politicians and leaders of business. This would have major repercussions for Ireland when the Civil War broke out two years later.
De Valera managed to successfully raise $5.5 million from American supporters, which was far more than any of the fledgling government members had ever hoped for. This funding was used during the War of Independence, where Irish men and women fought a guerrilla campaign against British forces. Unfortunately, relative freedom from the United Kingdom didn’t bring peace and former allies in the War of Independence now turned their guns against one another over the terms of the agreed treaty with Britain. De Valera went on to become the most prominent politician in Irish history and his legacy, both good and bad lasted far beyond his death in 1975. Throughout his career however, the connections he made during his American tours of 1919-1920 remained vitally important to the new independent Ireland.
Roger Casement was a prominent Irish Republican with a fascinating background. Employed by the British Foreign Office, it was Casement’s report that led to the British Government attempts to shut down King Leopold’s rule of the Congo. He continued this humanitarian work across the world, next exposing the horrific treatment of the Puymato indigenous communities in Peru by an international rubber conglomerate. In 1913 Casement retired from the British Foreign Office and as an ardent Irish Nationalist, began to put his personal views into practice. Along with Bulmer Hobson, he set up the Irish Volunteers in response to the creation of the British supported Ulster Volunteers.
In 1914, Casement and Hobson decided that he should travel to the US in order to make contact with the German emissary there. The leadership of both the Irish Volunteers and the IRB believed that European War was likely and that they needed to begin making contact with the Germans as potential allies. During his time in America, he toured the country giving lectures to Clann na nGael members and Irish Volunteer units in various cities. Patrick Rankin, an Irish Volunteer who would go on to fight in the Rising, recalled him urging young Irish men to return home and be ready to take up arms for independence. In October 1914, Casement left America for Berlin, where he tried for two years to convince the Germans to support an Irish rebellion and to raise a regiment from Irish POWs. He finally returned to Ireland as the Rising was breaking out, now an ill man he was left on the Kerry Coast by a German submarine, but was quickly captured by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Charged with treason, he was stripped of his knighthood and met his death at the gallows on August 3rd 1916. Casement's influential role in Ireland's revolutionary period was largely written out of history due to claims of his homosexuality.
- Written by Daire Collins