Many years ago, I was reading Emma Goldman’s autobiography sitting beside the pool while on holidays in Greece (not necessarily everyone’s idea of relaxing, but I’m not everyone). I sat bolt upright in my sun-bed when I got to page 567 and Goldman writes of lecturing in Philadelphia. There, she writes, she met “two persons whose friendship recompensed me for the otherwise dreary experience, Harry Boland and Horace Traubel.” Harry Boland! She goes on, “Harry was an old devotee and always generously helpful in every struggle I made.”
Some personal biography is probably necessary at this point to explain my surprise. The Irish revolutionary Harry Boland was my great-granduncle; I grew up with stories about him and the rest of the Boland family. I even chose to write about Harry for my Leaving Certificate history essay. I knew Harry had travelled in the US fund-raising for the IRA during the Irish War of Independence and there was the strange tale of the Russian jewels, but a connection to Emma Goldman was unheard of and a complete surprise.
However, only a few pages later, she writes about the 1916 Rising and how Padraic Colum wrote an account of the events for Mother Earth. Which means the Philadelphia meeting happened earlier in 1916, most likely before the Easter Rising. The Harry Boland I knew about was in Dublin at the time, he fought in the rising and was imprisoned until 1917. He didn’t go to New York until May 1919, at which time Emma Goldman was in prison. Their paths might have crossed in the short time between Goldman’s release in September and her deportation in December that year, but he clearly wasn’t the Harry Boland to whom she referred in the book.
A bit more research and I found that a Harry Weir Boland had written a poem for Mother Earth himself marking the death of King Edward VII in less than respectful terms. “Bury him, then, face downward in the dust,” it begins, a sentiment I’m sure would have been shared by his namesake in Ireland.
Over the years, I’ve found out more about the American Harry Boland. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1873 of Irish immigrant parents, Michael A. Boland and Ellen Carolan. He lived in Philadelphia most of his life and across the Delaware River died in Camden, New Jersey, in 1926. Like Goldman’s other Philadelphia friend, Horace Traubel, he was an admirer of Walt Whitman. However, what I’ve never been able to find out is whether he knew of or even met his namesake.
There were numerous other possible connections between them. Emma Goldman writes of a meeting in June 1917 that the widowed Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was in attendance. Hanna was a member of the Republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan alongside the Irish Harry Boland’s sister, Kathleen. After his death in 1922, Kathleen and Hanna travelled to the US to raise funds for the anti-Treaty side of the Irish Civil War.
Harry himself gave a speech in Philadelphia in 1921 when acting as Sinn Féin envoy to the United States. After his death in 1922, Joseph McGarrity of the Philadelphia Clan na Gael organised a mock funeral procession in the city which was attended by up to 10,000 people (see Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution by David Fitzpatrick).
It’s hard to believe the American Harry was unaware of the Irish Harry. Did they meet in 1921? Was Harry Weir Boland still living in Philadelphia when thousands marked the death of his namesake? If there’s anyone out there who knows more about Harry Weir Boland, the old devotee of Emma Goldman’s, I’d love to hear about it.