Category: Archive

Irish Americans head for South Africa

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

This week we turn to their efforts to convince the U.S. government to support the Boer cause and the sending of 58 Irish American men to South Africa to fight for the Boers.
Following a rousing sendoff by the Irish in Chicago, the fifty-eight men of the Irish American Ambulance Corps took a train to New York City. There they were welcomed as heroes by representatives of the New York United Irish Societies and marched off to meet representatives at the U.S. Boer Headquarters of the Dutch Americans. Two days later, they headed for the Church of St. Xavier where they went to confession and received Communion and a special blessing from a Dutch Jesuit. Leaving the church, they marched in parade formation down Fifth Avenue behind American and Red Cross flags as crowds of jubilant supporters cheered. The procession led to the pier where the men boarded the steamer, La Gascone, bound for South Africa.
At the time of their departure in February 1900, the Boer war effort had been going surprisingly well. Boer irregulars had scored a series of victories over British forces and appeared to have the upper hand in the conflict. But British reinforcements eventually arrived and by the time the Irish American Ambulance Corps arrived in April 1900 the tide had begun to turn in favor of the vastly superior British Army.
The poor state of the war, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Irish Americans. They were greeted as heroes by the Boers who hoped, even believed, they represented the beginning of an official U.S. military intervention on behalf of the Boer cause. Shortly after their arrival, fifty-one of the Irish Americans unceremoniously ripped off their Red Cross arm bands and took up rifles provided by the Boers. Only the six doctors and one nurse retained their Red Cross status.
One of the first people the Chicago contingent met was a fellow Irish American, Col. John Y. F. Blake. A former officer in the U.S. Army, he’d been living in South Africa when the Boer War broke out. A passionate nationalist, he formed the Irish Volunteer Brigade in Johannesburg and pleaded for volunteers in a stirring manifesto issued in September 1899. “It is the duty of Irishmen to throw their lot” with the Boers, he declared. “England has been a vampire, and has drained Ireland’s life-blood for centuries, and now her difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. The time is at hand to avenge your dead Irish.” He soon had one hundred recruits, including Irish-born Major John McBride who would earn fame in the war and later, in the 1916 Easter rising, martyrdom before a British firing squad.
Blake, McBride, and their men were not the only Irishmen involved in the conflict. Sadly, as was the case in every major British war, thousands of Irish (along with many other colonial subjects like the Australians, Canadians, and Indians) served in the British Army. The most notable were the soldiers of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who engaged in direct combat against their fellow Irishmen in the Irish Volunteer Brigade.
Over the next five months, the men of the Chicago Irish American Ambulance Corps fought alongside the Boers in what became an increasingly hopeless situation. Their exploits were ebulliently chronicled in detail in the Irish American press. When two of the Irish Americans, Michael O’Hara and Edward Egan, died in the course of the campaign they were lionized, in the words of the Chicago Irish Citizen, “New Martyrs to Liberty.” They returned home in November 1900 to rousing cheers from Irish America.
Even as the Ambulance Corps slogged across South African, Irish American nationalists also continued their efforts to raise public awareness of and sympathy for the Boer cause. They hoped an aroused American public, as had happened only a few years earlier in response to Spanish atrocities in Cuba, would push the U.S. government to intervene on behalf of the Boers. At public rallies, including some featuring celebrity Irish nationalists like Maude Gonne, and in the pages of the Irish American press, nationalists chastised the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations for their blind pro-British position. How could the United States call itself a liberty-loving republic if it ignored the plight of its sister republics in South Africa?
In making this argument, Irish Americans carefully avoided the fact that the Boers were Protestants who imposed voting and civil liberty restrictions on Catholics living in the Boer Republics. In their minds, these details paled in significance to the larger causes of opposing British imperialism and promoting Irish freedom. And there was an added incentive for Irish Americans who, at the turn of the century, were feeling increasingly secure in America: in criticizing elite, pro-British Americans like President McKinley and Secretary of State John Hay as “Anglomaniacs,” Irish Americans were in effect saying that they were better Americans than the powerful Ivy League/Mayflower set because they were more committed to core American values and republican ideals. Thus we see how nationalism served both the “Irish” and “American” aspects of the Irish American identity.
The Boer War ended with a complete British victory on May 31, 1902. Defeated, the Dutch had no choice but to capitulate to the British plan to fold the Orange Free State and Transvaal Republic into a federation of British colonies in southern Africa.
In the aftermath of the Boer War, Irish nationalism grew only stronger and more militant. Divided and weak in the 1890s, Clan na Gael, the leading militant, physical force wing of Irish nationalism, re-united in July 1900 under the leadership of John Devoy and Daniel Cohalen. Moderate nationalists who supported home rule over armed insurrection also saw a surge in numbers and spirit in the years following the war. This rising Irish nationalism, triggered in part by the Boer conflict, eventually led to the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent creation of the Free State.

NOTE: One of my former students at Holy Cross, is writing a scholarly paper about the Chicago Irish American Ambulance Corps. Please contact me if you are related to a veteran of the Corps or have any relevant information.

Sources: Col. John Y. F. Blake, A West Pointer With The Boers (1903); Donal McCracken, McBride’s Irish Brigade: Irish Commandos in the Anglo-Dutch War (1999). Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm.

Feb. 22, 1872: Catholic Total Abstinence Union holds its first annual convention in Baltimore.
Feb. 25, 1953: The musical, “Wonderful Town,” based on the book, “My Sister Eileen” by Ruth McKenney, opens at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. It ran for 559 performances.

Feb. 26, 1846: Showman and frontiersman, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, is born near LeClaire, Iowa.
Feb. 26, 1916: Comedian and actor Jackie Gleason is born in Brooklyn, NY

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