The Harp Without the Crown – Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association (RELA) Part 2


“Cormack McGarvey, Occupation Miner, Residence Butte, Born in Ireland, Proposed by Brother 26, Vouched for by Brother 49, and Reported favorably by Brothers 23, 47, and 18.” This description of a Robert Emmet Literary Association (RELA) member is taken from the RELA meeting minutes during the late 1800s.

Hello, this is John Conlan, host of the Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown and part two of my discussion concerning the Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association. This episode will discuss the membership and military component of the RELA.

As mentioned last week, RELA was a semi-secretive organization established in Butte in 1848 and was named in honor of Robert Emmet, a martyred hero executed by the British Government for his role in the Dublin Rising of 1803. RELA members used assigned numbers as identification instead of a person’s actual name during meetings and were urged to be “careful when speaking outside the group.” Although never formally stated, the RELA may have used the model of secret societies prevalent in Ireland as a guide for their code of secrecy. Secret societies, such as the Ribbonmen in Ireland were agrarian organizations committed to tenant rights. They protected poor Irish tenant farmers by exacting revenge against landlords. RELA members openly discussed the benefits and objectives of secret societies in 1889 and it was generally thought “all that the Irish had achieved was done through secret societies.”

As a secret society, the male only RELA was composed of members predominantly in their twenties or thirties whom were either born in Ireland or were first generation Irish American. Prospective members were proposed for membership by a current member, vouched for by another member, vetted by three members of an investigating committee and accepted or rejected by vote from the members present at the meeting. Most proposed for membership were accepted but there were some exceptions. Members paid dues, could be suspended for being in arrears and then reinstated if back dues were paid. Between 1903 and 1921 there were 977 enrolled members in good standing. Members from other RELA camps throughout America could transfer and be accepted for admission.

NotallRELAmemberswereminersorlaborers. HughO’Dalywasawealthymemberofthe RELA who owned the Gregson Hot Springs, Florence Hotel (a miner’s accommodation) and a saloon on Main Street. There are several examples of prominent Butte citizens belonging to the organization such as D.J. Hennessy, Judge Jeremiah Lynch and Father Michael Hannan (member # 47) of St. Mary’s Church. Despite his wealth and standing in the community, Hennessy felt “we are no better than others” which perfectly stated the egalitarian nature of the RELA.

Last week, I detailed the serious and meaningful work the RELA did in the Butte community and in promoting Irish independence. As a diversion from serious tasks, the RELA meetings always reserved a period of time for what was called the “Good of the Order.” Here there would be recitations, laments, storytelling and song that are all part of Irish cultural traditions, found in Ceilidhs (music and dance events), kitchens and pubs. Members kept these traditions alive during the meeting by singing song selections such as: “The Minstrel Boy,” “The Girl I Left Behind,” “When Harvest Days are Over Jesse Dear,” and “There was Never a Coward Where the Shamrock Grows.” All songs concerned Irish independence, agricultural traditions and immigration.

Members who had recently visited Ireland discussed the time spent in their home country. Poetry and speeches from Irish patriots were read. Cigars and alcohol enhanced the celebration of being Irish in Butte. All these activities promoted a continual love and celebration of being Irish. This is still seen in Butte today. From all indications, it was a time to unwind and forget any disagreements from the meeting. In addition to these light hearted moments, there were debates conducted about Irish and American current affairs. Debates were a big part of meetings and it is here that members showed an impressive knowledge of Irish history, literature, music, and national and world affairs. Debates were conducted with little acrimony and interruption, and respect was given to each member holding the debate topic. Debates provided an opportunity for the RELA to be true to its mission to “promote an intimate knowledge of Irish history.”

The Butte RELA spent a majority of its time organizing local community events or lobbying for Irish independence. However, during the early 1900s its membership formed a military unit “for the purpose of taking part in any revolution that might take place against British rule in Ireland.” Military training became part of the meetings and provided a break about halfway through the proceedings. Military drills were held each week and would last about 45 minutes.

There were military committee(s) responsible for purchase and maintenance of 24 Remington rifles and uniforms. Members were encouraged to familiarize themselves with the manual of these arms and appreciate the necessity of military training for “the liberty and freedom of our land (Ireland).” It was also thought that military training might help with recruitment, especially during times of declining or delinquent membership.

The military training eventually evolved into the desire to form a military company called the Irish Volunteers. In March 1908, $150 went to the military committee to buy the first installment of uniforms. One member felt that the company was to be a “revolutionary organization and to be rebels we must be soldiers.” Maurice Drohan became Captain with 46 men in his Company. In addition to the Irish Volunteers, there was a band and drum corps established. It was hoped the Irish Volunteers would eventually have two companies.

Establishment of a military unit may be viewed as a direct call to action to aid Ireland’s independence movement. It was also a significant shift in the philosophy of the organization as it began to solidify its commitment to the “physical force camp” or armed rebellion to achieve Irish independence. Two members, Hugh O’Daly and Father Michael Hannan, articulated this position and will be featured next time on The Harp Without the Crown.

This is John Conlan and thank you for listening to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown.