The fateful year of 1871 began with a parade, with no less a figure than Boss Tweed at its head, the grandest of grand marshals. But the parade’s true honorees were five Irish political exiles, freshly arrived from Her Majesty’s most notorious prisons and prepared to resume their agitation on Ireland’s behalf in New York. The exiles’ arrival in late January touched off a race like few others in New York’s raucous political history, for it literally was a race.
With the exiles docked off Staten Island awaiting clearance from quarantine officials, a Tammany-sponsored boat churned through New York Harbor in hopes of overtaking a Republican boat that somehow had gotten a head start from the docks of Lower Manhattan. Each boat carried an Irishman with an impressive political title and an official greeting from high-ranking officials. The Republicans sent Thomas Murphy, who was President Ulysses Grant’s choice to hold the patronage-rich job of collector of the Port of New York. His mission: Beat Tammany to the punch, welcome the exiles on behalf of the Grant administration, persuade them to come ashore on the Republican cutter, and win the gratitude of the Irish community. It was not such a quixotic mission: The Irish in New york certainly were loyal Democrats in local elections, where Tammany was dominant, but on a national level, Republicans had reason to believe they might make inroads with a group that had fought for the Union with such conspicuous bravery.
In the Tammany boat, anxiously peering west toward The Narrows, was a Famine immigrant named Richard O’Gorman, now a judge. He carried with him a message of welcome to the city from none other than State Senator William Tweed. If he didn’t beat the Republicans, there would be hell to pay.
The exiles had just finished a card game on the deck of the SS Cuba, and one of them, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was seven pounds richer for the experience, after having told his traveling companions that he had never played a card game in his life. Nobody seemed to mind—after serving years in prison for their role in an abortive rebellion in Ireland, they were free men.
The Republican cutter arrived at the Cuba first, allowing Murphy to tell the startled former prisoners that the president of the United States was pleased to welcome them to their new home. A furious O’Gorman soon burst into the cabin and demanded to speak to the Irishmen on behalf of the city of New York. Murphy, O’Gorman, and their aides began to scuffle, verbally and otherwise, to the astonishment and disgust of their audience. Somebody warned the exiles against “Tammany tricksters.” In the end, the bewildered Irishmen told both parties to leave—they’d make their own arrangements. They arrived in Manhattan the following day in a nonpartisan Cunard tugboat. Three thousand people, including Boss Tweed, greeted them at their hotel.”