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


“When my country takes its place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.” Robert Emmet famously said this in his “Speech from the Docks” on September 19, 1803 at his trial for high treason held at Sessions Hall in Dublin.

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, where I will be discussing the Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association.

Robert Emmet, an Irish Nationalist, was tried for high treason for his role in the Dublin Rising of 1803 and was brutally executed by the British Government. Robert Emmet, more than any other Irish historical figure, had an incredible influence on the national consciousness of Irish America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this time period Butte had many Irish-American fraternal groups committed to the cause of Irish independence. These groups had an impressive knowledge of Irish history and freedom fighters such as Robert Emmet. It seems logical that a group of Irish Americans immersed in the politics of Ireland’s independence movement would take the name of one of its most prominent heroes.

The Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association (RELA) was established in September 1881 by forty-two Butte Irishmen to form the Emmet Associates and became the RELA Camp 90 of the Clan na Gael. The organization was established to preserve the independence of the United States, provide a detailed history of Ireland, develop relations between America and Ireland and promote the revival of Irish language, music and customs. It was an Irish American fraternal organization that supported, protected, cared for its members and provided monetary assistance to members in time of sickness or unemployment. The RELA was a semi-secretive organization that assigned numbers as identification instead of a person’s actual name. Between 1881 and 1911 there were slightly over 800 members with 600 alone inducted in 1905.

The Butte RELA was affiliated with the Clan na Gael, a nationalistic organization established in America in 1865 and its camps such as the Butte RELA were committed to obtaining Irish independence. These affiliates were in the “physical force camp” that favored armed rebellion as a way to achieve Irish independence. Support for countries fighting England was encouraged as a way to weaken and reduce the British Empire’s influence in the world, thus indirectly helping Irish independence. RELA meeting minutes show support for Germany fighting the British in World War One “where a few more of the English Navy will see the bottom of the ocean in a short time.” Support was also given to the Boers fighting the English army during the Boer War(1899-1902). The Anaconda Standard reported “several Anaconda and Butte men are known to be fighting in the (Irish) Brigade against the British army.”

In addition to having a powerful impact on its members and families, the RELA also had an influence in other areas. First, the RELA played an important role in the early cultural history of Butte by sponsoring events, such as parades, lectures and the New Year’s Eve Grand Ball. The RELA did not organize these events in isolation, but jointly planned cultural events with other organizations in the Butte area. This inclusive planning process served to bring the community together for common celebrations. Most celebrations happened without incident, except, on one occasion, there was an unsuccessful attempt to dynamite Hibernia Hall during the January 1, 1923 celebration. Secondly, the RELA took an activist role regarding Irish independence, as it sponsored visits and lectures given by Irish activists supporting the cause of Irish independence. Several of these activists have been profiled here on previous programs.

RELA support for Irish independence never wavered, but its strategies evolved over time. The organization remained true to its mission and goals as it became more active in national and international affairs The organization’s philosophy and policy actions ran parallel to some of Ireland’s more progressive positions concerning Irish independence.

In the early history of the RELA, there was an interest in endorsing Douglas Hyde’s Gaelic League, with its emphasis on Irish traditional arts and culture as a path to Irish independence. This non-violent approach gained momentum in both Ireland and the United States.

Beginning in the early 1900s both the RELA and Irish activists became frustrated with the Parliamentary path to independence. The RELA became more committed to the physical force camp in its policy statements and actions. This led the organization to provide a platform for Irish social activists Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Constance Markievicz, to explain their ideas concerning Irish independence.

After World War One, the RELA utilized the political process to lobby state and national politicians concerning Irish independence. Lobbying efforts such as personal visits and letter writing became part of this process. This lobbying was successful in persuading Montana senators, state leaders and governors to lobby their colleagues to draft proclamations for Irish independence. It would take another thirty years for Ireland to gain independence and become a republic

Also, RELA members started to attend national conferences relating to Irish independence and participated in decision making with members from larger cities. In addition to participating in the political process, the RELA raised significant sums of money for the Irish Relief Fund ($45,496) and the Irish Bond Drive ($80,000) during the 1920s. The RELA raised the $14,000 needed for the Thomas Francis Meagher statue now located on the grounds of the Montana State Capitol. Despite the intense interest in Irish affairs, the RELA always stayed active in Butte cultural affairs.

The memory of the RELA has not been erased from Butte history. In 1903 the RELA established a Memorial statue, dedicated to deceased members, at their St.Patrick’s Cemetery plot. The Memorial is substantial and made of Massachusetts granite with the name and nativity of 38 early day RELA members. The letters RELA are found on the east side of the monument along with a harp on the south side and is a fitting remembrance of this organization

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this edition of the Harp Without the Crown. Please listen next time as I will discuss membership and the military component of the RELA.