At the dawn of what was to become an age of rebellion, Thomas Jefferson said, Rebellion is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. The American revolution of 1775 to 1781 was the inspiration for rebellions across the world from France in 1789 to Ireland in 1798, again in Ireland in 1803, to Canada in 1837, to India in 1857. While Irish support existed, in a major or minor role, in each of these actions, it was a significant factor in the American Revolution.

The Irish, both Protestant and Catholic, were a major part of Washington’s volunteers from foot soldiers to high ranking officers, and those who were unable to suffer the hardship of a colonial soldier, contributed in other ways. The military won the war, but it was the settlers, merchants, and community leaders who led the march toward the battlefield. They were the real shapers of our destiny, for they were the ones who dreamt the dream, organized its creation, and supported its success. In the late 1700s, when Crown exploitation drove the colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. But how many Irish were there in the American colonies?

Well, they had been coming since the 1650s. The first noticeable influx into New England occurred in 1652 with the arrival of 400 Irish children sent by Cromwell to be sold as slaves. From that time, the shipment of men, women and children as slaves and indentured servants was common practice. Among the first to come of their own volition were those who fought the English theft of their lands and ended up hunted men. They were followed by those Catholics and Presbyterians who fled the Penal Laws and persecution by the Church of England. Some were businessmen who had to escape the economic oppression fostered on them by the Crown in order to benefit their British competitors. The destruction of the Irish wool trade is estimated to have ruined 40,000 families all over Ireland, while destruction of the Irish linen trade reduced the population of Ulster by half-a-million. And they came to America with their looms and spinning wheels bringing an industry that would be of great importance to the nation awaiting birth.

In the beginning, they came in such large numbers that one Massachusetts Court prohibited the Irish from its jurisdiction and fined anyone who bought an Irishman and brought him in, fearing the malignant spirit that has from time to time been manifest by the Irish against the English. But they came anyway. Some altered their names, most settled in outlying areas like the ancestor of John Hancock who came from Co Down, and like Capt Daniel Patrick and Robert Feake - first white settlers in Greenwich, CT. They also settled in New Hampshire, where they founded the town of Concord; in Vermont, where their sons would lend strength to the Green Mountain Boys led by Irish-American John Stark and Limerick-born Matt Lyons; in New Hamphire where Capt Maginnis commanded the militia; and other areas from Maine, home of the O'Briens who would capture the 1st British ship in the war yet to come, to Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn who had grown up in County Cork. They came in considerable numbers. In 1728, for example, it was reported that most of the 4,500 who landed at New Castle, Delaware were Irish. Philadelphia likewise reported that 3,500 people from Ireland had arrived in the first two weeks of August, 1772. They had obviously been arriving for a while since the city had a Hibernian Club as early as 1729; it later became the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, whose first President was none other than Stephen Moylan of Co Cork - soon to be one of Washington’s top Generals. In 1772 and 73, more than 18,500 had arrived in the American colonies, and they were no friends of the British.

There was no shortage of leaders either and men like Matthew Lyons, Patrick Henry, and other Irish and Irish-American orators used their eloquence to urge separation from England. When confrontations became frequent, it seemed that the Irish were always in the middle of it. Among those killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr; Boston Tea Party participants met at an inn owned by man named Duggan; and the tea was dumped at Griffin's Wharf by a group dressed as Indians, some of whom had a notably Irish accent. While young Irishmen rushed to arms in support of Washington, Irish civilians, businessmen, and merchants participated in the deliberations of Councils and in Congress, raised money to feed and clothe the army, and advance the credit of the new government. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised more than $300,000. which would be more than $8 million today.

On July 1, 1776 after a full year of hostilities, the leaders met to discuss their options. A resolution was presented which read, Be it resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegience to the Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. After much heated debate, the vote was indecisive. They met again on July 2 to continue the debate and finally the ayes carried the question. However, approval of the final draft of the document was made on the 4th. The Philadelphia State House was packed despite the sweltering heat as Secretary Charles Thomson of Co. Derry read the formal document that Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Livingston had composed, and that he - Thomson - had drafted. It was a declaration explaining why their action was justified. After a full day of modifying copy, shouting matches and further amendments, Secretary Thomson recorded the changes, and America's Declaration of Independence was complete. Among the signers were 6 Irish-Americans and 3 native Irish including James Smith, Matthew Thornton and militia Colonel George Taylor. The formal copy would not be ready for signature until August, but many first heard that document read in an Irish accent, as Secretary Thomson read it to an anxiously awaiting public. Philadelphia printers like Charles Dunlap of Co Tyrone rolled out copies that were snatched up before the ink was dry. There would be many years of struggle and sacrifice before the last battle was fought on March 10, 1783, but America had made her stand. That last battle, by the way, saw Irish-born Commodore John Barry defeat the British ship Sybil. He had been carrying a cargo of gold with which Congress would establish the new Bank of North America with the help of Irish-born Thomas Fitzsimmons.

In 1787, when Articles of Confederation to guide the new nation of 13 states were discussed, a convention met in Philadelphia to approve or amend them. A minority of 19 delegates dis-satisfied with some of the amendments, knowing they couldn’t carry the vote, absented themselves preventing a quorum. Wexford’s John Barry formed a group called the ‘Compellers’ and forced the reluctant delegates back to the convention to form a quorum and a vote of 46 to 23 was passed and the Constitution of the United States of America resulted.

Yes, the Irish were there when America was born, and the fact that they made loyal Americans is evidenced in writing of Marquis de Chastellux who wrote after the revolution, An Irishman, the instant he sets foot on American soil, becomes an American. During the whole of the war, the English and Scots were treated with distrust even with the best of attachment for the cause, but the native of Ireland stood in need of no other certificate than his accent. While the Irish emigrant was fighting for America on land and sea, Irish merchants’ purses were always open and their persons devoted to the country's cause, and on more than one imminent occasion Congress itself, and the very existence of America, owed its preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.

Even in Ireland, where funds were raised to support the American cause, the hopes of the Irish were with the American cause to such an extent that America’s success inspired a liberation movement in Ireland, and in 1798, the Irish attempted to duplicate the American example. Unfortunately it failed, and though young America was in no position to help, her hopes were with the Irish. Even President Washington wrote that the Irish need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have worn for so long.

It was perhaps best said by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of the beloved first President and Martha Washington. At a St. Patrick’s Day dinner in 1828, he said:

Ireland's generous sons, alike in the day of our gloom, and of our glory, shared in our misfortunes and joined in our successes; With undaunted courage (they) breasted the storm which once threatened to overwhelm us; and with aspirations deep and fervent for our cause, whether in the shock of liberty's battles, or in the feeble expiring accents of famine and misery, cried from their hearts God Save America. Then honored be the service of the sons of Erin in the war of Independence. Let the shamrock be entwined with the laurels of the Revolution, and truth and justice, guiding the pen of history, inscribe on the tablets of American remembrance 'Eternal Gratitude to Irishmen.'

GWP Custis also asked the favor that when St Patrick’s Day is annually celebrated, that some generous Irishman would place a shamrock on his grave and say, God Bless Him. To this day, the Washington DC AOH present a Friends of Ireland Award in his name and place a sprig of shamrock on his grave in Arlington National Cemetery and say, in chorus, God Bless Him! Remember his words as you hang out the stars and stripes on our Fourth of July and remember the Irish who helped to create this nation that it represents.

Views: 1536

Tags: Fourth of July, United States

Comment by Jim Goulding on August 25, 2014 at 1:52pm

Mike, you have packaged so much into your article -- full of interesting detail. Fantastic piece! Many thanks.

Comment by xavier owen mcdonnell on July 3, 2016 at 8:14am

on July 4th. 1922 during the battle of Millmount in Drogheda Alice Slowey was shot & succumbed to her wounds 

Comment by Patrick Kevin O'Toole on July 5, 2016 at 6:21pm

Hi, Mike. I very much enjoyed your article. I spend some time researching the role of the Irish in the American Revolution. Do you have citations for your many factual assertions, such as, for example, that Patrick Henry was of Irish descent, or that Washington wrote that "the Irish need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have worn for so long", etc. ? Thanks. Pat O'Toole

Comment by Mike McCormack on July 6, 2016 at 10:39am

Patrick.  I absolutely have, but I'm in the process of getting ready for the week-long AOH National Convention.  Could you e-mail me at AOHBARD@OPTONLINE.NET and upon my return, I'll look up the sources you seek and get back to you.

Comment by Patrick Kevin O'Toole on July 8, 2016 at 3:16pm

Thanks, Mike. I'll do that this weekend. Hope you have a great time at the AOH Convention.


Comment by Mike McCormack on August 3, 2016 at 2:43pm

Pat, You asked for the reference, so9 here are a few:

    In speaking of Ireland’s support during the revolution, Washington wrote, Ireland, thou friend of my country in my country's most friendless days, much injured, much enduring land, accept this poor tribute from one who esteems thy worth, and mourns thy desolation.  
Verification of this can be found at  // and click on ‘quotes’
    He also wrote in a letter to Edmund Newenham on 29 August 1788, As you observe, if Ireland was 500 miles farther distant from Great Brita[in] the case with respect to the former would be as speedily as materially changed for the better.  That can be found at //
    On March 16, 1793, George Washington’s General Order to his troops granted St. Patrick’s Day to be a holiday.  //
    There is also the statement, The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and previleges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.  And that is attributed to Washington’s letter to the members of the Volunteer Association and other Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Ireland who have lately arrived in the City of New York, December 2, 1783
It can be found at The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, vol. 27, p. 254 (1938).
    One quote which I have used several times is when Washington wrote, Ireland, thou friend of my country in my country's most friendless days, much injured, much enduring land, accept this poor tribute from one who esteems thy worth, and mourns thy desolation.  That can be found on
    On May 27th 1787 while attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, George Washington attended Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s Chapel. The invitation to attend came from Thomas Fitzsimmons a wealthy Irish-American merchant from Philadelphia and one of only two Catholic delegates to the Convention. The other was Daniel Carroll from Maryland. Washington led a delegation of leading Philadelphia Protestants to the Mass. The occasion warranted significant attention since at the time there were only about 35.000 Catholics in the colonies where they were shunned and persecuted. Washington, who rarely went to church during his life sent a clear message by attending the Mass that he stood with American Catholics and reciprocated his friendship with Lafayette and Pulaski both French and Polish Catholics who aided the American cause during the Revolutionary War.  Reference: “The Return of George Washington” by Edward J. Larson Harper Collins pgs. 116-118.
Excerpt prepared by Ken Dow member of AOH Div 11 Hampton Bays, NY
    Other quotes I have used have also been used by IrishCentral on Twitter and on Facebook, namely:  When our friendless standard was first unfurled for resistance, who were the strangers who first mustered around our staff? And when it reeled in fight, who more bravely sustained it than Erin's generous sons?  They also used a quote from a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette that the people of Ireland need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have so long worn.

My favorite, of course, is the one by GW Parke Custis quoted in the article.


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