Part 1: From Bane to Toast of the Nation
A policeman in Ireland, Michael Corcoran became a symbol of what an Irishman -- and a Fenian -- could make of himself in the New World. In Part 1 of this five part series, he generates a maelstrom of criticism in refusing to march his regiment for the visiting Prince of Wales.
By John J. Concannon
"BY CORCORAN!" That old Irish saying, "What's bred in the bone will out," just may have great truth in it?
Let's see. ... Michael Corcoran was born on September 21, 1827, at Carrowkeel,
Ballymote, County Sligo, Ireland. He was from old stock, a direct descendant of one
of Ireland's immortals.
Michael Corcoran in a pre-war photo, when he was a colonel.
Michael's great grandfather, Patrick Thomas Corcoran of Sligo, married Mary
Fitzgerald of Cloonmore, Roscommon. Mary was the great granddaughter of
the Earl of Lucan. Mary and Patrick's grandson was Thomas Corcoran, a
retired half-pay British army officer who had served in the West Indies for
many years. Thomas married Mary McDonagh of Carrowkeel, Ballymote, Sligo.
That union produced the celebrated military leader, Michael Corcoran. So,
Michael Corcoran was the maternal great-great-great-great grandson of the
renowned Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan.
Michael received a fair education which he augmented by reading widely and
wisely. He joined the Royal Irish Constabulary when only 19, and
remained with them for three years, stationed at Creeslough, County
Donegal. In Donegal, he was an on-scene witness to the horrors of the Great
Famine. He was drawn by the Young Ireland Movement and resigned from the
Constabulary in August 1848, returning to Carrowkeel.
Toward the end of the year, he sailed from the port of Sligo on a windjammer,
bound for the distant shores of America. The trip which usually took two
weeks, cost two pounds, with Michael providing his own food. He landed in
New York City, facing and, in time, overcoming the many hardships and
vicissitudes encountered by Irish emigrants before him.
Corcoran worked at a variety of jobs. For a time, he sold oysters on the
Bowery, was a "policeman" for the Revenue Service and a clerk in the Post Office.
Then he went to work for John Heeney, proprietor of "Hibernian Hall," one
of the most popular meeting and gathering places for the Irish in the
city. The Hall was also a meeting place for the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
John T. Ridge in his history of the A.O.H. (Erin's Sons in America) wrote:
Nowhere was the connection between the AOH and the Irish military
units more evident than in the city of New York, and the connection can be traced back
to several years before the Civil War. It apparently began at the point in
1858 when the AOH started holding its meetings at Hibernian Hall, the long established
meeting place at 42 Prince Street, opposite old St. Patrick's Cathedral.
At the 1858 AOH National Convention in Hibernian Hall, the then Captain,
later Colonel, Michael Corcoran, Hibernian and veteran nationalist, came
into the hall and was introduced as "their host. " Corcoran, while not the owner of the building, was manager of the hall, and when war broke out in 1861, the hall's doors were flung open as a
recruiting depot for the 69th Regiment and, later, other Irish military units.
When New York's Irish Regiment, the 69th, marched to the front in April of
1861, they honored the AOH by parading past Hibernian Hall or "Irish
Headquarters", as it was popularly known in the city. AOH members
festooned the hall with patriotic colors and the national officers lined up
to review the Irish soldiers, many of whom were members of the Order, as
they passed by.
When John Heeney died, Corcoran became proprietor of the Hall. He later
married Heeney's young widow, Elizabeth Heeney. Michael Corcoran, it could be said, went "public" when he joined the military, enlisting in the Sixty-Ninth Regiment as a private in 1851. With his passion for the military, and his knowledge of military tactics, Corcoran rose steadily through the ranks -- orderly sergeant, first lieutenant, captain. The "Quarantine Riots" on Staten Island in 1858 afforded Captain Corcoran an opportunity to show superiors his capacity for
command responsibility. The division's commander lauded Corcoran's performance during the riots and described him as "one of the best officers in the militia. " In August 1859, he was promoted to fill a colonelcy vacancy in the regiment.
|Harper's Weekly, July 29, 1871|
Hibernian Hall, from a post-war drawing in Harper's Weekly.
In his 1988 book on New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parades, historian
Ridge gives a personal perspective on the next episode in Michael
Corcoran's colorful career:
In the fall of 1860 the Prince of Wales made a grand tour of Canada and the United States. With so many exiles of famine and oppression in the
city, the Prince's visit was hardly popular with the Irish. In New York
there was, however, no shortage of Anglophiles and they decided to honor
the Prince with a grand military parade and called out the local militia
units, including the Irish 69th Regiment. The commander of the 69th was
Michael Corcoran, an exile of the 1848 Rising in Ireland and a founder of
the Fenian Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary society pledged to Ireland's
liberation by force of arms. Corcoran felt it was an insult to both his
adopted country to entertain the great grandson of George III and to his
birthplace to pay homage to "his mother's son," the offspring of the
detested Queen Victoria.
Corcoran issued a statement that he "could not in good conscience
order out a regiment composed or Irish-born citizens to parade in honor of a sovereign
under whose reign Ireland was made a desert and her sons forced into exile."
|From the collection of Lt. Col. Ken Powers|
From Michael Corcoran's response to an invitation to attend a ball in honor of the Prince of Wales. (It reads: I am not desirous of joining in the Festivity.)
The fat was in the fire! Colonel Corcoran's action created a local
sensation, which went nationwide. Corcoran was placed under arrest,
preparatory to being tried by a court martial. There was bitter
denunciation of his action and equally bitter support of it and denunciation
of his detractors. Men often came to blows in arguments about the right or
wrong of Corcoran's course. Letters and telegrams from many parts of the
country, approving Corcoran's act, poured into New York.
|From the collection of Lt. Col. Ken Powers|
Michael Corcoran's signature from the bottom of the reply mentioned above.
This was a time when the echoes of the great wave of anti-Catholic and
anti-Irish hatred and bigotry that had swept through the country could
still be heard and felt. Many suspected the Irish of being so independent
and authority resistant as to make poor soldiers. Some feared that the
Irish would not do battle under commanders whose lineage they did not like.
Then came the firing upon Fort Sumter and a "Civil War" was forced
upon a divided nation.
©2001 John J. Concannon
END OF PART I
About the Author: Flushing, N.Y., resident John J. Concannon, email@example.com, is a former national historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. This series is derived from a monograph he wrote for the unveiling of a new gravestone for Michael Corcoran in 1990.
Look for Part 2, "Making a Stand," soon.
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