The Irish-American Press

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

When the earlier emigrants from Ireland landed in America, and settled in the colonies which have since become the United States, the newspaper press was in a very undeveloped condition. They do not appear to have thought it needful, even if they were able, to originate a special organ to represent their peculiar interests. They were not set apart from their neighbours as a race; and the colony of Maryland, in which they took up their abode, was Catholic, but tolerant —in fact, almost the only tolerant colony at the period. They occupied a position not devoid of influence; for we find that at the breaking out of the revolution, one of them, Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, was amongst those who signed the Declaration of Independence, and was considered a man of good standing and great worth. It has been remarked that his is the only name to which the owner's place of abode was attached, and the singularity is stated to have occurred in this way. He had signed the document like the others with his Christian and surname only.

Some one, standing by, observed that even if the fortune of war should turn against them, he would have a good chance of escaping, on account of the number of persons who bore his name. Carroll took up the pen again at once, and declaring that he would leave no room for doubt on the subject, added his place of abode to his signature.

Besides these pioneers from the southern provinces of Ireland, there had been a continual emigration silting out from the northern province, and chiefly from the Presbyterian population of Ulster. These emigrants had been driven forth like the others by causes partly political, partly social. The prelatical party which had troubled their kin in Scotland bore hard upon them in Ulster, and was not to be overthrown. Attempts had been made likewise by some of the great landlords to break in upon their ancient customs and rights, as for example, by exacting heavy fines for the renewal of leases. And finally, those who admired the doctrine of the Rights of Man, and were inoculated with the enthusiasm of the French Revolutionists, were numerous and of good repute amongst them. From these causes there were several attempts at revolt, and their extinction always gave a new impulse to the current of emigration.

In the West the emigrants found freedom for their faith, sympathy for their politics, and a soil the cultivation of which no landlord could make penal by the exaction of exorbitant fines or heavy rents. Special organs of the press they do not appear to have aimed to set up, for they found that they had come among men of opinions similar to their own; but one characteristic institution they did establish—a society half-political, half-social, such as they had known in Ireland. This brotherhood they named the "Friendly Sons of St. Patrick." Its object was to cement the bond of union between the revolutionists of Ireland and America. The Irish harp and the American symbols were combined on their medals; and clasped hands indicated the union they desired. The Society aided the young Republican Government greatly by volunteered supplies of large amount; and Washington, as a mark of appreciation, became a member, after having first been inscribed as an adopted citizen of Ireland. The society still exists, in name at least, though newer organizations have thrown it somewhat into the shade: it revives, however, once a year to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

The origin of what is known as the Irish-American Press must not be looked for amongst these men, but rather amongst the Irish Catholics. For the former became fused more or less completely with those who were before them; and, consequently, when any repoach was uttered against the character of the Irish, it glanced aside from them and smote the Catholic Irish. Then organ after organ arose to represent these latter, to explain their views, and to vindicate their character. It had not been found needful when they were gathered together in Maryland, where Archbishop Carroll, a relative of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, found them in 1785, to the number of some twenty thousand, with an outlying post of eight thousand in Pennsylvania, and a congregation of only two hundred in New York. With all these some English Catholics were intermingled; but Moylan, the first Quartermaster-General of the American army, Fitzsimmons, the member of Congress, and the celebrated Commodore John Barry, the founder of the American navy, were of the race and faith of the native Irish.

It was in New York, where the Irish were most scantily planted, that the first Irish-American paper was founded. As has been said, they found themselves called on to vindicate their character; and it was therefore quite natural that their first organ should appear where they were most subject to attack. They gave it the name of the Shamrock, to show that it expressed the views of men whose country was represented by that emblem, and whose faith was established by the saint who is popularly said to have made it the symbol of a doctrine. But at that time the shamrock was as much worn by the Irish Protestants as by the Irish Catholics, and the paper which bore its name took only incidental cognizance of questions of religious controversy. It appears to have been suceeded by a journal called the Truth-Teller, the name of which would indicate a more strictly religious intent: and this phase of the Irish-American press was formally inaugurated by the establishment in Charlestown of the Catholic Miscellany. Its founder was Bishop England, an Irishman, and a contemporary of O'Connell. Naturally enough other dioceses felt bound to follow the example; and as the Irish Catholic emigration began to increase, newspaper after newspaper sprang into existence, with the words "Official Organ of his Grace the Archbishop," &c., broadly blazoned on the title-page. In 1856, the Archbishop of New York, an Irishman from Ulster, stated that there were then more Catholic periodicals, of one name or another, published in America, than there were among the English speaking Catholics of the whole world besides.

There may have been one lay Irish organ in New York during the early part of this period, but the lay element only began to assert itself on the breakdown of the revolt in Ireland in 1848. The movement which culminated in that event was a culture-movement, if newspapers could make it so; and its failure has persuaded the Fenians that newspapers are poor instruments of warfare. But one result, at least, came of the suppression of the outbreak. The literary revolutionists were dispersed over the world, and they founded a lay transmarine Irish press, with a representative in every country where English is spoken. Mitchel, when, after his detention at Bermuda, he was transferred to Van Diemen's Land, found, indeed, that one of the minor fry of "Young Ireland" had started an organ even in that penal island, and had named it the Irish Exile. He was amazed at the discovery, and disgusted to find that he was invited to join in the concern, "God preserve me from organs of opinion," he writes; "have I sailed round the terraqueous globe and dropped in here in a cove of the far South Pacific, to find an 'able editor' mounted stilt-wise upon phrases tall, and blowing deliberate puffs in my face?" Nevertheless, when he afterwards escaped to the United States, he originated and edited sucessively a couple of political papers, in which he advocated Southern views in American affairs. His companion in banishment, Thomas Francis Meagher, likewise brought an accession to the lay Irish press in the Irish News. He exchanged the pen for the sword, however, during the recent war, rose to eminence in the army, and at the time of his decease was Acting Governor of Montana. Whilst these men were undergoing their sentence of transportation in what is now Tasmania, another literary revolutionist, Thomas D'Arcy McGee who, at the time of his assassination, enjoyed the post of Minister of Agriculture in Canada, had set up the American Celt in New York. At various intervals, but to a minor degree, the Irish in Canada and Australia obtained representation likewise in the public press, and have their religious and lay papers.

This accession to the number of newspapers representing the Irish element does not appear to have been altogether welcome to the exclusively religious press. It was a disturbing force, which was not always so decorous and moderate in its political professions as the best policy was thought to require, whilst in its religious professions it was found if not too moderate, at least reticent to a tantalizing degree. Sometimes, too, its tone was provoking, and the Catholic press, which had always been put upon its defence and was generally rather apologetic except in matters of religion, was not satisfied. Brownson's Review represented a section of this party. Besides being very anti-revolutionary, it hoped that Catholicism was making a rapid progress in America; and did not therefore care to have the project interrupted by the political turmoil into which the new papers seemed to be drawing the Irish; whilst it feared that the influx of Irish emigrants, if so represented in the press, might tend to make religion appear a question of race, and thus prejudice the native Americans against it.

Dr. Hughes, who might have been himself an editor had he not been Archbishop of New York, felt called upon more than once to interpose in the discussions which arose not merely anonymously in his official organ, the Metropolitan Record, but openly with his signature. In one of his occasional letters we find him giving admonitions all round, reasoning quietly and not without a stroke of humour. He preferred this method apparently to strict authoritative reprobation or denunciation. The influence of the institutions of the Republic was upon him, and when remonstrating with those he opposed, he rarely failed to win over his flock to his view, so that the more obstinate of his opponents found their readers rapidly diminishing. He noticed that the unity of the Catholic press was imperilled because of the new views of the more recent papers. On the one side some were for identifying Catholicism with the Irish, and its advancement with their influx; they argued that Americans were naturally hostile to it, and that the best way of promoting the faith would be to draw a broad line of distinction between the new and the old settlers, and perpetuate the Celtic nation as a race apart, and a special Catholic people. This view was strenuously denounced by others, especially by some American converts, who declared that Catholicism found an obstacle to surmount in the fact of aliens professing its doctrines so largely, because that gave it a foreign character, whilst its advance required that it should take out its naturalization papers as soon as possible, and become racy of the Republic. The Archbishop exerted himself to still those growing animosities of race which were against the unifying spirit of the Catholic Church; and he had the less difficulty in moderating the Irishism of his flock, which the American Celt would fain have cultivated, inasmuch as his people knew him to be with them heart and soul in their views with regard to Ireland.

It may here be remarked that the Irish-American press is not so isolated from the general sentiment of the country as one might at first imagine. In fact the union was so close that the attempted disruption of the States caused a divergence of opinion, even in the Catholic press, which the Archbishop had not foreseen. His own especial paper went so strongly for the South, that he had to direct the removal of the words "Official Organ" from the title. The Metropolitan Record and the Freeman's Journal, from having been almost exclusively religious, became secular and political. The Tablet, however, remains constant; and as a convert Bishop, Dr. Silliman Ives, has been connected with it editorially, it is likely to remain so for some time. The organ of the Archbishop of Cincinnati, another Irishman, went somewhat into the political arena, and did good service to the Northern cause, being not a little confirmed in its faith by the exploits of General Rosencranz (brother of one of the bishops,) whose success in the West relieved the monotony of the checks and defeats in the East. But whilst the political excitement of the day thus tended to secularize some of the religious papers, there was another agent at work in the person of John O'Mahony, one of the founders of Fenianism.

Previous to the war, the organs of McGee and Meagher ceased to exist, and Mitchel had transferred his to the South, where, however, he did not continue very long in close connection with it. There remained, then, besides the religious papers only the Irish-American in New York, the Universe in Philadelphia, and the Pilot in Boston, not to reckon the Irish News in San Francisco, which supplemented the more, religious Monitor, and some others scattered through the chief cities. To form a public opinion favourable to his project of a new organization, O'Mahony found that he must start an organ of his own, which he accordingly did under the name of the Phoenix. He worked hard, and the organization developed and spread whilst he was forming and disciplining troops little by little. His principles advanced; and if an Irish regiment refused to parade before the Prince of Wales on his visit to the United States, it was because its commander, Corcoran, had become a Fenian. It was soon found unnecessary to continue an especial organ, because the lay Irish papers began to take up the Fenian cause. Among the first to do so was the Irish-American, and the movement soon obtained influence enough to win over the Philadelphia paper from its official allegiance to episcopal authority. The Pilot, a popular treasury of Irish-American news, and, generally speaking, the remainder of the Irish-American press have looked on Fenianism with favour because of its object, but some regard it with doubtfulness and some with distrust on account of its means.

Still its spirit has become sufficiently powerful to influence their tone considerably; and new papers spring up naturally to represent it. Thus when the Irish People was suppressed in Dublin, two organs of the same name were established, one in New York, and one in California. The former still represents the O'Mahony party, whilst the Irish-American represents the Roberts party, which has absorbed much of the Confederacy. All the latest papers which have sprung into existence are Fenian, as the Fenian Volunteer in Buffalo, and the Irish Republic first established in Chicago. The Irish Citizen, founded in New York by John Mitchel, although opposed to the present form of Fenianism, is conducted in a similar spirit and written with that incisiveness which makes its editor's works so popular with his countrymen. Besides these there are many which have merely local names, but which are not the less Fenian, since they are edited by Irishmen. Many of the papers we have named are written soberly and argumentatively, and several even display considerable talent. But of course their object is determinedly kept before the eyes of their readers, who are not merely the Irish, but include many of the native-born. The Irish, however, have a strong taste for writing; and many of them guide and edit papers not professedly Irish. In Central and South America this is generally the case with newspapers printed in English, whilst in the United States Dr. Brownson is reported to have said that the Irish command the press. There are very few of the papers which have not an Irish contributor; and there are many whose politics are more or less influenced or controlled by Irish writers. Of course, they must keep the paper in harmony with the views of their American readers; but those views are rarely offended by an attack on England, which, although it may be formally grounded on reasons of American policy, may not the less have been suggested by wounded Irish feelings.