The New York Carmelites, the Irish People
and Their Freedom Movement
By: Alfred Isacsson, O. Carm.
Copyright © 2004
Alfred J. Isacsson
All Rights reserved
90 Euclid Ave
PO Box 883
Middletown, NY 10940
Table of Contents
Preface Page 2
Chapter 1 The O’Callaghan Years Page 6
Chapter 2 Dramatis Personae Page 10
Chapter 3 The 1916 Rising Page 19
Chapter 4 1917 – A Year of Change Page 22
Chapter 5 Irish Progressive League Page 26
Chapter 6 The Role of the Church and School Facilities Page 29
Chapter 7 The Friends of Irish Freedom Page 34
Chapter 8 The American Association for the Recognition of
The Irish Republic Page 48
Chapter 9 The Farley Magennis Incident Page 55
Chapter 10 Magennis in Rome Page 62
Chapter 11 New Leaders Arise Page 71
Chapter 12 De Valera in the United States Page 76
Chapter 13 Arms Page 80
Chapter 14 Financial Contributions Page 93
Chapter 15 Liam Mellows Page 97
Chapter 16 The Treaty and the Civil War Page 103
Chapter 17 A Summary and the End Page 108
Appendix 1 Peter Magennis – The German Agent Page 110
Appendix 2 The De Valera View of the Irish Bishops
And the Irish Freedom Movement Page 112
Bibliography Page 113
The Carmelite, Ernest Larkin, is wont to explain the charism of a Carmelite in the simple words, “a people’s priest.” In this expression is found much of the basis for the relationship between the Carmelites and the Irish people. The Carmelite Irish province, the three provinces and the one commissary province they have founded, have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the people they have served and continue to serve.
Falco Thuis, a Netherlander, was the prior general of the Carmelite Order, 1971-83. It was a time when the remnants of colonialism were dying and the Third World was emerging. Since his own country had colonies, he was well aware of this situation. Falco Thuis often used the onetime Carmelite residence in Maspeth, Queens, as his entry and departure points in his many visits to the United States. During these years, I was working there on the history of the New York Carmelites and used to speak to him about this project and give him some of the work in progress to read. Since the Carmelites in foreign lands in those days were involved with newly freed Third World people, Falco was intrigued by the New York Carmelites’ association with the Irish Freedom Movement and its goal of being freed of English domination. Referring to the New York and the Irish Carmelites, he was accustomed to say with some pride that this was another instance of the Carmelites always being involved on the side of oppressed people.
Our purpose is to tell only this New York Carmelites’ story and only this account in as scientific a manner as possible. We want to show the basis for the strong affection of the Irish for Carmelites. This intent precludes dealing with aspects of the Irish Freedom Movement that did not take place in New York or did not involve the Carmelites.
The Carmelites were involved in the supplying of arms. They acted as messengers between rebellious elements in Ireland and the United States. Their priories were safe house for men on the run and they generally ignored the excommunication and other ecclesiastical penalties placed on rebellious factions by the Irish bishops. I hope to show that the Carmelites were responsible in Ireland, Rome and the United States for the reinforcement of Irish culture and the growth of a revolutionary philosophy.
My start in this research began in Tarrytown, NY. In 1991, a parishioner of Transfiguration Parish named James Cunningham died. He was buried from that Tarrytown Church with his wife, daughter and two sons present with their families and many friends. As a young man in Ireland, he was involved in what he referred to as “the troubles.” When he came to the United States, he settled in Elmsford, a village some two or three miles from Tarrytown. He enrolled in the Carmelites’ Transfiguration parish and faithfully attended Mass there each Sunday despite the travel that was involved. He also closely associated with the Carmelites at Knollwood Country Club. When asked for an explanation of this, Jim used to reply that the Carmelites were present when we needed them, “they were always there.” He was, of course, referring to the time when he was “on the run” during the troubled years of Ireland. I was intrigued by Jim Cunningham’s devotion to the Carmelites and sought an explanation of this.
In The Irish Carmelites (Dublin, 1988), Peter O’Dwyer related that the Carmelites at Terenure College, Dublin, hid Michael Collins when he was on the run. This tradition of a refuge and a safe house existed at the New York Carmelites’ Priory of Our Lady of the Scapular located then on 29th Street just west of First Avenue. So many Republicans were sheltered there that many years later when the Jesuit, Daniel Berrigan, was on the run, the FBI had an agent observing the priory. Perhaps unrealized by the FBI, the agent was a former Carmelite seminarian.
When the Irish bishops supported the Free State by excommunicating and denying the sacraments to those who opposed it, the Carmelites and some other religious orders disregarded these restrictions. The Republicans came to the Carmelites’ Whitefriars Street Church, Terenure College and New York’s Our Lady of the Scapular to receive the sacraments.
When we speak throughout this book of the Carmelites being of a certain political stance, we usually are referring to the superiors whose function it was in those days of authority to be the spokesperson for the entire community. Those not in positions of authority did not have this opportunity and may not have agreed with what was presented as the Carmelite position. In most instances, the Carmelites backed the most liberal position and the one, they believed, the most conducive to the total independence of Ireland. When Ireland was totally under the crown, the Carmelites were anti-royalist; in the treaty era, the Carmelites were anti-treaty; later, they were not for simply a representative government but a republic. When finally there was a free state, the Carmelites supported the union of the six northern counties with the south, one united Ireland.
The public activities of the Carmelites working with the Friends of Irish Freedom and the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic were having Masses at their church to mark Irish occasions of joy and sorrow, speaking to Irish groups throughout New York City and making their hall an Irish center by the generous policy of allowing Irish groups to use it. There were many Irish groups in New York City at that time and each seems to have had a stated purpose but they were all devoted in some measure to Irish freedom. This was accented in their dealings with the Carmelites.
There are also secret activities in that Peter Elias Magennis, the leader both by his position of authority and his activities, was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and the Clan na Gael in the United States. I feel that Denis O’Connor became a member of the IRB in 1916 when he was in Ireland for a provincial chapter. The Carmelites secretly supported the Republican side by money, arms, hospitality, a safe house and guidance. The leaders they associated with in the open part of their participation were many times the same people as those in the secret part. The Carmelites and their associates led two lives.
The involvement of the New York Carmelites in the Irish Freedom Movement was not generally known among the Carmelites in Ireland except for those who participated in it when they were in New York. For the Carmelites in Ireland not to know was part of the operation. Secrecy was an essential part of the movement. When I expressed this opinion to Carmelites in Ireland in 2001, one Carmelite remarked, “We don’t even know now.”
Thanks are due to the Irish American Cultural Institute of Morristown, NJ, for their generous grant that covered research expenses. The same thanks are due to a generous benefactor for a grant of funds to cover research and publication.
Seamus Helferty, Archivist at University College, Dublin, and his staff were courteous and helpful in my two visits there. This is a goldmine of information and I was fortunate that the Eamon De Valera were available for my use. Without them, this work would be very incomplete.
The National Library of Ireland was a good source of material especially in the Joseph McGarrity papers. Thanks are due this institution.
At the Military Archives at the Cathal Brugha Barracks, Commendant Laing was most helpful.
The Main Branch of the New York Public Library was an unequaled trove of material. At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in both Washington and New York the staff directed me infallibly to what I sought. The American Irish Historical Society had some material. I availed myself of the facilities at the Thrall Library of Middletown, NY, to read microfilms. The Irish College, Rome, Italy and Father Albert McDonnell made the Hagen Papers available for my use. Marcel Chappin, SJ, the archivist at the Archives of the Congregation for Extraordinary Eccclesiastical Affairs was helpful in locating material. Father Donal O’Callaghan and William Carr provided some ease to me by their research. To all of them, thanks for their assistance and cooperation that made this book possible.
Fortunate for me, there are Carmelite houses in the places where I had to do research. To Emmet Gavin at Whitefriars Hall, Washington, DC; to Frank O’Gara and the Carmelites of Whitefriars Street, Dublin; to Joseph Chalmers and Matthias Des Lauriers in Rome; thanks are due for their hospitality.
Gratitude is due Robert Tracy, who many times at Transfiguration, Tarrytown, NY, had to listen to much of this book in verbal form while he was trying to have a pre-prandial libation. Over the years, I have corresponded and exchanged information with Brian Murphy, OSB, of Glenstal Abbey, Murroe, Ireland. Though the first solid evidence of Carmelite involvement in the arms trade came to me through Niall Brannigan, I owe Father Murphy much gratitude for his assistance and direction.
Thanks are due to following who read portions of the manuscript: John Patrick Collins, Bruce Kupelnick, Sean Reid, O. Carm., William Cobert, Steven Kennedy, Albert Daly, O. Carm. and Linda Dowling Almeida. They were very helpful but I am responsible for this final form. Kevin Shanley, O. Carm., assisted in the publication.
Abraham Lincoln inscribed in the wedding ring he gave his wife, Mary Todd, the words “Love Is Eternal.” This describes, too, the love of the Irish and the Carmelites. My narration of this love and its basis is to all of us an expression of gratitude and a prayer for its continuance.
Alfred Isacsson, O. Carm.
Mt. Carmel Priory
The O’Callaghan Papers
When he was residing at Whitefriars Hall, Washington, DC, and studying theology at Catholic University (1940-44), Donal O’Callaghan was working on a degree in Church History. O’Callaghan planned to write for his thesis the involvement of the New York Carmelites in the Irish Freedom Movement. During his summers, he did research at depositories in New York City. The results of his research are about eleven inches of 3" X 5" index cards and dozens of large sized papers filled with the material he had gathered. He also corresponded with those then still living who had been associated with the Carmelites and their work among the Irish. All of this was available to me and using his work moved me to try to finish what he had begun.
In O’Callaghan’s time, there were still in the New York Province of Carmelites a number of priests who were born, reared and educated in Ireland. In an attempt to secure oral history from them, he prepared lists of questions to ask of these older priests. There still exists a number of these lists, some handwritten and some typed. There are also records of answers. We are sure of the name of only one respondent, Hugh D. Devlin. There were others and I suspect they were Christopher Slattery, Lawrence D. Flanagan, William S. Bradley and possibly Celestine G. Fitzpatrick.
What follows now is material preserved by O’Callaghan and currently in the archives of the Carmelites of the New York Province. It was material gathered from the Carmelites he interviewed and represents their positions on certain issues. It tells us that Peter Elias Magennis belonged to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Clan na Gael. He and Christopher Slattery carried messages to and from Ireland for the Movement and Devlin in 1921 carried a message he delivered personally to Liam Mellows.
The resignation of Elias Magennis from the presidency of the Friends of Irish Freedom was not so much as being required because he was elected Prior General of the Carmelite Order but because the pro De Valera American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic had been founded. He resigned only when a new organization existed to replace the one shanghaied by the anti-De Valera forces.
When Eamon De Valera came to New York after he escaped from Lincoln Prison, he came to the Carmelite priory to spend the night before his first public appearance. Hugh Devlin added the information that John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan both came to the 29th Street Priory to see De Valera before he made his first public appearance at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.1 These two later returned and accompanied by Dermot Lynch, Dick Dalton and Charles Rice brought De Valera to this first appearance in the United States.
Besides De Valera, those staying at the Carmelite priory or closely associated with the Carmelites were Liam Pedlar, Harry Boland, Sean Nunan, Liam Mellows, Pat Fleming, Mary and Mrs. MacSwiney, Lord Mayor Donal O’Callaghan and T. P. O’Connor. It is interesting that the first four names in this list are persons usually named as involved in the procurement and shipment of arms to Ireland.
“Griffith, Collins and O’Connor used Priory as a place where leaders could be found and messages delivered.” This is a quote from these records.
O’Callaghan placed a letter in the Irish Echo (August 28, 1943) asking for information about Peter Elias Magennis, Denis O’Connor and the Carmelites’ role in the Irish Freedom Movement. It seems this did not produce any new material.
He also wrote to those associated with the Carmelites and obtained their recollections of the Carmelites’ activities. In 1941, Robert Brennan, the Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Irish Legation in Washington, attributed the reorganization of the Movement after 1916 in a great part to Peter Elias Magennis. He pointed out Denis Berchmans Devlin of Whitefriars Street, Dublin, as one of the greatest supporters and the confidant and friend of every leader from 1916 on. Brennan also told of how Terenure College, Dublin, was at one time or another a shelter for most of the leaders.2 Thomas Hurton, a Philadelphia priest active in the Movement, replied that the 28th Street church and “rectory” were the soul of the post 1916 Movement.3
Seamus MacDermott, brother of Sean executed after the 1916 Rising, answered O’Callaghan’s request by stating the Peter Elias Magennis was a member of the Geraldines Club of New York City. He recalled that he joined in 1917 or 1918 and was a member for three or four years.4 Dorothy Godfrey answered with praise for Magennis and O’Connor and recalled how Mrs. Skeffington went to Fifth Avenue - possibly the American Irish Historical Society - when Liam Mellows was executed. She felt frozen out and then went to the Carmelite priory where Denis O’Connor served her tea and had a long chat. 5
Connie Neenan, long active in the Movement, told of Magennis returning to the United States from Rome in the 1928-30 period and bringing from Ireland messages for himself and Joseph McGarrity. Neenan received the messages in the Bronx - probably at Saint Simon Stock Priory - and delivered them to McGarrity. Neenan also cautioned O’Callaghan that the work of the Clan na Gael and of “the people at home” was never put on paper and that this was a strict policy.6
Sean Nunan, then Counselor to the Irish Legation in Washington, wrote of his stay in the United States from January, 1919 to December, 1921 when he was secretary to Eamon De Valera and the Registrar of the Irish Republic Bond Drive. He said all involved in the Movement were welcome at the Carmelite priory which was also a center where they could get in touch with colleagues and it was a kind of post office where messages could be left and received. He cited himself as an example of their hospitality. When he jumped ship in New York to join Harry Boland, Nunan went to the priory and slept there that night. After naming the individual Carmelites, he wrote they always had the door “on the latch.” Plans for the Bond Drive and the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic were made at the priory. Methods for combating the Black and Tans were put into operation from the priory.7
Another person Donal O’Callaghan contacted was Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party’s presidential candidate. He saw the Black and Tans as inviting war with Great Britain and called them a reproach to our common humanity. He said he spoke in this manner at meetings Magennis presided over and at other gatherings that Magennis was present at. Thomas called his brief acquaintance with Magennis “one of the delightful memories of my life.” He went on to write, “I conceived for him the highest admiration as a man, a Priest and an advocate of a good cause. He had courage, humor, devotion and power.”8
We have put together here in one place the oral and written traditions gathered by Donal O’Callaghan to show the importance of his efforts to preserve the record of the Carmelites’ involvement with the Irish Freedom Movement. Without his work, we would be at a loss not only of much of the information we have but also for the many leads to other material that his work has furnished.
The Clan na Gael was founded on Hester Street, New York City, on June 20, 1867 by Jerome J. Collins who was originally from Dunmanway, County Cork. Collins had planned to free Fenian prisoners in London but when his plans became known he fled to the United States. Shortly after he founded the Clan, Collins went on an Arctic expedition in which he perished. In the period from the late 1880's to the turn of the century, the Clan had problems. John Devoy solved them, reunited the Clan and reestablished relationship with the Irish Republican Brotherhood by means of a seven man Joint Revolutionary Directory.9 The Clan was from then a secret organization financed by the Supreme Council of the IRB. By 1916, the Clan had come to the position that the independence of Ireland could only be secured by force. This is the same position that Elias Magennis came to and explains why Donald O’Callaghan was so interested in Magennis’ membership in both the Clan and the IRB.
When we speak of Carmelite involvement in the Irish Freedom Movement, we are referring to the Carmelite houses that became in 1931 the New York Province of Saint Elias and mainly to the superiors. In those days, there was an authority structure that was inviolate. Elevation by election or appointment to the position of superior made one newsworthy and quotable. A certain amount of prestige came with the office and this added to the attractiveness and credibility of the superiors as speakers. They, too, were the schedule makers and could make themselves available for speaking engagements.
It is not until the early 1930's that the first native vocations in the province were ordained priests. Generally speaking, the majority of priests came from Ireland until the start of World War II. Besides the Carmelites that were not Irish born, a few of the Irish born were not in support of the Irish Freedom Movement. One such was Edward Southwell, who came from Kildare. He was not supportive probably because the presence of British troops at the Curragh Camp near his home influenced his political persuasion. Another factor may have been the fact that Southwell’s family operated a grocery store in Kildare that surely relied on at least some British patronage.
Subjects had little or no outlet for their opinion or positions on issues. There are hints of disagreement between superiors and subjects on various issues but because of the authority invested in them, the superiors’ positions on Irish issues were taken as the Carmelite positions.
The greatest time of Irish activity in the Carmelite parish of Our Lady of the Scapular at 28th Street and First Avenue was from 1916 to 1924. During this period Denis O’Connor, Gerard O’Farrell, Christopher Slattery, Lawrence D. Flanagan, Hugh Devlin and Dominic Hastings were in the main the Carmelites stationed in the parish and also serving Bellevue Hospital.
Wolf Tone and Daniel O’Connell were the parents of the two strains of Irish nationalism that survived to this period. O’Connell sought to achieve independence through parliamentary procedures, elections and alliances. Tone sought to achieve separation from England by the force of arms. The Carmelites’ nationalism was that of Tone embracing the use of force.
Though many Carmelites were involved in the Irish Freedom Movement, there are some whose importance demands the presentation of some background material.
Gerard William O’Farrell was born in Dublin, April 1, 1885. Educated at the National University when it was a center of Irish nationalism, he was ordained June 6, 1914. After a year in Dublin, he came to the 28th Street parish in 1915 and specialized in conducting parish missions. On a number of occasions, he expressed his regret at not being able, because of his priestly duties, to contribute more to the cause of Irish freedom. Irish literature was his specialty and he often lectured on Irish literary figures.
O’Farrell carefully studied Padraic Pearse and from a series of lectures on him published An Appreciation of Padraic H. Pearse, first President of the Irish Republic. He dedicated the publication to Peter Elias Magennis with the inscription, “As a token of a life-long esteem and as an appreciation of his untiring efforts in the cause of Ireland, this essay is affectionately dedicated.” O’Farrell also expressed thanks to Liam Mellows for suggestions and the reading of the proofs.10
When the Carmelites opened the new parish of St. Simon Stock in the Bronx in 1919, Gerard O’Farrell became the first pastor. In the five years he served in this capacity, he built a church, priory and school. In 1924, he succeeded Denis O’Connor as the major superior, Commissary General, of the five foundations that would become a province in the Carmelite Order in 1931.
In early 1926, Gerard O’Farrell began to experience problems with his kidneys apparently from their cessation of operation due to stones. After postponing any treatment until after the dedication of the St. Simon Stock facilities by Patrick Cardinal Hayes, O’Farrell entered St. Vincent’s Hospital for an operation. After the surgery, he died June 15, 1926 from either septicemia or the failure of the operation to correct the kidneys’ malfunction.
Denis Finbar O’Connor was born December 16, 1871 in Wexford and raised in Kinsale. One version for the family’s move would have his father working for a railroad and transferred to Kinsale to be the station master. Another would have him employed by the lighthouse services and transferred to the light at Kinsale. Ordained September 24, 1895, O’Connor was in Australia at Gawler with Peter Elias Magennis for five years (1896-1901) before coming to Our Lady of the Scapular, Manhattan for the period, 1901-1908. He was at Transfiguration, Tarrytown, 1909-1916 where he had been made prior and pastor at the Irish Provincial Chapter of 1909. That year of the Rising (1916) was one of an Irish Provincial Chapter at which O’Connor was a representative. The chapter returned him to Our Lady of the Scapular this time as prior. He remained there until his death in 1924 at a time when he had been the major superior, Commissary General, of the Carmelites for the past two years. He died of pneumonia contracted while speaking in the rain at an open air rally in Jersey City.11
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