IRISH NATIONALISM IN CLEVELAND. Support for the cause of Irish nationhood has flourished in Cleveland, Ohio, for as long as IRISH immigrants have settled in the area. Cleveland first began to attract Irish laborers in numbers when work commenced here on the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL in 1825. Several early immigrants were noted in obituaries and family lore as supporters of the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 or followers of patriot Robert Emmet, who was executed by the British in 1803.
A Friends of Ireland group was formed in Cleveland in 1841, and the city’s first public celebration of St. Patrick’s Day took place in 1842. Two supporters of the 1848 Young Ireland rebellion made their way to Cleveland in the 1850s. One, Professor J.R. Fitzgerald spoke regularly on Irish Nationalist themes at an annual banquet hosted by the HIBERNIAN GUARDS, a local militia. The other, bootmaker Patrick Kiernan Walsh, would spearhead nationalist activities in Cleveland for decades.
The Fenian Brotherhood, founded in New York in 1858, was the next major group to advance the nationalist cause in the US and Ireland. Fenian meeting notices first appeared in Cleveland newspapers as early as 1860. In the US, the Fenians coalesced around a plan to attack British military installations in Canada. Thanks to Cleveland’s location and the organizing skills of P.K. Walsh and others, the city served as a key transit point for Fenian volunteers who gathered for what became the Battle of Ridgeway, near Fort Erie, Ontario, on June 2,1866. The Fenians held their national convention in Cleveland in 1867.
While the Fenians won the Battle of Ridgeway, they failed to achieve the overall objective of Irish independence. Cleveland supporters found other ways to keep the cause alive. P.K. Walsh, iron foundry owner Thomas Manning, and PLAIN DEALER subscription manager WILLIAM J. GLEASON helped to form the Irish Literary and Benevolent Association in 1868. The Association assembled a lending library with books about Irish history and promoted Irish nationalist speakers, such as Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who spoke in Cleveland in 1871. In 1872, P.K. Walsh began to publish a weekly journal, titled the Celtic Index.
Clevelanders were quick to respond when agitation for land ownership reform boiled over in Ireland in 1878. While on a US tour, Irish Land League leader Michael Davitt visited Cleveland in October 1878. After launching the Irish National Land League in October 1879, Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish Member of British Parliament, embarked on an American fundraising tour. Parnell was feted in Cleveland in January 1880. Under the leadership of P. K. Walsh, William J. Gleason, and tugboat owner Patrick Smith, several Land League chapters formed in Cleveland after Parnell’s visit. When Parnell shifted tactics to focus on self-government under the banner of the Irish National League Party, Clevelanders sent representatives to US meetings of the Irish National League. Cleveland’s Catholic Bishop, RICHARD GILMOUR, accused P. K. Walsh of using the Land League as cover for organizing Clan na Gael chapters. While the Irish National League worked toward achieving “home rule” for Ireland through the ballot box—a cause that Bishop Gilmour supported—the Clan na Gael, a secret society, advocated the use of physical force to obtain Irish independence. Disapproving such tactics, Bishop Gilmour prohibited the Cathedral choir from singing at P. K. Walsh’s funeral in Cleveland in 1886.
Supporters of Irish nationalism nonetheless continued to operate in the city under changing organizational names--never openly as the Clan na Gael. The Fenians had initiated a summer picnic tradition in 1864, and various nationalist groups maintained it through the 1920s. For instance, the “Irish Nationalists of America,” described as a “physical force party,” sponsored the 1907 picnic. Lawyer J.P. Mooney, tailor John M. Gallagher, bailiff John Walsh, and hotel operator John Graham were frequent officers of these nationalist groups. Graham also published a nationalist newspaper called the Irish Vindicator.
Armed insurrection commenced in Dublin with the Easter Rising of 1916. A 1914 Clan na Gael roster saved by John M. Gallagher suggests that the Rising would have had Cleveland supporters. Any specific actions that they might have taken are not preserved on paper. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on December 6, 1921, creating the Irish Free State but ceding six northern counties to Great Britain. Anti-treaty forces battled the Free State government in a Civil War that ended in victory for the government on May 24, 1923. Many anti-treaty combatants subsequently immigrated to the US in the mid-1920s, often pledging to return to Ireland as “foreign reserves” if needed.
The IRA veterans who made their way to Cleveland swelled the ranks of the city’s Clan na Gael chapter in the 1920s and 1930s. The chapter was named at first after United Irishman William James MacNeven but subsequently changed its name to the Terence MacSwiney Club, to honor the Lord Mayor of Cork who died in a hunger strike in 1920. By the late 1920s, the club was operating openly at 6415 Detroit Avenue, where it soon shared a space—and members--with the newly formed WEST SIDE IRISH AMERICAN CLUB.
Clevelanders also supported the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, which was founded in 1920 by Eamon De Valera, future President of the Republic of Ireland. Clevelander Adelia Christy, a national leader in the Ladies Auxiliary of the ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS, was on the national founding council for the AARIR. In Cleveland, Board of Elections official John G. Murphy, CULTURAL GARDENS promoter Mary K. Duffy, and local ward activist Thomas “Coal Oil” Masterson were frequent leaders at the local, state, and national levels.
The Terence MacSwiney Club worked to ensure that Clevelanders had access to pension benefits that the Irish government extended to IRA veterans in the 1930s. The MacSwiney Club, with AARIR support, also raised funds to honor a fallen IRA comrade whose family could not afford a grave marker in Ireland. Slievemore Cemetery on Achill Island in County Mayo bears a marker for Lieutenant Michael Moran of Dooagh, “late of Liverpool Company I.R.A.,” with the inscription, “erected by the Clan na Gael / His comrades & friends, Cleveland, U.S.A.”
The Republic of Ireland took steps toward fuller independence by adopting a new constitution in 1937 and leaving the British Commonwealth in 1949. However, anti-partition sentiment remained high, and Anti-Partition League chapters formed in Cleveland and elsewhere in the US. In 1969, Pat O’Malley, an IRA veteran and UAW labor leader, and community activist Art McChrystal convened meetings at the West Side Irish American Club to discuss the growing troubles in Northern Ireland. An Irish Northern Aid chapter was formed in 1970 to assist the dependents of Irish political prisoners and promote a 32-county Irish republic. TERRY JOYCE and Steve Mulloy—both were members of LABORER'S INTERNATIONAL UNION OF NORTH AMERICA LOCAL 310 and each had taken a turn as president of the West Side Irish American Club--founded a Cleveland chapter of the Irish National Caucus to promote the Mac Bride Principles against anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland.
Selected minutes and a library catalogue of the Irish Literary and Benevolent Association, Special Collections, Cleveland Public Library.