The Harp Without the Crown – Kathleen O’Brennan


“Ireland’s position is not fully understood by the majority of Americans.” Quote from Kathleen O’Brennan at a Finlen Hotel banquet during her stay in Butte in late April,1918.

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 Kathleen O’Brennan’s visit to Butte in April 1918.

Kathleen O’ Brennan was born into a Dublin family who embraced their Irish heritage and were in favor of Irish independence. Her parents instilled in Kathleen the ideals of, and belief in, universal suffrage, gender equality, civil liberties and a sovereign Irish Republic. Events in Ireland, such as the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921), and the Irish Civil War (1922 to 1923) influenced her thinking about the necessity of obtaining Irish independence from England. Also during this important time in Ireland’s history, an Irish cultural revival was happening that promoted the study of the Irish language, arts and culture. The Irish Gaelic League, founded by Douglas Hyde, became the main organization leading this Irish cultural revival. It emphasized the study and practice of the Irish language, culture, art, sports, and language as a means to gain Irish self-reliance and independence. Kathleen embraced the ideas of the Gaelic League, and after finishing her formal education, became a member of the Gaelic League where she began to study the Irish language and Irish history. Kathleen was a very talented writer and chose journalism as a career, which allowed her a public platform to discuss Irish independence on the world stage.

In October of 1914 Kathleen came to the United States on a lecture tour designed to discuss the work of the Gaelic League and the efforts of other Irish Nationalist groups and individuals campaigning for Irish Home Rule. The tour was meant to be of short duration but her travel plans changed with the onset of World War One and the sinking of the Lusitania, and she stayed in America for several years. Traveling across America, Kathleen had speaking engagements with women’s social, suffrage and political groups. She toured several Canadian provinces and across the United States twice.

Kathleen had fourteen different lectures prepared, seven were about the Irish Revival, two about Irish music, and five about Irish politics. Prior to the 1916 Easter Rising, Kathleen’s lectures were mostly about the Irish Revival, focusing on the importance of Irish language, literature, and culture. After the Easter Rising, her lectures became more political and focused on the plight and needs of imprisoned and killed Irish Volunteer Army soldiers and their dependents. She also discussed the importance of Irish independence and the role of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, in the Irish independence movement.

Kathleen’s visit to Butte was arranged and sponsored by the Robert Emmet Literary Association, a Butte fraternal organization committed to Irish independence. She arrived in Butte April 28,1918. The Anaconda Standard noted her visit would be an extended stay that would include lectures and visits with friends and relatives. She gave three different lectures in Butte that covered several topics of importance to Ireland and Irish American communities.

One address, at the Empress Theater, was viewed by a large audience and was an appeal to support Irish independence and an account of the economic and political situation in Ireland. Her lecture at the Empress also attempted to counter British propaganda depicting Ireland as satisfied with British rule. She countered that propaganda by noting British policies reduced the Irish population of ten million in 1800 to four million, just one hundred years later. She felt it was impossible for Ireland to be satisfied under a British government responsible for starvation and forced immigration.

Throughout her lectures she touched the hearts of the Butte audiencies by complimenting the caliber of the Irish in America, especially Thomas Francis Meagher, first territorial Governor of Montana. Kathleen went on to describe the Sinn Fein political party as a viable player in the struggle for Irish independence, which was contrary to British propaganda depicting Sinn Fein as insignificant. At the end of each address she encouraged the audience to “appeal to the American President Wilson to support the demands of the Irish people for self determination.” Kathleen also asked the citizens of Butte “to support the demands of the Irish people for independence and ask their state legislatures to demand Irish independence, like the legislatures of New York, Illinois, Texas and California.”

At Hibernia Hall in Centerville she lectured on the topic, “The History and Poetry of Ireland,” and discussed the achievements of Irish poets and scholars, and their contribution to Irish identity and independence. The Gaelic League, of which Kathleen was a member, believed strongly that establishing Irish identity and awareness through the arts was necessary if true Irish independence was to be achieved.

Although Kathleen was enthusiastically received in Butte, it was not the case in Spokane, Washington. She arrived there just two months after leaving Butte. Kathleen was outspoken in her opposition to America’s involvement in, and support of England, during World War One. She also opposed the military draft and conscription of Irishmen to fight in the War. “Ireland has no quarrel with Germany…Germany has not infringed upon any of our rights…Ireland has no enemy but Great Britain.”

Her anti war opinions did not sit well with certain members of the Spokane community. The Spokane Chronicle headline,” Slam the Door on Miss O’Brennan,” criticized these remarks and went on to label her as a propagandist for the Irish political party Sinn Fein. Her comments about the War led the Spokane Commissioner of Public Health, J.M.Geraghty, to order the Police Department to prevent her from any future appearances. Mr. Geraghty felt her “unpatriotic and disorderly remarks were an abuse of the privilege of free speech.” Like many Irish activists who visited Butte, Kathleen believed that “England’s difficulty would be Irelend’s opportunity” and military setbacks for England on the world stage would weaken the Empire, thus helping Ireland achieve independence. This sentiment was also documented in the meeting minutes of the Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association as well as in other Irish American organizations.

Like many Irish activists who have been profiled in this series, Kathleen was a personal friend of Eamon De Valera, one of Ireland’s most influential political leaders of the 20th century. De Valera urged Irish activists, like Kathleen, who “intimately knew all the leaders of the 1916 Rising” to visit America. Her visit to Butte attempted to keep the community informed about conditions in Ireland and to strengthen the ties between Ireland and Irish American communities, such as Butte. Her belief in Home Rule, as a way to achieve Irish independence, committed her to the hope that Irish independence could be achieved through the British legislative process. Although this approach was popular in Ireland and America, these hopes were dashed after three failed attempts to get Home Rule legislation passed through the British parliament. Despite this setback, Kathleen O’Brennan was not deterred from discussing Irish independence with the Butte Irish community and gaining their support for Irish independence.

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