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  • Irish Chicagoans, Nationalism, and the Commemoration of Rebellion in 1898
  • Richard Mc Mahon (bio)

Irish American nationalism is a transnational phenomenon. It emerged and developed from connections and entanglements between Ireland and North America from the early modern period onward, and it needs to be understood in its complexity within this wider frame. Such links are perhaps strongest and most obvious in the decades after the Famine when, powered by extraordinary rates of migration, radical strands of Irish and Irish American nationalism were entwined in movements such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Clan na Gael. The relative strength of advanced nationalist organizations marked Irish America out from those in other Irish migrant destinations. As Timothy Meagher notes, “Nowhere else in the world outside of Ireland itself did nationalism gain the same breadth of support, inspire the same intensity of interest, or nourish such militant and radical strains of nationalist fervour as it did in the United States.”1 The general study of Irish American nationalism also demands a transnational approach in its broadest sense, incorporating the investigation of the movement of people, actions, and ideas across national boundaries and the location of the local within [End Page 218] broader regional, national, and international contexts. Historians of Irish America have long been aware of the need for such an approach. Indeed, as Niall Whelehan has noted, much of the best work on Irish America was transnational before transnational history had established itself as a prominent approach within either Irish or American historical studies.2

Yet historians of Irish nationalism have perhaps been less willing to develop such approaches. While the importance of Irish American nationalism as a key strand or strain of Irish nationalism is often recognized (not least as a source of funds), an examination of its key features and modi operandi are also often lacking from many general accounts of Irish nationalism. These studies have remained focused primarily on developments in Ireland and indeed often on elite figures within Irish nationalism.3 In this sense the history of Irish American nationalism tends to be noted as an integral part of the story of Irish nationalism, but its historiography remains distinct. This may be a simple product of the normal restrictions of time and resources that shape scholarly work, but it is necessary also to at least reflect on whether Irish American nationalism might present certain difficulties for, or at least qualifications to, the dominant narratives of the development of Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century.4 [End Page 219]

An obvious example of a lacuna in the historiography is evident in a survey of the work carried out on the 1898 commemorations of 1798. The commemoration of 1798 in 1898 featured quite prominently amid the avalanche of writings on the rebellion in the 1990s and early 2000s, with historians noting how the commemorations reflected broader political tensions and divisions within Ireland at the time.5 Many historians and commentators also emphasized the popularity of a Catholic nationalist reading of 1798 in 1898.6 The Irish American dimension of the centennial commemorations did not, however, receive due attention. This article addresses this imbalance by examining the major commemorative events in Chicago and the various interpretations of the rebellion offered by prominent Irish figures in the city. It will explore the specific characteristics of the centenary commemoration of 1798 and provide a snapshot of the activities, concerns, and beliefs of Irish nationalists in Chicago in 1898. Finally, it will reflect [End Page 220] on how this example from Irish America might complicate our wider understanding of how 1798 was understood in 1898.7

Irish Chicagoans in the 1890s

The Irish community in Chicago, one of the largest in the United States,8 faced a variety of economic, social, and political challenges and opportunities in the 1890s. A sizeable proportion of the Irish Chicagoan community were engaged in unskilled labor and lived mostly in the lower-class sections of the south, near-west, and nearnorth sides of the city.9 They were usually employed in factories, on the railroads, and in meatpacking plants, or as bartenders, policemen, or domestic servants.10 Altogether some 34 percent of...


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