American Eagle and Irish Harp: The Story of the New-York Hibernian Volunteers

First page of the minute book of the New-York Hibernian Volunteers with the names of those present, 12 January, 1796. New-York Hibernian Volunteers Minute Book, January – March 1796, MS 1528.

A great deal of the work done on the Irish immigrant experience focuses on the refugees of Ireland’s potato blight in the late 1840s. However, the epic story of the Irish in America, and the challenges it encountered, did not begin there. One obscure chapter of this story is captured in the tale of the short-lived New-York Hibernian Volunteers.

While Irish immigration was on a far smaller scale in the late eighteenth century, by the 1790s there was an established population in New York. In January 1796, a group of these men came together to form “a Military Corps to assist in the defence and Protection of the United States its Constitution & Laws against all Enemies whither Foreign or Domestic.” It’s likely that they drew some inspiration from Ireland’s volunteer militias, out of which emerged the United Irishmen in 1792, a radical republican political organization that would be at the heart of the island’s 1798 Rebellion. In contrast, the New-York Hibernian Volunteers would never build such momentum, and the slender volume of minutes in the N-YHS collections reflects the group’s stunted existence.

Ostensibly, it was their uniforms that caused their downfall. According to a narrative in the volume of minutes, John Jay (New York Governor, founding father and Huguenot) witnessed them on a “Deputation” of Volunteers at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s 1796 St. Patrick’s Day celebration. He took issue with their uniforms, and the next day met with their captain, Robert Cox, to inform him that no commissions would be forthcoming for their officers. It seems their choice of color was not in line with the regulation “Dark blue coats” prescribed in An act to regulate the militia passed by the State of New York in 1786. Since the Constitution gave states the power to train militia and appoint officers, they could withhold commissions, as Jay intimated, effectively relegating the Volunteers to nothing more than a social club.

Portrait of John Jay. Portrait File, PR-052.

Despite the apparent transgression, it’s debatable whether Jay’s adherence to military regulation was the sole reason for his denial of commissions. While the Volunteers wore a black cockade, representing support of the federal government, the other trappings — among them a “Grass Green short coat”, “shamrock on the shirt” and the “Irish Harp” (to accompany the “American Eagle” on their helmet) — hinted at republican and anti-British views. As a Federalist, Governor Jay would hardly have been sympathetic to such republican leanings, and was, like many of his compatriots, wary of the potentially disruptive influence of Europeans in America, particularly from revolutionary-minded Irish.

It would be rash to ascribe Jay’s actions explicitly to either political or ethnic bias; however, evidence at least suggests the possibility. The Volunteers’ chairman, Thomas T. Gaston, while disdainfully giving notice of the disbanding of the militia in the June 15, 1797 issue of  The Diary or Loudon’s Register, noted that the militia had “received no induglence” though the Legislature had led them to believe this might occur. He went on to point out “the partiality which has tolerated others”, including one militia that “has been formed long since ours, in violation of that law to which this company has been sacrificed.”

This 1798 political cartoon documents the acrimonious relationship between Federalists and Republicans by depicting an altercation in Congress pitting Republican and Irish-born, Matthew Lyon against Federalist, Roger Griswold. “Congressional Pugilists”, 1798. Caricature and Cartoon File, PR-010.

If we take Gaston’s remarks at face value, it seems the law may have presented a convenient tool for Jay, sparking doubts concerning the objectivity if his enforcement. It further suggests that the New-York Hibernian Volunteers’ demise is representative of America’s evolving anti-Irish sentiment that would grow into the well-documented bigotry of the nineteenth century.




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