Wolfe Publishing Group

    The Wyoming Schuetzen Union’s “Center Shot”

    Irish Riflemen in America

    The Windsor Hotel in New York City built in 1873, and burned down in 1879. This was the center of Irish socializing in 1874.
    The Windsor Hotel in New York City built in 1873, and burned down in 1879. This was the center of Irish socializing in 1874.
    Guys like us are familiar with the story of the Irish Rifle Team as “Champions of the British Isles” in 1873. Puffed up with pride and aggressive energy, and on the hunt for far-away teams to beat, they found one in America that was willing to compete. The ensuing match’s victory or loss finally hinged on the hit or miss of one final clutch shot, squeezed off by the bleeding hand of John Bodine, which brought instant and lasting glory for the American Rifleman, and instant and lasting notoriety for Mr. Bodine. No other shooting story has ever ended quite that dramatically, but in terms of poignancy, it rivals the untold and unconsidered tale of the Irish rifle team and its representatives that crossed the ocean with their team in September of 1874.

     In a contagious spirit of benevolence, The Cunard Royal Mail Steamship Company provided passage on their steamer “Scotia” to Ireland’s team and all of its attendants. The Irish party was received on the New York wharf of the Cunard Lines on Wednesday, September 16, 1874, and was expedited through the dreaded customs process. They were then taken by carriage to their accommodations at the posh Windsor Hotel on the corner of 5th Avenue and 46th Street. For the next two weeks, their reserved cluster of rooms would be the social hub of the city, abuzz with activity, civility and the coming and going of visitors, guests, and the more than occasional member of the press corp.

    The headcount of the Irish gathering stopped at 28 individuals, which included the Lord Mayor and Lady Massareen of Dublin, and that city’s Alderman Manning and his daughter, together with a select few of those influential enough to merit inclusion.

    Occupying nearby space was the Irish six-member rifle team. Twenty-four-year-old Joshua Milner of Dublin was the youngest man on the squad. Also, from Dublin came Edmund Johnson and John B. Hamilton, an Irish Army surgeon. Captain Philip Walker represented Kilkenny county and the whole of the Emerald Isle. Forty-four-year-old John Rigby, member of the Dublin gunmaking firm, Rigby Brothers, made the squad, as did James Wilson, a merchant from Belfast. Three men were brought along to New York as team reserves. John Kelly was hopeful he would be needed, as did Viscount Marserene and John Bagnell, both from Dublin. Team Captain, organizer and later chronicler of the journey, Major Arthur Blennerhassett Leech was prominent in the team’s ranks.

    The Irish group was allowed to rest and recover for a day before they were thrown a formal reception banquet in Garden City on Long Island. It was held in the Brooklyn Concert Hall, which was temporarily modified to meet the seating requirements of 300 people on one level. It was on this occasion that the Irish were introduced to the leaders of the National Rifle Association. It was quite the extravagant affair and stately gathering. Major Leech, no stranger to such functions, said that it was the “most elegant and costly I have ever seen.”

    All night long, one speech followed another, and one toast lead to a succession of next toasts. During the course of the evening, President Grant, very temporarily in New York City, sent word that he would be delighted to receive the Irish party, but its current commitment and the 20 miles of travel involved precluded accepting the Presidential offer.

    On September 19th, the Irish Team was invited to the Creedmoor Range and was given the opportunity to watch the American team compete in the Remington Diamond Badge Match, and to evaluate their competition. Several of the Irishmen shot the match, as the New York Herald reported, “…for the fun of the thing” with borrowed Remington breech loading Creedmoor rifles on the Rolling Block receiver.

    Henry Fulton won the match and impressed the Irish as a particularly formidable adversary. The two teams held a joint practice shoot on September 22nd. Observers on the scene couldn’t avoid seeing a noticeably fraternal spirit surrounding the assembly. The mood was so perceptible that the newspaper covering the spectacle commented on it. Through the week, the Irish team was encouraged to practice and acclimate themselves to the American range, and they made full use of the opportunity. During one of these range sessions, those of the Irish party not engaged with range obligations became the guests of the Mayor of New York, who had arranged a lavish reception for them. This was followed by a long excursion up and down the Hudson River by boat, a courtesy ordinarily extended to visiting dignitaries.

    The Irish visitors of 1874, found the common New Yorker on the street to be particularly friendly and receptive. A full quarter of the 1.5 million metropolitan New York City’s population was of recent Irish immigration and the tourists discovered that they were surrounded by relocated countrymen, naturalized and kindred souls who still spoke with the distinctively Irish brogue. The Irish guests were not surprised, nor were they disappointed with the hospitality shown them by their former compatriots who had found success and wealth in their adopted land. Major Leech, as one example, accepted invitations to tour their homes and sail on the yachts. Another generous person with the Irish surname of Daly, the lessee of a Fifth Avenue theatre, presented tickets to Major Leech for four private boxes for his own or his groups use. The City of New York needn’t have worried about keeping their Irish guests entertained and occupied; New York’s Irish took care of that.

    It does seem that members of the visiting Irish party were in demand by prominent businessmen claiming Irish blood coursing through their veins, and they descended upon them almost as soon as they walked off the gangplank. Dinner invitations and outings awaited them. A Mr. Wallack invited the entire arriving party to a day’s sailing on his lavishly appointed 300-ton yacht, the “Columbia”. It happened that the day the “Scotia” was returning to Europe, those aboard the “Columbia” sailed under her bow as a lark.

    The Leech Cup. Presented to the American Riflemen for competition by Arthur Leech.
    The Leech Cup. Presented to the American Riflemen for competition by Arthur Leech.
    A great many of New York’s exclusive private gentleman’s clubs extended open invitations to the visiting Irishmen for the full and complimentary use of their club’s facilities. This social opportunity to hobnob with their fellow well-bred American peers was one of the citizen’s offers to sample New York’s graciousness. Major Leech wrote of little time for himself and several of the others in demand. One of his statements in particular summarizes the demand upon his presence: “I do not believe that a half dozen of us visited the New York clubs; we were all too much engaged in the business for which we had come.”

    In the early morning of September 26th, the day of the great match, Major Leech entertained thoughts that he afterwards shared with the readers of his book, Irish Riflemen in America (a title too good to use only once). He expected a close match, he wrote, but was not at all confident of an Irish victory. He went on to reveal not only an aspect of his character, but an aspiration almost certainly not unique to him. Win or lose, he’d hoped that “we had made a step forward towards a friendly hand-grasping with our American cousins.”

    The 800-yard phase took the better part of the morning. The American team led the Irish 326 to 317. The firing had been routine in cadence with no surprises. After lunch, Major Leech delivered a brief speech. On behalf of himself, the team, and the whole of Ireland, Leech thanked the American hosts almost to the point of being overdone. He then made an unexpected presentation of an ornate silver tankard, memorializing the day’s match and the friendship of its competing nations. Col. George Wingate accepted the trophy on behalf of the Amateur Rifle Club and the National Rifle Association. The Leech Cup, as it was thereafter known, was given with the stated intention that it be a trophy for a perpetual long-range match on the regular Creedmoor schedule, as a testament to the friendship between countries in the 1874 contest.

    At 900 yards, the Irish nine-point deficit was reduced by two. The last leg, the 1,000-yard target, was the Irish team’s strongest distance. Their backers had good reason to be encouraged. Shot by shot, the Irishmen closed the gap and ultimately the match’s win or lose outcome narrowed to John Bodine’s storied, fabled, victorious trigger squeeze.

    After the crowd finally settled down, there were cheers and back slapping for the Irish and cheers and backslapping for the home team, and medals upon medals all around. It was a grand time to be an American and a grand time and place to be an Irishman.

    Arthur B. Leech, Captain of the Irish team.
    Arthur B. Leech, Captain of the Irish team.
    Very shortly after the International Match, Major Leech again dropped the gauntlet to the Americans, suggesting a rematch to be held on Irish soil in 1875. This challenge was issued through the same newspaper medium, the New York Herald, which had contained the original proposal in 1873. Colonel Wingate accepted the challenge almost immediately. At the same time, Major Leech used the forum of the widely read Herald to express his recognition of the general cordiality and friendship shown by his American fellowman while he was in New York City. The sentiment, he assured his audience, was shared by the entire body of Irish citizens who accompanied him, and were touched by the kind-hearted treatment of New Yorkers. At the same time, Leech touched upon the historic welcoming of his people: “We desired to pay the entire compliment to this nation, where so many of our countrymen have found a home; nor are we unmindful that when distress and famine visited our beloved country, America was prominent with its relief.”

    Leech continued with the sharing of another personal impression. The multitude of spectators gathered at the match, estimated at 8,000 Americans, many of who possessed a considerable percentage of Irish ancestry, were rooting for the visiting team. A throng of human beings of this size, with opposing or uncertain allegiances, could spell trouble anywhere. Still, maintenance of order was left to just six policemen, who never felt challenged

    Charles Hallock, Editor of Forest and Stream Weekly, and the man who organized the Irish hunt in the West and accompanied the Irish Party.
    Charles Hallock, Editor of Forest and Stream Weekly, and the man who organized the Irish hunt in the West and accompanied the Irish Party.
    The City of New York took its role of host one monumental final step before the inevitable Irish send-off. This was a sightseeing tour that began with a visit to Niagara Falls. The Erie Railway provided the transportation to the region. After leaving the Niagara border district, the group proceeded to Toronto. After seeing the available attractions, they proceeded by steamer to Montreal, passing through the Saint Lawrence Canadian and New York boundary waters. They then visited for some time in Montreal, and saw all of the sights worth seeing in that part of the world. By mid-October they steamed through the Great Lakes and visited Detroit on their way to Chicago. While there, they fortuitously happened to cross paths with President Grant, who was in town for the wedding of his son, and was staying at the same hotel. The Irish party had its audience with the American President, after all. Afterwards, they proceeded to Saint Louis, then eastward and left for home around November 10th.

    Major Leech had his own sightseeing agenda. He wanted to see more of the central United States and the Missouri Valley in particular. Leech left the party in Chicago and struck out on his own. He visited Saint Louis, south to New Orleans where he spent some time in the company of the New Orleans Rifle Club, at which time they presented him with a lavish gold medal. From there he took a train to Cave City, Kentucky and spent all of the considerable time he wanted exploring Mammoth Cave. After a few days he headed to Louisville, where its Irish citizens gave him a warm reception. Leech toured his way back north, seeing whatever interested him. On November 18th, he boarded the Steamer “Russia”, bound for Europe.

    Some of the team members were particularly keen on visiting the western American wilds for a sporting chance at “pinnated grouse”, or prairie chicken. The transplanting of these native American birds to the English countryside by the Prince of Wales had gathered up their Irish enthusiasm.

    Charles Hallock, Editor of the popular weekly journal, Forest and Stream, volunteered to arrange an expedition with guides, and secured a 30-day carte blanche passage on the tracks of the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad. The Irish hunters were five in number. There was John Rigby, Edmund Johnson, J.K. Milner, John Bagnell, and J.J. Kelly.

    The red line is the hunter’s Western Route. The bolder blue line is the path of Col. Leech. The Northern heading line represents the course of the general Irish Party.
    The red line is the hunter’s Western Route. The bolder blue line is the path of Col. Leech. The Northern heading line represents the course of the general Irish Party.
    The party started with 13 in all, including guides, dog handlers and cooks. Essential gear included cooking and camping equipment needed for roughing it, in at least some style and comfort. Mr. Hallock organized the expedition on short notice and in short order. He had considerable experience in hunting the region, and knew what it took and whom to count on with an outing of this nature and importance. Entrusted with the management and outfitting the expedition was C.W. Dorman of Hannibal, Missouri. Knowing that the party was in good hands, Mr. Hallock tagged along as one of the hunters. As things turned out, no one could have done a better job of putting together the expedition that did Mr. Hallock.

    The officials of a number of railroads coordinated to expedite the hunting party to Hannibal for a tour of indefinite duration. The hunt itself seems to have been ongoing from early in the first week in October until the mid-month when a group of Irishmen were reported returning from a week’s hunt in south-eastern Kansas and the north-eastern part of “I.T.” (Indian Territory), or what is currently Oklahoma. The party accounted for 300 chickens and quail, both of which were particularly abundant. The hunters journeyed overland 20 miles into Indian country and encountered members of the Osage tribe that were both welcoming and friendly, to the extent of loaning them hounds.

    It is likely that this same Irish bunch was the one that returned to Hannibal in early November “fresh from the Western Wilds”, with armloads of “deer antlers and other trophies”. Evidence suggests that some members of the Irish rifle team splintered off from the main group. They appear to have ranged further and stayed in the field longer. J.K. Milner returned from the woods in mid-November with reports of “plenty of game” on the plains of Colorado. Milner was pleased to report that he had “killed a few buffalo, deer, antelope, etc.”

    With the Irish assembly scattered as they were, with different destinations, schedules, and agendas, they seem to have departed for home independently. The objectives of the hunting party changed in time and they separated and scattered. Some went to Denver, some to Chicago, and others back to New York. There is no public notice of the Irish boarding a Dublin-bound steamer as a group, as they had arrived, suggesting that they left singly or in small groups that attracted no special attention.

    Major Leech, who sailed for Europe on November 18th, wrote on the 15th, that “my friends who accompanied me to America, where we arrived on September 16th, have returned to Europe, but I myself will sail in a day or two.”

    The 1874 Irish visit was such an extraordinarily positive experience to have emerged from a competitive sporting encounter. The meeting put a reciprocal man’s humanity to fellow man’s stance at the forefront and on full public display. In early November of that year, NRA president Col. William C. Church summarized the fervent mutual desire: “Now that the greater portion of the Celts have returned home, we wish them unbounded happiness through life, and hope that when next the visit us, they may know nothing worse than the hospitality with which they have received on their first visit.”

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