Tag Archives: Irish American

The Famine Diaspora. What became of them? Many who went to the United States of America fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Many suffered terrible wounds. Many died. In the USA Civil War veterans are remembered with pride and all things Civil War have enormous tourist potential. Isn’t it time that we Irish acknowledge the contribution our starving ancestors made to the formation of America? Isn’t it time that we Irish acknowledge the tourism potential in having memorials to this part of our very proud history? For an academic ‘take’ on it, read Damian’s recent blog post above.

Irish in the American Civil War

The Great Famine is an event seared into Irish national memory. Although the victims of the Great Hunger are rightfully remembered and commemorated, as is the physical fact that vast numbers of people were forced to leave, Ireland today largely leaves the memory of these emigrants at the dock, as they boarded ships to a new life far from home. Preserving the memory and experiences of emigrants once they arrived in their new countries has for the most part been left to their own descendants, despite the broader pride that Ireland takes in her global diaspora.

Perhaps the most stark example of this is the way Ireland views the American Civil War. At the commencement of that conflict 1.6 million Irish-born people lived in the United States, the vast majority having arrived as a direct consequence of the Famine. In New York City, which in 1860 had a population of 793,186, a…

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Filed under American Civil War, Celebrations in Ireland, Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Ireland, Irish American, Irish Diaspora, Irish Heritage, Irish_American

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

Celebrating Irishness: Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney

Charles Feeney was born to a working class family in New Jersey, USA in the early 1930’s. His father’s mother hailed from near Kinawley, in Co Fermanagh, from where she emigrated to the USA.

Charles 'Chuck ' Feeney

In the 1960’s he co-founded Duty Free Shoppers, which sold luxury goods ‘duty free’ in Honolulu and Hong Kong and which eventually became hugely successful, making the partners very wealthy. DFS was to become one of the largest liquor retailers in the world and in 1997, Feeney sold his interest to Louis Vuitton  Moët Hennessy (LVMH).

In 1988, the Forbes Rich List ranked Feeney in the top 20 richest people, with estimated wealth of €1.3billion.  But, in reality his wealth was much less as he had in 1982 transferred much of it – reportedly between $500 million and $800 million –  to a charitable foundation, The Atlantic Foundation. Based in Bermuda to avoid disclosure requirements in the USA and to give Charles Feeney the anonymity he craved, The Atlantic Foundation was the first of The Atlantic Philanthropies.  A very private and modest man, the story of Charles (Chuck) Feeney was not well known until the 1990s when in an interview with The New York Times he revealed that he was the benefactor of one of the top 5 philanthropic foundations in the world.

In 1987, the Enniskillen Bombing had a profound impact on Feeney.  His grandmother having emigrated from the same county, meant he had family roots here and he became determined to try to effect change  in Northern Ireland.  He  joined with other Irish Americans liaising between the White House and various parties in Northern Ireland to try to broker a peace agreement.  He had as a particular and personal  agenda the aim of encouraging the Republicans to join in mainstream politics and he personally funded the Sinn Fein Office in Washington D.C.  for some years.  (Atlantic Philanthropies is precluded from funding political parties.)

It was not until 2007 when Conor O’ Cleary, a  well respected correspondent of The Irish Times, published a book : The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly  Made and Gave Away a Fortune, that the truth about Feeney became known.  (Feeney had decided to cooperate with the author to promote ‘Giving While Living’ and inspire wealthy people to donate their wealth during their lifetime). Also in 1997  RTE, the Irish television service,  aired a TV documentary, ‘The Secret Billionaire’  looking at the life of this  extraordinary man.

Universities in Ireland, notably University of Limerick, Dublin City University and Trinity College, Dublin have benefited from donations from the fund of over $1billion.  Many philanthropists will endow projects in return for recognition, but this has never been the case with Chuck Feeney who has shunned public recognition such as honorary degrees, and having buildings named in his honour.  One of my favourite stories that exemplifies what Chuck Feeney  is all about, relates to  Queens University, in Belfast, who in 2007 were building a new library, costing  £44 million. It was to have been called the Sir Anthony O’Reilly Library.  Tony O’Reilly had contributed £4 million in return for ‘naming rights’. Chuck Feeney on the other hand had anonymously provided £10 million  and it was his wish that this should not be made public. (Tony O’Reilly later withdrew his wish to have the library named after him in 1999!)

Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney does not own on a house, he does not own a car and his $15 plastic watch is now famous!  He lives modestly, having said that a man can only wear one pair of shoes at a time.  He has never strayed far from the sense of community he was born into –  one of helping his neighbour, and he has the ability to empathize with people less fortunate than himself who lead difficult lives and who may not have enough to eat.  And so this week, the week of St Patrick’s Day, will see Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney, extraordinary Irish American,  inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.  There is no doubt but that his benevolence has had a huge impact on life and society in Ireland, and continues to do so through funding for social issues from The Atlantic Philanthropies, including fighting ageism, of particular interest to this blogger.

The website of The  Atlantic Philanthropies can be viewed here.

For more on the Irish American Hall of Fame click here.

To see more about Conor O’Cleary’s book on Charles Feeney, click here.

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