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Author: L.A. O'Donnell

Publication Year: 2000

Journal Volume: 14

Article Reference: NYIHR-V14-06

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Courage for Any Venture - J.D. McDonnell - Fenian, Editor and Labor Leader

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Courage for Any Venture: J.D. McDonnell Fenian, Editor and Labor Leader BY L.A. O'DONNELL

On New Year's Day 1873, Joseph Patrick McDonnell arrived in New York with his wife, Mary McEvatt. Due to their poverty they had come over from England in steerage class on a voyage lasting almost one month. The ordeal was carefully documented by McDonnell in letters published in the New York Herald, which told of seriously deficient sanitary conditions, absence of privacy for the sexes, bad food, ill treatment of immigrants collected at LeHavre and called for reforms to protect steerage passengers. A letter to President Grant elicited a reply from Secretary of State Hamilton Fish assuring McDonnell that efforts to remedy these evils would be undertaken.' Illustration: Portrait of McDonnell pub-In his autobiography, Samuel Gompers lished in the National remembered first having met McDonnell in New Labor Standard in York at the office of Patrick Ford, editor of the 1906. Samuel J. P. Mc Donnell.

Irish World. He described McDonnell as having Gompers described McDonnell as having "clean-cut small features, wonderful eyes and an "wonderful eyes and abundance of red curly hair." The longtime ly at the Tenth Ward Hotel at Broome and an abundance of red American Federation of Labor (AFL) president, Forsyth Streets in lower Manhattan. More intencurly hair. * Courtesy of L.A. O'Donnell. who was five-foot four, recalled McDonnell as sive debate, however, took place among an inner only an inch or two taller than himself and "was circle of ten men, including McGuire and brainy and very gentle, had a beautiful speaking Samuel Gompers (although member of this voice and courage for any venture."2 inner circle, Gompers never joined the IWA). Settling in Manhattan, McDonnell became In his autobiography, Gompers recalled that recording secretary of the New York Council of "from these men who were genuine revolutionarthe International Workingmen's Association ies in thought and in deed, men to whom princi-L.A. O'Donnell is author (IWA). The IWA, dominated by Karl Marx and ples meant something, I learned the fundamentals of The Irish Voice and Friedrich Engels in London, had recruited of the labor movement. They were men who did Organized Labor, pub-McDonnell, who became : loyal member of its not hesitate to risk something to accomplish a lished by Greenwood Press in 1997. He has written general council for several years before emigratpurpose."* Gompers, incidentally, had become many articles on labor ing. The 1870s decade was one of economic acquainted with McGuire at the Coopers Union and economic history depression, unemployment, labor turmoil and Free School, where they were both members of emphasizing the contributions of Irish immigrants contesting social theories. The period was a highthe Rising Sun Debating Society. to the United States. He ly formative one for the American labor move-All but Gompers himself were IWA memrecently retired from the ment. Manhattan was an arena for contending bers. In their wide-open, late-night seminars, Economics Department at Villanova University. ideas brought by exiles and refugees from Marxian, Lasallean and Utopian socialism, anarchism Europe, such as IWA activist Friedrich A. Sorge and other isms were assessed for their relevance and by native radicals such as Peter J. McGuire. to American workers. From these origins, perma- ©2000. Published with the permission of L.A. O'Donnell.The New York Council of the IWA met regularnence in the form of the American Federation of Vol.14, 2000 NEW YORK 1R15H HISTORY PAGE 53 to the depressed condition of the economy. P. J. OCEAN STEERAGE ABUSES, McGuire, chairman of something called "The Committee of Public Safety" (reminiscent of the Encouraging Prospects of Needful Legislation-Mr. J. P. McDonnell Persevering in the Good French Revolution), had obtained a permit from Work-Secretary Fish Alive to the Importo mayor's office to hold a rally in Tompkins tance of Protecting the Immigrant.

Square Park to protest unemployment.

A *TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD:- Unknown to McGuire, on the morning of the SIR-In my letters of January 27 and February 4 appointed day the permit was rescinded. From 7 declared my intention to prosecute an inquiry into the ocean steerage abuses And to leave no 10 a.m. between seven and ten thousand peostone unturned to bring about the enactment of "better einigration laws. I have so far succeeded in ple had shown up. Before folilling my promise that public attention is now speeches had commenced, %directed to the question and hundredspersons throughout the country have written to mo ex• police on horseback and on foot TE MONSTER PRELIMINARY pressing their willingness to bear testimony to the treatment which they received on Atlantic oceanrushed to disperse the crowd.

AMNESTY steamships. 1 may say that 1p no case has any Samuel Gompers, who was just person accusod me of exaggeration, but many coneider that I have not painted the picture of •ocean approaching the park when MEETING steerage life in colors dark enough, and all urgo Will be held upon me to push the matter forward fearlessly. police came, escaped harm, but On Friday next, October 22nd, 1869, shall do so. The public must also do so and the At hulf-past 7 o'clock in the Evening,: described the scene as "an orgy press must not remain in the background. The IN THE public man who will hold his tongue over this quesof brutality." It convinced him BROADWAY, tion or the paper which will suppress all reference *o it cannot be faithful to the interests of the people, that radicalism was unwise and DEPTFORD, make arrangements for and the millions of emigrants. who are now free ineffective in the society of the citizens of the Republic will - not be, un-GREAT DEMONSTRATION "mindful of such grosa; neglect. The gratitude time.* McGuire, on the other of every" emigrant and every emigrant's descendant is due to the HERALD for the generous hand, decided that the only HYDE PARK "manner in which its columns huve, been thrown alternative was to change the open for the ventilation of this all-important ocean On Sunday Next. stecrage question. am only an individual, and system, and he set out on a without your all-powerful aid, could bave accom.

Mr. J.P. M' DONNELLAnd other Gentlemen will "tend plished but little. The people must now, however, seven-year campaign to estabgive practical assistance by bringing the question before their trade, political and social clubs, inlish socialism. There 1s no every city and village throughout the Union. They must not content themselves with mere expresrecord of McDonnell's reaction sions of sympathy. They can do : bat will cost them just as little and accomplish a great deal to this episode, but for some more by agitating the question and forcing it upon time he continued to favor socialism. representatives. 1 will do my part, but the public the attention of the ress and their Congressional must perform theirs.

McDonnell next joined a group that estab- .In accordance with my pledge I have directed the following letter to the Chairman of the Emigration Commissioners, but the public must clearly lished the Central Organization of Trades and understand that the question cannot be settled by any committee of investigation and that it cannot Labor Unions of New York. a city federation of be abandoned until it is taken up and satisfactorily settled by the governments of this country and local unions. The new organization acquired *Europe. I subjoin another letter which this morn Ming I received from Secretary Fish and I am pleased Illustrations: The Socialist, a radical newspaper. and used it as to find that its tone is very promising. I am justnoW collecting material which I shall use imme- (Left) Letter from its official organ. They chose McDonnell as its diately after the investigation. In the meantime I McDonnell pubshall be glad to hear from persons who feel a sineditor. Shortly thereafter, the title was changed lished by the New cere interest in this question.P. MCDONNELL. L. 257 Bowery, New York. to the New York Labor Standard, and a Labor York Herald in 1873 as part of his Standard paper was henceforth identified with campaign against dis-J. P. McDonnell mal conditions Labor eventually emerged, but not before num-A brief interlude followed beginning in imposed on steerageclass passengers crossbers of other organizations and ideologies had August of 1877 when a trio of activists promoting the Atlantic from been tested. From Marxism, Gompers and ing the eight-hour-workday movement somehow Europe. (Right) By McDonnell accepted thorough economic organimoved the Labor Standard to the textile center of 1869, McDonnell had orchestrated large zation of workers as the essential foundation for River, Massachusetts, and demoted McDonnell demonstrations in undertaking anything further. So also did P. J. to associate editor. Dismayed, McDonnell left London's Hyde Park McGuire, but not until considerably later, when and brought the Labor Standard to Paterson, demanding amnesty he became disenchanted with the method of a New Jersey, from where it emanated thereafter.5 for Fenian prisoners.

Courtesy of L.A. labor party as a result of his experience with it. Paterson, a classic manufacturing town O'Donnell.

The Tompkins Square tumult on January whose origins trace to 1781 when Alexander 13, 1874, was a classic example of the response Hamilton recognized the falls of the Passaic River Vol.14, 2000 PAGE 54 NEW YORK 1RISH HISTORY as an ideal source of waterpower for industry. He badly. The firm charged McDonnell with libel. established the Society for Useful Manufactures Convicted, he and Menton were sentenced to two to develop it. By the 1820s, it had attracted months in the county jail the judge allowing immigrant weavers and spinners from Ulster and that a fine alone would not deter the editor. other parts of Ireland. In fact, one of its oldest While confined, McDonnell was the recipineighborhoods is called "Dublin." Support for ent of generous community support. With full Jacksonian Democracy was strong among Irish approval of Warden John Buckley, son of the forworkers in Paterson. Daniel O'Connell's Catholic mer mayor, he continued to edit the Labor Emancipation strategy inspired a group of Standard. His meals were delivered from a nearby Paterson Irishmen to raise funds to support his boardinghouse by his printer's devil, George movement. The Leonard McNeil, son of his former associate, Passaic River was George McNeil. Paterson saloons provided the site of McDonnell with fully adequate supply of spir-Irishman John its and cigars. Special dinner celebrations materi-Holland's developalized for both his birthday and St. Patrick's Day. ment of a work-Visitors were welcomed hospitably, often in the able submarine, warden's office. Old friends Samuel Gompers of which he dubbed the cigarmakers' union and O'Donovan Rossa of "The Fenian Fenian days came, as well as Terence Powderly, Ram." mayor of Scranton and leader of the Knights of McDonnell Labor, among others. had come to McDonnell's release on April 1, 1880, was Paterson. then : celebrated by a gathering estimated to be fifteen town of about fifty thousand at a minimum, and banquet was held thousand, as a founder (with George McNeil) of in his honor, at which he was presented with a the International Labor Union, intending to gold watch suitably inscribed. While workers organize its textile workers. A strike had occurred made up the bulk of the crowd, numerous small at textile mills of the R & H Adams firm, then businessmen and professional people also particithe town's largest company. Workers there and at pated. Evidently, important elements of the comother companies as well had proved unwilling to munity, in addition to its workers, were favorably accept discipline imposed by factory production disposed to the thirty-three-year-old critic of the and the ethos of their industrial employers. evils of industrialism.7 Wading into the dispute, the Paterson Labor Standard named some employees who crossed LOBBYING SKILL the picket line as scabs. McDonnell was tried, As his passion for socialism abated, McDonnell Illustrations: convicted of libel, and fined $500 plus court instigated formation of important labor institu-Idealized images of mills in Paterson costs ($67.87). His friends and supporters raised tions. Early in 1879, the annual New Jersey Labor during the late sufficient funds to pay for all of it. Congress had become a reality. It met in the state nineteenth century.

A second encounter with Passaic County capitol in Trenton to promote labor-reform laws.

Courtesy of L.A. O'Donnell. Court took place in 1880 when the fearless editor Next, in 1883, the New Jersey Federation of published a letter from an employee of a local Organized Trades and Labor Unions materialized brickyard complaining about his employer, Van at McDonnell's urging, and he became chairman Blarkham & Clark. The letter from Michael of its legislative committee. In that position he Menton, a young man who boarded on the premmobilized voting strength in industrial communiises, described being provided meals of rotten ties to elect candidates who pledged to support bread, rancid butter, tainted meat and equally reform legislation after canvassing their positions appetizing coffee. Work hours lasted from 4 a.m. on the issues. There followed lobbying during sesto 6 p.m., with housing and toilet accommodasions of the legislature to see that the specific bills tions consisting of leaky wooden shacks. were introduced and that legislators who agreed Employees contracted illnesses and were cared for to vote for them actually did so. According to Vol.14, 2000 NEW YORK 1R15H HISTORY PAGE 55 labor historian Herbert Gutman, McDonnell pose of consulting with the Vatican and carrying spent fifteen winters in Trenton lobbying in this out a mission for President Lincoln who, he was manner. The fruit of his effort was reform laws: led to believe, needed his help in countering the those restricting child labor, requiring safety stanefforts of Confederate agents James M. Mason dards in industry, limiting the workweek in manand John Slidell to secure support for the southufacturing to fifty-five hours, and those restricting ern states from England and France. In fact, wily use of convict labor. In 1887, New Jersey became Republican politician Thurlow Weed (a close the first state to make Labor Day a legal holiday, associate of Secretary of State William H. thanks to McDonnell. Seward) was cultivating Hughes with an eye to Among his other occupations, the persuasive bringing his faithful (mostly Democratic) flock former Fenian was appointed the state's deputy into the Republican column. Flattered, the archinspector of factories and workshops by Governor bishop apparently had no suspicion of the Leon Abbett. He also became chairman of the manipulation. state's Board of Arbitration and Mediation and In any case, on this trip Hughes visited actively involved himself in a variety of labor dis-Dublin University, and young McDonnell was putes until employers persuaded the legislature to chosen to present a welcoming address for him. abolish the board. Impressed, the prelate complimented the lad In 1884, McDonnell organized the Paterson for his words and observed, "Should you join Trades Assembly (composed of local unions in the priesthood you will become a great bishop; the town). Two years later, he established the but whatever Paterson Typographical Union and remained a you choose member for life. He was a general organizer of you will be the American Federation of Labor from 1902 great and on.& He was chosen chairman of the National good." The Labor Press Association at its founding in the possibility of same period. his becoming a priest was ORIGINS AND EDUCATION promptly This diminutive firebrand and gifted journalist closed, howwas born to comfortable middle-class family in ever, when he Dublin on March 27, 1847. While favoring Irish presented independence, his parents were not passionate himself to the about it. Son Joseph began his education at the Maynooth national school on Marlborough Street in Dublin, seminary. His which he attended from 1853 to 1858. A year refusal to take later he entered the relatively new Catholic an oath to report any activity seditious to the University of Dublin, an institution promoted by British government was the reason. Until then, Archbishop Paul Cullen. Its first rector had been his father devoutly hoped he would become a John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman). man of the cloth.

He remained its head until the year before The eloquent young man's displays of dis-McDonnell enrolled. Most of the University's factaste for British rule resulted in his being threatulty were Englishmen who had converted to ened with expulsion from the Dublin university Catholicism during the Oxford Movement. on several occasions. When he and Charles G. Shortly, this largely British faculty became aware of Doran secretary of the Brotherhood of St.

McDonnell's precocious oratorical skill, as well as Patrick and an architect who later designed the his Irish nationalism. He joined the Brotherhood cathedral at Cobh toured Dublin, closing of St. Patrick (a recruiting ground for Fenianism), valves on gas mains to prevent illumination of which nurtured his ardor for Irish freedom. the city in honor of the Prince of Wales and his In 1861 Archbishop John Hughes of New bride who were visiting the city, it was the last York made a trip to Europe with the twofold purstraw. He was thrown out.' Vol.14, 2000 PAGE 56 NEW YORK 1R15H HISTORY FENIAN ACTIVIST His oratory impressed Karl Marx and It was in the house of Samuel McEvatt in Dublin Friedrich Engels, both residing in London at the that the Brotherhood of St. Patrick was organized. time. Inviting McDonnell to join the International McEvatt was then middle-aged and had participat-Workingmens Association (TWA or "First ed in the republican movement of 1848. He International"), which they dominated, they became an early member of the Fenian movement. subsequently nominated him for membership In fact, many important meetings of the Fenians on its general council, resulting in his unanimous took place in his house. He was clearly a mentor of election in July of 1871. He faithfully served McDonnell and became the father-in-law of the the organization as corresponding secretary for young man sometime later in London. Like Ireland and was instrumental in forming most Irish rebels, he was no stranger to British branches in Ireland and among Irishmen living prisons. In 1863 McDonnell had become a Fenian in England. Marx and Engels had been convinced that is, a member of the Irish Republican that independence for Ireland was a stepping-Brotherhood (IRB), as it was otherwise known. stone to the eventual overthrow of capitalism in Soon thereafter, he became one of the editors of its citadel - England. the vigorously nationalist United Irishman and also In order to conduct these mass meetings, a contributor to the Irish People, newspaper that McDonnell needed to overcome a parliamentary had been established in 1863 by James Stephens, act that prohibited large gatherings in public leader of the IRB. By 1865 he had risen to memparks. At one of his early "monster meetings" in bership in the provisional council of the move-Hyde Park, he and seven other speakers were ment. Following revelations of Pierce Nagle, a arrested and convicted for violating the law. The British agent, who had penetrated the organizacase received wide publicity and was appealed to tion, those associated with the Irish People were the House of Lords, which yielded to public sentiimprisoned, including McDonnell. The Habeas ment and held that the parliamentary law was not Corpus Act having been suspended, he remained a legal enactment. These mass meetings were an in prison but was never put on trial. After a twenimportant factor in the British government's ultity-month stint in the town of Mullingar in mately determining that Fenian prisoners would County Westmeath as proprietor of a news agency be released on condition that they emigrate. and tobacco shop financed by his long-suffering At the time of the Franco-Prussian War, father, he emigrated to London. The shop had suf-McDonnell became involved in a plan to organfered from his stealthy preoccupation with ize a brigade of Irishmen, disguised as an ambu-Fenianism and from harassment by police. 10 lance corps, to fight for the French. The underlying purpose was to provide combat expe-LONDON ENDEAVORS rience to be put to use in future rising in Ireland.

Once in London, McDonnell resumed his jour-A certain General McAdaras, who had contrived nalistic career as summary editor for the London to obtain that rank in the French army by devi-Evening Standard, as well as editor of Universal ous methods, was to deliver funds from France to News, an Irish nationalist paper published in the finance the brigade, but failed to do so, leaving city. In addition, he served as London corresponthe burden to McDonnell. The plan became dent for the Dublin Irishman. His public oratory known to the German ambassador in London in London began with an address welcoming who lodged an official protest with British George Train, a wealthy American and world authorities, resulting in McDonnell's arrest for traveller, recently released from prison in Dublin. violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act. A prison Train had been detained for publicly advocating stay of two months followed. Finding conditions Irish freedom. By 1869 McDonnell had organintolerable in Clerkenwell prison, McDonnell ized the English Amnesty Committee to promote was able to publish letters in London papers release of Fenian prisoners. Subsequently, he protesting them. As a result he was moved to orchestrated large gatherings at the "Reformers' Newgate prison, where treatment was not as bad.

Tree" in Hyde Park, where he demanded freedom McDonnell had been arraigned, but the trial for those in custody. was suspended. At length he was released on bail Vol.14, 2000 NEW YORK 1R15H HISTORY PAGE 57 and the trial was never resumed. The cost of defense and financial burden of the brigade left NOTES him essentially bankrupt." On March 15, 1871, McDonnell had mar- 1 New York Herald, January 27, February 4, March 6, ried the daughter of Samuel McEvatt in the Fran- 1873. ciscan church of Peckham, London. Together he 2 Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, New and his bride boarded the S.S. Erin, steerage York, Dutton, 1925, vol. 1, p. 88 class, in early December 1872, for voyage that proved to be one of truly appalling conditions. 3 Ibid. 4 Gompers, pp. 95-96; Herbert G. Gutman, 'The AFTERWORD Tompkins Square Riot," Labor History, Winter 1965, When George Francis Train arrived in Paterson Pp. 44-70. around the turn of the century to speak to a large gathering of silk workers, he was greeted by 5 John R. Commons & Associates, History of Labor in Charles Beckwith, its mayor, and J.P. the United States, New York, Macmillan, 1918, vol. 2, McDonnell. His first words to McDonnell were: p. 304; biographical sketch of McDonnell dictated by "What, you who stirred up all England and parts his widow, 1908, McDonnell Papers, State Historical of Europe, here in a little village?" Society of Wisconsin, p. 8. Indeed, the passionate voice was heard and 6 Howard Harris, "The Eagle to Watch and the Harp to expressed in print on two continents to further Tune the Nation: Irish Immigrants, Politics and Early the cause of justice which inspired him.

Industrialization in Paterson, N.J.,1824-1836," Surprisingly, his career would be unknown but for Journal of Social History, Spring 1990, pp. 580-81. labor scholars such as John R. Commons and Herbert G. Gutman, Work, Culture & Society in Herbert Gutman and for the recollections of Industrializing America, New York, Random House, Samuel Gompers and John Devoy cited herein. 1977 (Vintage Book), Pp. 249-53, 274-77. His career dramatizes how a youth from Dublin's middle class came to devote an entire life to the 8 Ibid, Pp. 169-71, 280-81, 285-90; Report of the Ninth cause of justice, first for Ireland, later for workers Annual Congress of the N.J. Federation of Labor, 1887. in Europe and America. Karl Marx exerted a 9 Biographical sketch of J.P.McDonnell, pp. 1-2, 7; Sr. strong influence on him, but did not cause him to M. Jane Coogan, BVM, "A Study of the John Hughesbecome doctrinaire. Rather, he was something of Terence Donaghoe Friendship," Records of the American lifelong pragmatist who finally accepted AFL-Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, style unionism but not entirely. The AFL pat-March-December 1982, pp. 68-70; John Devoy, tern of voluntarism (i.e., opposition to Recollections of a Fenian Rebel, New York, Charles D. government involvement) was contrary to his Young, 1929, p. 15. emphasis on labor-reform legislation. His devo- 10 Biographical sketch of McDonnell, pp. 3, 6-7. tion to organizing unskilled workers in textile firms in industrial unions did not follow the AFL 11 Ibid., pp.3-5; John Boyle, "Ireland and the First pattern of skilled craft unions. Even so, he was a International,* Journal of British Studies, May 1972, Pp. lifelong friend of Samuel Gompers from 1873 on. 44-62. McDonnell's efforts were rewarded with the 12 Quotes from George Francis Train and from Chief obscurity that befalls most of those who dedicate Stagg in reminiscences of Mrs. McDonnell (no date), their lives to the dignity of labor in our business-McDonnell Papers. oriented society. At his funeral in 1906, Chief Stagg of the Paterson fire department, spoke these wards to his widow, "Well there is no use saying much, Mrs. McDonnell, but I can say that there lies a man who could not keep a dollar in his pocket and know that his fellow man was in want." 12 Vol.14, 2000