June 2, 2000

Book Review

The Macnamara Project: California as "New Ireland"

Macnamara's Irish Colony and the United States Taking of California in 1846,
by John Fox, Jefferson,
North Carolina and London: McFarland & Co., 2000,
280 pp.


Reviewed by Mark R. Day

At the Franciscan preparatory seminary I attended back in the 1950's, one classmate stood out from all the others. His name was Ted Macnamara. Physically robust, he had a full head of red hair and thick, horned -rimmed glasses perched atop a large, Norman nose. What fascinated me about him was his refusal to cower before any faculty member, even the rector.

Macnamara was a loose cannon who frequently got into trouble for speaking his mind. Musically talented, he used to compose polyphonic hymns mocking the priests. Even the more pious and docile students joined his ersatz choir, their way of letting off steam during recreation periods. Eventually, Macnamara went too far and, unceremoniously, got the "boot."

So vivid are these memories that I cannot help but attach Ted's face to Eugene Macna-mara, a priest from County Clare who arrived in California in the 1840's and attempted to populate the state with Famine Irish immigrants. His story is chronicled in John Fox's well written and meticulously researched book, Macnamara's Colony and the Taking of California in 1846.

Like my classmate, Father Macnamara was a nonconformist, a walking nightmare for bishops who strove for order and calm in the church. Born in Ennis, Co. Clare in 1814, he received a broad, classical seminary education at the Irish College in Paris. Back in Clare, Macnamara ran afoul of the bishop of Killaloe and was suspended a divinis, allegedly for "proven seduction," a term sometimes applied to clerical agitators.

He then served a four-year stint as an "apostolic missioner" in Georgetown, Guiana where he eventually grew weary of the dire poverty, the unbearably hot and muggy weather, and several debilitating disputes with his colorful and cantankerous bish-op, a Corkman named William Clancy.

In late 1844, Macnamara journeyed to Mexico where he learned that the distant province of California, then under Mexican rule, needed settlers. Ten years earlier, Anglo Protestant colonists had wrested Texas from Mexico, and in 1845 expansionist President James K. Polk bristled with anger when Mexico refused to sell the sparsely populated, yet rich California province to the Yankees. A year later, using flimsy pretexts, Polk declared war against Mexico, but news spread slowly to the sleepy California outback.

Meanwhile, Macnamara formalized a plan to send 2,000 poor Irish farmers and their families (a total of 10,000 people) to California, assuring Mexican authorities that he could make it "the most flourishing part of the Mexican republic." After several long delays (Fox calls the process "blarney vs. manana") President Mariano Paredes and his ministers gave their stamp of approval to the project despite reservations about high costs and fears that the English-speaking immigrants might eventually side with Yankee Protestant newcomers.

Fox notes that throughout the negotiations, Macnamara showed himself a consummate opportunist, "constantly re-creating himself and using every available means to an end." One minute he was warning the Mexicans about Britain's arms in the region; the next minute he claimed to represent the British foreign ministry. Macnamara and the Mexican officials apparently entertained the naive notion that Britain would go to war with the U.S. over California. But Lord Aberdeen, Britain's foreign minister, was in no mood for any such imperial adventure.

In the end, it was not the priest's lack of credibility that thwarted his plans, but simply bad timing. The eagle claws of the American union were tightening around California. A group of Yankee settlers had proclaimed the state their "Bear Flag Republic," and the U.S. Navy was on its way to take over California's ports.

"I am afraid he (Macna-mara) is two years too late to be of any use in California," wrote Rear Admiral George Seymour to a colleague in the British admiralty. Seymour, commander of the British Pacific Fleet, admired Macna-mara and wished he had filled California with "Emeralders" some years earlier. The admiral apparently preferred Irish farmers to rough hewn Yankee trappers and adventurers.

Macnamara arrived in California June 7, 1846 aboard the British frigate Juno, and visited Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles. There he secured approval from Governor Pio Pico for 13,284 acres, (20,289 square miles) of land in California's central valley, a mind-boggling piece of real estate for poor Irish farmers, whose largest landholdings were 30 acres.

Pico's authorization, dated July 4, 1846 came too late. Three days later Commodore John Sloat of the U.S. Navy took the Monterey Customs House, and California no longer belonged to Mexico. Despite Pico's grant, which was later authenticated by Mexico's central government, Macnamara's project was checkmated by the Yankee takeover. The priest-diplomat was forced to return to Mexico by way of Hawaii aboard Admiral Seymour's flagship, The Collingwood.

No record has been found of Macnamara's death, through rumor has it that he died at sea. Since the land grant was nullified by both Mexican and American law in 1852, Macnamara's project disappeared into the mists of history as an illusive utopian dream.

The Famine immigrants never arrived. Two years later, gold seekers called the "Forty-Niners" came instead, heading for the Mother Lode country, by-passing the dangerous and inhospitable valley where Macnamara's people were to have settled. Though the Irish would make a lasting imprint on California culture and commerce, the state would never become a "New Ireland." Yet Macnamara's legacy remains an outstanding link in the Irish-Mexican connection.

Speaking of connections, I learned recently that my old classmate, Ted Macnamara, went on to earn fame as a songwriter in Hollywood. In the sixties, he wrote "Sooner or Later, Love is Going to Get You," a Top Ten hit, recorded by the Grass Roots.

My hunch is that if Eugene Macnamara had lived 150 years later, he, too, would have felt at home in Tinseltown.

Mark R. Day is a writer and film maker. He is currently working on a documentary film on the Catalpa rescue mission. He lives in Vista, CA.

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