Monday, October 11, 2010

Remembering the Past: Fenian Col. Michael Corcoran

On October 11, 1860, US army units in New York City were instructed to turn out in parade in honour of the visiting Prince of Wales, the 19-year-old heir to the English throne. One unit refused to do so: The fighting Irish 69th Regiment.

The refusal by leading fenian Col. Michael Corcoran to march led to an significant increase in the recruitment of soldiers into the Fenian movement.

Corcoran himself was an interesing figure. When his father died his pension ceased and Michael joined the Revenue police and worked in Donegal. By 184e he had however joined the Ribbonmen and spent the next two years involved in agitation. Then suddenly he quit the police and went to America. He joined the New York Militia the 69th and became involved in the Irish cause. When the New York branch of the fenians was founded he was the first man sworn in by John o'Mahony

Corcoran later led the Irish legion, an all Irish brigade, in the Federal army. One of the units in that brigade the 155th NY had very significant Fenian Brotherhood. In June, 1866 they took part in the Fenian invasion of Ontario with the aim of using Canada as leverage in negotiations to secure Irish independence. The invasion was not a success and the unit was later forced to withdraw back to New York.  John Corcoran was not involved. He had already passed from a stroke a few years earlier.

One of the most striking tales of his life started on the 6th October 1860..Corcoran had just turned down tickets to a dinner in the Prince's honor as he was not "not desirous of joining in the festivity."
The "festivity" was going to be an undemocratic assembly of the high and mighty. Corcoran would not follow suit. A democratic vote was put to the men who agreed that marching was not an option.

Corcoran stated that the men would not march in honour of "a sovereign under whose reign Ireland was made a desert and her sons forced to exile." making clear that Irish men in New York would not be turning out for "the bald-faced son of our oppressor."

Polite America, ignorant or uncaring of the exploitative and opressive conditions then pertaining in Colonial Ireland, was furious. Corcoran was arrested, stripped of his command and prepared for court-martial. The wider Irish community however appreciated his, and his men's efforts. A green flag remembering the event was presented to the regiment. Before the court-martial was carried out the American civil war had begun and the Federal state had more pressing concerns.

Corcoran died from a stroke in 1863.

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