By Sam Smith
St, Patrick's Day celebrations were begun by American Irish Protestants. According to Edward T. O'Donnell in the History News Network:
The idea spread. For example, on March 17, 1812, in Savannah GA, thirteen men founded the Hibernian Society dedicated to aiding destitute Irish immigrants, largely Catholic. A few months later, the group, now up to 44 members, adopted a constitution and the motto, "non sibi sed alis" (not for ourselves, but for others). Not one charter member was a Catholic. One year later, on March 17, the group marched in procession to a Presbyterian church for a service and oration.
Thanks to Irish-American Protestants, St. Patrick's Day became secularized rather than, as in Ireland, considered a day of holy obligation. In fact, until the 1970s the bars in Dublin were closed on March 17.
Over the next few decades, groups such as the Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, and Irish Aid societies sprung up in America as a reflection of Irish loyalty and concern for Irish immigrants.
The Catholics were not the only religion persecuted by the English. Presbyterians, who had fled Scotland to escape persecution, found a similar fate in Ireland. It was one of the causes of Irish emigration to America prior to the potato famine. As one history recounts:
This account also describes a fundamentalist twist that may seem odd to today's reader:
1791 saw the creation of the multi-denominational United Irishmen. Its members initially merely sought political and economic reforms, but within four years had begun arming themselves and talking of liberation. They also revised their oath to read:
While many Presbyterians declined to support or withdrew from the United Irishmen, the group was central to the uprising of 1798. This largely Protestant revolt was a failure and, with the exception a minor skirmish in Tipperary in 1848 and one at Chester Castle in 1867, there would not be another Irish armed rebellion until the 20th century.
Irish Protestant emigrants played a major role in the American Revolution and the revolution in turn influenced events in Ireland. For example, the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to be printed outside of North America appeared in the pages of the 'Belfast Newsletter.' A less direct influence came when England was forced to rely on Irish volunteer companies to defend Ireland because its regular troops were in America. After the war, the 80,000-strong Volunteers pressed for political reform.
Some Irish Protestants and Catholics joined in support of the French revolution and in encouraging a French invasion of Ireland on behalf of the Irish cause. The French national assembly even promised military and financial support for an uprising against the English.
Among the influences on Irish Protestants were the writings of Tom Paine. His 'Rights of Man' was declared "the Bible of Belfast.' 40,000 copies were sold in Ulster and it was reprinted in four Irish newspapers.
Following the American revolution, Paine encouraged similar uprisings in Europe, suggesting, "it is not difficult to believe that the spring is begun".
Among pro-nationalist Protestants of the time was Theobald Wolfe Tone, who wrote an early "Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland." He also served as secretary of the Catholic Committee. Tone, upon his capture in 1798, was refused a soldier's execution by gunshot and was sentenced to be hung. He made an eloquent speech about the virtues of republicanism in court and then returned to his cell where he cut his own throat.
Irish Protestant Thomas Addis Emmett, brother of 1798 uprising leader Robert Emmett, was captured and condemned but later won a reprieve. In 1804, a year after his brother was hung, he emigrated to America. He became the highly regarded attorney general of New York, well enough known nationally that a New Orleans attorney said of him, "his name rings down the valley of the Mississippi, and we hail his efforts with a kind of local pride." Tom Paine liked him well enough to leave him $200 in his will.
A 20th century Protestant fighter for the Irish cause, Erskine Childers, was executed on charges of possessing a small pistol after helping Eamon de Valera and other IRA members lead a rebellion against the Irish free state government. His son would become president of Ireland in the 1970s. Childers, regarded as the father of the modern spy novel ("Riddle of the Sands"), used his 50-foot ketch to smuggle arms to the Irish rebels. In support of his execution, Winston Churchill said, "no man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavored to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being."
Although he would later become far more conservative, Protestant poet WB Yeats as a young man was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. An 1899 police report called him as "more or less revolutionary" and he wrote a poem about the 1916 uprising:
Yeats said of Irish Protestants during a 1925 Senate debate on divorce, "We . . . are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence."