The Harp Without the Crown – Friends of Irish Freedom


“Attention Irish Americans: A mass meeting will be held in Hibernia Hall on Sunday April 30 at 2 P.M. for purposes of forming a branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom, any man of Irish blood who believes that Ireland ought (to) be a free and independent Republic and is willing to work to that end is urgently requested to attend.” Advertisement in the Butte Miner April 29, 1916.

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 Patrick H. Pearse Branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom(FOIF), established in the spring of 1916.

In previous episodes of this series, I have discussed the American based Clan na Gael and its Butte division, the Robert Emmet Literary Association(RELA). Both organizations were committed to supporting Irish revolutionaries in Ireland and obtaining total independence from England. The Clan na Gael and its divisions, which included the RELA, channeled money to various Irish groups in Ireland, lobbied the American Congress, and brought Irish activists and politicians to America, and more importantly to Butte, Montana.

Deep within the membership of both organizations was a distrust and hatred of England and the feeling that America was developing close ties and a friendship with England, which they felt could damper support for Irish independence among American politicians and the American population.

John Devoy, leader of the Gael na Gael, had long felt there needed to be an organization in America dedicated to combating English influence and anti-Irish independence propaganda in America.

John Devoy got his wish for his plan of a new organization when the Clan na Gael in 1915 went ahead with their plans for a great Irish Race Convention to be held in 1916. He wanted the Convention to launch a new Irish-American organization which Devoy felt would “afford a rallying point for the union of the entire Irish race at home and abroad.” Also, the Convention would discuss Irish-America’s position about the possibility of America entering World War One.

The Butte RELA was very supportive of the Convention.
At a January meeting a member reported “there is a Convention of the Irish Race in America to be called soon to voice their sentiments on the position of Ireland in the European War.” At a February RELA meeting, a communication from the New York Clan na Gael headquarters was read “asking that the Butte RELA send a delegate or delegates to the Irish Race Convention.

A committee of five was established to make arrangements for the March 4 celebration.” The committee decided to send one member (Brother number 58) to attend and serve as a delegate to the Convention held on March 4, 1916, in the Hotel Astor in New York City.

The Convention drew members from across America and 2,300 delegates attended and established the Friends of Irish Freedom. The Friends pledged themselves,”to encourage and assist any movement that will tend to bring about the national independence of Ireland.” Throughout 1916, most states established branches including in Butte where RELA Brother 13, in 1916, spoke at length about organizing a branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom.

The May 1,1916 Butte Miner reported that in April 1916 a huge meeting held at Hibernia Hall in Centerville passed a resolution establishing a Butte Branch of the FOIF. Judge Jeremiah Lynch established the organization and officially titled it the Patrick H. Pearse Branch of the FOIF. They resolved “to achieve in a practical manner the aims and purposes of this patriotic and nationwide organization…and.. “aid Irish volunteers and patriot forces in whatever course they may decide to follow for achievement of a free and independent Ireland.” The FOIF was not structured to be a revolutionary body committed to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland.

Dr. Dave Emmons in his book “The Butte Irish” notes that initially there were 76 known members of which 41 were women. Members had to be Irish by birth or by descent. He also reported 50 of the original 76 known members were Irish born. Unlike the Clan na Gael, operations were opened to the public and publicized and both women and men were eligible for membership. Over the next few years national membership jumped to 100,000 in 1920 and the Butte FOIF reported 1,232 known members.

The Butte FOIF achieved several important accomplishments in the area of fundraising. The Butte FOIF on May 19 started to raise funds for the Irish Relief Fund, hoping to raise $5,000 to $6,000 in subscriptions. The Relief Fund was established to aid and benefit families and dependents of Irish prisoners and martyrs, mostly from the 1916 Easter Rising. Nationally, $350,000 was raised which would have the purchasing power today of almost ten million dollars. At a FOIF meeting held in May 1916, the Friends collected $2,638.30 for the Relief Fund, which has the purchasing power today of over $73,000. This money became an important source of support for the thousands of Irish people directly impacted by the 1916 Easter Rising.

Another important and successful FOIF fundraising activity related to the Irish Victory Fund. The Fund was proposed by the FOIF and endorsed at the 1919 Philadelphia Irish Race Convention. The purpose of the Fund was to raise $1,000,000 to fund FOIF work in America, such as countering British and American propaganda concerning the political and social conditions in Ireland. The Fund raised $1,007,804 nationally with purchasing power in today’s money of over $15,000,000. The Butte FOIF raised $14,426 which has the purchasing power of $222,000 in today’s money. It is important to note that the Butte Friends of Irish Freedom outraised branches in twenty-five states in obtaining the $1,000,000 goal.

In addition to raising funds for these two important causes, the FOIF was instrumental in coordinating and sponsoring the speaking tours of many Irish activists and politicians visiting America. Most were in some fashion tied to the events of the

1916 Easter Rising. The Butte FOIF made arrangements for many of these speakers when arriving in Butte. Two in particular were Liam Mellows and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, both have been previously profiled in this series. Mellows was a participant in the Easter Rising and was later executed for his role in fighting the British Army in1922. Sheehy- Skeffington’s husband was shot in the back as a prisoner and killed by British soldiers a few days after the Easter Rising. She was involved in the Irish Women’s Suffrage Movement and was committed to an independent Irish Republic. Both informed Butte audiences about their experiences with the Easter Rising and the social and political conditions in Ireland, which was contrary to the British government narrative.

The goals of the FOIF differed significantly from other Irish-American organizations. True to their founding principles, they were focused on shaping American public opinion concerning the political and social conditions in Ireland. Their participation in the Irish Relief Fund and Victory Drive tied the Butte Irish community to the rest of Irish America and Ireland. Also, their focus and purpose did not align them with the more militant organizations that promoted military support for Ireland. It should also be noted they were an egalitarian organization which had both women and men members, which was unique for Butte a hundred years ago.

Many historians of modern Ireland have noted that political and social conditions in Ireland were positively changed because of moral, physical,informational and financial support generated by Irish American groups such as the Friends of Irish Freedom. The Butte Friends of Irish Freedom played an important role in aiding and assisting Ireland in their time of need as well as providing the Butte Irish community an alternative viewpoint concerning events in Ireland.

Future episodes in this series will focus on additional Friends of Irish Freedom activities, later Irish Race Conventions and the testimony of Butte Friends of Irish Freedom member and future Montana Senator, James E. Murray, before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee debating a resolution supporting Irish Freedom.

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp with the Crown.