Skip to main content Accessibility help

Republican spirit and military science: the ‘Irish brigade’ and Irish-American nationalism in 1848

  • John Belchem (a1)


Little has been written of the optimism and excitement among Irish immigrants and other Americans during the revolutionary months of 1848, the European ‘springtime of the peoples’. Studies of Irish-American nationalism hasten over the mobilisation of funds and arms to register the impact of failure. The ignominious collapse of the Young Ireland rising in Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch was to compel Irish-Americans to reconstruct their identity, to redefine the ways and means of their nationalist project. Irish-American nationalism became self-enclosed and self-reliant, an attitude evinced in a pattern of ethnic associational culture extending from mutual improvement to terrorist planning. During the heady months of 1848, however, a different mood prevailed. Looking across the Atlantic to revolutionary Europe, Irish immigrants invoked an international republicanism in which America, their adopted homeland, held pride of place. By recalling their hosts to their revolutionary past, Irish-Americans challenged narrow isolationism — and ‘Know-Nothing’ prejudice — to gain substantial, if temporary, native support.



Hide All

1 Brown, Thomas N., ‘The origins and character of Irish-American nationalism’ in Review of Politics, xviii (1956), pp 327-58. For brief accounts of events in Irish-America in 1848 see Potter, George W., To the golden door: the story of the Irish in Ireland and America (Boston, 1960; repr., Westwood 1973), pp 505-8; Gibson, Florence E., The attitudes of the New York Irish toward state and national affairs (New York, 1951; repr. 1968), pp 1823 ; Handlin, Oscar, Boston’s immigrants (rev. ed., Cambridge, Mass., 1979), pp 136-8, 152–3.

2 John Belchem, ‘Liverpool in the year of revolution: the political and associational culture of the Irish immigrant community in 1848’ in idem (ed.), Popular politics, riot and labour: essays in Liverpool history, 1790–1940 (Liverpool, 1992), pp 68–97. Surprisingly, Saville, John, 1848: the British state and the Chartist movement (Cambridge, 1987) accords insufficient attention to the transatlantic security threat.

3 For the theoretical issues involved in the study of the political allegiance of Irish migrants see Belchem, John. ‘Republicanism, nationalism and exile: Irish emigrants and the revolutions of 1848’ in Past & Present, forthcoming.

4 Thompson, Dorothy, ‘Seceding from the seceders: the decline of the Jacobin tradition in Ireland, 1798–1850’ in Outsiders: class, gender and nation (London, 1993), pp 134-63. For United Irish exiles see Twomey, Richard J., ‘Jacobins and Jeffersonians: Anglo-American radical ideology, 1790–1810’ in Jacob, Margaret and Jacob, James (eds), The origins of Anglo-American radicalism (London, 1984), pp 284-99; Binns, John, Recollections of the life of John Binns (Philadelphia, 1854).

5 This is to suggest a further application for a familiar historiographical motif; see Rodgers, Daniel T., ‘Republicanism: the career of a concept’ in jn. Amer. Hist., lxxix (1992), pp 1138.

6 Devyr, Thomas Ainge, The odd book of the nineteenth century (New York, 1882; repr. 1986), ch. 8; Potter, To the golden door, pp 387–404; Murphy, John, ‘The influence of America on Irish nationalism’ in Doyle, David Noel and Edwards, Owen Dudley (eds), America and Ireland, 1776–1976 (Westport, Conn., 1980), pp 109-10.

7 For an interesting comparsion with Father Mathew on this issue see Kerrigan, Colm, ‘Irish temperance and U.S. anti-slavery: Father Mathew and the abolitionists’ in History Workshop Jn., xxxi (1991), pp 105-19.

8 Potter, To the golden door, pp 402–3.

9 Jenkins, Brian, Fenians and Anglo-American relations during Reconstruction (Ithaca, 1969), pp 1314.

10 See reports in Boston Pilot (henceforth B.P.), 12 Feb.-4 Mar. 1848.

11 Barclay to Palmerston, 25 Mar. 1848, enclosing copy of New York Herald, 22 Mar. 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488). This despatch can also be found in a separate file, labelled ‘The Irish Republican Union’ (ibid., HO 45/2391). For a brief account of the origins of the I.R.U. see the letter from ‘Tone’ in B.P., 13 May 1848. For Wood see Gibson, Attitudes of New York Irish, pp 91–2.

12 New York Herald, 22 Mar. 1848. On diplomatic relations see Jones, Wilbur D., The American problem in British diplomacy (London, 1974).

13 Crampton, despatch no. 35, 2 Apr. 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/485). Abraham Lincoln was one of the platform party at the Washington meeting on 25 March when Senator Edward Hannegan, the most bombastic on such occasions, predicted that ‘England will not much longer be able to deny the boon of liberty to the oppressed Green Isle of the Ocean, and Ireland will soon unite her voice with emancipated France’ (B.P., 8 Apr. 1848).

14 B.P., 22 Apr. 1848.

15 Ibid., 8 Apr. 1848; United Irishman, 22 Apr. 1848.

16 B.R, 15 Apr. 1848.

17 Ibid., 6, 30 May 1848.

18 United Irishman, 13 May 1848.

19 B.P., 6 May 1848.

20 Thomas Reilly to John Kelly, 24 Apr. 1848 (N.L.I., MS 10511).

21 B.P., 20 May 1848. For a critical vignette of Mooney see Potter, To the golden door, pp 390–92.

22 See Potter, To the golden door, p. 503 for the Boston Pilot’s scheme to equip ‘volunteer militia, under the American constitution, pledged to active service against Great Britain at any time the American Government may require’.

23 Montgomery, David, ‘The shuttle and the cross: weavers and artisans in the Kensington riots of 1844’ in Jn. Soc. Hist., v (1972), pp 411-46; Clark, Dennis, The Irish in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1973), ch. 1. See the report of the meeting at the Chinese Museum on 15 May in B.P., 27 May 1848. The Boston Repeal Association was the first to criticise the brigade as unconstitutional: see B.P., 6 May 1848.

24 Barclay to Palmerston, 23 May 1848, enclosing report in New York Herald, 10 May 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488; also ibid., HO 45/2391).

25 Ibid.

26 See letter from ‘Tone’ in B.P., 13 May 1848.

27 B.P., 6 May 1848. For James see Potter, To the golden door, pp 389–90.

28 Plans were announced in B.P., 1 Apr. 1848 (unfortunately this issue is missing from the microfilm copy in N.L.I.).

29 The letter was printed in B.P., 13 May 1848.

30 Ibid., 27 May 1848.

31 New York Herald, 6 June 1848; B.P., 10, 17 June 1848; and press cuttings enclosed in Barclay to Palmerston, 25 July 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488); see also Gibson, Attitudes of New York Irish, p. 22.

32 B.P., 19 Feb., 20 May 1848.

33 For details of committee membership see press cuttings enclosed in Barclay to Palmerston, 25 July 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488).

34 See, for example, Emmet’s speech on 3 July reported in New York Herald, 4 July 1848. Van Buren and the Free-Soil Democrats later tried to attract Irish voters by nominating Emmet as an Elector at Large for the State: see Gibson, Attitudes of New York Irish, p. 25.

35 McGee’s letter arrived just before the I.R.U. meeting on 9 May, when plans were announced for a national convention in New York on 13 June.

36 See the reports in B.P., 24 June 1848, Irish Felon, 8 July 1848, and Gibson, Attitudes of New York Irish, p. 22.

37 See Mooney’s letter to Patrick Donahoe, announcing that he had written to the New York committee ‘to know where I can best serve the cause for Ireland’ (B.P., 27 May 1848).

38 Barclay to Palmerston, 23 May 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488); Addington to Waddington, 7 June 1848 (ibid., HO 45/2391); Head Constable, Liverpool, to Inspector-General of Irish Constabulary, 25 June 1848 (ibid., HO 45/2416); Rushton, Liverpool, 28 June 1848 (ibid., H0 45/2416A).

39 See the various statements and memorials by Saunders (ibid., HO 45/2369).

40 See the press cuttings enclosed in Barclay to Palmerston, 4 July 1848 (ibid., FO 5/488); B.P., 8 July 1848. ‘I tell you candidly, the first batch or company is to sail for Ireland in 10 days’ (Reilly to Kelly, 19–20 June 1848 (N.L.I., MS 10511)).

41 The angry mood was evident in Philadelphia, where John Binns, a veteran United Irish exile, chaired the meeting on 21 June attended by a body of workmen carrying Irish tricolours surmounted by a pike: see B.P., 1 July 1848.

42 Irish Felon, 8 July 1848.

43 B.P., 1 July 1848; Irish Tribune, 8 July 1848.

44 B.P., 24 June 1848; Irish Felon, 8 July 1848.

45 Saunders to Grey, 13 Nov. 1848 (P.R.O., HO 45/2369).

46 B.P., 15 July 1848.

47 See the letter from ‘Justice’ in B.P., 22 July 1848.

48 Crampton despatch no. 80, 3 July 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/486); Barclay to Palmerston, 4, 17, 24 July 1848 (ibid., FO 5/4888); despatch no. 39 to Crampton, 21 July 1848 (ibid., FO 5/483); Eddisbury to Phillipps, 5 Aug. 1848 (ibid., HO 45/2391).

49 Reilly to Kelly, 19–20 June 1848 (N.L.I., MS 10511) describes the fife-and-drum recruiting in New York.

50 The Nation, 22 July 1848, citing reports in the New York press of the meeting on 21 June.

51 Barclay to Palmerston, 4 July 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488).

52 National Archives of Ireland (formerly S.P.O), Outrage papers, 1848/107.

53 Reddington, 19 Sept. 1848, enclosing a printed copy of the circular memorandum (P.R.O.,H0 45/2416A).

54 Despatch no. 43 to Crampton, 4 Aug. 1848 (ibid., FO 5/483).

55 See reports in B.P., 8 July-12 Aug. 1848.

56 Ibid., 15 July 1848.

57 Ibid., 5 Aug. 1848.

58 Bodl., Clarendon papers, Box 53: J. D. Balfe, 18, 19 Apr. 1848.

60 Duffy, Charles Gavan, Four years of Irish history, 1845–1849 (London, 1883), pp 608-9; idem, My life in two hemispheres (London, 1898), pp 277–8; see also Davis, Richard, The Young Ireland movement (Dublin, 1987), pp 158-9.

60 Barclay to Palmerston, 25 July 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488), enclosing press reports of the I.R.U. meeting on 24 July at which it presented its ‘second report’.

61 Eddisbury to Waddington, 4 Aug. 1848, enclosing Pinkney to Palmerston, 11 July 1848 (P.R.O., HO 45/2391). At this time the Governor-General of Canada reported on information he had received that ‘arms and soldiers who might be employed as drill sergeants in the clubs were even now passing over week after week to Ireland — that an American General lately returned from Mexico was engaged to take the command when the proper time came’ (Elgin to Grey, 18 July 1848 (The Elgin-Grey papers, 1846–1852, ed. SirDoughty, Arthur G. (4 vols, Ottawa, 1937), i, 209–10)).

62 B.P., 12 Aug. 1848.

63 Ibid., 5–19 Aug. 1848. The other members of the Directory were Charles O’Conor, Felix Ingoldsby, James W. White, Michael T. O’Connor, Thomas Hayes (secretary of the I.R.U.), Bartholomew O’Connor and John McKeon.

64 Potter, To the golden door, p. 506.

65 B.P., 19 Aug. 1848. In all, $4,000 was collected at the meeting on 14 August, including $1,500 sent from Philadelphia via Robert Tyler.

66 Ibid., 26 Aug. 1848.

67 Barclay to Palmerston, 2 Aug. 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488).

68 Extracts from the Liverpool press were printed in B.P., 26 Aug. 1848.

69 Addington to Barclay, secret despatch, 25 Aug. 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/488); Barclay to Addington, 18 Sept. 1848 (ibid.).

70 Barclay to Palmerston, 25 July 1848, enclosing cuttings from Sunday Despatch, New York Daily Tribune and New York Herald (ibid.).

71 Saunders’s statements (ibid., HO 45/2369); see also Barclay to Palmerston, 28 Aug. 1848 (ibid., FO 5/488); Barclay to Bidwell, 21 Oct. 1848 (ibid.); Barclay to Palmerston, 10 Apr. 1849 (ibid., FO 5/502).

72 Barclay to Palmerston, 8 Sept. 1848 (ibid., FO 5/488; also ibid., HO 45/2391).

73 Barclay to Palmerston, 26 Aug. 1848 (ibid., FO 5/488).

74 Barclay to Palmerston, 30 Aug. 1848 (ibid., FO 5/488; copy enclosed in Addington to Phillipps, 15 Sept. 1848 (ibid., HO 45/2369)).

75 See the press cuttings enclosed in Barclay to Palmerston, 25 July 1848 (ibid., FO 5/488).

76 Elgin to Grey, 4, 10, 18 May, 13, 18 July, 10, 16 Aug. 1848 (Elgin-Grey papers, i, 148–50, 160–64, 166–64, 166–7, 208–10, 220–10, 220–25).

77 Horsfall, 2 Aug. 1848 (P.R.O., HO 45/2410B); see also ‘Non-arrival of the American Irish Brigade’ in Isle of Man Times, 12 Aug. 1848.

78 Horsfall’s daily reports, 3–18 Aug. 1848 (P.R.O., HO 45/2410B); Bodl., Clarendon papers, Box 16: Horsfall, 18 Aug. 1848.

79 Idem, 22, 23, 25 Sept. 1848 (P.R.O., HO 45/2410B).

80 Idem, 18 Sept.. 1848 (ibid.).

81 Idem, 5 Sept. 1848, enclosing correspondence from the steamship company (ibid.).

82 Horsfall, 26, 27 Sept., 3, 9 Oct. 1848 (ibid.).

83 This information can be found in the daily Abstract of Constabulary Reports in P.R.O., HO 45/2416 and 2416A. See 29 July 1848, Cork 1,000, for a typical example: ‘A Sailor just come from America told that 372,000 men were preparing to come from America, and had written to Ireland to say that until the people were assisted it would be madness for them to rise etc’

84 Abstract of Constabulary Reports, 16 Aug. 1848, Queen’s County 24. 238 (ibid., HO 45/2416A).

85 Abstract of Constabulary Reports, 27, 29 July 1848, Queen’s County, unnumbered (ibid., HO 45/2416).

86 The Abstracts of Constabulary Reports (P.R.O., HO 45/2416) give brief details of arrests, including: John Lantry, recently returned from America ‘on some bad business’, King’s County, 3 Aug.; John Magauran, recently arrived from America, ‘in the habit of going backwards and forwards without any known object’, County Cavan, 3 Aug.; James Kilduff, ‘recently returned from America under suspicious circumstances’, Roscommon, 5 Aug.; and Nowlan, a naturalised American, 7 Aug. 1848. Five Americans were detained at Armagh on 13 Aug., but were released the next day: see New York Commercial Advertiser, 15 Jan. 1849, enclosed in Barclay to Palmerston, 16 Jan. 1849 (P.R.O., FO 5/502). Abstract of Constabulary Reports, 25 Sept. 1848, Carlow 80 (ibid., HO 45/2416) reports the arrest of three young men under suspicious circumstances at Bonis: ‘On investigation it turned out that they were Irishmen who had come from America to join the Rebel army, a fourth person had come with them, one of the party had been in the Mexican army’. Dr McCarron, Duffy’s American brother-in-law, was himself imprisoned on arrival in Dublin to visit his incarcerated relative: see his wife’s letter in New York Daily Tribune, 6 Oct. 1848, press cutting in HO 45/2369. For earlier reports of Americans in Ireland see C.D.’s report, 28 June 1848 (T.C.D., MS 2039, f. 17).

87 Crampton despatch no. 109, 28 Aug. 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/486).

8 Crampton despatch no. 122, 9 Oct. 1848 (ibid., FO 5/487).

9 Horsfall, 20, 22 July, 4 Aug. 1848 (ibid., HO 45/2410B); Bodl., Clarendon papers, Box 16: Horsfall, 20, 22 July; Reddington, 22 July 1848, enclosing police report (P.R.O., HO 45/2416A).

90 Reddington to Waddington, 19 Sept. 1848, enclosing correspondence from the United States legation (P.R.O., HO 45/2416A); see also Buchanan to Robinson, 15 Nov. 1848 (The works of James Buchanan, ed. Moore, John B. (12 vols, Philadelphia & London, 1908-11; repr. New York, 1960), viii, 243–4); Crampton despatch no. 129, 13 Nov.1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/487).

91 Buchanan to Bancroft, 27 Sept. 1848 (Buchanan, Works, viii, 203–4). Crampton drew Palmerston’s attention to Ryan’s ill-advised enlistment of Senator Hannegan in support of his innocence: see Crampton despatch no. 125,6 Nov. 1848 (P.R.O., FO 5/487).

92 Reddington to Waddington, 19 Sept. 1848 (ibid., HO 45/2416A).

93 For a convenient summary of the major correspondence on this affair, including Palmerston’s letter of 30 Sept. 1848, see New York Commercial Advertiser, 15 Jan. 1849, enclosed in Barclay to Palmerston, 16 Jan. 1849 (P.R.O., FO 5/502). See also Gibson, Attitudes of the New York Irish, pp 44–8 for the discussion of the affair in Congress and in the New York press.

94 Buchanan to Bancroft, 23, 28 Oct., 18 Dec. 1848, 12, 17 Feb. 1849 (Buchanan, Works, viii, 226–7, 230–32, 264–6, 319–21, 337–8). See also Jenkins, Fenians and Anglo-American relations, pp 17–19.

95 Brown, Thomas N., Irish-American nationalism, 1870–1890 (Philadelphia & New York, 1966), ch. 2.

96 Joyce, William L., Editors and ethnicity: a history of the Irish-American press, 1848–83 (New York, 1976), ch. 2; D’Arcy, William, The Fenian movement in the United States, 1858–1886 (Washington, D.C., 1947 ; repr., Catholic University of America, New York, 1971), pp 1–3; Handlin, Boston’s immigrants, pp 138–45; Potter, To the golden door, pp 554–70. Seemingly oblivious to the new mood, Barclay — whose main informant was now a Catholic priest — sent a number of alarmist despatches about the 1851 Great Exhibition and arranged for three New York police officers to be sent over to London, as ‘the Council of the Republican Irish here, which styles itself the Irish Directory, have deliberated about sending an armed multitude, instructed to take advantage of any confusion which may be created at the Exhibition, to commit the highest crime known to the Law of England’ (Barclay to Palmerston, 8 Mar. 1851 (P.R.O., FO 5/533)).

97 Diner, Hasia, Erin’s daughters in America: Irish immigrant women in the nineteenth century (Baltimore, 1983), ch. 6. Bishop Hughes insisted that Emmet transfer his $500 donation to the Sisters of Mercy for the care of destitute Irish girls arriving in New York: see Gibson, Attitudes of New York Irish, p. 28.

98 The classic study is Miller, Kerby A., Emigrants and exiles: Ireland and the Irish exodus to North America (New York, 1985).

99 Knobel, Dale T., Paddy and the republic: ethnicity and nationality in antebellum America (Middletown, 1986), ch. 3.

100 Wilentz, Sean, Chants democratic: New York City and the rise of the American working class, 1788–1850 (New York, 1984), pp 327-34.

101 Devyr, , ‘American section’ in The odd book …, p. 38 . Devyr says little about 1848, although he ‘offered to aid an invading force, and contribute to its outfit’(ibid, pp 34–5).

102 Reilly to Kelly, 24 Apr. 1848 (N.L.I., MS 10511).

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Republican spirit and military science: the ‘Irish brigade’ and Irish-American nationalism in 1848

  • John Belchem (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.