Web Resources – Primary Sources

Irish History – Web Resources – Primary Sources


For the last few years I have been making increasing use websites relating to Irish history. There has been an explosion of good sites recently and I’ve been using them, both to introduce students to doing online research, and to locate materials to use in the various museum projects I’ve been working on. The sites I’m particularly interested in are those that make use of primary source material. Digitised collections of photographs, letters, paintings, documents etc have allowed my students access to primary material in a way that until recently was almost impossible – especially as I’m teaching Irish history in England.

Over the next few months I’m planning to post links to some of the websites I’ve been using. It will be a far from definitive list and it will primarily reflect my research and teaching interests, but there is a treasure trove out there which is well worth dipping into.

If anyone has suggestions of good sites to investigate I’m very interested in hearing about them. Feel free to drop me an email or comment on the page. I’ll set up a second list that will have links to secondary source material over the next few weeks.

“A Diabolical Murder” Clan na Gael, Chicago & the Murder of Dr Cronin – article for ‘History Ireland’

Last summer I wrote a piece for History Ireland about the murder of Dr Cronin. Below is the article reproduced from theHistory Ireland website.

‘A diabolical murder’: Clan na Gael, Chicago and the murder of Dr Cronin

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Volume 23

Judge 15 June 1889In 1882 an Irish doctor, Patrick Henry Cronin, arrived to take up his new position at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Cronin quickly established himself as an active member of the Irish community in the city. He was a prominent member of a number of charitable societies, regularly sang in the Catholic Cathedral on State Street and, most important of all, was an active member of Clan na Gael. The Clan was a secret Irish republican society founded in New York in 1867. Like its predecessor, the Fenians, the Clan was dedicated to winning Irish independence from Britain through the use of force. Cronin was keen to rise through the ranks and his ambition quickly brought him into conflict with local Clan leader Alexander Sullivan. Sullivan was a controversial figure, inspiring great loyalty and great hatred, and by 1881 he had become the undisputed leader of the Chicago Irish and one of the most influential leaders of radical Irish America. Sullivan was the leading member of ‘the Triangle’, a triumvirate that controlled Clan na Gael. Throughout the 1880s Chicago was the centre of all Clan activity, and Sullivan’s influence was enormous.

Cronin expelled from Clan na Gael

Top: Dr Patrick Henry Cronin. (Chicago History Museum)

As part of the Dynamite Campaign of the mid-1880s a fund was established by the Clan to look after the families of the dead and jailed dynamiters. Cronin, however, suspected that some of the money had been siphoned off by Alexander Sullivan, and after some investigation he concluded that Sullivan had stolen $100,000 of Clan funds. Cronin’s attempts to get Sullivan to account for the missing money failed, and in 1885, disillusioned and desperate, he decided to make public his allegations. Sullivan took immediate action. He accused Cronin of treason, ordered an internal Clan trial and assembled a panel of five men to try him. Two of those appointed to the panel were Henri le Caron, a Frenchman who had been involved in the failed Fenian invasions of Canada in the late 1860s, and Daniel Coughlin, an associate of Sullivan’s and a senior detective in the Chicago police. The trial was brief; Cronin was found guilty and expelled from Clan na Gael in the spring of 1885.

Cronin’s expulsion split the Clan. Nowhere was the division more obvious than in Chicago, where many members of Clan na Gael sided with Cronin. The public acrimony damaged the reputation of the Irish in America and for three years attempts were made to reconcile the two wings of the Clan. Finally, at a convention in Buffalo, New York, in June 1888, representatives of Clan na Gael agreed to hear Cronin’s evidence against Sullivan and the other Triangle members. A six-man committee was proposed, with three men representing each side of the dispute (Cronin sat on the prosecution side, le Caron on the defence). The Triangle was found ‘not guilty’ by a vote of four to two. Cronin was furious, and determined to prove Sullivan’s guilt. Ten months later he was dead.

‘Henri le Caron’ revealed as a spy

Above: Alexander Sullivan.

After the 1888 convention Cronin returned to Chicago, while Henri le Caron headed for London. At the time London was in the midst of a sensational judicial inquiry—the ‘Parnell Commission’. Charles Stewart Parnell had been the subject of a series of controversial articles, published by The Times, entitled ‘Parnellism and Crime’. These articles implicated Parnell in the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders, and accused him of close links with secret revolutionary groups such as the Fenians and Clan na Gael. Parnell denied all charges and a parliamentary commission was established to investigate the newspaper’s claims. The proceedings ran for fourteen months, and in February 1889 a key witness gave sensational evidence. Taking the stand, le Caron revealed that he was not a Frenchman dedicated to the cause of Irish freedom but an Englishman called Thomas Beach who had been a spy for the British government for 25 years.

Le Caron claimed to have met Parnell a number of times and was adamant that Parnell knew of Clan na Gael’s plan to use violence to achieve Irish freedom. It was le Caron’s information that had formed the basis of several of the articles in The Times, and his reports that had been responsible for the capture of many of the men sent on bombing missions to Britain as part of the campaign. Thanks to his senior position in Sullivan’s Chicago camp, le Caron had an intimate knowledge of the workings of Clan na Gael and had furnished Scotland Yard with all the information they required.

Cronin now suspect

 ‘How Dr Cronin was found’. (National Police Gazette)

The revelation that Henri le Caron was a British spy sent shock waves through Irish America. Le Caron had intimated that there was more than one spy at work in Clan na Gael and, in Chicago, attention immediately focused on Patrick Cronin, Sullivan’s bête noir. The uneasy truce that had been engineered at the Buffalo Convention looked increasingly precarious. Cronin told friends that he believed that his life was in danger. Nevertheless, in April 1889 Cronin struck a peculiar deal with a Patrick O’Sullivan, an iceman with a factory in Lake View (a northern suburb of Chicago). Despite living several miles from the icehouse, Cronin agreed to attend any employee of O’Sullivan’s who was injured in return for a regular stipend.

On 4 May an anxious young man summoned Cronin from his surgery. An accident had taken place at O’Sullivan’s icehouse and a man had been seriously wounded. Cronin packed his medical case and leapt into the waiting buggy. When he failed to return home, his landlords and friends, Theo and Cordelia Conklin, reported him missing. At first, however, the police investigation was characterised by apathy. Daniel Coughlin, a detective assigned to the case, reflected the feelings of many officers when he announced to reporters: ‘Boys, I give up … I’ve searched high and low until I’m exhausted and I can get nowhere. But this you may be sure of, there isn’t a shred of evidence that Cronin was murdered.’

Cronin’s friends pointed to the fact that several patrolmen had reported the erratic passage of a horse and cart carrying a large trunk through the streets of Chicago late on the evening of Cronin’s disappearance. The following day the discovery of a blood-stained trunk containing tufts of human hair in a ditch gave substance to the view that Cronin had not disappeared voluntarily. But other rumours persisted. The press claimed that he had run away: to Canada, to escape prosecution for performing an abortion; to New York, to escape the consequences of an ill-advised affair; or to London, where, like le Caron before him, he would be revealed as a British spy.

Putrid smell

All speculation ended on 22 May when employees of the Board of Public Works were dispatched to investigate the source of a putrid smell coming from a sewer in Lake View. Peering through the bars of the sewer, the workers saw the swollen body of a naked man. A bloody towel was draped around the corpse’s neck and he had been stripped of all belongings, with the exception of an Agnus Dei medallion, a Catholic sacramental believed to safeguard the wearer against harm. It was immediately assumed that the body was Cronin’s, and within hours the Conklins identified his body in the morgue of Lake View police station.

Two days after the discovery of Cronin’s body the police found the scene of his murder. The Carlsons, Swedish immigrants, owned a cottage in Lake View that they rented out. On 20 March a ‘Frank Williams’ had rented the cottage but in May he vacated it without notice. On entering the empty cottage, the Carlsons discovered rooms stained with blood and scattered with broken furniture. Meanwhile, the police investigation was finally gathering pace. Patrick Dinan owned a livery stable very close to East Chicago Avenue police station. The stable was regularly used by police officers and detectives, and on the night Cronin was killed Dinan had rented a horse and buggy to a man called ‘Smith’, sent by Detective Daniel Coughlin (the detective assigned to the case and a Clan member who had expelled Cronin in 1885). The horse and buggy matched the newspaper descriptions of the ones that had taken Cronin from his surgery, and Dinan reported this to the chief of police, George W. Hubbard. On 27 May Detective Coughlin was arrested and charged with the murder of Dr Cronin. The iceman, Patrick O’Sullivan, was also taken into custody.
As the police investigation continued, growing evidence led officers to the conclusion that Cronin’s murder was the result of a conspiracy hatched in Camp 20 of Clan na Gael, Alexander Sullivan’s camp. It became apparent that Patrick O’Sullivan, the iceman, was closely linked with Martin Burke (the ‘Frank Williams’ who had rented the Carlson cottage). Further revelations implicated John Beggs, the senior guardian of Camp 20, and a number of others associated with both Sullivan and Camp 20. On 11 June Alexander Sullivan was arrested, but with little more than rumour to detain him he was released after one night. On 16 June a key suspect was traced to Winnipeg. Martin Burke was discovered at Winnipeg railway station, travelling under an alias, with tickets for a boat bound for Liverpool. After lengthy extradition proceedings, Burke was returned to Chicago on 5 August. In all, the Chicago police identified nine men whom they believed were involved in the conspiracy to murder Cronin, but several of those suspected were never arrested and charged.

 Jury selection

By the time the Illinois state attorney was ready to bring Coughlin, Beggs, Burke and O’Sullivan to trial, however, it was almost impossible to select a jury. Almost everyone in Chicago had already made up their minds about the case. From May to December 1889, thousands of newspaper reports and editorials had been dedicated to the Cronin murder. Every twist and turn of the investigation was closely scrutinised by a press and public who were fascinated and horrified in equal measure. The newspaper coverage was sufficient to convince many Chicagoans that Coughlin and his cohorts were guilty. Between August and October, 1,115 men were interviewed as potential jurors (at the time the largest and longest jury selection process in US history) before twelve were eventually sworn in on 22 October. The trial opened the following day. Such was the interest in it that 5,000 members of the public attempted to gain admission to a courtroom that could accommodate just 200.

The trial lasted for seven weeks, and every twist and turn was pored over and dissected by an enthralled city. Newspapers delighted in providing minute details about the lives of the accused, the jury and the legal teams. As the days wore on, Clan na Gael slowly unravelled, as unedifying details of the inner workings of an idealistic but corrupt movement were exposed to public scrutiny. By the conclusion of the trial few in Chicago were prepared openly to defend the cause of Irish republicanism.

The jury began its deliberations on 12 December. Outside the divided Irish American community, popular opinion held that the accused were guilty and should hang. It became apparent on the morning of 16 December that a verdict was imminent, and a huge, silent crowd waited outside the court in a fine rain. Coughlin, O’Sullivan and Burke were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Beggs was acquitted. Supporters of Sullivan rushed to embrace the verdict, claiming that since Beggs, the leader of Camp 20 and therefore the leader of the alleged conspiracy, had been found innocent, this was proof that there had been no conspiracy and that Cronin had been murdered by individuals acting on their own behalf. Such subtleties were lost on the general public, who remained convinced that Cronin was an innocent man murdered because he exposed corruption within Irish America.

In late January 1890 the three prisoners were dispatched to serve their terms in Joliet prison. From prison Daniel Coughlin waged a strong campaign to be granted a retrial, and in 1893 the Illinois Supreme Court agreed. Burke and O’Sullivan had died of tuberculosis in 1892, so Coughlin was the only man to enter the dock, where he was cleared of all charges and released. There is little doubt that the jury was bribed.

 Above: Martin Burke, Detective Daniel Coughlin and iceman Patrick O’Sullivan started life sentences in January 1890 for the murder of Dr Cronin. Burke and O’Sullivan died in custody two years later of tuberculosis; Coughlin was granted a retrial in 1893 and, amid rumours of a bribed jury, was cleared of all charges and released. (Chicago History Museum


Gillian O’Brien is Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University.

Read More: Dynamite Campaign
More than a crime story

Further reading

S. Kenna, War in the shadows: the Irish American Fenians who bombed Victorian Britain (Dublin, 2013).
G. O’Brien, Blood runs green: the murder that transfixed Gilded Age Chicago (Chicago, 2015).
N. Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish nationalism and political violence in the wider world, 1867–1900 (Cambridge, 2012).

The Dead Generations

And so it’s 2016. For anyone interested in Modern Irish History it’s going to be an interesting year with the centenary of the Easter Rising almost upon us. There will be all manner of commemorative events, publications, documentaries and fictionalised accounts. I’m both looking forward to it all and fear that I’ll be very bored of it all long before it’s all over. For me I’m most interested in how those who took part in the Rising used the past to justify their actions and how those commemorating the Rising are using the past for their own purposes.

I recently chatted with Greg Daly of the Irish Catholic about the significance of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915. O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral is famous for Patrick Pearse’s graveside oration which became a call to arms for many of those who took part in the 1916 Rising. But O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral was far from the first funeral to be used for political ends.


The dead generations
The funeral of O’Donovan Rossa was part of a long tradition of nationalist funerals, Greg Daly learns

For all that he has been described as the creator of modern terrorism, by the time Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa died, he was a spent force, at least in the United States where he lived. “His whole reputation was made in the 1860s,” says Dr Gillian O’Brien, reader in Modern Irish History in Liverpool John Moores University. Through his August 1, 1915 funeral, she explains, the old Fenian “became more iconic in death than he had been for many decades in life”.

“The whole funeral was completely stage-managed, primarily by Tom Clarke,” she says, pointing out that as a member of the Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) since 1878 and a one-time United States resident who carried an American passport, “he was a bridge between the old Fenians and the new generation as represented by Pearse and also a bridge across the Atlantic.”

In seeing the propaganda potential of O’Donovan Rossa’s death and asking Patrick Pearse to speak at the funeral – he told him to make his speech “as hot as Hell” – Clarke was tapping into an old nationalist tradition whereby funerals could double as political rallies, largely immune from attempts to ban them as partisan gatherings.

The roots of the tradition began with the Young Irelanders who first consecrated Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown as the nationalist pilgrimage site it continues to be to this day, Dr O’Brien argues, with Daniel O’Connell’s funeral in August 1847, when tens of thousands lined Dublin’s streets, being the first of Ireland’s great political funerals albeit one somehow distinct from the general tradition.


“O’Connell had a massive funeral but no one ever talks of it,” she says, identifying the more obvious start of the tradition as the funeral of Terence Bellew MacManus in 1861. MacManus, she points out, is someone who matters “because of his funeral more than anything else”.

Transported to Australia’s Van Dieman’s Land – now Tasmania – after the failure of the Young Ireland rebellion in 1848, MacManus escaped to the United States in 1852. After his death in San Francisco in 1861, Dr O’Brien explains, the Fenians realised he could serve the nationalist cause in death. As his body was brought back to Ireland through America, it stopped along the way in various places, with the stops being used to raise money for the movement.

When his remains finally reached Ireland, they were brought by train from Cobh to Dublin. In Dublin a procession from the Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street took MacManus’s bier past such nationalist shrines as the spots where Robert Emmet was executed in 1803 and where Lord Edward Fitzgerald had been shot in 1798, before being buried in the Young Irelanders’ plot at Glasnevin Cemetery after a stirring graveside oration written by the IRB’s James Stephens.

The nationalist writer A.M. Sullivan, then opposed to the Fenians, subsequently described the funeral as “the greatest ever witnessed upon Earth”, continuing, “those who saw the gathering that followed his coffin to the grave, the thousands of stalwart men that marched in solemn order behind his bier, will never forget the sight”.

The execution of the “Manchester Martyrs” in 1867 provided an opportunity for further Fenian commemorations, including mock funerals across Ireland, and a similar ceremony to that for MacManus marked the funeral of the Fenian co-founder John O’Mahony in 1877. An estimated 20,000 turned out in his honour in New York and a further 70,000, by police estimates, watched the 4,000-strong procession to his grave in Dublin. As a graveside oration was forbidden, the Fenian writer Charles Kickham spoke in honour of O’Mahony outside the cemetery gates.

Ecclesiastical attempts to restrain such political funerals, tied with general clerical opposition to the IRB as an oath-bound secret society, did little to limit the popularity and success of the Fenian project to transform their dead into political martyrs to be venerated as part of Ireland’s nationalist pantheon, in their hope that their blood would become, to paraphrase Tertullian, the seed of independence.

Parnell’s funeral fitted awkwardly into this tradition, Dr O’Brien observes, describing how “all sorts of people” turned out among the more than 200,000 thought to have attended. “In death all bets are off,” she explains, speculating that some measure of guilt may have motivated many of those attending, as the nationalist leader’s death in 1891 at the age of 45, so soon after the Irish National Party had split over his relationship with Catherine O’Shea, meant that he never had the chance to be rehabilitated.


By the time O’Donovan Rossa died in 1915, the Fenians were masters of political funerals and the Church had realised that trying to stop them was counter-productive. When O’Donovan Rossa’s remains arrived in Dublin on July 27, 1915, they were taken to the pro-cathedral for a memorial service – an honour denied MacManus and O’Mahony – before being taken to City Hall to lie in state for three days.

Contemporary accounts reckoned that about 200,000 people lined the streets of Dublin during his procession from City Hall to Glasnevin, Dr O’Brien says, pointing out that while O’Donovan Rossa’s glory days in America had long passed, he was still well known in Ireland as someone who “had been treated appallingly in the 1860s”, says Dr O’Brien, and was known of for “his activism and involvement in the skirmishing and dynamiting campaign” in the 1880s.

In stage-managing the funeral, she explains, Clarke chose Pearse to give the graveside oration not merely because of his oratorical gifts but because of his youth. “Pearse as new generation is key,” she says, “and he acknowledges this in the speech, highlighting how rather than being someone who knew O’Donovan Rossa – he refers to them as ‘the grey-haired men who were young with him’ – he represents the new generation.”

Continuity was a central theme in Pearse’s speech, Dr O’Brien points out, saying that Pearse was trying to convey how his generation were standing on the shoulders of giants, sharing the same definition of freedom understood by the United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, and the Fenians.

“Let no man blaspheme the cause that the dead generations of Ireland served by giving it any other name and definition than their name and their definition,” he said, using a distinctive phrase that he would revive when proclaiming Ireland a Republic the following year “in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood”.

Determined to deny the rebels a succession of posthumous propaganda parades, one of the few prudent decisions the British made in the aftermath of the Rising was to order the bodies of Pearse, Clarke and the others be dumped in a common grave at Arbour Hill prison and covered in quicklime to speed their decomposition.

Ultimately this proved for nothing, however; in the absence of orchestrated propagandist funerals, requiem and month’s mind Masses provided opportunities for popular sympathy for the rebels to rear its head and blossom. 

– See more at: http://irishcatholic.ie/article/dead-generations#sthash.iCnuQ99m.dpuf