Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The background to the involvement of the New York Carmelites in the Irish Freedom Movement of the early 1900s

The original church of Our Lady of the Scapular of
Mount Carmel before demolition
The following excerpt is from Always Faithful. The New York Carmelites, the Irish People and Their Freedom Movement by Alfred Isacsson, O. Carm.

This is one of four extensive history documents written by Isacsson which tell the history of the Carmelite order in New York. This document examines in greater detail than the other three the link between the New York Carmelites and the Irish freedom movement. There is some repetition of information between Isacsson’s documents, this one gives a useful background to their support of the movement in the early 20th century:

'     Our purpose is to tell only this New York Carmelites’ story and only this account in as scientific a manner as possible. We want to show the basis for the strong affection of the Irish for Carmelites. This intent precludes dealing with aspects of the Irish Freedom Movement that did not take place in New York or did not involve the Carmelites.

The Carmelites were involved in the supplying of arms. They acted as messengers between rebellious elements in Ireland and the United States. Their priories were safe house for men on the run and they generally ignored the excommunication and other ecclesiastical penalties placed on rebellious factions by the Irish bishops. I hope to show that the Carmelites were responsible in Ireland, Rome and the United States for the reinforcement of Irish culture and the growth of a revolutionary philosophy.

My start in this research began in Tarrytown, NY. In 1991, a parishioner of Transfiguration Parish named James Cunningham died. He was buried from that Tarrytown Church with his wife, daughter and two sons present with their families and many friends. As a young man in Ireland, he was involved in what he referred to as “the troubles.” When he came to the United States, he settled in Elmsford, a village some two or three miles from Tarrytown. He enrolled in the Carmelites’ Transfiguration parish and faithfully attended Mass there each Sunday despite the travel that was involved. He also closely associated with the Carmelites at Knollwood Country Club. When asked for an explanation of this, Jim used to reply that the Carmelites were present when we needed them, “they were always there.” He was, of course, referring to the time when he was “on the run” during the troubled years of Ireland. I was intrigued by Jim Cunningham’s devotion to the Carmelites and sought an explanation of this.

In The Irish Carmelites (Dublin, 1988), Peter O'Dwyer related that the Carmelites at Terenure College, Dublin, hid Michael Collins when he was on the run. This tradition of a refuge and a safe house existed at the New York Carmelites’ Priory of Our Lady of the Scapular located then on 29th Street just west of First Avenue. So many Republicans were sheltered there that many years later when the Jesuit, Daniel Berrigan, was on the run, the FBI had an agent observing the priory. Perhaps unrealized by the FBI, the agent was a former Carmelite seminarian.

When the Irish bishops supported the Free State by excommunicating and denying the sacraments to those who opposed it, the Carmelites and some other religious orders disregarded these restrictions. The Republicans came to the Carmelites’ Whitefriars Street Church, Terenure College and New York’s Our Lady of the Scapular to receive the sacraments.

When we speak throughout this book of the Carmelites being of a certain political stance, we usually are referring to the superiors whose function it was in those days of authority to be the spokesperson for the entire community. Those not in positions of authority did not have this opportunity and may not have agreed with what was presented as the Carmelite position. In most instances, the Carmelites backed the most liberal position and the one, they believed, the most conducive to the total independence of Ireland. When Ireland was totally under the crown, the Carmelites were anti-royalist; in the treaty era, the Carmelites were anti-treaty; later, they were not for simply a representative government but a republic. When finally there was a free state, the Carmelites supported the union of the six northern counties with the south, one united Ireland.

The public activities of the Carmelites working with the Friends of Irish Freedom and the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic were having Masses at their church to mark Irish occasions of joy and sorrow, speaking to Irish groups throughout New York City and making their hall an Irish centre by the generous policy of allowing Irish groups to use it. There were many Irish groups in New York City at that time and each seems to have had a stated purpose but they were all devoted in some measure to Irish freedom. This was accented in their dealings with the Carmelites.

There are also secret activities in that Peter Elias Magennis, the leader both by his position of authority and his activities, was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and the Clan na Gael in the United States. I feel that Denis O’Connor became a member of the IRB in 1916 when he was in Ireland for a provincial chapter. The Carmelites secretly supported the Republican side by money, arms, hospitality, a safe house and guidance. The leaders they associated with in the open part of their participation were many times the same people as those in the secret part. The Carmelites and their associates led two lives.

The involvement of the New York Carmelites in the Irish Freedom Movement was not generally known among the Carmelites in Ireland except for those who participated in it when they were in New York. For the Carmelites in Ireland not to know was part of the operation. Secrecy was an essential part of the movement. When I expressed this opinion to Carmelites in Ireland in 2001, one Carmelite remarked, “We don’t even know now.”

A shot taken inside the original Carmelite church of Our Lady
of the Scapular of Mount Carmel before demolition  

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