Illuminations: Two Stories: Michael Corcoran & the Prince of Wales / Reverend Joseph Denning

Illuminations:  Michael Corcoran and the Prince of Wales
By:  J. Michael Finn

Michael Corcoran was born on September 21, 1827 in Carrowkeel Townland, near Ballymote, County Sligo in Ireland.  He was the only child of Thomas Corcoran, a retired British Army officer, and Mary McDonagh. Through his mother, Corcoran claimed descent from Patrick Sarsfield, hero of the Williamite War in Ireland and leader of the Wild Geese.

In August 1845, Thomas Corcoran died at age 59. Michael had to find work to support his mother as his father’s army pension stopped at his death. A fungus destroyed most of the potato crop that autumn; Michael’s wages were badly needed.  At the age of 19, Michael took an appointment to the Revenue Police, enforcing the laws and searching for illicit stills and distilling activities in Creeslough, County Donegal.

As a cadet in training for the Revenue Police, a teacher explained the revenue laws and their duties in applying them. A drill sergeant taught them strict military conduct and discipline, and the care and use of arms.

The Ribbonmen
This military training would serve Corcoran well in the coming years.

Corcoran also joined a revolutionary group called the Ribbonmen. The Ribbon Society was principally an agrarian secret society. Its objective was to prevent landlords from changing or evicting their tenants.

Ribbonmen also attacked tithe and process servers, and later evolved the policy of Tenant Rights. They were most active between 1835 and 1855.

Corcoran maintained his double life as both a Revenue Agent and a Ribbonman for almost two years. Then he suddenly resigned from the Revenue Police, boarded a ship and sailed from Sligo Bay on August 30, 1849. There is some evidence that he may have been on the run.

Corcoran came to the U.S. and settled in New York City. He began selling oysters on the street corner, but soon found work as a clerk-bookkeeper in a local tavern, Hibernian House, at 42 Prince Street in Manhattan.

The tavern was owned by John Heaney, whose niece, Elizabeth Corcoran, he married in 1854.  Corcoran, his wife and his mother lived over the tavern.  

Michael Corcoran became an American citizen as soon as he was eligible, and when Mr. Heaney died in 1854, Corcoran managed Hibernian House for Mrs. Heaney. Managing the popular Irish tavern allowed Corcoran to make significant social and political contacts in New York’s Irish community.  He secured a patronage job as a clerk at the Post Office through his political contacts at Tammany Hall.

The Fighting 69th
Corcoran enlisted as a Private in the 69th New York Militia, a unit composed of mostly Irish immigrants. Being a natural leader, he served in every rank, and by 1859, he was appointed as Colonel of the regiment.

The regiment was a state militia unit, involved mostly in the maintenance of public order. None of the men had any military knowledge or experience.

Fortunately, Corcoran had the experience with arms, drilling, and military protocol. Thus, the Irish unit grew in competency and professionalism.  Corcoran become a well known and liked figure in the community. When John O’Mahony founded the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City in 1858, Corcoran was the first to join, and thus the first American, to be sworn into the revolutionary society.

In the later part of 1860, Michael Corcoran and the 69th ran into a bit of trouble.  Nineteen-year-old Edward Albert, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII of England) was touring Canada and the United States.  US President James Buchanan had invited him to visit New York City.

The city planned a parade, fireworks, and a ball. Colonel and Mrs. Corcoran were invited, as were the colonels of all the local militia regiments. Colonel Corcoran wrote a polite note declining the invitation.

Corcoran, along with the 69th Regiment, was ordered to participate in the parade to honor the visiting English Prince. On October 11, 1860, Corcoran responded with the following response: “I cannot in good conscience order out a regiment composed of Irish-born citizens to parade in honor of a sovereign under whose reign Ireland was made a desert and her sons forced into exile. In the Prince of Wales, I recognize the representative of my country’s oppressors.”

Many New Yorkers were outraged that this ingrate Irish immigrant had the effrontery to insult the royal guest of the city, and demanded that he be removed from his federal job, that his citizenship be revoked, that he be thrown out of the country. Colonel Corcoran was court-martialed for his refusal to obey the order.

As the court-martial was beginning, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, and the southern states began seceding from the Union. Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861 and the Civil War began. President Lincoln called for volunteer militia units to defend Washington, D.C., and the 69th Regiment voted to answer the President’s call.

Everyone quickly forgot about the alleged insult to the Prince, and Colonel Corcoran’s court-martial was dropped. The 69th Regiment prepared to go to war.

Corcoran wrote a letter to the regiment assuring the men that this active duty would be good practice for the future liberation of Ireland.  Flag-waving New Yorkers now cheered the regiment as it left the city. The 69th went to Washington, D.C., and encamped and commenced training on the Georgetown University campus.

The Union army invaded Virginia after that state seceded from the Union in late May, and the New York regiment occupied Arlington Heights where they built Fort Corcoran.

The Battle of Bull Run
In July 1861 the regiment saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run.  During the battle, Corcoran was taken prisoner by the Confederacy. While he was imprisoned, the U.S. had made threats to execute captured Confederate privateers.

Corcoran and several other Union prisoners were selected by lot for execution if the U.S. carried out its threats against the privateers. No executions were ever carried out by either side.

Corcoran was then offered a parole under the conditions that he not take up arms against the Confederacy. Intending to resume his place in the Union army upon his release, he refused the offer of parole, deciding to stay with his men. He was appointed Brigadier General of volunteers in July 1862 and exchanged in August 1862.

His refusal for parole brought him a series of popular ovations and testimonials. He was invited to dinner at the White House with President Abraham Lincoln.

Brigadier General Corcoran returned to the army and set about recruiting more Irish volunteers. He raised and took command of what would be known as the Corcoran Legion.  He was engaged in the Battle of Deserted House and took part in the siege of Suffolk. In late 1863 he returned to serve in the defense of Washington, D.C.

While riding alone in Fairfax, Virginia, he was thrown from a runaway horse and suffered a fractured skull. He died on December 22, 1863 at the age of 36.

His body arrived back in New York City on Christmas Day. He lay in state in City Hall. The flags in the city flew at half-staff. After the requiem mass at Old St Patrick’s Cathedral, he was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, in Queens County, New York with his mother and his first wife.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

Illuminations:  Monsignor Joseph M. Denning
By:  J. Michael Finn

It is an interesting trivia question:  Who was the only Catholic priest ever appointed to the US foreign diplomatic service? As it happens, he was also an Irish-American.

Joseph M. Denning was born on April 19, 1866 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  His parents were Joseph and Catherine (Welch) Denning, both of whom were born in County Louth, Ireland.  The Dennings had three children; two of them became priests of the Cincinnati Archdiocese – Rev. Joseph M. Denning, Rev. Lawrence L. Denning and William Denning.    

Joseph M. Denning was educated in the Cincinnati public schools. He then entered St. Xavier College in Cincinnati. He graduated in 1887, earning a degree in philosophy and then entered Mt. St. Mary’s of the West Seminary in Cincinnati, where he completed his training in 1891. He was ordained by Cincinnati Archbishop William Henry Elder on June 14, 1891.

After his ordination, Father Denning held several assistant pastor positions within the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.  Between 1893 and 1904, Father Denning was assigned as pastor to several north central Ohio parishes. Throughout his pastoral service, Father Denning earned the reputation of being a beloved pastor and shepherd to his people. In 1904, Father Denning began his eighteen years of service as pastor at St. Mary Parish in Marion, Ohio. 

While serving at Marion, he became good friends with Marion’s most prominent citizen, Warren G. Harding. Harding was the editor and publisher of the local newspaper, The Marion Star.  Harding was also a politician. He served as a Republican member of the Oho State Senate from 1900 until 1904.  In 1905 he was elected as Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor, and in 1914 Harding was elected to the US Senate.

Father Denning was very interested and active in politics. At the 1920 Republican National Convention, Warren Harding was nominated to run for President of the United States.  The presidential election of 1920 resulted in a landslide victory and Warren Harding was elected the 29th US President. 

Diplomatic Service Request
Prior to the election, Father Denning approached Warren Harding with the request that he be appointed to the diplomatic service.  Father Denning said, “Mr. Harding promised me that he would give me some appointment in the consular service. It has been my life ambition to be put in some position whereby I can study the consular service at close hand.”

On February 18, 1922, Father Denning announced that he had been appointed by President Harding as Diplomatic Agent and Consul General to Tangier, Morocco.  He noted that he expected to return and assume active duties as a pastor. Father Denning said, “I shall resign from pastor of St. Mary’s, but not from the priesthood. During the conduct of my official business as Consul General I shall be a plain American citizen, but in the privacy of my home life I shall be a priest and forever keep the duties that devolve upon the priesthood.”

The appointment was approved by the necessary church authorities, including Cincinnati Archbishop Henry Moeller and Pope Pius XI. On April 11, 1922 Father Joseph M. Denning’s appointment was approved by the US Senate, despite some anti-Catholic opposition. He became the first Catholic priest in US history to be appointed to the diplomatic service.  He soon took up residence at the US Legation in Tangier, Morocco.

The Tangier Protocol
Morocco was the first Arab country to recognize the United States in 1786. In 1912 Morocco came under the control of France and Spain as protectorates. Besides its commercial importance, Tangier was also well known as a haven for socialites, crooks, spies, smugglers, writers and gamblers.

By all accounts, Father Denning did an excellent job as Consul General. He was able to free several political prisoners and had to deal with various outbreaks by bandit gangs and Islamic tribes. The Spanish newspaper El Sol said the following regarding his service, “He shed luster on his country, his church and fellow clergy. His capacity and energy are worthy of admiration.”

Despite high praise from the press and his peers, Father Denning announced his resignation from his diplomatic position effective March 3, 1924. His sudden resignation resulted from the contentious negotiations that resulted in the Tangier Protocol. 

Although Spain and France divided Morocco, the city of Tangier remained a disputed area, because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. Both France and Spain wanted to incorporate Tangier. The British, on the other hand, advocated that the city be declared an “international zone” with no prevailing foreign power in charge.

For the British, whoever controlled Tangier controlled the nine mile wide entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. For them, control of Tangier could limit British access to Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.  The US had no territorial claims in the argument, so the US Legation in Tangier served as “neutral territory” for the countries to negotiate.  As a result, Father Denning was thrust into the negotiations that occurred between the three countries.

The London Times reported that Father Denning “refused to be led astray” by the bitterness and animosity among the three colonial powers. The Times reported that the negotiators had a “distinct disinclination to enjoy each other’s society, indeed, at times they refused to meet at all. One official meeting ended in raised voices, the putting on of hats, a hurried exit and the banging of doors.”

Regarding Father Denning’s resignation, the Times correspondent reported, “Father Denning returned to his breviary and abandoned further interest in the abortive endeavors of his European colleagues to bring about international peace in Tangier by methods that were essentially unsympathetic to a good Christian.” Father Denning was clearly discouraged by what passed as international diplomacy. The British eventually got their way and Tangier was declared an international zone in a 1924 treaty known as the Tangier Protocol.

Father Joseph Denning returned to the United States in March 1924. He stayed with his brother Rev. Lawrence L. Denning for a time in Hamilton, Ohio.   Later that year, Father Joseph Denning received the title of Monsignor and was assigned as pastor to Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Newport, Ohio where he served until 1926. In September 1926 he was assigned as pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Price Hill (a suburb of Cincinnati). 

Monsignor Joseph M. Denning died unexpectedly on July 25, 1927 at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati at the age of 61, following surgery.  Monsignor Denning was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, Ohio where he was laid to rest beside his father and mother.

Of his passing, one of his friends from Marion, James F. Prendergast, said, “We all feel very badly at the news of his passing for he was a wonderful man, possessed of a brilliant mind, untiring in his work for the good of the community at large, and above all he was charitable.”

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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