The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The American way of life is championed by writers and historians galore. They claim the USA to be a country of liberty and freedom, a supreme capitalist state in which its inhabitants can dare to dream for a better life. A nation where equal opportunity is given to all who are willing to work for it. It therefore seems unimaginable to consider how a small, rainy island in Western Europe could be thanked for instigating the progressive and modernised society that is America.
The feeling of liberation and bravery expressed by the Irish Republicans at a critical time of world history swept across an American public crammed with Irish immigrants. A forgotten aspect of American historical studies is the relationship between Ireland’s 1916 uprising and the transformation of America into a modern and evolved leader of the free world.
On July 27, 1919, Marcus Garvey, the African-American nationalist then nearing the height of his power, rose to address a crowd of around 6,000 people who had come to christen Liberty Hall, in Harlem, as the new command centre for the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The organisation had grown rapidly since its relocation to the United States.
In galvanising a black population hungry for equality and aching to live in a society where they would not be judged by the colour of their skin, Garvey turned to the fight fought by the Irish across the pond for inspiration. He bellowed out to his adoring crowd “the time has come for the Negro race to offer up its martyrs upon the altar of liberty even as the Irish have”. In-fact, the very name of the much-famed building he notably pronounced as ‘Liberty Hall’ brilliantly demonstrates the appreciation and admiration for the Irish struggle, seeking inspiration from the original ‘Liberty Hall’ situated in Dublin, the site from which the 1916 Easter Rising had been launched.
Irish migrants living in America were so heavily involved in the Irish revolt that they are even explicitly referenced in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It calls out “our exiled children in America” for praise in their support as a real driving force in the mission for republicanism. The Friends of Irish Freedom, formed in 1916 with the composer Victor Herbert at its helm, claimed nearly 300,000 members by 1919. Its later rival, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, counted 700,000 members and raised over $10 million for the Irish republican movement by 1921.
So much so was the respect and admiration for the Irish and their achievements in equality for all and the distinctive promotion of women’s rights, that the revolution sparked oppressed sects of American society to take heart and huge inspiration. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic also appeared the first official constitutionally significant document to be produced which addressed both genders collectively across the world, calling for “Irishmen and Irishwomen” to stand up and fight the battle for independence from Britain. To further the progressive and liberal approach taken by the revolutionaries, seven famed men signed the document, sealing the approval of this parity within the male-dominated society of the era. This being four years before American women were handed the vote was well-received in the USA, with Irish-American women filling halls across the country for the lecture tours of high-profile Irish republican activists like Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and the Countess Constance Markievicz.
As well as sparking a generation of Americans to stand up for gender equality; surprisingly, the Irish rising had a heavy impact on the African American community as well. Considering the deep currents of anti-black racism that ran through the history of the Irish in America, there was the enthusiasm of Marcus Garvey and other African-American protest leaders for the Irish cause. When Hubert Harrison organised the Secret African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and, Cyril Briggs drew explicitly on the model of the Secret Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had been at the centre of the Easter Rising.
In February 1921, Briggs hailed “the Irish fight for liberty” as “the greatest epic of modern times and a sight to inspire to emulation all oppressed groups”. The rising of such a comparably small and weak nation inspired generations of activism and swept optimism for a fairer future across the USA. In many ways, the Home of the Brave had the Republic of Ireland to thank for its courageous chivalry in the battle for egalitarianism.
by Niall Shaban