“Liberty beckons with one hand—beckons to the stranger and the persecuted, and with the other points to America.”
In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in 1819, lawyer and Irish American activist Stephen P. Lemoine delivered a speech to the New York Shamrock Friendly Association. Lemoine’s speech, “Oration before the Shamrock Friendly Association,” promotes immigration to America as a remedy for the continued struggles experienced by those living in Ireland and suffering under the continued inequities of British rule. Lemoine suggests further that the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants—which have divided Irish communities since the Protestant Reformation—are not the will of the divine, but part of a political scheme meant to divide the Irish people, and that these differences should be laid aside in America for the good of all Irish living in the new world.
At the time of the 1819 St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New York City, Irish immigration to America was accelerating, largely due to worsening economic conditions in Ireland. In the eighteenth century, Ireland was economically unstable and highly dependent on agriculture, as the nation lacked the financial means, and skilled workforce, to effectively build a strong industrial sector. The nation had also been under colonial control, to greater or lesser degrees, since the twelfth century, and suffered from British policies that, in many cases, prevented Ireland from developing independent economic status. The largely Catholic working and lower class Irish population also suffered from policies that favored the Protestant elite in Ireland, which had strong ties to Britain. The dominantly Protestant British prevented, for instance, Catholics from owning land or from participating in certain forms of trade.
The population of Ireland expanded during the Wars of the Coalition (1792–1815), which included Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power during the French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1802) and the eventual downfall of Napoleon’s government during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). The war between Britain and France expanded demand for Irish agricultural products and also eased poverty across Ireland. This led to an increase in the Irish population to the point that the reduction in demand for Irish wheat and potatoes, at the end of the Wars of Coalition, caused a major recession in Ireland and rapid increase in poverty. This was the beginning of a depression that would last for more than twenty years—one that also coincided with a number of natural disasters that brought further catastrophe to the Irish population.
In 1814, shipping to the United States, which had been closed during the Napoleonic Wars, was reestablished providing an open immigration route, as thousands of Irish fled to America along with shipments of agricultural products. From 1815 to 1816 more than twenty thousand Irish traveled to North America; British laws, however, restricted trade to the United States, and kept the cost of passage high, thus preventing those in Ireland’s lowest socioeconomic classes from being able to afford passage.
From 1816 to 1818, bad weather caused crops to fail across Ireland. The resulting famine contributed to an outbreak of typhoid and smallpox, ultimately causing the death of more than fifty thousand in Ireland. Irish organizations in the United States—including the Shamrock Friendly Association (1816–26), the Irish Emigrant Association (1817–18), and the Emigrant Assistance Society (1826–29)—promoted Irish immigration and collected funds to help potential immigrants to afford both the cost of passage and the expense of establishing their families in the United States. As Irish immigrants settled in the United States, the communities were often divided by religious, class, and social affiliation, with Catholic Irish forming communities that excluded Protestant Irish and vice versa. Lemoine’s speech before the Shamrock Friendly Association, delivered in 1819, highlights the historic struggle of Ireland under a colonial regime and furthers the idea that the class and religious divisions of the Irish people should be abandoned within the United States in an effort to promote a more united Irish presence in the country.
The first wave of Irish immigrants to the United States were predominantly Anglo-Irish from Ulster, and were members of the English-speaking, largely Protestant minority in Ireland. Records of correspondence from the period reveal that there were also thousands of Catholic Irish who migrated to America along with products shipped from Ireland’s southern coast. By the 1800s, immigrants from different national background had organized charitable aid organizations to provide financial and other assistance to immigrants arriving in the country. One of the first organizations focused on Irish immigrants was Boston’s Charitable Irish Society, which formed in 1737, largely representing the Protestant Irish that dominated the first wave of Irish immigration.
The potato famine in Ireland, which began in 1816, resulted in the influx of millions of Irish immigrants to both Canada and the United States, many of whom were from the poorer, Irish-speaking Irish majority and thus suffered from additional barriers to assimilation in the United States. This wave of immigration provided greater impetus for the formation of immigrant aid societies. Some of the aid organizations were based on charitable donations from church members, and these organizations tended to favor either Catholic or Protestant Irish recipients.
Other organizations, like the New York–based Association for the Friends of Ireland in New-York, worked to promote unification between Protestant and Catholic Irish communities in hopes of building a stronger unified Irish political and social presence in the United States. The Shamrock Friendly Association, formed in 1816, was another New York organization that heavily favored the unification of religious and cultural sects in an effort to promote common goals. Many of those involved in these organizations were former members of the revolutionary Society of United Irishmen; they therefore held sway with members of both the Protestant and Catholic Irish communities who approved of the United Irishmen’s attempted rebellion of 1798 against the British. As the number of Irish Catholics in the United States increased, especially after a second wave of crop failures in the 1820s, aid organizations that preached religious unification fell out of favor as Irish Catholics increasingly favored anti-Protestant organizations and catholic aid organizations like the Hibernian Universal Benevolent Society. It is estimated that from 1820 to 1880, between 3.2 and 4.5 million Irish nationals fled to America, many of whom belonged to the labor-class Catholic majority of the country.
Whether they provided aid to all Irish people, or only those of certain groups, the immigrant aid organizations played a major role in the formation and cohesion of Irish communities in the United States. Funds collected by these organizations not only provided passage to the United States for millions of Irish men and women, but also often assisted with housing, employment, childcare, and medical assistance for the many poor Irish immigrants that arrived with each wave of immigration. In addition, money collected by the aid organizations was often distributed to those still living in Ireland, and the immigrant religious societies have been credited, therefore, with playing an important role in fostering political changes in Ireland by providing funding for social and political reform groups in their native country.
Lemoine’s “Oration before the Shamrock Friendly Association,” was delivered to an audience assembled to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in 1819 and to discuss the importance of providing aid to immigrants arriving in America and the plight of those living in Ireland. Passage to America from Ireland was prohibitively expensive for many Irish in 1819, and immigration restrictions would not be fully lifted until the mid-1820s. Lemoine’s speech was therefore designed to elicit further financial and personal involvement in the Shamrock Friendly Association as a way to help more suffering Irish people to improve their situation by coming to America. Lemoine covers some of the more prominent events in Irish history, while simultaneously praising the Irish people for their refusal to be permanently subjugated and their capacity to endure suffering. In an article published March 20, 1819, in the Columbian, the editor of the paper described the celebration as a success and described Lemoine’s speech saying that “the history of Ireland, and its early claim to civilization and literature, were briefly and eloquently portrayed, in a manner to call forth the warm applause of an intelligent audience.”
Lemoine begins by describing how St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been criminalized in Ireland, through a variety of prohibitions regarding business hours and liquor sales surrounding the holiday. In Lemoine’s rendition, only in America were Irish people freely allowed to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without the fear of reprisal. St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional Catholic celebration that commemorates Christianity’s arrival in Ireland at the hands of a British or Scottish missionary who has since been recognized as a Catholic saint. In the United States, as in other countries with significant Irish immigrant populations, St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a celebration of Irish culture and heritage.
The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the United States was organized by the predominantly Protestant Irish population in Boston; the first St. Patrick’s Day parades were also a product of the Boston Irish population. The fact that Irish Protestants helped to organize the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration is pertinent to the topic and purpose of Lemoine’s 1819 speech, in which he called for Irish descendants from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds to put aside the religious differences that had long divided them and to concentrate on their shares history of persecution. Lemoine elucidates this by drawing similarities between the struggles of the Irish people and the struggle for American independence, citing that both groups shared a common enemy that united their histories and provided common ground for Irish living in America. Lemoine states that both St. Patrick’s Day and Independence Day should be days of remembrance, “of the days when together we met, fought, and conquered, on American ground, the enemy of both nations.”
Lemoine’s descriptions of Irish persecution clearly illustrate his belief that the British prejudice against Irish Catholics, on religious grounds, was not in itself a unique circumstance, but was merely one of many justifications the British had used to subjugate the majority of the Irish people. Ireland was, in Lemoine’s recitation “persecuted by Protestant kings, and betrayed by Catholic kings.” Lemoine wishes to express the belief that the suffering of the Irish people cannot be limited to acts of religious intolerance, but must instead be viewed as the product of political tyranny. Specifically, Lemoine mentions that the Revolution of 1688, which instituted King William (a Protestant ruler) to the throne; it also failed to bring any relief from the anti-Irish policies of the British and instead led to Britain’s decision to violate the Treaty of Limerick, which protected the right of Irish Catholics to own property. The ascendancy of King George III further reduced Irish independence through the abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1801. Though the Irish Parliament had functioned as little more than a vehicle for taxation through British authority, the legislature did at times petition for greater independence within the British kingdom. King George III would rule until 1820, during which time the rights of Catholic Irish were specifically and indirectly curtailed through a variety of governmental policies.
Lemoine mentions specifically that under George III, a variety of crimes were committed, including “man selling,” “imprisonment without accusation,” and “transportations without trials.” Lemoine also mentions that George III was guilty of transporting Catholics into Connaught, a province in western Ireland. It has become part of Irish lore that Oliver Cromwell, upon his conquest of Ireland, ordered the Catholics to relocate to Connaught under the penalty of death. Historians have found that this is partially myth, as most Catholics remained in their home provinces after Cromwell’s invasion—though Catholic Irish populations did form in Connaught and the province has been romanticized as the historic port of exile for persecuted Catholics.
Lemoine argues that the religious divisions in Ireland would not appeal to the Irish people were it not for the influence of the British. “The people of Ireland, like the people of America, would not of themselves hate each other on account of a difference in religious tenets,” says Lemoine, “nor war against each other for differing in the manner of worshipping their God!” Here Lemoine echoes the historical analysis of many scholars writing more than a century later about the history of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland. In A Short History of Ireland (1993), historian John Ranelagh describes how British policy helped to create a system of economic and sociological classes that divided the Protestant Irish, who were then living in communities that were geographically separated from the Catholic majority of the country. Favoritism and aid given to certain communities was part of a “plantation policy,” on the part of the British that fomented divisions between working class Irish falling on different sides of the theological divide. While Lemoine’s argument may have merit from a historical perspective, the social and religious divisions in Ireland would continue to dominate the country for a further century.
Lemoine argues that the strength of the Irish people lies largely in their capacity to remain united, despite efforts to divide them. Lemoine mentions “O’Brien” and “Reynolds,” as examples of Irish nationals who in some way betrayed the cause of independence. The Reynolds Lemoine references might be Thomas Reynolds, a member of a failed Irish revolution who betrayed the plot to authorities before his capture and execution. The O’Brien may refer to the members of the O’Brien clan who joined with British authority to take on the title of Earl of Thomond; they were seen by some Irish as traitors to the cause of independence. Lemoine’s reference to O’Brien and Reynolds were apparently recognizable to those gathered, much as in American history where the name Benedict Arnold is with that individual’s betrayal of the American independence movement by defecting to the British during the Revolutionary War. Lemoine’s commentary was meant to counter the argument, popular among the British, that, as Lemoine phrases the accusation, “an Irishman’s greatest enemies were his own countrymen.” This view, Lemoine attests, was the product of enemy propaganda and does not bear closer inspection of history.
As examples of Irish solidarity, Lemoine references the “million” Irish who joined the United Irishmen, a revolutionary organization that led the failed uprising of 1798. Specifically, Lemoine mentions the name of “Emmet,” referring to the Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet, a hero to many supporters of Irish independence who was executed in 1803 for his role in the abortive uprising of that year. Before his execution, Emmett delivered a speech to gathered attendees; known as the “Speech from the Dock,” this address became one of the most exalted literary artifacts of the Irish independence movement. Though the speech appears in slightly different forms, depending on the source, many of Emmet’s sentiments became rallying points for the independence movement and echoed the speeches and documents created in support of American independence from the same monarchy. “My country was my Idol,” Emmet said before the gathered tribunal, “To it I sacrificed every selfish, every endearing sentiment, and for it I now offer up myself.”
As Lemoine recalls the name of Emmet, drawing upon the patriotic sentiments of his audience, he shifts from Ireland to America, calling immigration the “antidote” to the “systematic tyranny of the old government.” At the time of Lemoine’s address, the British government in Ireland was still in the process of restricting legal immigration, and the cost of passage to America was prohibitively expensive for many Irish, especially those working in the farms and agricultural communities most affected by the crop famine that began in 1816. Lemoine mentions that 1816 saw a major increase in Irish immigration, though he does not explicitly mention the ongoing famine as the cause. By 1819, the famine had started to abate in Ireland, though it would be followed by waves of additional crop depletion that kept Irish immigration rates high through mid-century.
Lemoine mentions also that British authorities were promoting immigration to Canada, as the British were hoping to build the labor force in that country. Lemoine explicitly states his belief that immigration to Canada would only serve to deliver his native countrymen into the same servitude they experienced in Ireland. In this refutation of British policy, Lemoine echoes the sentiment that serving British interests was contrary to the interests of the Irish people; he is simultaneously supporting the idea that immigration to America provided the best chance for Irish nationals to find the freedom they had long sought in their home country.
These passages in Lemoine’s speech can be seen as part of the larger drive to promote immigration within national immigrant communities. Though Lemoine states that the Shamrock Friendly Association provided aid not just for Irish immigrants, but for any immigrants who sought the assistance of the organization, there was at the time an impetus to grow communities along ethnic and nationalistic lines. The greater the number of Irish immigrants that arrived in New York and other American communities, the stronger those communities would become and the more influence they could exert on the developing American political system. This larger goal was also served by Lemoine’s call for Irish immigrants to leave behind the religious and class divisions of their native country and to engage in a community united by heritage and history.
Lemoine closes his speech with a call for patriotism to the American cause, both in honor of the nation’s role in helping to rescue Irish citizens from British oppression, and because the goal of the American experiment could rightly be considered the same goal sought by all those who fought for or supported independence abroad. Through his recitation of Irish history, references to the sacrifices of Irish patriots, and condemnation of the British government, Lemoine seeks to inspire in those gathered at the celebration to take up the cause of immigration as the salve to the suffering of the oppressed. In this, Lemoine reflects the beliefs of many who immigrated to America during this period, seeking to escape a host of difficulties in their native lands, from economic stagnation and political oppression to the rising costs of property and agriculture. Lemoine’s speech to the Shamrock Friendly Association can be considered an example of immigration propaganda, while simultaneously serving as a record of the emotional, political, and sociological desires of those who participated in the formation of the United States. Like many immigrants and children of immigrants in his generation, Lemoine saw America, and the nation’s willingness to accept those who fled in exile from their countries of origin, as a symbol of righteousness, perhaps predestined by spiritual authority, providing a needed remedy for the thousands who longed for the freedom symbolized by the United States.
Irish independence is one of the central themes of Lemoine’s speech, both in his references to revolutionary leaders and in his repeated references to the persecution of British authority and its effects on the Irish people. Lemoine’s reference to the heroism of the Emmett family is an example of Lemoine’s support for the republican cause in Ireland; it is also an example of how the Irish American population largely represented the majority of native Irish citizens who—actively or passively—supported the cause of independence. As the United States also won its independence fighting against British authority, the cause of Irish independence was a reflection of the same anti-British sentiments shared by many in the United States population.
The central theme of Lemoine’s oration is to promote the idea that American immigration is the best solution to the problems faced by the Irish population. The long civil conflict in Ireland, which began with the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53) and continued through the Williamite War (1689–91), was in part motivated by religious divisions between the Catholics and Protestants, but was ultimately the result of the disparities in political and economic power among these populations, created and fostered by the British. Among educated Irish immigrants and those Irish Americans born in the United States after Irish immigration began, the colonies in the United States represented an opportunity for the Irish to leave the remnants of the Catholic-Protestant schism behind. While religious conflict would remain a dominant feature in Ireland into the twenty-first century, Lemoine’s speech can also be seen as reflecting the theme of religious tolerance, which was seen as one of the foundational principles of the United States. In practice, religious conflicts that developed in Europe were maintained to some degree within religious populations, at times fostered by the churches themselves, which retained their own influence by maintaining divisions among adherents. Ultimately, however, the significance of religious affiliation began to erode in the United States during the twentieth century as the traditional associations between class and religion shifted away from traditional models.
At the time of the 1819 St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the famine in Ireland was in its early stages, and none were aware of how long the famine would last or how the repeated food crises would continue to urge immigration among the Irish population. In the 1820s, the Irish population of the United States was large compared to that of most other ethnic populations from Europe and had already come to dominate some American industries. Though Lemoine makes no mention of it in his speech, anti-Irish sentiment was common in the nineteenth century and, for Irish Americans, encouraging further immigration represented the potential to strengthen Irish populations and consequently the social influence of the group. Therefore, Lemoine’s speech and organizations like the Shamrock Friendly Association served a dual purpose: to aid those living in poverty and hunger in their native country, while simultaneously improving Irish representation and power as a facet of the American population. As such, Lemoine’s speech can be seen as part of a larger drive to advertise immigration from both altruistic and self-serving motivations. In addition, Lemoine urges those gathered to take full account of the role that America has played in freeing citizens of many nations from the injustices of British rule and of the similarities between Irish suffering and the suffering of all those who fought for American independence during the Revolutionary War. In doing so, Lemoine wishes to express the idea that the Irish living in America must commit themselves to the security of the United States to ensure that the country remains free of the tyranny that dominated their native country.
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