The Harp Without the Crown – Robert Emmet Literary Association Part 3


The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was “fighting for the country, the others are poor misguided fools fighting England’s battles.” Quotation from Father Michael Hannan, member #47 of the Robert Emmet Literary Association (RELA) and pastor of Butte’s St. Mary’s Church.

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 three members of the Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association.

As mentioned last time, the RELA was a semi-secretive fraternal organization formed in Butte in 1881 and dedicated to promoting Butte community events and Irish independence. There were many colorful members of the organization who were outspoken in their defense of Irish independence. Part three of my look into the Butte RELA will focus on three members of the RELA: Father Michael Hannan, Hugh O’Daly and visiting member Patrick Finnegan.

Father Michael Hannan, originally from Limerick, Ireland, was pastor of Butte’s St. Mary’s Church in the early 1900s. In his role as pastor and RELA member, he was especially outspoken in advocating for Irish independence and documenting the failures of the Irish Free State Treaty passed in the early 1920s. The Treaty still kept Ireland under England’s rule. Even though he wished the Irish Free State to be at the “end of a rope” he remained realistic that Irish independence would not come easy. He recognized the might of the English army and the lack of IRA equipment and arms.

Father Hannan was disappointed in the rebellion effort in Ireland and the “helots of the Irish people who are willing to lie down under the heel of England….are they worth fighting for?” He also went so far as to call revolutionary hero Michael Collins “a traitor.” The Irish Free State and its supporters in Ireland and America were not respected by the Butte RELA and Father Hannan’s pointed comments on this subject were often articulated by other members during meetings in the early 1900s. It is important to note Father Hannan’s position and influence in the Catholic Church. He reached many in the Butte Irish community and shaped or solidified their thinking about achieving Irish independence.

Like many Butte RELA members, Father Hannan was very welcoming to the many Irish independence advocates visiting Butte, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Linda Kearns and Constance Markievicz. While in Butte these activists documented the political and social conditions in Ireland, the limitations of the Irish Free State Treaty and the need for total independence from England. Most Irish speakers coming to Butte were not in favor of this Treaty because it did not grant total independence. The RELA also articulated this position and Father Hannan made sure that Irish activists speaking in Butte were able to have a platform for their positions concerning Irish independence. It could be argued that Father Hannan did more than any individual in Butte in keeping alive the hope for Irish independence. It also gave the RELA a powerful voice on this issue.

Early Butte Irish immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s had either known about or experienced repressive British Governmental policies, as well as generational poverty due to the Great Famine. Another RELA member and Butte resident, Hugh O’Daly, experienced these injustices first hand as a youngster growing up in Ireland. He was born in Ireland and came to Butte by way of Leadville, Colorado and Anaconda. As a twelve year old in Ireland, he was asked to read a speech aloud to his father that was written by Home Rule proponent and patriot Charles Parnell about Irish independence and harsh British land laws. “I grasped the curse that foreign rule was to my country and from that day until now, I have been giving my voice and money to every movement that had as its purpose the freedom of Ireland.” These sentiments guided the Butte RELA. O’Daly was a wealthy member of the RELA who owned several successful businesses in the Butte area, and like Father Hannan, he used his standing in the Butte community to articulate for Irish independence.

It was not unusual to have members from other RELA camps visit the Butte RELA and address the group. There seems to be direct and strong ties with other RELA camps, especially from Leadville, Colorado. One visitor of note was Patrick Finnegan, a native of Galway, Ireland. He attended a Butte RELA meeting July 13,1905. He identified himself as a member of Camp 237 of the Clan na Gael in Boston. He spoke at length of his twenty year imprisonment at four jail sites. Most interesting is that Finnegan was well known in Ireland as one of the “Craughwell Prisoners.” This was a very famous murder case from the Irish Land Wars in 1881 and Finnegan was caught up in the case that was fraught with procedural and legal errors and misrepresentations. Finnegan was falsely accused but fortunately had his death sentence commuted after twenty years in jail.

Finnegan also attended three Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) meetings and both organizations contributed $400 for his benefit with some of the money going toward a book he was writing detailing his jail time and trial. Each RELA member contributed one dollar toward the money raised on his behalf. Incomplete records indicate he lived in Butte for a short time and eventually went back to Ireland where he remained active in Irish Land League issues. Finnegan’s experience in Butte shows the compassion and respect shown by the Butte RELA for distant brothers and Irish prisoners. Unfortunately RELA meeting minutes are short of detail concerning his remarks at that July meeting which likely included a moving prison narrative.

The RELA has a unique place in Butte history. It provided an important social safety net for its members, promoted community events and strongly advocated for Irish independence. Individual members such as Hugh O’Daly and Father Hannan tirelessly worked within the RELA for Irish independence, which was achieved with the establishment of the Irish Republic in the late 1940s.

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