Suffering and hunger have been used as political footballs within many cultures and nations, including in Ireland. This was made manifest in 1921 when Irish in the southern part of the island had to deal with the horrors of war. Many suffered as Great Britain fought the Irish rebellion in many parts of the Emerald Isle, and American cities and towns established an Irish Relief Fund to come to their aid.
Not all Irish in America viewed the situation the same, though. Blogger Mark Holan, a friend and guest speaker at our Museum on several occasions, recently wrote a thorough article explaining the views of Ulster Irish in America, notably in the Pittsburgh area (see link to his excellent blog below).
Western Pennsylvania was an area that attracted early Irish (pre-1776) due to an abundance of land and the absence of the influence of the Church of England in the colony’s governance. Presbyterian Ulster Irish were a strong presence in the region and formed the Ulster Society to remember their Irish roots and eventual advocacy for remaining a part of the British Empire. These “anti-home rule, pro-unionist” American Irish saw efforts labeled as “Irish Relief” in 1921 as a political ploy to re-enforce the ongoing rebellion and strengthen a people whose 1916 Rising created a major distraction to the Crown’s efforts to put down German forces that were marching across Europe.
Their perspective did not completely control the conversation, as churches of all denominations in the Pittsburgh area were encouraged to give towards Irish Relief in 1921. This was generally the case in many American cities, and Baltimore was among the many whose Irish Catholic population somewhat dominated the conversation. Several organizations were formed to rally Americans towards generosity to the Irish people. These included the American Committee for Relief in Ireland and the Women’s Irish Relief Society.
Baltimore was considered a center of support of Irish freedom, and Lord Mayor Daniel O’Callaghan of Cork City paid a surprise visit in January 1921. Several groups greeted him when he arrived via steamboat from Norfolk, Virginia. O’Callaghan believed that Baltimore was “one of the outstanding cities in America in the cause of Irish Freedom”. The city’s population was generous in its support of the suffering Irish, despite the suddenness of the Lord Mayor’s arrival. Efforts continued in remarkable ways throughout the city in the following months.
West Baltimore’s St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (below) had an active Holy Name Society. Their efforts towards clean living, purity of speech and of thought were not their only emphasis, as they invited Representative James Mead of New York to address their gathering at the School Hall in January, 1921.
Money was raised that evening towards Irish relief, and Rep. Mead (pictured) spoke of the resistance towards Irish home rule by the moneyed British aristocracy. Their utilization of the notorious Black and Tans in the cities and countryside of Ireland had caused a great deal of destruction, and those recovering from such violence needed the generous efforts of Americans to be restored to a measure of normalcy.
Baltimore had its own chapter of the American Committee for Relief in Ireland. This group asserted that they were not established to be “anti-English”, but rather raised funds for food, medicine and clothing that was to be distributed in a non-sectarian basis, in cooperation with the Society of Friends. The chapter had an initial quota of $150,000, and was very active in their efforts in June, 1921. They gathered at Calvert Hall College High School to begin a canvassing campaign. Among their leaders was Father Bernard McNamara of St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church. He was a fervent advocate of Irish freedom and led West Baltimore’s largest Irish parish.
Bishop Owen Corrigan ordered special collections in all Catholic Churches, and Archbishop Curley supported the Irish Relief campaign. Leadership and efforts were not only provided by clergy, but community members utilized several methods to raise money for Irish relief, including movie/film events and Chesapeake Bay excursions via steamboat.
These were dramatically overshadowed however by a massive boxing event held at Oriole Park. Jack Dunn, owner of the facility offered the use of the sports facility gratis, and a card of boxers was planned that showcased local talent and some fighters from out-of-town.
The card of boxers included several Irish locals, including George Henry “KO” Chaney (pictured below), son of Catherine Reilly Cummings, an oyster shucker in the Fell’s Point area during her early days. She was a native of County Cavan, Ireland. Local bantamweight Kid Williams, a talented boxer himself, joined the card of fighters as well.
Pop O’Brien of Philadelphia served as referee for the evening bouts on August 4, 1921. All the fighters and the referee donated their services for the evening, including curly-haired Tim Nolan from Boston and Bobby Hubon, bantamweight champion of the U.S. Navy. The evening drew several thousand and did much to raise money towards Baltimore’s quota for Irish relief.
Boxing events such as this happened in many major cities, including New York. An evening at Madison Square Garden raised 50,000 towards Irish relief in March 1921. Even the distant Utah used boxing events to meet their $30,000 quota; theatre and dance did also play a part in their efforts, however genteel.
While Baltimore was overwhelmingly in support of efforts to provide Irish relief for those suffering the effects of war, the opinions on the subject were not unanimous. An editorial published on August 25, 1919 edition of the Baltimore Sun asserted that the efforts were political in nature, and supportive of a people who had suffered little within the context of World War I, during which Ireland was neutral. The writer asserted that Ireland’s Catholics were hardly impacted by the War, while Irish Protestants faithful to the Crown did much to meet Germany’s horrors. The author viewed the issue as being a Catholic ploy to generate support for those unfaithful to the needs of Protestant England, and unworthy of support.
It should be noted that the editorial was unsigned.
Baltimore boxers that participated in an evening of pugilism and patriotism were notable in the boxing world. George Chaney stood 5’ 1”, but was considered one of the hardest punchers, pound for pound of all time. He put his skills to use during retirement years as well, providing protection to the priests of St. Ann Catholic Church when they paid calls to the rougher neighborhoods of the parish. Kid Williams eventually became bantamweight champion and was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996. George "XO” Chaney joined him there in 2014.
Thanks to the following who contributed to this article:
Mark Holan ( follow his excellent blog at https://www.markholan.org/ )
Salt Lake Telegram