On a fine sunny morning in the month of May I found myself on board the City of Edinburgh steamer, steaming into the harbor of New York.
She stopped while the quarantine doctor came on board to make examinations as to the state of her health.
Gazing around from the deck of the ship, the scenery was grand—the hills of Staten Island looking as gay and green as the hills of Ireland. John Locke’s words, in address to the Cove of Cork, may be addressed to Clifton:
And Clifton isn’t it grand you look
Watching the wild waves’ motion.
Resting your back up against the hill,
With the tips of your toes in the ocean—
And the two forts—Hamilton and Wadsworth—situate so like to the two forts, Camden and Carlisle, got me to think that if the ocean was baled out and the two countries, Ireland and America, were moved over to each other, Fort Camden touching Fort Hamilton and Fort Carlisle touching Fort Wadsworth, there would be no incongruity or break observable in the grandeur of the scenery, sailing down the River Lee through the Cove of Cork and up the Hudson River through the harbor of New York.
They were war times in America the time I arrived in the country (May 13, 1863). Walking up Broadway, I saw a policeman speaking angrily to another man on the sidewalk near Fulton street; giving him a pretty hard stroke of his stick on the side of the leg, the civilian screeched with pain and limped away crying. An impulse came on me to tell the policeman he had no right to strike the man that way. I did not act on that impulse; I suppose it was well for me I didn’t. It showed me there was more liberty in America than I thought there was.
In a few minutes after, I was in the City Hall Park among the soldiers. The ground on which now stands the post office was a part of the park, and was planted with little trees and soldiers’ tents. Here I met several people who knew me, and I was very soon in the office of John O’Mahony, No. 6 Centre street.
That night I went with O’Mahony to the armory and drill rooms and other rooms of the Fenian Brotherhood societies. All the Fenians seemed to be soldiers or learning to be soldiers; many of them volunteering to go into the battlefields of America that they might be the better able to fight the battles of Ireland against England. I saw this spirit in most of the speeches I heard delivered that night, and there was speech-making, as well as recruiting and drilling everywhere we went.
I made my home, during the few weeks I was looking around, with one of the Rossa family who came to America in the year 1836—Timothy Donovan, No. 276 Schermerhorn street, Brooklyn.
I brought with me from Ireland, some letters of introduction to people in New York. I had a letter from John Edward Pigott to Richard O’Gorman, a letter from John B. Dillon to Mr. Robert E. Kelly, a tobacco and cigar importer in Beaver street, and several letters from Edward O’Sullivan, a Cork butter merchant, to others. The letter from Mr. Dillon to Mr. Kelly is the letter about which there is a story that I must not forget telling. I delivered it. After reading it, he talked with me in his office for a couple of hours. He asked me about Ireland and the Irish cause—would I give up the cause now, turn over a new leaf, have sense, and turn my attention to business and money making? Also asked me what other letters of introduction I had to friends and how the friends received me. Then he told me what those friends were likely to do, and likely not to do. All that he told me turned out true. “And I suppose Mr. Kelly,” said I, “you cannot see the way of doing anything yourself?” “Not much,” said he, “not much that will be any permanent good to you. You told me that if you remained for any time in New York you may go into the cigar business in partnership with a cousin of yours. Now, if you do that, I will give you goods to the amount of $2,000; but you’ll lose the money and I’ll lose the money.”
“Then,” said I, “why would you give me your goods if you’re sure you’ll lose the money?”
“Well,” said he, “from the talk I have had with you, I see you are disposed to follow up your past life, and I like to give you some encouragement. There are so few who stick to the cause, once they get a fall in it, or meet a stumbling-block of any kind.”
“I thought,” said I, “that if I said I would give up the cause, and sensibly turn my attention to commercial business, that then you might offer me the credit of your house.” “No,” said he, “I wouldn’t give you credit to the worth of a dollar in that case.”
I did go into business this time, during the few months I spent in New York with my cousin Denis Donovan, in Madison street, but we did not deal in such high class goods as Mr. Kelly imported, and I did not avail myself of his offer of credit. I went back to Ireland in August ’63. I was put in prison in 1865; came out of prison in 1871, came to New York and was called upon by Mr. Kelly. At his invitation I called a few times to his house and he called to where I lived, and met my family. In 1874 I rented the Northern Hotel. I called to Mr. Kelly’s office, in Beaver street, to talk to him about the offer he made me eleven years ago. He was out of town—down in Cuba; but, said his son, Horace: “There is an order made on the books here, by my father, that you are to get $2,000 worth of goods at any time you desire to have them.”
I took about $200 worth of cigars that time—I paid for them before I gave up the hotel business. I have not met any of the family since.
The old gentleman must be gone to the other world. He was what may be called a real old Irish gentleman, with a touch of the Irish aristocrat in him in trim and tone. He must have had his boyhood education in one of the colleges of the continent of Europe in the early years of the century. He was of the O’Kellys of Connaught; tall and straight and handsome; the form of him my mind retains now, may be fairly represented in the form of John D. Crimmins, as I see him passing along the street.
And, the words he spoke to me, did put some life and strength into me, and make me strong to-day, even though the fight I’m fighting be a losing one, and a deserted one—deserted by many who swore to be strong and true to it.
I returned to Ireland in the month of August, 1863. I was in New York during the months of June and July, except one week that I spent in Philadelphia, where lived my mother. I went to see her. She was living with a brother of mine. It was ten o’clock in the evening when I got to the house. She did not know me. She was told it was Jerrie. “No, no, ’tis not Jerrie,” and saying this, she passed the tips of her fingers searchingly across my forehead. She found the scar that is on it—from the girl having hoisted me over her head and thrown me on the pavements when I was a year or two old, and then came the kissing and the crying with the memories of the ruined home and the graves we left in Ireland.
In July, 1863, was fought the battle of Gettysburg. The day after the battle a carriage stopped at the door of the house in which I lived at New Chambers and Madison streets. I was told a man in the carriage wanted to see me. The man was William O’Shea of Bantry, who had spent eight or nine months with me in Cork Jail, a few years before then. He asked me to sit with him in the carriage; we drove to some hospital at the west side of Broadway; he registered his name on the books, gave up his money to the clerk, was taken to a ward, and a doctor called. He was dressed in the uniform of a captain; he was a captain in the Forty-second Tammany Regiment; his uniform was all begrimed with earth; he had fallen in the fight; he had four wounds on his body—one bullet having entered in front just below the ribs and come out at the back, and another having struck him in the wrist, traveling up his hand, come out near the elbow. He remained two weeks in that hospital; walked about among the friends in New York two weeks more, then rejoined his regiment, and got shot dead in the next battle. While he was in New York, a brother of his was killed in a battle; he had the brother’s body brought on to New York, and buried in Calvary. As he and I were coming from Calvary, we met the funeral of the wife of Colonel Michael Corcoran going to Calvary, and with it we went into the graveyard again.
I have an old relic of his—a letter he wrote me after he rejoined his regiment. In Ireland I familiarly called him “Billy O’.”
With fearless Captain Billy O’
I joined the Fenian band,
And swore, one day to strike a blow
To free my native land.
Here are some words of that memento letter of Billy O’s;
U. S. General Hospital, No. 1, Annapolis, Md.,
August 17, 1863.
Jer—You see I lose no time in jerking you a line as soon as I can.
Do, Jer., give me credit for being so prompt and thoughtful, as it is but seldom I claim praise. Now, for the history of my route to here.
I got in to Baltimore very peaceably indeed. I had a little trouble of mind on the cars, but I soon got over that. My uneasiness was caused by a beautiful New York girl that was going to Washington to a boarding school, to complete her studies.
I got into Baltimore about seven o’clock the next morning after leaving you. I wanted to be here in time, so as to save my distance, as the horse jockeys say, which I did in right good order. The next day, I was admitted into this hospital where I now rest. I’d have saved three or four hundred dollars by coming here first, instead of going to New York. Kiss Cousin Denis and Tim in remembrance of me. Remembrance to Mr. O’Mahony. Send a line as soon as you get any news to
Accompanying that letter was the following letter:
Annapolis, Md. Aug. 1 1863.
Captain William O’Shea, 42d N. Y. Volunteers,
Sir—Having reported to the Board of Officers for examination, you are informed that orders from the War Department require that you remain in hospital.
You are hereby directed to report in person to the surgeon, B. A. Vanderkieft, U. S. A., in charge U. S. A. general hospital, Division No. 1, Annapolis, Md., for admission and treatment therein. You will comply with all rules and regulations, governing inmates of the hospital, and the instructions given you.
J. S. M’Parlin.
Surgeon, U. S. A.
On the envelope in which I find those two preceding communications I find indorsed the words: “Capt. Billy O’ was killed a month after he wrote this.—Rossa.”
A few nights after the burial of Mrs. Corcoran I was at an entertainment that was at Colonel Corcoran’s house; many priests were at it, and many officers were in town on leave and on duty. John O’Mahony told me that Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher was in town the day before, and fixed upon a day that he and I would go out to his home in the Orange Mountains of New York to have a talk about how affairs were in Ireland. We fixed upon a day; Meagher was to meet us with a coach at the railroad station in the Orange Mountains. The appointed day came. On the ferry boat to Jersey City we met Captain Jack Gosson going out to see Meagher too. He was one of Meagher’s aides in the war. When we got to the Orange Mountains, Meagher and Mrs. Meagher were at the railroad station before us. We got into the carriage; the general took the whip and drove us to the mansion of his father-in-law, Mr. Townsend. After partaking of some refreshments we walked out into the orchard; birds of all kinds seemed to have their homes there and in the surrounding wood. A little humming bird, little bigger than a big bee, seemed to have its home in every tree. Meagher would go around the blackberry trees and whenever he’d see a large gubolach of a blackberry, he’d pluck it and bring it to me; he and Captain Gosson all the time laughingly reminding each other of the many strange incidents of battles, and of camp life, and of the many queer things officers and men would do.
O’Mahony whispered to me to entertain Captain Gosson for awhile, as he and Meagher were going to walk up the wood-path to have a private talk. Coming to New York that evening, O’Mahony told me it was for the purpose of initiating General Meagher into the Fenian Brotherhood that he did this, and that he did initiate him.
Meagher was a handsome make of a man that day. Somewhere, I should say, about five feet nine, or five feet ten inches in height, firmly straight and stoutly strong in proportion. When I saw General George B. McClellan some years after, it appeared to me as if he was physically proportioned somewhat like Thomas Francis Meagher.
At the dinner table that evening Meagher and O’Mahony got talking of the draft riots that were in New York the week before. I said I saw some of the riots; that I saw the crowd that hanged Colonel O’Brien, and saw a man put the muzzle of a pistol to my face, threatening to blow my brains out for lifting from the ground a man who was thrown down by the rioters. “You had a pretty narrow escape,” said Meagher.
“Had you been in New York those days and shown yourself to the people,” said O’Mahony to Meagher, “you could have stopped all the rioting.”
“Not at all,” said Meagher, “the people those days were in a mood of mind to tear me limb from limb if they caught hold of me.”
I was in at John O’Mahony’s office one day. A soldier came in; tall and straight, light but athletic; unloosed his coat, unpocketed his papers and gave them to John O’Mahony. He was introduced to me as Captain Patrick J. Condon, of the Sixty-third Regiment; he brought from the seat of war $600, the monthly contributions of the Army Circles of the Fenian Brotherhood. This was history repeating itself. The history of Irish brigades in the service of France and Spain and Austria records that on every pay day the soldiers would contribute a part of their pay to a fund that was to equip them to fight against England for the freedom of Ireland.
That Captain Condon I speak of went to Ireland to fight for its freedom after the war in America was over. I meet him in New York these days I am writing these “Recollections”; he is as tall and straight and soldierly-looking as he was that day in John O’Mahony’s office, in July, 1863, but the hair of his head is as white as the driven snow.
Michael O’Brien, who was hanged in Manchester in 1867, was in New York those days of July, 1863. He told me that Major Patrick J. Downing of the Forty-second Regiment was on from the seat of war, and was up at Riker’s Island with a detachment to take the men who were drafted. We went over to Chambers street and got from Colonel Nugent, the provost marshal, a “pass” to visit Riker’s Island. Mike O’Brien and I went up to Riker’s Island that evening, and slept in Colonel Downing’s tent that night. Some days after that Mike came to me and told me he had made up his mind to join the army. I endeavored to persuade him not to do so; I told him he had pledged his life to a fight for Ireland, and what now, if he were to be killed fighting in America? He told me he did not know how to fight well; that it was to learn how to fight well he was going to enlist; that he had been out to the front to see Denis (Denis Downing was a brother of Patrick’s was a comrade clerk of Michael’s at Sir John Arnott’s in Cork; was now a captain in a Buffalo regiment), and that he went into a battle that Denis was going into.
What he saw that day showed him that he knew nothing about war, and he wanted, for Ireland’s sake to learn all he could about it; he had made up his mind to enlist, and I should go with him to the recruiting office in Jersey City. I went with him; I saw him measured and sworn in; the recruiting officer pressing me hard to go with him. I saw him on the street car that was to take him to the camp in the suburbs of the city. That street car came out on the street from under the archway there, near the ferry. Mike stood on the back of the car; I stood on the street; we kept waving our hats to one another till the car turned the corner and rolled out of sight. That is the last sight I had on earth of one of the truest Irish patriot comrades of my life—Michael O’Brien the Manchester martyr.
On my way through Chambers street to Provost-marshal Nugent’s office near the Emigrant Savings Bank, the day I got the “pass” to visit Riker’s Island, some policemen, having prisoners, were going to the marshal’s office, too. Each of them had hold of his man by the collar of the coat. Those prisoners were men who had been drafted for the war, and who had not promptly or voluntarily answered the call the Nation had made upon them for their services as soldiers. They had gone into hiding, but were arrested and forced into the fight; and, as likely as anything else, now that they were obliged to do their duty, some of them did it bravely, and when the war was over, came home with all the honors of war.
How often have I thought how well it would be for the Irish National cause of my day if it had a draft law that would make its votaries toe the mark at the call of duty. Those votaries swear it is by the sword alone they are to free Ireland, but when danger threatens it how many of them are found to think the country can be freed without using any sword at all?
That’s what made Parnell and parliamentary agitation so strong in Ireland, England and America a dozen years ago; the leaders of the “sword alone,” men “ratted,” and turned in to free Ireland by fighting her battles in the London parliament. That’s what paralyzed the spirit of the Irish National cause and makes it to-day so dead as it is. England has the whip hand in Ireland, and is whipping the Irish people out of the country. In one ship that came into New York harbor this week (April, 1898), 247 young Irish girls came in to New York!
When commencing to write this chapter, I looked into a New York City directory to see if I would find the Mr. Kelly whom I speak of, and who lived in Beaver street in 1863. I saw the name of Horace R. Kelly. I wrote to Horace R. I asked what was the Christian name of his father. In reply to my inquiry I get this note:
Colorado Springs, May 8, 1898.
Dear Mr. Rossa—Your card was forwarded to me here, and in reply, I inform you that my father’s name was Robert E. Kelly; and I am delighted to see how kindly you remember him.
I am no longer in Beaver street; but have moved to our Factory building at the corner of Avenue A. and 71st street, where I expect to be in about two weeks. I hope you will let me know where I can get a copy of your book, when you will have published it.
I remain, sincerely yours,
Horace R. Kelly.
It has often surprised me the number of Americans who are in New York, whose blood is Irish, and who would show themselves Irish in heart and soul and pocket, if enslaved Ireland was trying to do anything that would be worth assistance or sacrifice.