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“Do you want to come to the arbor? So goes the refrain of the American song Fenian, still sung today in Irish bars around the world. This scholarly book, whose author is professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, tells the story of 40 men who answered this call in 1867.

Most of these men had fought in the Union Army during the Civil War and were now determined to liberate their homeland. Lucy E Salyer shows how these Fenians, some of whom were born in America, succeeded in forcing the US government to protect its naturalized citizens upon their return to their country of birth. Every country in Europe was a monarchy at that time and they believed in lifelong allegiance. The maxim was “once a subject, always a subject”. Under English law, even the children of British subjects born abroad owed allegiance to the British monarch.

One of the causes of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States was the capture of American citizens who were naturalized Irish and born in Great Britain by the British Navy on board American ships on the high seas. Of concern to American citizens who were naturalized German and born in Austria was the fact that if they returned “home” for a visit, they could be – and in some cases were – arrested and inducted into that state’s military to accomplish the task. duty of compulsory military service. , even if they had emigrated in their childhood.

The zero sum opposed to perpetual allegiance was that of expatriation, the choice to leave one’s country and nationality and acquire another. International law was still in its infancy then and, in fact, almost 200 years later, it may still be in its teens.

The book examines the Green Street courthouse trials in Dublin of the two officers of the renamed ship Erin’s Hope after their capture near Youghal, Co Cork. These were John Warren of Clonakilty, County Cork, and William Nangle, whose grandfather was born in Ireland. In the author’s account, Warren, who had been a journalist, was a master of the political theater during his trial. First, he and the other Fenians on trial goaded and embarrassed the Anglophile American minister to Britain in London, Charles Francis Adams. Adams, being a Boston Brahmin, was disgusted that the State Department had ordered him to hire the best Irish defense lawyers to defend them.

After Warren’s lawyers raised numerous legal questions about his indictment – actually publicity stunts that everyone knew would be largely denied – he pulled a theatrical ace out of his sleeve.

As the prosecution began to present its case to the jury, Warren proceeded to fire his defense team and announced that the real defendant in the dock was the United States of America. His honor had been violated in the treason trial of a US citizen who had formally renounced his allegiance to Queen Victoria and now owed allegiance only to the United States. This reviewer, as a retired lawyer, can only admire his insight and daring.

One of the Fenians had decided to cooperate with the prosecution, which made the convictions even easier for the Crown. The Fenian advertising machine, however, was working overtime, highlighting cases every day and, of course, bringing the issue of citizenship to the fore. The lawsuit was even discussed at the cabinet table in Washington DC.

Salyer is particularly good at the tribulations of Adams, whose father and grandfather had served as US presidents. Despite his attitude towards the Fenians, he had been an extremely competent diplomat during the Civil War and had succeeded in maintaining the neutrality of the United Kingdom. Now all he wanted was to retire and return home after years of absence, but the State Department knew no one could replace him. Adding insult after insult, the Fenians tried and returned to the United States accused him of attacking royalty.

Political cartoons

The book also covers the subsidiary aspects of citizenship, including concealment; the situation of legally married women. Interestingly, the author relates how in 1870: “Britain embraced the right to expatriation – except, of course, for, [in the words of the statute, an] child, demented, idiot or married woman – none of whom had the legal capacity to exercise political judgment. “Tongue in cheek, she adds:” It was a very modern law.

Salyer is an authority on American immigration history and citizenship issues and it shows in this well-written and extremely insightful book.

One of the delicacies of the book are the political cartoons of the time. Young Irish readers will be surprised to see how the most advanced and “progressive” elements of American life at the time, courageous in their opposition to slavery and subsequently in defense of the civil rights of freed slaves, portrayed regular Irish immigrants like monkeys, only one step out of the jungle.

This book will be a welcome addition to any Irish or legal shelf.

Story: Under the Star Flag by Lucy E Salyer
Belnap Press, 328 pages, paperback € 25.72; e-book £ 18.20

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Under the star flag of Lucy E Salyer

Under the star flag of Lucy E Salyer