03/13/2013 12:20 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

New York and the Struggle for Irish Independence

In Rockland County, New York, Irish American organizations are protesting against the commercialization of St. Patrick's Day, especially the sale of sexually suggestive and other offensive Irish-themed merchandise.

In the past, American nativists have used St. Patrick's Day parades as an opportunity to express anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiments. The New York Times reported that in 1855, St. Patrick was hung in effigy on the Union Market Liberty Pole in Manhattan. In 1867, Thomas Nast, a 19th century cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, portrayed St. Patrick's Day celebrants as apish thugs. Anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant sentiment was so strong in the early 19th century that the original St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in SoHo was built as a virtual armed fortress with high stone walls and iron gates to repel invaders.

The early St. Patrick's Day parades in New York City were organized by Irish soldiers in the British army before American Revolution. The modern parade dates from 1891 when the Ancient Order of the Hibernians established a route up Fifth Avenue past the new St. Patrick's Cathedral.

This year, Irish New Yorkers have special reason to celebrate their Irish heritage and St. Patrick's Day. 2013 marks the start of the 100th anniversary of a series of landmarks in an almost decade-long struggle for Irish independence from Great Britain that finally succeeded with the birth of the Irish Free State in December 1922. Three of the major leaders of this struggle, James Connolly, James Larkin and Éamon de Valera had close ties with the New York metropolitan area.

James Connolly, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland of Irish descent and was already established as a socialist leader there, moved to the United States in 1903. In the U.S. he initially lived in Troy, New York where he continued to be active in socialist activities while working as an insurance salesman. In 1905 Connolly resettled his family in Newark, New Jersey. In New Jersey, Connolly was a member of the Socialist Party of America and the Socialist Labor Party of America and worked as an engineer for the Singer Sewing Machine Company and as a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 where he joined the Socialist Party of Ireland and became an organizer for the Irish Transport and General Workers union in Belfast. The ITGWU, like the IWW in the United States, organized both skilled and unskilled workers. Connolly later teamed with James Larkin to found the Irish Labour Party and to coordinate a 1913 ITGWU strike in Dublin.

James Larkin, born in Liverpool, England, of Irish ancestry, was an Irish trade union leader and socialist who founded the Irish Transport Workers union among dockworkers and the Irish Labour Party. After the ITWGWU strike ended, Larkin lived in the United States until 1923 where he continued as a labor union organizer and established the James Connolly Socialist Club in New York City. During World War I, Larkin was accused of disrupting the war effort because of his opposition as a socialist to what he considered to be an imperialist war and his hostility towards the British.

Larkin was arrested in 1919 along with other radical immigrants during the Palmer Raids. He was charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government," convicted, and sentenced to five to ten years in Sing Sing prison. However, Larkin was pardoned by New York State Governor Al Smith in 1923 and deported to Ireland where he received a triumphant reception and helped broker an end to the civil war that followed formation of the Irish Free State.

The 1913 Dublin Strike, whose 100th anniversary marks the start of these landmark events, involved approximately 20,000 workers and 300 employers and lasted from August 26, 1913 to 18 January 18, 1914. It was precipitated by a decision by an employer group to fire worker who were members of the ITGWU. Employers then locked out other employees and imported strikebreakers from other parts of Great Britain. The situation turned violent when Dublin police attacked striking workers at a rally, killing two of the participants. Although the Dublin strike failed, it lead to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a group of armed men whose goal was to protect workers and strikers from police brutality. The ICA later endorsed the Irish independence movement and supported the 1916 Easter Uprising.

The 1913 ITGWU Dublin strike received widespread attention in the Irish American press and in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times. An article on September 9, 1913 reported on high school students in Dublin launching a sympathetic strike in support of striking workers. On November 13, 1913 the Times reported that strike leader James Larkin was being released from prison because of political pressure on the governing Liberal Party in Great Britain. On December 8 the Times reported on failed efforts to settle the 15-week-long strike because of recalcitrance by employers and on December 10 on unsuccessful efforts by Larkin to convince the national Trade Union Congress to launch a nationwide sympathetic strike in support of the Dublin struggle. These two events turned the tide against the striking Dublin workers and by December 26 the Times reported the strike was on the verge of collapse.

The Easter Rising started on Monday, April 24, 1916 in the center of Dublin. It seemed like a propitious moment to strike a blow for independence because Great Britain's armed forces were preoccupied by trench warfare on continental Europe and high casualties and taxes and the possibility of a military draft were draining public support for the government.

Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and others seized the General Post Office and other important points throughout the city. The next morning the nationalists controlled most of the capital city and declared an independent Irish Republic.

British troops stationed in Ireland surrounded Dublin and began a counter attack. On April 27 a British gunboat moored in the Liffey River shelled the city and on April 29 Patrick Pearse announced an unconditional surrender to British forces. The 15 leading rebels were tried before a military tribunal, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squads. James Connolly, who was severely wounded, had to be tied to a chair so he could be shot.

Moira Regan, a young woman who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising was interviewed while on a fund-raising trip to New York for an article published in the August 20, 1916 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Regan described the Uprising and the ensuing surrender by Irish forces.

"At 6 o'clock on the evening of Easter Monday I went down O'Connell Street to the Post Office," she said. "I belonged to an organization called Cumann na mBan -- the Council of Women. We had been mobilized at noon on Monday being told that we'd be needed for bandaging and other Red Cross work... The Post Office burned all day Friday, and late in the afternoon it was decided that it must be abandoned. The rebels succeeded in reaching a house on Moore Lane in back of the Post Office. There they stayed all night. They had only a little food and the ammunition was almost exhausted. So on Saturday they saw that further resistance was useless, and that they ought to surrender, in order to prevent further slaughter."

Despite their defeat, Regan believed the Uprising had shifted the tide in the Irish struggle for independence from Great Britain.

The greatest result of the rising, the thing that will justify it even if it were the only good result, is the complete and amazing revival of Irish nationality. We have been asleep -- we have been ready to acquiesce in things as they were, to take jobs under the government and to acquiesce in the unnatural state of affairs. But now we have been awakened to the knowledge that there is a great difference between Ireland and England, that we are really a separate nation. Even the people that were not in sympathy with the rebels feel this now... This feeling has spread all over Ireland; it has remained and it is growing stronger. We were a province, and now we are a nation; we were British subjects, and now we are Irish. This is what the rising of Easter week has done for Ireland."

Regan proved to be right. Despite limited initial support for the Easter Rising, the cold-blooded execution of the Irish rebels was a catalyst, sparking nationalism across the country and a broad-based independence movement. In December 1921, the British agreed to a treaty creating an independent Irish Free State out of the 26 southern and central counties of Ireland.

Éamon de Valera, a third Irish leader with ties to the New York metropolitan area was actually born in Brooklyn, New York. His mother was an immigrant from Ireland and his father, who died while he was still a baby, was from Cuba. De Valera's widowed mother brought him to Bruree, County Limerick, Ireland at the age of two and left him with her family before returning to the United States. After excelling in school de Valera taught mathematics in colleges in Dublin and became involved in the Gaelic League, a movement to promote the use of the Irish language.

In 1916, De Valera participated in the Easter Rising. He was arrested and sentenced to death. However his sentence was commuted because he was an American citizen. When he was released from prison in 1917 he was elected to the British Parliament where he campaigned for Irish independence. De Valera was president of Sinn Fein party from 1917 to 1926 and later become prime minister and president of an independent Ireland.

In 1919, de Valera traveled to the United States to request recognition of the Irish Republic and to solicit funds for the Irish revolutionary forces. He traveled from coast to coast speaking to packed audiences and at a Madison Square Garden rally raised $5 million for the Irish independence movement.

De Valera told a cheering and standing-room-only audience:

For the past three years, from a thousand platforms in Ireland, the English Government has been told what the Irish people want, and still the English Government pretends not to know. What do the Irish people want? They want their country. Yes, their country, every inch of it, from the sod to the sky, to have and to hold for themselves and their heirs, in the Irish nation. Are the Irish people some inferior race, some degraded branch of human kind, destined to find its natural good in servitude, and purposely left by the Almighty without the feelings, aspirations, and instincts which He has implanted in the minds and hearts of other peoples?

Although by 1922 the southern counties of Ireland had effective independence and dominion status in the British Commonwealth de Valera and his supporters continued to demand a completely independent and unified Ireland and refused to take an oath of loyalty to the British sovereign. The split in the Irish nationalist forces led to a civil war that continued until 1926. After the settlement, de Valera served as Ireland's prime minister for 16 years and was elected President of Ireland in 1959 and 1966.