IRISH emigration to North America began before the end of the 17th century, and since then the Irish of all traditions have been a prominent force in American life.
When the independence of
the United States was declared in 1776 it has been calculated that there were some 200,000 Irish-born in the population of the two and a half million Americans in the original States.
Their numbers increased in the 18th century and many of the emigrants in that century were chiefly Presbsterian Dissenters from the North who suffered equi.dly with the Catholics under the Penal Laws. But in the 19th century the rate of emigration from Ireland dramatically increased in the period following the Great Famine, 1845-1848.
The majority then were from the labouring and small farmer class, driven out by poverty. eviction and starvation. It has been said that within five years of the "Great Hunger" more than two million Irish people emigrated or died in Ireland from hunger and disease.
This massive 19th century migration and the subsequent success stories of many of them in urban and national politics has to some extent clouded the part played by Irishmen in the Revolution and eventual Declaration of Independence of America.
Irishmen of all religious denominations filled a signifi.. cant role in the emergence of the United States: in Washington's army. it is estimated that they formed no less than onethird. Four signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Irish-horn and another • nine were of Irish descent. During the Revolutionary period men like Charles Thomson. First Secretary of the
Continental Congress: William Irvine, commander of the Pennsylvanian Regiment ; Stephen Moylan, aide-decamp to Washington; James McHenry, Washington's Secretary of War, and majorgenerals such as Edward Hand and Henry Knox are all now prominent in the history of the United States.
'Deserters and thieves'
Contemporary observers and combatants in the Revolution cry War frequently refer to the great numbers of Trish in the American fighting forces. Ambrose Serle, the Confidential Agent to the British Cabi.net, reported to Dartmouth. then Secretary of State, in 1776 that "great numbers of emigrants. particularly Irish, are in the Rebel Army, sonic by choice and many for mere subsistence."
His report ended with a recommendation that Irish convicts should not in future be transported to America, for once there they exchanged a life of "ignominy and servitude" for one of honour and ease.
An American Loyalist. Dr John Berkenhaut, journeying from New York to Philadelphia in 1778, observed that most of the American' Army appeared to consist of "Trish transrsrts" and officers also from Ireland. and this combination he went on to describe as "a contemptible body of vagrants, deserters and thieves".
under 'Questioning f r o in Edmund Burke, before a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry in 1779, gave out as his firm opinion that the majority of Washington's Army were not Americans, and went on to say: "I remember General Lee telling me that he believed half the Rebel Army were from Ireland".
The General Lee mentioned was Washington's second-in
command, who was captured by the British in the winter of 1776.
Again in a letter of October 23, 1778, written by General Clinton to Lord Germain, then Secretary of War, he said that it was very difficult to implement the Government's order to separate the emigrant element from the American Army since "the emigrants from Ireland were in general to he looked upon as our most serious antagonists."
Had they not fled from oppression "real or fancied" to a land where "they could live without oppression and had estranged themselves from all solicitude of the welfare of Britain?"
'The views of both American loyalists and English commanders all hear witness to the numbers of Irish among their opponents fighting on the side of the Colonies.
It was, of course, natural to find that the greatest proportions of Irish were in the regiments raised in those states into which Irish immigration had been most numerous for instance, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and South Carolina.
An exact account of the composition of the American Revolutionary Army is not possible because of the destruction of records but from those that remain it is clear that Irishmen fought in significantly large numbers, especially in Pennsylvania, to he noticed in American histories.
While the controversy over what proportion of the American Army was Irish can never he definitively settled, there is no disput on the role of Irish
horn generals in the war, or on those of Irish descent.
A list would prove tedious here, but a few may he selected for particular historical reasons. John Sullivan, whose father came from Co Cork, is noteworthy as the general who occupied Boston on March 17, 1776. when the British evacuated the city, so that Bostonians thereafter have a double reason for commemorating that day.
Then, too. there was General Richard Montgomery, a native of Raphoe, Donegal, the flamboyant leader of the force which captured Montreal but whose death during the assault on Quebec in 1775 deprived the Revolutionary Army of one of its more daring generals. Montgomery County is so named in his honour.
Famous, too, in American military annals, is the character and career of Henry Knox, the son of an emigrant from Derry, and the owner of bookshops in Boston before he went into the army. Washington made him his Commander of Artillery; on his appointment, Knox is reported as having asked Washington where such artillery existed and was by way of reply told to go and find it.
In the war at sea the Irish also figured prominently; not that there then was anything like an American Navy in today's sense, but rather a number of independently operating privateers, which were later added to by ships bought and built by Congress on a piecemeal basis. Irish seamen manned many of these.
John Barry, horn in Tacumshane, Co Wexford, became so prominent in the war at sea that he has earned for himself the title of "the father of the American Navy". His capture of the British tender, The Edward, was the first seizure of a British man of war by a regularly commissioned American cruiser, and Barry as the outstanding leader at sea was later awarded Commission Number One of the Navy of the United States.
Signatories to Declaration
Of the group of Irish-born signatories of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Thomson was unquestionably the most influential and is therefore the most interesting. In the actual proceedings leading up to this historic Act he was the Secretary of the Continental Congress, and subsequently in the redrafting and rewriting he played a major part.
The actual job of drafting the Declaration was assigned to and completed by Thomas Jefferson hut, like all assemblies and committees, the members of Congress suggested a number of amendments to Jefferson's draft; there were in fact 86 changes and these were deplored by Jefferson.
The final form which became in fact the Declaration of Independence on adoption by Congress on July 4, 1776, was then certainly that of the amended and corrected version of the meticulous Secretary, Charles Thomson, who continued as Secretary of the Continental Congress to its conclusion on March 2, 1789. On the very day of the signing of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Frank lin were appointed to design a seal for the new United States of America, but thig group and two succeeding committees also failed to find an acceptable design.
In the end the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, prepared one based on the three earlier findings in the reports. This was then taken by Congress and written into law in 1782.
And so this great symbol of American sovereignty and independence from Britain the Great Seal of Congress, used in authenticating alt official government ACts, is the continuing . testimony to the work of Congress's first Secretary, Charles Thomson, who presided over the first records of the birth of the United States.
Read out to troops
There is one final Irish link in the history of the remarkable document, the Declaration of Independence, which, as is so well known, announced that "all men are created equal", with an equal right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", and this link lies with the printer of the actual document.
The work was assigned to John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, who had been born in Strabane in Co Tyrone, not far from Charles Thomson's own birthplace in Derry. Dunlap printed the Declaration on broadsides for its first public readings in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
On July 9, 1776, on the orders of General George Washington, it was read out to the assembled troops on the Common in New York City, which is today City Hall Park.
The original copy was unfortunately lost, but one of Dunlap's broadsides was attached to a page in the "Journal of Congress" by the Secretary, Charles Tho,nson. bn July 19 Congress instructed Thomson to record the following resolution:
"R eso 1 v ed. That the Declaration passed on July 4, be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and style of America and that the same when engrossed he signed by every member of Congress."
This engrossed Declaration is now in the National Archives Building in Washington.
Irishmen continued to feature in the complex politi cal processes which shaped the emergence of the new nation; II members of the First Continental Congress, the progeni tor of the Congress of the United States of America, were born in Ireland and when the Constitution of the United States became operational Irishmen were in the early Cabinets of the First Administration, perhaps aptly, as Secretaries of War.
The 19th century struggle of the Irish immigrant to the States for full participation in the political life of his country of adoption is also one of the great success stories of modern American history; but, perhaps less heroic in action and, indeed, of lesser stature in the history of idealism than that of their ancestors in the bringing to birth of the United States of America.
J. J. N. IVIcGurk