TALKING TURKEY Fact or fiction about the mythic Feast of the Pilgrims?

Seasonal images of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians gathered at long wooden tables piled with platters of food abound. You might think that Thanksgiving traditions do not reflect anything Irish, but you would be wrong in that assumption. In fact, several scholars contend that without the Irish, the first Thanksgiving might never have happened.

Tradition dictates that we celebrate Thanksgiving in November. While the date of the legendary Pilgrim and Native American feast cannot be pinpointed with certainty, the Irish-American historian Michael J. O’Brien, an author and the main contributor to the Journal of the American Irish Historical Society from 1898 to 1941, contended that our Thanksgiving began with the arrival of The Lyon (or Lion), a ship out of Dublin in the midst of a brutal New England winter. The problem is that the Lyon anchored off Massachusetts in February 1631—not in 1621, the purported year of the first feast.

In the 1700s in The Annals of the Year 1631, New England chronicler Reverend Thomas Prince wrote:

“As the winter came on provisions are very scarce (in the Massachusetts Bay), and people necessitated to feed on clams and mussels and ground nuts and acorns, and those were got with much difficulty during the winter season….on February 5th, the very day before the appointed fast, in comes the ship Lion, Mr. William Pierce, master, now arriving at Nantasket laden with provisions. Upon which joyful occasion the day is changed and ordered to be kept (on the 22nd) as a day of Thanksgiving.”

What murkily endures is whether a Day of Thanksgiving in 1631or the customary date of 1621 is correct. Much of the timeline imbroglio hinges upon the accounts of Prince and Pilgrim leader William Bradford and when and how the event morphed into the annual harvest feast celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. According to John Cusack’s “How the Irish Saved Thanksgiving” (Irish Central, Nov. 23, 2017), “It turns out, from records at the Massachusetts Historical Society, that the wife of one of the prominent Plymouth Rock brethren was the daughter of a Dublin merchant and that it was he who chartered the vessel, loaded it with food and dispatched it to Plymouth.”

Further, the issue is that the Lyon did arrive in early 1631 “at Nantasket” with sorely needed provisions, but this date and the earlier date of 1621 remain at odds.

So what to make of the “Irish claim?” Some will dismiss it as a bit of blarney, but Cusack maintains that “the Massachusetts historical records revealed the tale, giving the Irish a fair claim to saving Thanksgiving.”

A Place at the Table

In 1889, at the ceremonies dedicating the national monument at Plymouth Rock, the broad-shouldered, mustachioed poet who rose to deliver the main speech was not someone bearing the name Bradford, Alden, Winslow, or Carver. Nor was the speaker a celebrated Yankee author such as Oliver Wendell Holmes. The man who delivered the ode to the Pilgrims was an Irishman –a Boston Irishman. John Boyle O’Reilly had been a Fenian rebel, and a British Army cavalryman condemned to death by a British military court for treason. Only his daring escape from a prison in Western Australia had brought him to the same shore where he now prepared to honor a vivid national symbol: Plymouth Rock.

O’Reilly, the nationally acclaimed editor of the Boston Pilot, an essayist, and a novelist, had carved out a notable literary career in Boston. Not everyone was pleased with the selection of O’Reilly to write a poem honoring the “Pilgrim Fathers.” Locally, letters to editors and people of “polite society” objected that a “foreign-born poet would write and deliver the words “for such an important occasion”; former Governor Long, the President of the Pilgrim Society, admonished dismayed dissenters nationwide with his rejoinder that John Boyle O’Reilly was in many ways “a genuine New England Pilgrim, born not on the mainland, but on a small island out at sea.” The fact that the small island was Ireland distressed Americans who contended that only a “real American” – someone born on American soil – should deliver the paean to the Pilgrim Fathers and Plymouth Rock.
The dedication of the Pilgrim Monument garnered nationwide coverage by the press, and O’Reilly was under some pressure to deliver a poem worthy of both his talent and of the occasion to a throng of dignitaries and citizens from all over the nation.

After several testimonials to the Pilgrims and to the monument were delivered, John Boyle O’Reilly stepped forward. A New York Times newspaperman recorded that “the introduction of John Boyle O’Reilly elicited much enthusiasm.”

“Mr. O’Reilly was the poet of the day,” wrote the Timesman. The Irishman cleared his throat and began to read aloud his 260-line ode, “The Pilgrim Fathers,” to a riveted throng: “Here, on this rock, and on this sterile soil, Began the kingdom not of Kings, but men…”

Emerging from his stanzas were verbal shots at “privilege and Crown,” redolent of a former Fenian who had been denied freedom in his own land, only to find it that of the Pilgrim Fathers.

John Boyle O’Reilly recognized that in Boston and New England, the Irish were still clawing for their own foothold in America. His words in Plymouth brimmed with the hope that for the Irish, “all the idols” of the crown and Anglo-American privilege would fall.

This Thanksgiving, as families with Irish bloodlines gather to celebrate the holiday, they would do well to recall that the Fenian and poet John Boyle O’Reilly claimed a place, so to speak, for the Irish at the Pilgrims’ historical table.