The Need of an Organization such as the American-Irish Historical Society and its Scope

Dennis Harvey Sheahan

Citation Information:  Dennis Harvey Sheahan, “The Need of an Organization such as the American-Irish Historical Society and its Scope.” From Proceedings of the American-Irish Historical Society, edited by Thomas Hamilton Murray and Thomas Bonaventure Lawler, Vol. I, Boston, 1898, p. 69-73.

Dennis Harvey Sheahan, of Providence, R. I., read the following paper on “The Need of an Organization such as the American-Irish Historical Society and its Scope”:

The history of a country is dear to the heart of the lover of that country. By the aid of historical study we learn of the origin, growth, and development of a race of people; their customs, religions, laws, governments; their accomplishments and what they have contributed to the economy of the world. The historian points out the past to the present and future. He puts aside the veil that has gathered about the dim past, opens up to the gaze of the bright present the panorama of human achievement, and blazes the way for his successor in the rosy future.

What the clergyman learns from the theological disputations of the past, the poring monk has gathered together; what the physician now acquires with comparative ease is furnished him by the knowledge garnered from the experience of his brethren from the time when man learned that pain and aches affected his being; what the lawyer gains from precedents is a guiding light which sheds its rays, upon problems of jurisprudence that the legal lore of the past generations has taken from the leaves of experience; what formulae the scientist is able to demonstrate he owes to the observations of men who, through the ages, have chronicled the phenomena of nature; the statesman is able to meet the crises of the present by being informed as to other crises in governmental affairs.

The citizen of a republic who neglects to learn the fundamental principles upon which rest the laws of the land, who does not know how the country was developed and maintained, is as a blind man, and is not able to bring to the exercise of his suffrage the amount of intelligence that the country has a right to require from him.

This obligation comes to us in a twofold capacity. We, as citizens of this great Republic, should study the history of our country from a patriotic standpoint, while as Irishmen, or descendants of that race, it should be not only a duty but a pleasure to learn of the deeds of Irishmen in America.

Therefore, an organization such as the American-Irish Historical Society, if it had no other raison d’etre, would accomplish a patriotic purpose if it served only as an incentive to the study of the deeds of Irishmen in America.

It has become almost a maxim in historical matters that the history of events cannot be accepted as facts until the generation which lived at the time said events occurred has passed away.

The passions, influences, and conditions which generate, shape, and control events lend a coloring to their recital which, deep-lined or faint as painted by the writer at the time, are toned down or made stronger by the historian of a future generation who, unmindful of passions, influences, or conditions, and with an eye single to the preservation of history by means of the truth, makes past occurrences stand out in their true light.

Deeds that have received but a passing mention from writers whose minds were biased are rescued from an unmerited insignificance and placed high in the Temple of Fame, while highly extolled acts, given an undue prominence by a partisan writer, are consigned to a merited oblivion by the historian of a later but more impartial epoch.

It is not often true of history that the stone which was rejected by the builder becomes the corner stone of the edifice.

A member of the Society of Friends who desires to familiarize himself with the history of his sect in New England would find but little of the truth in the writings which have come from such intellectual dyspeptics as Cotton Mather and his disciples. But in the unwritten history of Quaker persecutions that have become legendary, by the purity of their lives, by their nobility of character and their Christianizing influences, the pioneers of that faith stand out in bold relief in the religious history of Puritan New England, with its dark background of scourging, mutilation, banishments, and hangings.

By analogy, how can the Irish-American race expect that the history of Irishmen in New England can be presented in just proportion to the true merits of the case?

In fact, who has heard much of Irishmen in New England until the present generation? As in New England, so throughout the Colonies. The Virginia Cavalier was not less hostile to the Irish than the Massachusetts Puritan.

Should the American-Irish Historical Society go out of existence tonight, it would have already accomplished a grand mission in this: that it has brought forth from obscure records the deeds of Irishmen in America, and has laid the foundation for the erection of an historical monument to Irishmen that, with its base laid in colonial times, and still being constructed, challenges the respect and admiration of all lovers of American history.

The work of this society has been thus far practically confined to research of New England records. This research has been fruitful of good results.

Among other things we learn of the Irish as brickmakers of Rehoboth and settlers in Salem and Lynn in early colonial times.

Again, we learn that the Irish in the Granite State had become so numerous in colonial times that the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting the “wild Irishmen of New Hampshire” from coming across the state line, lest they should drive out the people of the older colony. As long as that state shall last the glory, and the fame of the Sullivans and their contemporaries of the Irish race will remain illustrious.

The history of Irishmen in Maine will be dwelt upon in the address of one of the gentlemen who is to follow on the program.

This research has extracted from the records of Rhode Island the influence of the Irish schoolmaster, McSparren, in moulding the intellectual development of that colony; it has called attention to the work of Bishop Berkely in the promotion of education there, and what is to me, personally, exceedingly pleasant information, that Brown University, my beloved Alma Mater, in its infancy was succored by the contributions of worthy people residing in Ireland.

The work of presenting to the world the achievements of Irishmen in America, in its just proportion to the achievements of men of other races in the colonization, struggle for independence, and the creation of a republic, the development of that republic from a theory into a concrete nation, and the perpetuation of that nation, is a duty not only to the men whose deeds are to be chronicled, but also a debt which we owe to ourselves, which we should cheerfully assume.

The labor involved in this from its very nature is such as can only be performed by an organization such as the American-Irish Historical Society.

The true status of the Irish in America, notwithstanding the fact that their brain and brawn have been interwoven in the woof and web of our nation’s fabric, has never been fully appreciated, by reason of the prejudices which have been associated with anything that bore an Irish name. This prejudice, in no small part, arose from misconception and misunderstanding of the Irish nature, temperament, and characteristics. There is a brand of bigotry that is sometimes designated as inborn. In the case of a bigot whose bigotry is congenital, it is well to follow the scriptural injunction to reason not with a fool lest he grow wise. But in the case of those persons who, by reason of misconception or want of acquaintance with Irishmen, cannot properly estimate our race, yet whose minds are broad enough to cherish the worth of a man when demonstrated, and whose patriotism counts every man a friend who has contributed to the glory of his country, an impartial history of the deeds of Irishmen in America would effectively serve to displace any prejudice.

What lover of the human race, animated by that noble sentiment of Terence, “I am a man, and I think nothing human foreign to me,” can fail to appreciate the sturdy virtues of the Irish people in America, their patient industry, their obedience to constituted authority, their domestic constancy, their desire to provide homes for their families and education for their children?

What patriotic American can fail to be moved by emotions of gratitude when he learns among other facts that the Irish in Ireland assisted with food and provisions the struggling settlers of Boston in a time of dire distress; that Irishmen of Philadelphia contributed large sums of money to the famished Revolutionary heroes at Valley Forge; that George Washington considered himself honored in being elected a member of an Irish society; that nine of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of Irish blood; that on the field of war, and in the council chamber of the nation, as well as in the administration of national, state, and municipal affairs, from the time of our earliest history to the present time, men of that race have given their lives and property to the nation’s cause ? The work of this society thus far in this direction gives promise of either destroying the prejudices that have hitherto existed against the Irish people, or removing the venom from the fangs of bigotry.

To my mind the most urgent need of a society of this nature is the means it affords of preserving Irish history in America. It would be a great misfortune if the history of the Irish people in America, at present fragmentary at best, yet gathered together under favorable conditions and after the most careful and painstaking labor, could not find some secure lodgment.

What more suitable abiding place than the cabinet of the American- Irish Historical Society, from whence it could find its way into the private and public libraries, not only of our own country, but of the civilized world?