Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt and Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship, by Lucy E Salyer, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 316 pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0674057630
In autumn 1883 the pension fund of the New York Police Department was running low. Gus (properly Augustine) Costello, a native of Killimor, Co Galway, was then in charge of the Herald police bureau. From his office opposite police headquarters, he routinely despatched reporters to cover stories that came over the police wires or “through other police sources”. Now, hearing of the trouble with the pension fund, Costello spied an opportunity. He himself would write a history of the department; the book would be sold by the police, with the proceeds from advertisements and sales (bar Costello’s 20 per cent) going to the fund. His tome, Our Police Protectors (572 pages, not including advertisements), duly appeared in 1885. And it was no great success. Inspector Thomas F Byrnes, the headline-grabbing chief of the NYPD’s detective bureau, had also decided to write a book, and it was his sensational Professional Criminals of America (1886), not Costello’s survey, that the patrolmen pushed on the streets of New York.
Still, Costello had found a niche. Within two years, he had published Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Departments, Volunteer and Paid (1887), which, not including advertisements, ran to 1,112 pages, and he was soon at work on histories of the Minneapolis police department (1890; 336 pages) and the fire department of Chicago (1890; 524 pages). These books were followed by volumes on the police of Jersey City (1891; 428 pages), New Haven (1892; 201 pages), and Syracuse (1892; 222 pages), and the fire and police departments of Paterson, New Jersey (1893; 173 pages). In all, his eight histories comprise some 3,500 pages.
Gus Costello’s later books are hack administrative histories. Sold by cops and firemen to replenish their pension funds, they were no more intended to be read than the small print on lottery tickets. However, Our Firemen has merit, and Our Police Protectors, on the department that Costello knew best, is an accomplished work. A well-written survey of policing in New York, the latter book includes a particularly valuable account (over two chapters) of the Draft Riots of mid-July 1863 that benefits greatly from the author’s acquaintance with officers involved in their suppression. For Costello, who had served in the Union army during the Civil War (1861-65), this was the NYPD’s finest hour: “They fought for the Union in the streets of New York,” he writes of the city’s cops, “just as truly as the soldiers of the Republic did upon the banks of the Potomac.” Indeed, the title of Costello’s book is adapted from a striking illustration, “Their Brave Protector”, by Constantin de Grimm, the great Vanity Fair illustrator, who the Herald’s publisher, James Gordon Bennett, had brought to New York in 1884. It depicts a burly white cop protecting an African American family. Costello displays great sympathy for the city’s “negroes” and he is scathing about the “mob”. Interestingly, he does not acknowledge the central role of Irish people in that mob, but his own account, with its litany of policemen with names like Farrell and Kennedy, McCarthy and Walsh, and his labouring of the point that patrolmen had to leave their own homes, wives and children to obey the call of duty, serves as a reminder that the riots were an expression of a civil war within the city’s Irish communities.
Elsewhere in Our Police Protectors, readers may discern the shoots of Progressivism, the social reform movement that was to sweep the US in the late 1890s. For instance, Costello is particularly absorbing in discussing wild claims about Chinese involvement in crime. Chinese people had first started to arrive in numbers in the US in the 1850s to mine and build railroads out west. There, in the years after the Civil War, they found themselves in increasingly bitter competition with European workers. White politicians, in turn, stoked anti-Chinese racism in the hopes of getting votes from Europeans, not least the Irish. Indeed, in 1882, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the United States, for the first time, expressly prohibited the immigration of workers belonging to a specific national group; the act, the provisions of which were extended to other Asians in the 1920s, would remain on the statute books until 1943. The years immediately after the passage of the act, the very time when Costello wrote Our Police Protectors, witnessed a spike in anti-Chinese sentiment. Through the mid-1880s, New York’s press frothed about the dangers which the city’s opium joints posed to the morals of white Americans. Costello devotes the final chapter of his book to an extended account of the rise of opium-smoking in the city, but, while he is patronising about “Chinamen”, he resists populism. Notably, he approvingly quotes Captain John McCullagh of the Sixth Precinct, who had observed the ravages of opium in the Chinese community, dismissing lurid allegations in the press “about Chinamen dragging young girls to their dens and stupefying them with the drug”: “The Chinamen are one of the most harmless classes of dwellers in New York. They interfere with no one, they never fight or hurt one another, and you never find them drunk or disorderly on the streets.”
For many observers in the 1880s, opium-smoking was a vice that the Chinese would never shake. “Raiding the joints won’t stop the smoking,” Costello was told by another police captain; “It only drives the Chinamen from one house to another, that’s all. As long as Chinamen are Chinamen they will continue to smoke it.” But for Costello himself, opium smoking could be traced not to some racial weakness but to the same source as much of the “vice and crime” in the city: the “promiscuous herding together of human beings in tenements”, where the “refining and restraining influences of family life” were degraded. The Galwayman, who claimed to have been the first newspaperman to use the term “Tenderloin District” for the section of Manhattan where the police tolerated (and profited from) vice, ends this concluding chapter of Our Police Protectors with a trenchant appeal for urban reform.
If Costello’s resistance to populism intrigues, Our Police Protectors is made thoroughly enjoyable by the honey-sweet irony of its author, who goes into great detail on detective work, the cells in police stations and the like, having been himself, less than twenty years earlier, a celebrated political prisoner. In short, the historian of the NYPD was a convicted “terrorist”, a Fenian who had been jailed in Ireland and Britain. There are associated ironies too, not least Costello’s inclusion of illustrations commissioned from Thomas Nast, whose stock-in-trade had included cartoons depicting ape-like Fenians corrupting American democracy. And so Our Police Protectors is a particularly enjoyable history when you know the author’s own story.
The story of Gus Costello’s capture, conviction and confinement is, by any measure, a good yarn ‑ so good, in fact, that it is a marvel that it has not yet been the subject of an underfunded documentary on TG4, RTÉ or BBC NI. It can be summarised succinctly. On April 12th, 1867, some forty young Irishmen, both Irish-born and Irish Americans, boarded a steamer at Canal Street, Manhattan. The steamer chugged through New York harbour, passing between Staten Island and Brooklyn, before coming to anchor off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. There, the passengers boarded an 81ft brigantine and one of them, John Kavanagh, who had served with distinction in the US Navy in the Civil War, took command of the vessel, setting a southerly course, as if bound for the Caribbean. Then, when confident he was clear of Coastguard patrols, Kavanagh steered east, out into the Atlantic.
In the hold of Kavanagh’s ship, in crates and barrels labelled “wine” and “machinery”, was a vast consignment of weapons, estimated to have comprised over 8,000 rifles and 1.5 million rounds of ammunition, that had been gathered up by the Fenians in the aftermath of the Civil War ‑ a conflict of which most (if not all) the men on board were veterans. On Easter Sunday, April 21st, just over a week out of New York, Captain Kavanagh called his passengers and crew together, took down the Union Jack, under which they had sailed, and hoisted a green flag with a golden sunburst; three small artillery pieces were fired as all on board saluted the flag of Ireland. Then, opening some sealed orders that he had been given in New York by Captain John Powell, the Fenians’ “chief of naval affairs”, Kavanagh detailed their mission: they were to sail to Donegal Bay and land their cargo at Sligo, where they would join a Fenian insurrection. Their mission now clear, Kavanagh renamed the ship Erin’s Hope.
Having battled heavy seas and storms, the ship arrived in Donegal Bay in the third week of May. Kavanagh cruised the bay for some days, making signals given him in New York. But there was no answering signal from the lonely Sligo shore. By then, the Crown had effectively crushed the Fenian insurrection that had begun in March. At length, Kavanagh decided to send some men ashore. However, before they could depart, Michael Gallagher, the pilot at Teelin, Co Donegal, observing the ship’s odd behaviour and assuming that the captain needed assistance getting her into port, had rowed out to the vessel. After letting Gallagher come aboard, the Fenians arrested him and ordered him to pilot the vessel to Streedagh strand in north Sligo. Yet again, before any landing could be made, another visitor arrived: Ricard [sic] O’Sullivan Burke, an Irish-born veteran of the Civil War who was now deputy head centre of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Later described by John Devoy as “by long odds the most remarkable man the Fenian movement produced and also one of the ablest”, Burke had been sent from America to England to arrange a raid on Chester Castle in February 1867, intended to secure a major arsenal for immediate shipment to Ireland. When the raid was abandoned, Burke was ordered to Waterford to lead the insurrection there. Few men turning out, and the rising collapsing, Burke, disguised as an English artist, had been despatched to the northwest to intercept the Erin’s Hope and direct the captain to land the weapons in Cork.
Divisions were now growing on board the ship about the prospects of the mission. In a row, one of the Fenians, Daniel J Buckley, a twenty-five-year-old Cork-born New York jeweller, shot and wounded two others. Kavanagh put the two wounded men with another to assist them ashore in Streedagh, along with the Teelin pilot, Gallagher; they were soon detained by the authorities. The Erin’s Hope, meanwhile, now pressed south along the coast of Mayo and Galway and, without encountering any British vessels, skirted Clare, Kerry and Cork, where it was decided not to land the weapons, before finally reaching Waterford. There, on June 1st, off Helvick Head, Kavanagh got fishermen to take some thirty Fenians (there is uncertainty as to the exact numbers involved), without arms, ashore. These men, who had been seven weeks at sea, were to make contact with local republicans and arrange to land their cargo. However, a Coastguard officer spotted them disembarking and raised the alarm. Within a few hours, the constabulary had picked up most of these unarmed men, with the last two to be arrested taken up on June 4th; according to oral sources cited in a well-researched essay by the maritime historian Sylvester Ó Muirí, four managed to avoid detection. As for the Erin’s Hope, having disembarked most of the Fenians, she had sailed out to sea. Kavanagh brought her back to the Waterford coast on June 7th, when, receiving no signals, he cruised for a few days and then sailed for America. On August 1st, the ship reached New York with thirteen of the men who had embarked on her in the second week of April.
The Crown had been lucky but now it had a problem. The men who had come ashore in June had committed no serious crime in Ireland; while they were understood to be “foreign fighters”, to borrow a phrase from the Afghan War of our own time, they had done no fighting on Irish soil. The authorities opted to intern them under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, but that move and a later decision to prosecute some of them under the Treason Felony Act raised another question: were these fighters foreign? For sure, they all professed to be American, but the Crown distinguished two groups, native-born and naturalised Americans, and it refused to accept that men in the latter category, who had been born in Ireland and later taken out US citizenship, had any right to renounce their status as subjects of Queen Victoria; it was a case of once a subject always a subject. Here, there was the making of a major controversy, with the detainees protesting that they were Americans and demanding the support of the US diplomatic service, which was grudgingly accorded to them.
Ultimately, three principals ‑ John Warren, a native of Cork, and Gus Costello, the Galwayman, and William Nagle, the American-born son of a Corkman ‑ were tried under the Treason Felony Act, despite all three being US citizens. Warren and Costello, who were tried in Green Street, Dublin, in October and November 1867, were convicted and got fifteen years and twelve years respectively. They were transferred to England to serve their sentences. Buckley, the jeweller who had shot two comrades off Sligo, had turned informer after his arrest, and he had given a detailed account of the expedition, including the administration of an “unlawful oath” to the unfortunate Teelin pilot that proved pivotal in the case. The trial of Nagle, at Sligo in February 1868, collapsed when the sheriff was unable to meet his demand for a jury of six British subjects and six aliens; there was, it seems, a shortage of aliens in Sligo. There too, in March, the trial of a less prominent participant, Patrick Nugent, also collapsed, when a juror took ill with “English cholera”, a euphemism for diarrhoea; the press speculated that it was Irish liquor, provided by the sheriff, not English cholera that afflicted the unfortunate juror.
Nagle and Nugent were remanded in custody after their trials collapsed. By then, the majority of the rank and file detainees had agreed to accept a passage back to New York. There, and in other cities across the US, Irish republicans had made a catch-cry of “expatriation” (the right to renounce citizenship of one country and become the citizens of another) and they were stirring up considerable animosity to the UK beyond their core constituency: immigrants of all nationalities grasped the import of the issue. In February, just before Nagle’s trial, the House of Representatives had carried an Expatriation Bill that asserted native and naturalised citizens were equally entitled to the protection of the US government if unfairly treated when travelling abroad: the right of expatriation, it declared, was “a natural and inherent right of all people, indispensable to the enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The bill empowered the president to suspend commercial relations with countries that unlawfully detained US citizens and, controversially, it included a “hostage” clause, allowing the retaliatory detention of subjects of a foreign state to secure the release of US citizens unjustly jailed overseas. Later, in July, an amended bill passed the Senate. Gone now were the hostage and commercial retaliation clauses, replaced by language empowering the president to use any “necessary and proper means … not amounting to acts of war” to secure the release of US citizens. Still, for the first time, the United States had declared in law that individuals had a right to determine the country to which they owed allegiance.
By then, July 1868, only Warren and Costello remained in custody: in May, the Crown had released Nagle and the last six untried men from the Erin’s Hope, when they acknowledged their reasons for coming to Ireland and agreed to return to the States. Ultimately, in February 1869, Gus Costello was transferred from Portland back to Mountjoy and released. Warren, who had been held in Millbank and Chatham, was released in March. After visiting their home places, and making defiant speeches at public meetings, they sailed together from Cork for New York on April 29th.
The Erin’s Hope has been well-remembered by Irish people of a certain political stamp. Sports clubs and fife and drum bands around the country took the name “Erin’s Hope” and in both Waterford and southwest Donegal, song and story, that long survived in oral tradition, illuminated local involvement in the affair. Speeches that Warren and Costello gave in Green Street earned them a place in the pantheon of Irish republican orators included in the Sullivan brothers’ Speeches from the Dock, the forty-eighth (and not last) Dublin edition of which appeared in 1890. Costello himself serialised a jail journal in the republican press and the expedition features in the memoirs of prominent Fenians such as John Devoy and O’Donovan Rossa. The latter, in his often reprinted Irish Rebels in English Prisons (1876), recalls being incarcerated with Warren and Costello in England and he recounts, in great detail, how they and other Union veterans, with their “Yankee notions”, were the most inclined of the Fenian prisoners to kick against rules and regulations. From the Irishman in the late 1860s through the Wolfe Tone Annual in the mid-1900s to An Phoblacht/Republican News in the late 1900s and early 2000s, republican journals and periodicals regularly revisited the Erin’s Hope, and it has been the subject of at least one pamphlet and several essays, including the fine piece by Ó Muirí mentioned above. The affair also figures prominently in scholarly histories of Fenianism, including The Fenians: Irish Rebellion in the North Atlantic World, 1858-76 (Kentucky UP, 2013) by Patrick Steward and Bryan McGovern, as well as studies of US foreign policy and citizenship; prominent among the latter is Bernadette Whelan’s American Government in Ireland, 1790-1913 (Manchester UP, 2010), a thorough analysis of the development of the American consular service in Ireland.
Lucy E Salyer’s Under the Starry Flag explores the ramifications of the expedition in the newly re-United States, that is, its blasting of expatriation to the forefront of politics in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. It combines a short account of the expedition and the court and prison experiences of a few of those arrested with a detailed but accessible analysis of the politicking that resulted in the passage of the Expatriation Act, hailed by the republican Irishman as “Our Victory”. Crucially, Salyer emphasises that the controversy occasioned by the Erin’s Hope (and, indeed, by the detention of other American Fenians in the UK) occurred when America was about to experience an extraordinary surge in immigration: “Almost 13 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1868 and 1900”, she writes, and “another 14.5 million followed between 1901 and 1920”. As America became more urban ‑ by 1920, 50 per cent of its people lived in towns and cities ‑ and industrial, a new nativism emerged, “stirred by fears that America was under siege by foreign forces”. And so, while Irish republicans might claim to have “woke up the American people” and to have secured the “sacred” right of expatriation for all Americans, succeeding decades would see that right become strained. In an insightful conclusion, Salyer traces the evolution of citizenship in the decades that followed the act. Herself the author of a well-received study of Chinese immigration, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (1995), she details how the Exclusion Act of 1882 “migrated” to other countries, becoming a “global colour line” to keep the Chinese out of the western hemisphere and “white settler nations”.
To her credit, Salyer gets the original name of the Erin’s Hope correct: it was called the Jacmel, after a city in Haiti, not the Jacknell, as many Irish writers, polemic and academic, have rendered it, replicating an error in the contemporary press and an early edition of Speeches from the Dock. Still, elementary mistakes in an introductory chapter will irritate readers. The United Irishmen did not begin as a “small elite movement” in 1789; it was established as a society dominated by merchants and professionals in 1791. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 did not allow Catholics “to vote and hold limited offices” ‑ it allowed them to sit in parliament; male Catholics, meeting certain property qualifications, had the right to vote and hold “limited offices” since 1793. National schools were not “set up by England in 1830”; Westminster was then the parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, yet the national school system was established not by any statute carried there, but rather on foot of a letter, composed in October 1831 (not 1830), by cabinet member Edward Stanley, the chief secretary for Ireland, outlining government policy for state-funded elementary education in Ireland. Finally, Thomas Davis died in 1845, making the description of him as “the leader of the ‘Young Ireland’ movement of the late 1840s”, a little off. All this is small beer ‑ albeit small beer that should cause Harvard University Press some concern about its review process.
It is not such sins of commission but one of omission that is, for this reader, the most baffling feature of the book, namely, Salyer’s decision to build the narrative around Warren to the almost complete exclusion of Costello. Warren’s name was twinned with Costello’s as surely as Butch Cassidy’s is tied to that of the Sundance Kid. Costello was tried separately from Warren, but immediately after him, and later writers often mistakenly referred to “the trial of Warren and Costello”. A great banquet in Cork celebrating their release was “the Warren and Costello Banquet”. They returned together to the States and a reception was arranged in New York for “Warren and Costello”. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Naturalization Act, carried by Westminster in 1870, that allowed subjects of the Crown to renounce their British status, was popularly known (“in Ireland at least”, as AM Sullivan put it in his widely-read New Ireland ) as “the Warren and Costello Act”.
But here the reader learns less of Gus Costello than William Nagle (a connection of Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Order of nuns) who had sailed with them on the Erin’s Hope ‑ including the intriguing detail that Nagle’s father, David, by then a Whig politician in the States, in a letter to government offering to provide information on the Fenians if his son were released, had revealed himself to have been prominent in the Captain Rock disturbances in the early 1820s. In fact, there is no mention in Under the Starry Flag of either Costello’s journalistic career or his histories and, after the initial feting of “Warren and Costello” on their return to the US, he performs only two small walk-on parts, both at funerals: Salyer notes that, in 1869, he acted, with Warren, as a pallbearer at Nagle’s funeral (he had killed himself) and that, in 1895, he delivered a “stirring eulogy” for Warren after he was killed by falling masonry.
Salyer’s focus on Warren (there is, inter alia, a full chapter on his home town of Clonakilty) and neglect of Costello is very hard to understand. In truth, Warren was far less interesting than the man who spoke at his grave. After a brief involvement in an Irish republican newspaper in Boston, Warren, as Salyer concedes, took “no prominent part in public affairs” and became, of all things, a real estate agent, a prosaic profession for a revolutionary. By contrast, Gus Costello, who had been an actor before enlisting in the Union army during the Civil War, remained a popular speaker at Irish republican events in New York into the early 1900s, and, it seems, he had a lively private life: in 1889 he sent his friend (and sometimes patron) John Devoy a curious note discussing how best to deal with “a very dangerous woman” who, assisted by a clergyman (“Who can the priest be? Can we not find out?”), was demanding money of either himself or a mutual friend. Most importantly, as chief of the Herald’s police bureau in the early 1880s, Costello had a ringside seat on the politics of gilded age New York and, between the Herald and Irish republican newspapers on which he worked, as well as his histories, he left a considerable paper trail. Hence, Salyer’s sin of omission constitutes more than a lapse in storytelling, for, as evidenced by his own treatment of “negroes” and “Chinamen”, the convicted Fenian-cum-historian would have given her greater scope for probing issues of race and “terror”, rights and citizenship.
And for sure, Gus Costello would have given Salyer rich material for an epilogue tracing the de facto limits put by the police on the rights that citizenship bestows, a subject of enduring significance to many Americans, not least African Americans. As mentioned, after publication of Our Police Protectors in 1885, the Galwayman set to writing a history of the FDNY, with the proceeds to benefit the firemen’s pension fund. But, much as happened with his book on the NYPD, the department’s support was withdrawn and the city’s firemen opted to hawk a book by a better-connected author. Meanwhile, men employed to sell advertisements in Costello’s book were routinely arrested, only to be released without charge, in order to “kill” his project. On one occasion, in early November 1888, following a complaint by a fire captain, two of his sellers were arrested for using an illegal document (a recalled approval letter used to solicit advertisements). Costello took himself off to police headquarters to secure their release. There, he encountered an old nemesis, Inspector Alexander Williams, who, when “Czar of the Tenderloin”, had resented Costello for publicising his tolerance of vice. Williams had him arrested and taken to the Old Slip police station (now the home of the New York Police Museum), in what was then a lonely and dangerous section of the city, where Captain William McLaughlin and two other police officers inflicted a severe beating on him with brass knuckles. Convinced that the police would kill him, Costello secreted a note in his sock: “If I am found dead here tomorrow, I want it known that I am murdered by Captain McLaughlin and his crowd.” He was charged with attempting to destroy evidence (the sellers’ letters) and dragged to court the following day, but so severely had he been beaten the authorities considered it best to drop the case.
If battered and bruised, Costello was also deeply “humiliated and disgraced” by the beating. Historian Daniel Czitrom, in his riveting New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford University Press, 2016), a work not cited here, observes that the Galwayman never sought to publicise what happened to him or to prosecute the offending policemen. There was, he would only say, “no use to go to law with the devil and court in hell”. But his Irish republicanism was doubtless a factor too: according to one contemporary, the journalist WT Stead, “being a revolutionary Irishman, [Costello] had a morbid horror of doing anything which could in any way lead any one to accuse him, no matter how falsely, of being an informer”.
Ultimately, Costello did make a sensational appearance before the Lexow Commission on police corruption in New York (1894-95) to testify about the beating he had received in the Old Slip, but he only did so, as Czitrom emphasises in New York Exposed, after being subpoenaed by its chief counsel, an old friend, John W Goff. A native of Wexford, Goff had himself been active in Irish republican organisations in New York for several decades, including, irony of ironies, chairing the committee that arranged the Fenians’ other great maritime venture, the Catalpa rescue of prisoners from Fremantle, western Australia in 1875. Costello proved a reluctant witness, reminding his interlocutors that he was there under protest. Still, pressed by the commission to compare his treatment in Ireland and Britain with his treatment by the NYPD, and asked specifically if he had ever been beaten, he replied: “I never was. They treated me within the rules with a great deal of rigor, but they never assaulted me.”
While the dark street to the Old Slip is one that, regrettably, Salyer opted not to take, she has produced a fine study of the politics of citizenship in post-bellum America. In the Age of Trump, when Muslims have become the “new Chinese”, as Salyer rightly describes them, it deserves a wide readership in the United States. And it deserves a readership in Ireland too, not least in the South, where, in a cruel and ungenerous act, people voting in the 2004 referendum shamefully decided that a child born in Ireland is not Irish unless one parent is an Irish citizen, thus diminishing, for the children of non-citizens, “the right to have rights”.
One is loath to be harsh on what is in many respects an exemplary political history. Still, the book’s somewhat breathless subtitle led this reader to expect a more rounded tale of the men who crossed the Atlantic under the sunburst flag of Ireland only to be compelled to take refuge under the starry flag of the United States. And, even as a study of the politics of citizenship in the States, there can be little doubt but that Under the Starry Flag would have been a fuller, more complete book if Salyer had concerned herself less with the realtor John Warren and more with the actor, journalist, historian, victim of police brutality, and, latterly, lawyer and lobbyist (for New York’s optometrists) Gus Costello. Galway’s “terrorist” historian would have taken the reader to places that Salyer does not go.
Breandán Mac Suibhne is the author of The End of Outrage (Oxford University Press, 2017)