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Irish Revolutionary Mick McDonnell

Many of you have watched the film, California and the Easter Rising (at right). As mentioned in the film, the Irish Revolution was partly funded and nearly unanimously supported by the local Irish community here in the Bay Area of Northern Californnia, and particularly in the South Bay’s Santa Clara County.

One of the young rebels who served in Dublin during in the 1916 Easter Rising one hundred years ago was Mick McDonnell. Thereafter, Mick was imprisoned at Frongach in North Wales along with Michael Collins, where he served as camp cook, and became a trusted lieutenant of Michael Collins. During the War of Independence, McDonnell was the young leader of ‘the Squad‘, directly under Michael Collins, throughout the crucial 1919 – 1921period of the Irish Revolution, then was sent to California on a special mission. After Collins assasination in 1922, Mick lived out the rest his life here in San Jose, working for the McEnery family until his death in 1950. Mick’s funeral was celebrated at St. Mary’s in Los Gatos and he is buried in Mission Santa Clara Cemetery.

To read a complete biography of this Irish patriot, Mick McDonnell, by noted Irish historian Shay Courtney, Click Here.

Mick McDonnell was not mentioned during the California 1916 Easter Rising commemoration events or the film above, because we didn’t know about his role in 1916 at that time, but when we learned of it, we decided to rectify the omission, appropriately during Samhain, the traditional time to remember ancestors and honored dead.

Full Length Film of Mick McDonnell Memorial

Mick McDonnell Grave & Gathering

Mick McDonnell Grave & Gathering

Mick McDonnell Memorial

12:00 Noon, Thursday, November 17th, 2016

Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, 490 Lincoln Street, Santa Clara, California, at Block 9A PC, Lot 29J


Sean O’Kane and piper Phil Lenihan

In commemoration of Mick McDonnell’s service to the cause of Irish Independence, a group of nineteen Bay Area Irish history buffs (pictured) gathered at the Mick McDonnell grave site at Noon, Thursday, November 17th at Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, 490 Lincoln Street, Santa Clara, California, at Block 9A PC, Lot 29J.

Former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery spoke at length about Mick and his life as it spanned the roles of Irish revolutionary, employee and faithful family friend. Mr. Mc Enery explained that, as Michael Collin’s appointed assassin, Mick McDonnell played a terrible, but crucial role in the Cause of Irish Freedom, then lived the rest of his life here in the South Bay Area, saying ‘Mick McDonnell was probably the most significant revolutionary who ever lived in California’.

Sean O’Kane, President of co-sponsor San Jose Dublin Sister Cities Program, acted as Master of Ceremonies for the event, Saffron Kilted piper Phil Linehan played The Minstrel Boy and A Nation Once Again, and noted singer Erin Thompson, sang The Foggy Dew.

South Bay Journalist Gary Singh has published two articles in the San Jose Metro on Mick McDonnell.

  1. The first on February 2nd, 2016, which relates more of his story: Gary Singh: San Jose’s Irish Assassin Pre-Dates Sister City Connection.
  2. The second on November 30, 2016, describes the November 17th, 2016 Memorial Service. Gary Singh: Irish Revolutionary Receives 100-Year Memorial.

For more information about the gravesite, call Mission Santa Clara Cemetery at (408) 296-4656, or check their website

Details of Mick McDonnells service in the cause of Irish Freedom, both in Ireland and San Jose

The Squad

On April 10th, 1919, the newly elected Sinn Féin members of Parliament for Ireland, ignoring Westminster, instead convened their own Irish Parliament in Dublin. This First Dáil announced a policy of ostracism of Royal Irish Constabulary men. At the time, Sinn Féin official policy was against acts of violence. Boycotting, persuasion and mild intimidation succeeded against many but others escalated their activities against republicans and in March 1920 Collins asked Dick McKee to select a small group to form an assassination unit.

In fact, it was Mick McDonnell, and not Michael Collins, (as often claimed), who first advocated the setting up of a Special Services Unit or ‘Squad’ to assassinate ‘G Men’ who had picked out the 1916 leaders to be shot by the British execution squads, and who were now again closely watching the leaders of the new resistance movement.

According to Bureau of Military History 1913-1921 Statement By Witness Document No. W.S. 423, when formed, The Squad was commanded by Mick McDonnell and came directly under the control of the Director of Intelligence Michael Collins, or his deputy, and under no other authority.

According to evidence held in the National Archives and in the Department of Defence, in 1921, Michael Collins sent Mick McDonnell to San Jose, California for ‘health reasons’ claiming he was suffering from TB. There are also some indications that he may have gone to the United States on a special mission. The truth is in fact that his mission was a mixture of both.

At that time, San Jose was the fourth largest city in California, (very slightly smaller than San Diego), a center of Irish population, and a HOTBED of support for Irish Independence!

Throughout America, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was a leading fundraiser for the cause of Irish Freedom. One Michael Edward Griffith of San Jose, was a recent law school graduate of Santa Clara University, and after a return to the University, a new lawyer. Griffith was also an officer of the AOH of San Jose, which had offices in the Hibernia Bank Building directly across Market street from Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, and also treasurer of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of California.

It is important to remember that in 1919, the already busy Michael Collins had received yet another responsibility. When Eamonn de Valera left Ireland for 18 months to tour, speak, and raise funds in America, de Valera appointed Collins to the Aireacht (ministry) as Minister for Finance. Michael Collins remained Ireland’s Minister of Finance until his death in 1922. With good reason, we believe that, during this period, a very significant portion of these Irish Finance Ministry funds for the Irish Revolution came from the Bay Area.

In the film above, at 24:55, Tom McEnery is asked to explain why Mick McDonnell was connected with the McEnery family, and sent to San Jose. McEnery answers, ‘We didn’t bring him here, he got to know my father, … through the Ancient Order of Hibernians…’, as Cecilia Fabos-Becker is heard off-camera, commenting, ‘That’s the connection’. Mr. McEnery answers, ‘Yes, it (the AOH) wasn’t the group of wonderful people that get together on Saint Patrick’s day, this was a group very committed to Clan Na Gael, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and to breaking the bonds with England, and they supplied the monetary resources in a large way … to support the movement … tremendous amounts of money came from here.’

We believe that Mick McDonnell’s special mission in San Jose was, as a trusted lieutenant of his Commander in Chief, Michael Collins, to take charge of the transfer of funds that were then being gathered by the AOH and the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) to the Irish Free State and its government, lead by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, (and NOT to the Rebels engaged in Civil War, lead by Eamonn De Valera).

And we believe that the fund collection and transfers continued for decades to the the Irish Republic. Why else was Mick McDonnell arrested in San Fransisco in 1948, while in possession of a suitcase containing ~$8000 in US currency, and then indicted for espionage, if not to support his homeland’s struggle for freedom?

It is also worthy of note that the Donohoe, Kelly Banking Company of San Francisco had offices in San Jose and in New York, (where leading Irish patriot John DeVoy had his headquarters) and was a correspondent with the Bank of Ireland, which was controlled by Michael Collins, and also that the owner of the First National Bank of San Francisco was former San Francisco Mayor and former US Senator for California, and vociferous advocate and fundraiser for Irish Independence, James D. Phelan Jr. First National Bank also had offices on Market Street in San Jose, originally set up by the very same James D. Phelan Jr.. Senator Phelan’s residence after his Senate service was his Villa Montalvo estate in Saratoga, and ‘The James D. Phelan’ Awards,’ given to young California writers and artists were endowed at San Jose State University by a bequest in Phelan’s will. San Jose and Santa Clara County, had wealth that exceeded its population, in both agriculture–and mining–at that time.

The Irish, Scots and Scots-Irish in Early California

The video above tells a bit about the Californians of Irish descent who had a role in the 1916 Easter Rising, but, Celts have been present here in California from the earliest days of European settlement. By 1800, Irish priests and immigrants were among those settling near the Spanish missions here in ‘Alta California‘.

Many Scots and Irish, who arrived in California by sea, really didn’t want to be whalers, fishermen or sea-traders all their lives.  They really wanted to settle down on farms or ranches of their own.  So many began jumping ship in Monterey and San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, and heading inland. One example of Scots leaving the economic depredations of the ‘Highland Clearances‘ was a member of the Scottish Cameron family.

As reported in the San Jose Mercury News by Scott Herhold, the current Mayor of San JoseSam Liccardo, is descended from such a person. ‘Jose Francisco Ortega, (was) a Spanish scout on the Gaspar de Portola expedition of 1769-70. Having missed Monterey because of the fog, Portola landed (sic) on the San Mateo County coast and sent his scouts inland to explore. Ortega was reportedly the first European to see San Francisco Bay. Ortega’s son was given a land grant in what is now south San Jose, and his daughter, Maria — Jose’s granddaughter — married a Scot who jumped ship in Monterey and changed his name to John Gilroy (his original name was Cameron).  Through his mother, Laura (nee Aceves), Sam Liccardo is a direct descendant of Maria Ortega.’ and John (Cameron) Gilroy. (ed)

After 1821, the brand new government of Mexico had a problem.  Alta California was a slowly growing ranching and agricultural area, particularly known for fine ranches and cattle and the hides and meat, salted and later tinned. These goods were being traded all over the world, including to the east coast of the U.S.  Additionally, fur seal and whale hunting ships from New England were trading and obtaining supplies in the ports of Alta California.  Other trading vessels from around the world circumnavigating the Americans on their way between East Asia and Europe and the east coast of the U.S. were also obtaining critical food and water supplies in Alta California.

Meanwhile, the Russians had established the Russian American Company for furs and fish and had built Ft. Ross (Ros) and a community at what is now Bodega BayAmericans and British had established fur trade forts on the northwest coast of the U.S. at what is now Vancouver and near what became Portland.  The Spanish, and now Mexico, had no settlements north of San Francisco at that time.

After 1815, with the Napoleonic Wars ended, world trade resumed. The British were masters of that world trade, and their ships were stopping in San Pedro and Monterey.  The Mexicans began encouraging Catholic Irish sailors to jump ship but it was never enough.

By 1823, the total population of Spanish and Mexicans only numbered a few thousand, so the Mexican government ordered one more mission to be built, at what is now Sonoma. In the 1830’s Mexico became very alarmed, when, having first made their way into Oregon by wagon trains, the first Americans began moving southward into what is now northern California since they found passage to northern California from eastern and central Oregon easier than crossing the Cascades into the Willamette Valley.  In 1835, the Mexican government ordered Governor Figueroa of Alta California to add a fort and pueblo at Sonoma.  It was already too late.

The first Scots-Irish Americans had already arrived north of San Francisco Bay and the town of Sonoma was laid out with the help of a Scots-Irish descended man named Richardson.  You’ll find the Richardson family among early settlers of the then back country, now the piedmont, of North Carolina in the 1750’s.  However, Scots and Irish, born in Scotland and Ireland had already been arriving and settling in Alta California, south of San Francisco since the 1820’s if not slightly before.  They had become sailors and sea-going tradesmen to avoid the poor economic conditions in Scotland with people being deliberately evicted for sheep in what were known as the ‘Highland Clearances.’ The Irish fled the poor economic conditions for them resulting from the limits on land ownership and enterprise under English occupation and rule.

The first known Murphy in California, ‘Don Timoteo‘ (TimothyMurphy, born in County Wexford, Ireland, arrived by sea, in this manner in 1829 and settled in what eventually became San Rafael where his grave is still found.  Interestingly, nearly all later Murphy’s were born in Ireland in County Wexford and settled in Northern California, including one notable family in San Jose, CA.  One antecedent of this family was Martin Murphy, born in 1807 in County Wexford, who first immigrated to Canada, then moved to Missouri then came to California in 1845 via the Oregon Trail.  He was known also for keeping the Irish traditions of his family alive all his life and passing them on to his sons.  He had what was called ‘the Bay View Ranch‘ in San Jose and Santa Clara and is buried in the Santa Clara cemetery.

Realizing that the Irish were Catholic and thus less of a threat to Mexican rule than the Scots-Irish and English descended Americans coming into Alta California from the north via Oregon, the Mexican government began deliberately setting aside land grants for Irish Catholic persons.  In the early 1840’s, an Irish priest, Father Eugene McNamara who was living in Alta California, was deliberately given huge grants of land in the San Joaquin Valley with orders to bring in and settle upon them 3,000 Irish families.  Unfortunately by this time the U.S. had expeditionary forces exploring for new overland trails under the rogue ‘Captain‘ Fremont and the priest died without completing his task.

Another Irishman who had come with Fremont, Thomas Fallon, had other ideas as well.  Mexico lost California.  Fallon, did as many Irish had previously done, and married a Californio heiress.  In 1846 Fallon raised the American flag over San Jose which then became the state’s first capitol.  By that time, there were already more Irish, Scots and Scots-Irish-Americans, than Spanish/Mexicans and most of the original Spanish and Mexican families were already intermarried with these slightly later Celtic immigrants.

All of these Celts made their mark here in California several years before the infamous Gold Rush of 1848-9.