Whether of Irish descent or not, Americans will be celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day on Friday, a time set apart to honor the 5th century British-born Christian missionary who was said to help convert the pagans of Ireland.
Festivals, parades, religious services, special meals, and the wearing of green regularly mark the holiday. There are lots of stories surrounding Patrick, including the claim that he drove snakes from the Emerald Isle. Most of these tales are impossible to verify. But as we enjoy this year’s annual celebration, let’s turn our attention to another man with ties to Ireland – and who may be to thank for America’s early survival and independence.
His name was Hercules Mulligan. A Hollywood screenwriter or bestselling novelist would be hard-pressed to come up with a better or more colorful name, don’t you think?
Hercules Mulligan was born in Coleraine, Ireland, a town 55 miles northwest of Belfast. The year was 1740. It was a difficult time to live in Ireland, especially for Catholics, where Penal Laws prohibited them from living freely or even owning a horse worth more than five pounds.
The Mulligan family were actually Episcopalians, but decided to escape the heavy-handedness of their government and emigrate to America. Hercules arrived in New York in 1746, where his father launched a successful career as an accountant. The youngster thrived, and when he became of age, attended, and graduated from what is now Columbia University, though it was called King’s College back in the 1750s. He tried his hand working with his father at his firm, but ultimately decided to open his own tailor shop instead.
Hercules’ career as a haberdasher would prove pivotal to not only his own life, but the future of the fledgling nation.
As a tailor, Hercules Mulligan’s customers included New York City’s most wealthy, as well as British officers, who occupied and controlled the territory. The Colonists had not yet declared their independence, but war clouds were gathering. Hercules was sympathetic to calls for separation, strongly influenced by his family witnessing the heavy-handedness of British rule and discrimination in Ireland. In fact, Hercules even joined the “Sons of Liberty” – a secret political organization that plotted behind the scenes to overthrow the British in America.
When war came, Mulligan’s tailor shop was well established, and his friend Alexander Hamilton, whom Hercules had lobbied to join the “Sons of Liberty” cause, recommended the Irishman to serve as a spy. It made good sense. He was married to Elizabeth Sanders, who was related to an admiral in the British Navy. Hercules also had the Irish “gift of gab,” was friendly with many British officers, and was well positioned to funnel information to Washington’s ragtag Continental Army.
When getting measured or requesting adjustments to their clothing. British officers often let slip sensitive battle plans. On two occasions, Mulligan caught wind of plots to capture General Washington. He was then able to relay the time-sensitive information to Hamilton, thwarting the attacks. Without General Washington leading the army, most historians believe the Revolution would have been over.
Hercules Mulligan was a devoted member of Trinity Church, the famed New York City Episcopal congregation dating back to 1697 and located at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street. Fans of the movie, “National Treasure,” will recall it was featured in the film.
America’s strength has long come from the diversity of its nationalities represented here, but especially its Christians whose firm faith has helped guide and inform its moral and spiritual convictions.
Patrick of Ireland is worthy of recognition tomorrow, but so is Hercules Mulligan, whose Christian faith and Irish grit and guts played a critical role in our nation’s founding.