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Under the Starry Flag Book Review

“I am an American citizen,” John Warren declared in 1867, but also “I am an unmitigated Irishman, and love every blade of grass that grows on her soil.”

In “Under the Starry Flag,” looks at the chain of events that led the United States to negotiate treaties with more than a dozen countries between 1868 and 1872, including Great Britain, that recognized the rights of migration and expatriation. At last, England gave up its doctrine of perpetual allegiance; however, the right to migrate soon clashed with governments’ policies to keep immigrants out.

The book focuses especially on the experience of John Warren, a newspaperman and liquor store owner in Charlestown, Mass., who fled to the United States from Southern Ireland during the Great Famine. After serving in the Civil War, Warren led a gun-running expedition to aid the Irish rebellion that erupted in March 1867, but he and others were soon captured by the Irish Coast Guard.

The Fenian Brotherhood was a popular organization in the United States, with as many as 250,000 members by the end of the Civil War, who sought to free Ireland from British rule. Hoping to capitalize on fractured ties between the U.S. and Great Britain (supporters of the Confederate South) after the Civil War, the Fenians invaded Canada and traveled to Ireland to spur rebellion.

On March 5, 1867, the long-awaited Rising erupted. Thousands of Fenians launched attacks on police stations and military installations, reaching from Drogheda in the north to Warren’s native Cork in the south, tearing up railways and cutting telegraph lines. Kelly’s ultimate goal: to take Dublin and hold it until reinforcements arrived from the United States.

When arrested, Warren demanded to be treated as an American citizen, but the British government insisted that he and the other Irish-born Fenians were British subjects. Warren turned his trial into a political challenge of the idea of “once a subject, always a subject,” insisting on the American view — that individuals had a right to choose their citizenship.

Warren knew precisely what he was doing when he pitched his trial for treason as a trial against the British.”

Between 1840 and 1860, more than 4.5 million immigrants — 70 percent of them from Ireland and Germany — came to the United States, but many left their homelands unlawfully, without the required permission of their governments. The British government was happy to let the Irish go, especially during the Great Famine, but it joined other European governments in insisting that its natives could not change their allegiance, as they would an old coat, Salyer explains.

“So, when American Fenians wrote angry letters to the American consulate, ‘choking with rage’ that the U.S. would ‘allow [the British] to treat them as British subjects,’ they stepped into an international controversy that had been brewing for years."

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