Inflammatory Words, Found in a Most Unlikely Place

 It is well known that Irish-Americans have long identified with the issues of their ancestral home. But as someone whose parents and grandparents belonged to “assimilation generations,” it came as a surprise to find such an explosive expression of Irish identity politics in a most unlikely source.
A list of 1849 deaths includes Patrick Duggan, a recent famine survivor and son of my great great
great grandparents, James and Ellen Duggan McKenna.


The diocese of Providence has a small office near St. Anne’s Cemetery in Cranston. Among the records that hold are those of the “Old Catholic Cemetery,” St. Patrick’s on Douglas Avenue in Providence. It lists chronologically the purchases of cemetery plots, as well as the burial of records of individuals. And so it was quite a surprise to find among the list of those Irish men, women and children who died between April 22, 1844 and December 31, 1888, a poem entitled, “At War.”
It was penned by Irish immigrant Mary Locke. Mary was the wife of a very well-known Irish poet and republican revolutionary named John Locke. John, who was born in County Kilkenny in 1847, became a Fenian in his teens, fighting for Irish independence. Jailed as a terrorist in 1867, he fled Ireland as soon as he was released, moved to the hot-bed of Irish independence, Manchester, England, and then as soon as he could, he made his way to New York City. It was there that he met and married Mary Cooney.
While he was the more famous poet, according to their contemporaries, Mary was every bit as much the poet. Her writing could be tender and gentle as when she wrote of John after his death in 1889:
The only known photo of John Locke
“Ah, my dead love! Sure I little dreamed,
   While the laughter and light in thy blue eyes beamed_
As we talked of old days in our own dear land_
   That our parting-time was so near at hand!”
 In a later verse she concluded:
“For, what are friendships?_ and what is gold
   To the heart that was shrined in that manly mold?
And I weep, unceasing, sad tears of ruth
   For that soul so tender and full of truth.”[1]
Her descriptions could be rich, tactile and homey, but also dark, as in her poem, A Time For Thinking.
“Ah, Christmas time is a time for thinking,
   When the snows are deep and the frost winds keen
When the last faint gleam of the twilight’s sinking
   Beneath the sea with a stormful sheen.
The fire’s red hollows fill up with faces,
  All young and fresh as the dawn of May
But out from the glowing mystic spaces
   There soundeth no laughter gay.”[2]
But it is the poem penned among the records of the burial of the famine generation that took my breath away. In it, Mary speaks of a profound hatred of Ireland’s oppressors, in a voice that could barely find a stronger voice during the Irish war for independence, the “Troubles,” or of any of the independence movements of our age.
This is what I found among the records of my family’s community, a community whose fierce loyalty to their Irish homes is carved into the many gravestones still standin.
At War, by Mary Locke
Just God, is there crime in avenging
   Our wrongs, when our pleadings are vain?
Can’t we strike when our Country is stricken
   Can’t we slay when our Kindred are slain
We’re at war, shall we groan while our yeomen
   Are sowing the land with our dead!
Must the battle on our side be bloodless,
   While their hands with carnage are red?
O, England! The scourge of our people!
   You rule us with halters (hangman’s noose) and whips _
With the demon of hate in your bosom,
   And the Gospel of Christ on your lips;
You have ‘roused us to anger and action,
   And we swear by each dead, lived face,
We’ll have victim for victim, avenging
   The wrongs of our long-trodden race.
Rule on, in your blind brutal fury,
   Adding fuel to the fire of our hate,
Since the code of your ruling’s to torture,
   To strangle, to starve, decimate;
We have vowed by the blood of our kindred_
   The strangled, the starved and betrayed,
That on the red alter of vengeance
   A life for a life must be paid.
You have power, but your power shall be shattered
   And bent like the lightning-struck branch,
You have Craft, but you can’t circumvent us;
   You are proud, but your proudest shall blame
So hold on to your hangman and halters-
   We dread not your worst for we’ll plan
To compass the ruin of your Kingdom
   Wherever and however we can;
We’re at war, tho’ the fight be unequal,
   You shall tremble in permanent fear;
We shall work, like the mole in the darkness,
   And strike, you can never tell where
You have whipped us right into this conflict,
   You have sowed the red seeds of this strife,
Till our hearts heave like living volcanoes,
   And the struggle is –“war to the knife.”
What other alternative’s left us,
   We, who pleaded for justice so long,
While you, in your tiger-like malice,
  Trod us down, adding bloodshed to wrong?
But the day of our asking is over,
   And, united and strong in our ire,
All have come to one single conclusion_
  We must fight the devil with fire.
Charles Kelly the Sexton of the Old Catholic Cemetery, as he listed himself, wrote Mary’s words in the same book that lists tens of thousands of Irish souls, men and women driven from their homes by the “hangman and the halter.”
His source was the United Irishman of January 5, 1884. The United Irishman was the New York publication of O’Donovan Rossa, the Fenian  and Clan-na-Gael leader.
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1887, Charles Kelly added the following verse:
No longer for light or for justice
   To our rulers we mean to appeal
Our Connection will shortly be severed
   By the swords of the brave Clan-na-Gael.[3]
In 1862, Peter and Catherine Duggan McKenna lost their one-year-old daughter Susan, Peter paid $12.50 for the plot that would be the final place for the family. One wonders if the McKennas had dreamed of
returning to Errigal Truagh, their home in Monaghan.
A great many of the Irish who fled to America’s shores during the famine and in the years to follow, had no intention of staying in America. Their dream was of a return to an independent Ireland, where men and women could farm their own land, their children could be educated and they could worship as they wished. As time went on, however, they realized that this was not to be. The children born in America had a different home from their parents. And even had they wanted to return, most Irish parents could not save enough money to make the return trip. Finally, had they been able to return, it was not to be to a free and independent Ireland. For that they would have to wait till the twentieth century, by which time it was children like my father who were the great-grandchildren of the famine generation.
Yet, still the fire burned bright as a “living volcano” for an end to bitter oppression.

Famine Irish, like Cornelius Farley of County Cavan, were hardly in America before diseases such as consumption struck them down.

[1] The Gail (newspaper), February 1904, p. 54.’the%20gael’&f=false)
[2] Hampshire Advertiser, Hampshire England. Saturday, December, 26, 1891, p. 8.
[3] The Clan-an-Gael was a leading nineteenth-century Irish-American organization, dedicated to the independence of Ireland.


  1. Elizabeth McKenna Jutras said:

    We are not part of the Federal Hill Irish. My great grandfather Patrick McKenna was born 1827 in Monaghan. Don’t know where. He died 4 October 1896 on Oak Street, Providence, RI. He worked as a moulder for N.E, Butt Company. He married Mary Monahan in 11/20/1855, by Rev O’Dwyer in Providence. I don’t know what parish or location that took place. My grandfather Patrick Francis McKenna married Mary Lyons 7/1861, from Mitchelstown. My father William J. L. McKenna was born of that union.

    My ggfather Patrick lived on Oak St. Providence. My grandfather Patrick F. lived on Lowe Avenue in Providence. It was on a hill near Mashpaug Pond which has since been leveled for an industrial park . Patrick F. died relatively early leaving my Grandmother to raise a daughter and five sons alone. The sons at one time all worked for the Outlet Company. My father sold furniture and had his own radio program on WJAR in the early days of radio.

    September 21, 2015
    • federalhillirish said:

      Elizabeth, This is very interesting. My ancestor, Peter McKenna, was born about 1828 in Monaghan. His parents were Berney and Bridget. Most of the McKennas that came to Providence came from Tyrone, just over the border from Monaghan. It is interesting that your Patrick worked at the N.E. Butt Company. So did my Peter. Do you know the name of Patrick’s parents? There were several McKennas that worked at NE Butt. I suspect that each got his job because someone else in the family worked there. Do you know of any siblings of Patrick’s?
      I’ll hve to check to see if there is a marriage record at Sts Peter and Paul’s, or at St. Patrick’s. This is terrific. It may not come to anything, there are so many McKennas, but let see.

      September 21, 2015

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