Brendan Matthews Interviewed By A New York Radio Station

Old Drogheda Society
John McDonagh (John) interview historian Brendan Matthews (Brendan) via telephone from Drogheda, Co. Louth about the importance of New York City in the 1916 Rising.

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
23 April 2016 
(begins time stamp ~ 27:25)

John:  Listen, Sir Roger Casement did not get the phone call on the submarine to the lonely Banna Strand but Brendan Matthews, who's an Irish historian out of Drogheda – as I said, Brendan, a lot of the Americans – and you hear it every once in a while – they call it Draheda - but it's Drogheda – and you have written about the importance of New York City to the 1916 Uprising that without New York there probably was no Uprising.

Brendan:  Yeah, Good Afternoon, John, from Ireland here and from Drogheda.  Yeah, I have done a lot of research over the past year and particularly I followed one man because what fascinates me is how you view the events of 1916 and from what perspective you view them. I mean, we're obviously, from our point of view, going to have a different view of what happened in 1916 say than probably the descendant of maybe an Irish Orangeman or an Irish Unionist at the time would have completely different views – that they look upon it as almost an act of terrorism against King and country is the way that those people would view it. But really to see what the 1916 Rising was and is all about is to perhaps look at it through the eyes of a rebel and how I've done that is to actually follow the tale of one of the seven signatories, literally from the cradle to the grave, and that man was Tom Clarke. And there is no doubt from my research, which will be published tomorrow, in just a week - next Saturday, I believe that with Tom Clarke, who lived some time in New York along with John Devoy from Clann na nGael and a couple of others – Seán Mac Diarmada as well when Tom Clarke returned from New York and met up with Seán Mac Dairmada – that without those three being significant players in the lead-up and to the events of The Rising. It would certainly would not have happened without Clann na nGael, John Devoy and Tom Clarke on this side of the Atlantic.

John:  You know what Brendan? What's amazing - I've been reading a lot of books - was the travel between Ireland and New York. It was constant. I mean Connolly was going back and forth and a lot of the Irish revolutionaries were going back and forth and even the ones that were sent out to Australia were making it back to New York. So New York was the epicentre of literally organising it. But one of the components, and I told you about this before, because of World War I – you know - England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity - maybe tell our audience – because I was just talking about The Lonely Banna Strand, we were going to play that song about Sir Roger Casement, about the connection between Germany and this country, World War I and what was going on with Irish Republicans.

Brendan:  Okay, well as you did say, correctly, John, about the connections between New York, Liverpool and England, where the ships would arrive and then back to ports in Ireland such as Corcaigh and Dublin. And just to take it back a wee bit: As you did say about these people were traveling over and back across the sea, across to Europe from Ireland over to New York – from New York to Berlin such as Roger Casement was dealing with the Germans in trying to get some arms landed at Banna Strand on Good Friday. But you take it back, in the lead-up to that again – when you go back to look at say for instance the Fenian Movement, and where Clann na nGael stems from, that Fenian Movement of the late 1850's in America and over here in Ireland then you had the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Now when you see what was going on in the 1860's during the American Civil War when one hundred and fifty thousand Irishmen had fought on the Union side in that civil war and some twenty-five thousand had fought on the Confederate side in the southern states of America – so you're talking here nearly two hundred thousand Irish men who had been in the Union Army who were hoping to, what they termed, 'free the Motherland' when the American Civil War ended in 1865.

Now, when you go back to that period and you see the amount of traveling that was done – they were jumping on ships and going to and from Ireland to England to New York and back and forward as if it was a train line. It was amazing what these people had committed themselves to, that they didn't have to do it so the question is: Why did they do it? When you look at, for instance, in the aftermath of the famine in Ireland, as we look back one hundred years now, so we look back to 1916 – so too was those seven signatories at the very least were looking back a hundred years. And they weren't just taking inspiration from the likes of Wolfe Tone and the 1798 Rebellion or the 1848 Rebellion with Thomas Francis Meagher and the raising of the Irish tricolour for the first time but they were also looking upon the hardships that their ancestors had to put up with. So take, for instance, from 1800 to 1841 - the population of Ireland rises from around about four million to almost nine million in forty years. These are people, most of them, who were living on the hedgerows. We always have to look upon what was the lead-up to The Rising. So you've now have nine million people in the country. Most of them had no access to the land. Most of them had no resources from the land. Most of them had no access to local government or national government and had no representation in local government and they couldn't even take a wild rabbit from the land otherwise they would face either three months in prison and in a lot of cases they were sent for transportation - seven years to Australia which meant they weren't coming back.

So pretty much they were living like animals within the context of the 1840's - the Irish were living no better than the animals - in fact, were probably living worse than the animals around them; having said that the population continued to rise. So in my research, again, I look closely at one of the things, which I looked at the Church and how the Church continued to tell them that they would be rewarded in Heaven and how they would frown upon any kind of rebellion because the Catholic Church in Ireland during this period was totally against secret societies, particularly The Fenians. And if they took The Fenian out they would threaten them with ex-communication. So they continued, the priests would, throughout the Penal Days of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to tell people to procreate yet they were on the verge of starvation.

So by the time the famine came about in the 1840's you had at least a million people dead and more than a million people emigrating, leaving Ireland, but here in Drogheda, for instance, the second largest port of emigration after Dublin during the famine and during the period of say Black 47, the worst year of the famine in 1847, harbour records in Drogheda today and local newspapers from that period, 1847, clearly show, for instance, six steamships heading to Liverpool on a daily basis in England from Drogheda and on board those ships was placed the likes of, in one ship alone: two hundred cattle, three hundred sheep, two hundred pigs, two hundred boxes of eggs, 200 hundred boxes of flour, one tonne of corn, one tonne of wheat, one tonne of barley and whey. Once that food was placed on the boat then the people were put on the boat and had to go as what was called 'steerage passengers' standing among the live animals which were being brought to England and cadaverous looking people literally starving – they couldn't get off the boat – they literally could not walk and in Liverpool so much that the Liverpool authorities became alarmed and began to send these cadaverous looking people back to some ports in Ireland. Now in any estimation if you look up the definition of the word 'famine' that cannot then ever be called a famine – that is, if not ethnic cleansing it's certainly a starvation of the people when they could not gain access to their own land to abide by that food. Even the wild rabbit or the fish or the bird in the sky – they could not take that because everything was owned by the gentry.

So many people then did make it across the Atlantic to The States – made themselves a new home in America but they never forgot where they had come from and they swore vengeance against the enemy and the great British Empire which had brought them to look and dream of exile three and five and seven thousand miles away from their home. So when the chance arose in the 1860's to join the American Civil War in the hope that when it was over they would literally come back and free the Motherland. But because of distance and communication between New York, Liverpool and indeed the ports of Ireland - because of the Catholic Church and because of specially placed agents and informers within the Fenian Movement and for the British Crown, particularly and strategically placed within New York and the ports of Liverpool – everything that moved – the likes of the greatest British agent within that Fenian Rising of the 1860's was John Joseph Croydon from Liverpool who happened to be the head of the Liverpool contingent of Fenians but everything that moved from New York into Britain was noted by John Joseph Croydon and hence the collapse of the Fenian Movement albeit there was over one hundred thousand men involved in that Fenian Movement. 

So moving on from the 1860's, so here's where I come from: Studying Thomas Clarke. Thomas Clarke was the son of a British soldier. Had been moved around Europe and including British Army barracks in Ireland – he was born in 1857 and as a kid was brought to South Africa. His father had fought in the Crimean War in the mid-1850's and then returned to Dungannon in County Tyrone. And while Tom Clarke was in County Tyrone in the 1870's he again had seen the Fenian Brotherhood who were traveling round the country of Ireland giving demonstrations and denouncing the British system in Ireland where the landlord had the land and the Land War came about in the 1870's with the landlord and his tenant in Ireland where mass evictions took place. And Tom Clarke couldn't understand why this colonialism was still happening and why he said people such as the gentry and the clergy and commercial business people turned a blind eye to this and didn't want anything to do - could never dream of rebellion. But his father wanted Tom to join the army. Tom was having none of it. Tom wanted to stand up for people and for their rights because he would see them on the side of the road being evicted, houses being boarded so they couldn't get back into them and seeing them with no access to the land, no resources from it and all the rest of it. So at one of these demonstrations Tom had a bit of a skirmish. He'd a run-in with Royal Irish Constabulary policemen and he was a wanted man so Tom had to disappear.

So Tom Clarke ended up in America. He ended up in America around about 1880 – early '81. And of course the first thing Tom sees when he lands in New York, he gets a job in a hotel in the kitchen, and the first thing he sees and starts listening to is the hardened older Fenians who had been there – people who had to go from Ireland in the famine and bring their kids. People who had fought hard as American soldiers, trained American soldiers who had also fought in the Civil War and had attempted in the Fenian Rising in the 1860's and this fascinated Tom. And because at the time when he lands in the early 1880's, as you're probably aware, John, there was a major split in Clann na nGael at the time, with O'Donovan Rossa running one faction of it. They were organising Fenian trips to England and what was known as the 'Dynamite Campaign' and Tom Clarke put his name forward and said that he would go on one of these dynamite campaigns...Sorry, John...

John:  ...No, no – I just saying - we're going to be stuck for time – We've got about another ten or fifteen minutes. And as you unfortunately bring up – I mean, Brendan Behan coined the phrase – whenever Irish people get together and have a meeting the first thing on the agenda is the split. But you sort of set up where the bitterness comes from and the hardening of attitudes – not that they left the country and just forgot about it – like you can see recent emigrants there say: Well unemployment's up. I'm going to come to New York – you're not coming over with that bitterness. But you've described the bitterness of these Irish – I don't even want to say they're emigrants – they were forced exiles – that came over to New York.

And because history plays an important part - World War I breaks out when they're organising this revolution and I would like just to bring it up to that era and the connection – because there was a huge amount of German immigrants at one stage here in the United States. German immigrants were the biggest part of the population and in some of the schools, particularly in Pennsylvania, they were teaching German in the schools and a lot of people were organising against that saying that they should be speaking English and not German. But maybe you could just bring us up to, historically, why did the Fenian Movement get involved with the Germans here in this country?

Brendan:  Oh, okay. Well in the lead-up to The Rising and during the First World War for instance there was one I did come across again in research in American newspapers, particularly there was an interesting article I came across in an Oklahoma newspaper which was dating to February of 1916 and in that article from Oklahoma it had taken an article from a statement made in the House of Commons by a man called Joseph Austin Chamberlain who was the Secretary of State for India at the time in 1916 and he would denounce the disloyalty of the native troops, so the British native troops as he'd seen it, in Northern India who, it was due to their activities of anti-British associations, and they had their headquarters, according to Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for India, according to him he said the headquarters was in the United States and they were known as The Hindu Organisation in the US had been at work secretly since 1907 for an uprising in India and he stated that it comprised of natives from India who were highly educated in and around New York and other states in America along with members of Clann na nGael who were with them and of late, he said, Germans and American pro-Germans and one of the aims of this organisation was to start a mutiny in India in 1917. That's a very interesting article because it comes from February the fifteenth, so a couple of months even before The Irish Rising, and here you have Clann na nGael who were sitting in secret with the Hindu Organisation and Germans, Americans who were pro-German, during the First World War.

The German connection was that Ireland would strike – England's loss would be Ireland's opportunity - so again when Tom Clarke had spent sixteen years almost in an English prison and when he got out he went to New York, 1901, got married there in Saint Augustine's Church in New York in July of 1901. Clarke stays in New York 'til 1907. Comes back home to Dublin with his young wife and his kid who was born in the Bronx. And when Clarke comes back to Ireland he finds an old movement - the older Fenian Movement – they're too old – they don't want rebellion anymore – they've done it all back in the 1860's and 70's – they had been in English prisons – now he finds the younger blood though. And so when Tom opens a shop in Dublin the younger blood, like John Bulmer Hobson, Denis McCullough, Pat McCartan, Seán Mac Diarmada, they start arriving into Tom Clarke's shop in Dublin – Clarke, after leaving New York and telling the boys that as soon as the opportunity comes – as soon as the British downfall – he said: 'We will strike!'

Tom waited and hoped and waited on the day that they would get into war with another superpower such as Germany. When that happened and the other younger members, the young blood like Mac Diarmada and Pat McCartan and Eamonn Ceannt gathered round Clarke by 1908, revered him because he had spent fifteen and a half years in an English prison, all most in solitary confinement, they loved Tom Clarke because of this and Tom Clarke seems to be the only one from the old movement, along with John Devoy, who is pushing and wishes to push that as soon as the opportunity arises - so he begins to plot and plan for a such rebellion from around 1910 – there's no question about that. He moves out the older people within the Chair – the likes of Fred Allan who was sitting in the Chair of the old IRB Council in Dublin – they're moved out of the way - Tom Clarke moves in as the older man and he starts to guide and dictate and slowly groom the younger blood who forms around him, including Padraig Pearse who he first meets in February of 1911.

John:  Alright Brendan – you know what? We have five minutes left and I wanted to talk about the influence of the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, and about the raid on the German Embassy that strategically came just before The Rising. If you can give us that and I'll have you back to continue from there at another stage.

Brendan:  Oh, okay, okay. Just a couple of weeks before The Rising actually, it was in early April of 1916, again, Clann na nGael were frequent visitors to the German Embassy in Washington and they were hoping because of the superpowers at war with each other that Clann na nGael would meet German officers and German officials in the German Embassy, which they did, and this was getting hot and heavy and there was more meetings taking place from April of 1916 and they were sending messages to and from – communicating with German officers in Berlin where Roger Casement also was addressing German officers - he was looking for men, of course, but the Germans said that they couldn't really spare any men during the Great War but that they would send the likes of ten machine guns, twenty thousand rifles, one million rounds of ammunition, etc - and these are the actual guns and ammunition that was promised – the cargo of arms that was promised which did land in County Kerry a couple of days and disaster happened in that the actually arms had to be sank.

Clann na nGael also had forewarned - so this was the link between Clann na nGael and getting the German help – so they got the Germans to help the Irish in The Rising; the Germans were quite willing to do it. So Clann na nGael had forewarned the German Embassy in April about there was going to be an eminent raid on their offices by the American Secret Service and of course the German's response: No, that would be a serious violation of international law. And John Devoy, in a telegram, responded to them and, in his words, he said: 'They don't give a damn about the law. They want your papers for the information for the English and they will get them if they can – law or no damned law.' John Devoy also, in his Recollections of an Irish Rebel, which was published in 1929 I think or '26, John Devoy went on to say that Woodrow Wilson was the meanest and most malignant man who ever filled the office of President of the United States and that he was waiting on any opportunity to join the Great War on behalf of Britain which, eventually, that's exactly what happened. But Devoy had also stated under no certain terms that had there even been a different President of The States at the time that maybe things could have been a lot better as in favour of Ireland but that Woodrow Wilson certainly was no friend of any rebellion or of any Irish Republican Brotherhood at that time.

John:  Now do you know – did they get any information about The Uprising from the raid on the German Embassy? Because that's an international event – an incident!

Brendan:  Oh, absolutely! Sorry John, yeah, they did. They actually did because they sent word to England. They intercepted the communications between America and Berlin to the extent that they knew that there was arms on the way. And they also sent word that there was there was possibly a rebellion but they didn't know the date and they weren't too sure because on the English side and in the English House of Commons documented papers from the period shows that they treated it with a bit of scepticism. They took note that there was arms maybe going to be delivered from Germany to the coast of Ireland but they dismissed almost the extent that there wasn't going to be a rising. They really didn't think there was going to be a rising at the time that it actually happened. But nonetheless anyway, the boat was captured on Good Friday and then subsequently it was scuttled and the arms sank and Casement arrested.

John:  Well Brendan, we're going to end it right there and we're going to bring you back and then maybe take it from there and find out how they communicated to Dublin about The Uprising and what was the response here in New York City and throughout this country. Brendan Matthews is out of Drogheda. They're having a big event this week about commemorating 1916 at the museum there – anybody that's heading over should get up there. And Brendan, we're going to have you on again. Thank you for coming on.

Brendan:  Brilliant, John, thank you. And can I just say, John, as well:  That stuff I and the story I am telling today - it is going to be published next Saturday by the Drogheda Museum at droghedamuseum.ie and it's Reflections on the 1916 Rising but I have my tale in there based on what happened and particularly the connections between Ireland, America and England which appear at this time, when I see all the things that are happening in The Centenary, just I think in my belief it seems to be overlooked at the minute.

(ends time stamp ~ 50:40)

Drogheda Museum Millmount,

History, Archaeology & Heritage, 

Governor's House,



Co. Louth, Ireland,


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