History of the Society
The Society, founded in 1897 to inform the world of the achievements of the Irish in America, is today a national center of scholarship and culture.
From its home on New York’s Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Society serves as a focal point of the contemporary transatlantic Irish experience, a place where current public issues are explored, and where the great renaissance in Irish culture is celebrated in lectures, concerts, art exhibits and a literary journal.
Story of the American Irish Historical Society
North Irishmen, South Irishmen, Catholics and Protestants they were in jovial yet serious mood, for they had come together to inaugurate a new historical confraternity which was to do honor to the land of their forefathers, and which they hoped would grow in stature and in membership down the years.
On that night, within the hallowed walls of the old hotel, after weeks of discussion and preparation, these fifty adopted a Constitution and By-Laws and brought into being the American Irish Historical Society.
The official founding date of the Society is January 20, 1897, but the unofficial beginning goes back before that many a year. It goes back to the early 1880s and the younger days of Thomas Hamilton Murray; patriot, editor, scholar, and eventually the first Secretary-General of the American Irish Historical Society.
A close friend of another distinguished Irish writer, patriot and poet, John Boyle O’Reilly, editor of The Boston Pilot, Thomas Hamilton Murray was editor of The Daily Sun, Lawrence, Massachusetts. For years he had been writing articles on Irish pioneers and Irish families in New England, and with every bit of research work that he did in connection with these articles, realization crowded in on him more and more that historians of the day – either by accident or design – had omitted from their records all reference to the part played by Irishmen and Irish families in the history of the early United States. A few of the writers so distorted the truth that they even denied there had been any Irish in America prior to 1840.
It is true that the records of Irish families in America were not easy to trace. Often they existed only in land grants, in Wills probated, in marriage and the giving in marriage. But as Mr. Murray continued his research, he found the names of many Irishmen who had fought in American wars and who had helped in other ways to shape the destiny of this country.
With all the crusading strength of his virile pen he endeavored to right the cruel wrong that had been done by the historians; but the task grew to be too much for one writer; the load too great for one man. He enlisted the help of others, particularly that of James Jeffrey Roche, who had succeeded John Boyle O’Reilly as editor of The Boston Pilot; Joseph Smith, editor of The Boston Traveler; Thomas J. Gargan, noted lawyer, and Thomas B. Lawler, a member of the publishing firm of Ginn & Company.
These men met often to ponder ways to correct the injustices the early historians had done; they talked to others who had the love of Ireland and of justice in their hearts and their numbers grew. Finally, when there were thirty of them, all outstanding figures in the life of the nation, they drew up a Murray-inspired letter calling for the organization of the American Irish Historical Society “whose special line of research shall be the history of the Irish element in the composition of the American people.”
On December 26, 1896, the letter was mailed to persons all over the United States who might be interested in the new movement. One of the signers was Henry Stoddard Ruggles, descendant of an Irishman who had settled in this country in 1657. Others were eighth and ninth in descent from early Irish settlers. One was Richard Worsam Meade, Rear Admiral, U.S.N., a nephew of General George Meade, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysberg. Another was Theodore Roosevelt, later the 25th President of the United States, a descendant from an old Dublin family named Barnwell.
Others were the Reverend George C. Betts, rector, St. James Protestant Episcopal Church, Goshen, NY; John Cochrane, president of the New York Society of the Cincinnati; General James R. O’Beirne; Robert Ellis Thompson, president, Central High School, Philadelphia, PA; Major General St. Clair Mulholland, Philadelphia, PA; Reverend George W. Pepper, Minister of the Park Methodist Church, Cleveland, OH; Abram Shuman, Jewish philanthropist, Boston, MA; William M. Sloan, professor of English literature, Columbia University; Colonel O’Brien-Moore, soldier and journalist (father of Erin O’Brien-Moore, the well-known actress), West Virginia; Thomas Dunn English, Newark, NJ, author of “Alice Ben Bolt”; Captain John Drum (father of Lieutenant General Hugh A. Drum); Augustus St. Gaudens, NY; Reverent Thomas J. Conaty, rector of Catholic University, Washington, DC; Samuel Sweet Green, president of the American Antiquarian Society; Thomas H. Carter, United States Senator from Montana; John D. Crimmins, NY; Ignatius Donnelly, Nininger, MN; Elmer H. Capen, president of Tufts College, MA; and Justice Morgan J. O’Brien, NY.
The letter that these men signed said in part: “The American of English stock had his historical society; the descendants of the Dutch, Huguenot and Spaniards have associations which specialize the historical work of the bodies they represent; and we feel that the story of the Irish element should be told before the mass of legend and fiction flooding the country under misleading designations has completely submerged the facts.”
The principle of the proposed Society as stated was: “To place the Irish element in its true light in American history, and to secure its perspective in relation to historic events on this soil…Its primal object will be to ascertain the facts, weigh them in relation to contemporary events, and estimate their historical value, avoiding in this process the exaggeration and extravagance of poorly informed writers on one hand, and the prejudice and misrepresentation of hostile writers on the other…” Less than a month later, the historic fifth met in the Revere House, and the American Irish Historical Society was born, and – according to the annals of the Society – “expressed themselves in favor of the organization and a desire to be identified with it.” Thirty of those present affixed their names to the formal agreement bringing the Society into being, and tendered subscriptions on the spot. Others subscribed later.
Many of the letters of approval were read from men of prominence throughout the country who were unable to be present at the dinner, including Daniel H. Hastings, Governor of Pennsylvania; Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet of New York; the Honorable Edward A. Moseley, Washington, DC; a descendant of Lieutenant Thaddeus Clark, who came from Ireland and was killed during the Indian War in the defense of Falmouth, now Portland, on May 16, 1690.
Among others who wrote were John P. Donoghue, National Commander of the Union Veteran Legion Wilmington, Delaware; U.S. Senator Patrick Walsh, publisher of the Chronicle, Augusta, GA; U.S. Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts; Reverend Cyrus Townsend Brady, Protestant Episcopal Archdeacon of Pennsylvania; Theodore Roosevelt, and former Governor Thomas M. Waller of Connecticut.
The officers elected were Rear Admiral Richard Worsam Meade, President-General; Thomas Hamilton Murray, Secretary-General; John C. Linehan, Treasurer-General; Thomas B. Lawler, Librarian-Archivist. Theodore Roosevelt headed the list of the Executive Committee.
From the start the American Irish Historical Society grew in numbers and in importance. When the first Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, edited by Thomas Hamilton Murray and Thomas B. Lawler, was issued in 1898, the original membership of fifth had swelled to over eight hundred.
The first New York headquarters of the Society was in the old Manhattan Hotel at 42nd Street and Madison Avenue. In 1908, the Society moved to the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, and here the Annual Banquet was held for many years. It was not until 1921, however, that the American Irish Historical Society acquired a building and permanent home of its own.
That year, the Society moved into a four-story home and basement brick building at 132 East 16th Street, which had been bequeathed to it by the late Dr. John T. Nagle. In these surroundings, the Society continued its expansion; the library, the collection of manuscripts and Irish memorabilia, which is had been acquiring, increased, and after a while it was found necessary to build an addition to the building to house them.
For nineteen years the home of the Society was at this address, but at the end of that time it had so grown that these quarters were inadequate. Other roomier ones were looked for and found, and on April 14, 1940, it moved into its handsome new home at 991 Fifth Avenue, opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The townhouse in which the Society currently resides is a beautiful five-story limestone building entered through wrought iron grille doors. In the entrance hall there are busts of Charles O’Conor, the famous lawyer, by Augustus St. Gaudens; Justice John W. Goff, the noted jurist, by Ordway Partridge; and Thomas Davis, the Irish poet, by Albert Power, R.H.A., a gift of the Irish Government. Before the most recent renovations of the building, the first floor constituted the main section of the Society’s library of over fifty thousand volumes, which has yet to be re-opened to the public. The library contains many priceless and exceedingly rare books such as the famous Bedell Bible published in the seventeenth century; a first edition of Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland and a rare set of the “Annals of the Four Masters.”
Recent acquisitions include a handsomely bound complete set of the Reports of Dail Eireann from 1922, inscribed and presented by His Excellency, Hon. Sean T. O’Kelly, former President of Ireland; also the Reports of the Irish Senate, presented by President Eamon De Valera.
Other intriguing objects housed by the Society include Robert Emmet’s pocket book, in which he carried the love letters of Sarah Curran; Daniel O’Connell’s silver shoe buckles, the death mask of Wolfe Tone, a facsimile edition of the Book of Kells and original letters of Commander Thomas MacDonough, naval hero of the War of 1812; General Thomas Francis Meagher, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, John Boyle O’Reilly, Horace Greeley, Thomas Addis Emmet, John Blake Dillon, Justin McCarthy and many others.
The Bourke Cockran collection may be found on the third floor of the Society, housed in the beautifully paneled room which is a reproduction of the late Mrs. Cockran’s living room at 1136 Fifth Avenue.
Scattered through the building are busts of Edmund Burke, Robert Emmet, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins and Admiral Richard Worsam Meade, the Society’s first President-General.
Most of the treasures and books in the building are of Ireland and the Irish chapter in American history. As such, they are precious to Americans of Celtic origin and all who possess a love for Ireland, her poetry and her legends, and who cherish the memory of her sorrow and her dark hours, her grandeur and her greatness.
They are precious, too, as a monument to Thomas Hamilton Murray and those honored others who, on January 20, 1897, assembled in the old Revere House in Boston and brought into being the American Irish Historical Society..
To say that there is a new Ireland, and a new chapter in American history to which the Irish genius is making its contribution is only another way of saying that there is a new stimulus for such effort as only this Society can put forth. What has been achieved by co-operation between writers and members who do not write can be achieved anew by the same method. The good name of the race in America is the concern, not along of those who add their industry to their enthusiasm, but of all who share the common heritage, however much, or little, they may know about it.