Monthly Archives: June 2011

Death of an Irishman

Just a few days ago, the state senate of  Rhode Island in the United States of America passed a resolution by 33 votes to 3 calling for the state Governor to pardon John Gordon, an Irish immigrant hanged in 1845  for the murder of a powerful local mill owner.

Amasa Sprague was a successful mill owner in Knightsville, Rhode Island. The Sprague family was powerful and influential,with a brother William a United States Senator.

The textile plant provided employment for many immigrants who flocked to the locality throughout the 1830s and 1840s. The immigrants, many of them Irish, were disliked by the Protestant ruling classes, not least because of their religion and because many of the earlier settlers who had arrived before the Famine refugees, had set up good businesses.

Nicholas Gordon had  established a local store, having arrived from Ireland in the mid 1830s. The county from which he emigrated is not known. His business was doing well and he sent for the remainder of his family, including his mother Ellen,and three brothers William, John and Robert who arrived in 1843. Nicholas held a licence permitting the sale of alcohol.  Amasa Sprague was concerned that his workers were partaking of alcohol that was interfering with their productivity. He and Nicholas Gordon clashed about this, but eventually Sprague used his influence to have the alcohol licence revoked.

Also at this time, there was political unrest in Rhode Island. A movement led by Thomas Dorr sought to extend suffrage to all white men and not the small number of wealthy property owners who had the vote.  There was unrest in May 1843 with Dorr and his mainly poor Irish immigrant supporters on one side and the conservative ruling class, the Law and Order Party  on the other. The unrest lasted several weeks, the Dorr rebellion was put down and, with the help of Amasa Sprague, Thomas Dorr was imprisoned.

When Amasa Sprague was beaten to death on December 31st 1843, suspicion fell on both the followers of Dorr and on the Gordon family. Both  had apparent reason to dislike Sprague. Eventually however, 3 of the  Gordon brothers were arrested. John and William stood trial in April 1844, with Nicholas Gordon’s trial set for later. Leading the defence was a supporter of  Dorr’s movement, paid for by donations from the large immigrant Irish population. The prosecution was led by the Attorney General, leader of the Law and Order Party and the case was heard before 4 members of the state Supreme Court.

As widely reported, John Gordon was convicted of the murder of Sprague in a trial that was full of prejudice against the Irish and against catholics. The jury, as was the case at that time, consisted of landowners only and they were instructed to ‘give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses’. The case for the prosecution was based on contradictory and circumstantial evidence. An appeal was heard by the same judges who had presided over the trial and not surprisingly, was rejected.  On February 14th 1845, John Gordon was hanged.  A huge crowd of Irish emigrants from Rhode Island and others from neighbouring states, protesting the verdict, attended his funeral. Sadly, the exact location of his grave is not known.
Nicholas Gordon was eventually released on bail, having been tried twice, each time with a hung jury. He died in debt in 1846. William was found not guilty.

Arguments that John had been wrongly convicted, by reason of  racial and religious  bigotry and circumstantial evidence, began immediately.  Doubts over his conviction led directly to the abolition of the death penalty in Rhode Island, seven years later. Capital punishment was restored some years later, but no one was ever again sentenced to death and it was abolished finally in the 1980s.

The campaign to clear John’s name has run for almost 166 years. Hopefully it is now nearing the end and the last man hanged in Rhode Island will be exonerated.

References

Special Collections Publications paper 12. Accessed DigitalCommons@University of Rhode Island.ons.uri.edu/sc_pubs/12

The Murder of Amasa Sprague

Further Reading

Hoffmann, Charles and TessBrotherly Love: Murder and the Politics of Prejudice in Nineteenth Century Rhode Island. Boston, University of Massachusetts Press,1993.

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Filed under Ancestry, Family History, Irish American, Social Justice

June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.

Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.

Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.

The shore in Carrigart - site of our St John's Eve Bonefires . Image from Creative Commons. © Copyright John M and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!

Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm.  We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:

”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’

In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped in, in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.

The old traditional Midsummer bonfires  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland

Elder Abuse Awareness Day June 15th

June 15th is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day – established by the United Nations to raise awareness of Elder Abuse within society. We in Ireland are very aware of even more allegations of physical abuse in a care centre, as reported last week in the media. Elder abuse is on the rise with almost 1,900 cases reported in 2009. 

A new report just published draws on feedback from older people themselves. Interestingly for those of us on the brink of being ‘older’ they recognize that changes in relationships and dignity happen at a subtle level, and often over a period of time. As mental and physical capacity diminishes, dependence increases, and older people become aware that as their vulnerability increases, so it becomes easier to mistreat them or harm them.

Abuse of the elderly can manifest itself in many ways: Physical, Psychological, Financial, Sexual or Neglect. Often it is perpetrated by someone well known to the elderly person.

Elderly folk love visits and good conversation. If you know of an elderly person who may be vulnerable, do visit often and establish a bond with them so that they may confide in you if all is not well.

The study entitled ‘A total indifference to our Dignity‘ was funded by the Center for Ageing Research and Development and produced by Age Action Ireland.

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Filed under Ageism, Healthy Living, Loneliness, Older Generation, Seniors