Pool aficionados know him as the sport’s first true champion; as a famous promoter, innovator and author. But what may come a surprise is that the man rightfully considered the father of our sport also conspired openly against the British government.
“Let, therefore, the masses of the Irish people here in this country … rally to the call, and putting aside petty differences and burying animosities, form in solid vengeful phalanx under the traditional banner ‘Rescue for Ireland!’”
— Michael Phelan, father of American Pool
By R.A. Dyer
Imagine a room crowded with angry men. They jostle one another. Perhaps some clutch rolled-up newspapers. Everyone is shouting.
The year is 1848. The city is New York.
One of these men, a leader, loudly proclaims the injustice of English rule in Ireland. Another man, a younger one, steps forward. He has a distinct Irish brogue, but not thick like the others.
“You speak well, sir,” he says, issuing a challenge that would be remembered long afterwards. “You speak well, sir — but do you fight as well as you speak?”
This scene, this snapshot in time, I’ve pieced together through a review of old journalistic accounts. They tell of this heated meeting in New York City, as well as the formation of armed militias, of secret meetings, and even of confrontations with British authorities. The stories I’ve read focus on the discontent of Irish exiles in New York, and how they aided and abetted seditionists in their homeland. But why do I recount this here, in an article about billiards history? Because the young New Yorker at the center of many of these news stories, a man who called for open revolt against England and who proclaimed that the liberation of Ireland could be won only by “cold steel driven by patriot hands” — this man — was none other than Michael Phelan, the father of American pool.
Welcome back. In this Pool History installment, which originally appeared in a 2015 edition of Billiards Digest, I explore the surprising story of Phelan, Irish seditionist. Pool aficionados know him as the sport’s first true champion; as a famous promoter, innovator and author. They may even know that Phelan helped create an early professional billiard association and that he came in on the ground floor of the manufacturing company considered a predecessor of Brunswick Billiards. (You can see a timeline of his accomplishments here.) But what may come a surprise is that the man rightfully considered the father of our sport also conspired openly against the British government. In poking around in Phelan’s background, I found extensive evidence of activities that — at least today — would almost certainly have landed him in prison.
For this article I have turned to various biographical sources, including an 1882 issue of Celtic Magazine (which includes an amazing 20-page profile of Phelan); The History of the Ninth Regiment (an 1889 publication by historian George Hussey); a book by Melvin Edelman entitled A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics; a 1947 doctoral dissertation by William D’Arcy entitled The Fenian Movement in the United States, and old newspaper articles. I’ve also included a bit of Irish history, mostly from the Internet.
But before we proceed, I’d like to note that what I’m about to describe to you is just one surprising aspect of Michael Phelan’s uncommonly surprising life. Here’s another weird tidbit: besides being a seditionist, Phelan also has been credited with helping to inspire the invention of plastic. That’s right, plastic. As in the stuff that makes everything in the world work. This sounds crazy, but it’s true.
It’s often thought that “The Troubles” between England and Northern Ireland date back to the 1960s, with the rise of the Irish Republican Army. But really the conflict is much, much older — centuries long — with uprisings and bloodshed dating back to the potato famine of the mid 1800s, and even farther back to the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s. In the most general sense, these conflicts can be explained by the rejection of British sovereignty in Ireland.
Michael Phelan was born that country in 1819, in strife-torn Castle Comer, a small working-class mining town. His father was a fierce Irish nationalist, and took up arms against the British at Vinegar Hill and elsewhere during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. When Micheal was about four years old his father emigrated to the United States and there quickly established himself in the billiards business. By the time his family joined him in New York in 1825 John Phelan had three rooms in operation and was looking for more.
It was in these rooms that young Michael began honing his skills. But it was also in these rooms that he would have heard the fierce nationalist talk of Irish immigrants, whose numbers exploded in New York during the early and mid-19th Century. The Irish loved playing pool, and many of the first champions of the sport — men like Phelan, but also Dudley Kavanaugh — were, as Wilkes’ Spirit magazine put it, of “Hibernian extraction.
Michael Phelan exhibited promise early, and by age 15 would have been a formidable opponent even for the older men who frequented his father’s rooms. The game then was American Four Ball Billiards (it involved both caroming and pocketing balls) and Michael devoted himself tirelessly to it. And with the exception of only a brief detour into the jewelry business, Phelan would spend the remainder of his life playing pool, promoting pool, writing about pool, manufacturing pool tables and managing pool rooms.
But his native Ireland was never far from his heart.
The sudden collapse of the Orleans Monarchy in 1848, and the just-as-sudden rise of the French Second Republic, inspired anti-monarchists worldwide. The upheaval was as jarring as an earthquake. Rebels in Ireland and Irish exiles in New York Irish followed the developments closely. Among them Michael Phelan, who, according to one biographer, believed to his very core “that the liberation of Ireland could be brought about in no other way than by … lead and steel, wielded by capable hands.” He was affected deeply. He wanted a fight.
Michael Cavanaugh, in a long article that appeared in an extremely old copy of Celtic Magazine, described a dramatic meeting in New York’s Shakespeare Hotel. This was the meeting I described earlier, the one in which Phelan delivered a dramatic challenge to one of his compatriots.
Here’s a more detailed description, taken from that 1888 edition of Celtic:
“At this meeting much enthusiasm was manifested and several spirit-stirring speeches delivered. At the conclusion of the most fiery and eloquent of these orations, Michael Phelan arose from his seat and abruptly inquired of the young orator if he could fight as well as he had spoken. The gentleman, Michael T. O’Conner, replied that he ‘did not understand the question,’ whereupon Mr. Phelan explained that ‘if the gentleman meant to do what he had just been talking about he would soon have an opportunity afforded him, as it was his (Phelan’s) desire that then and there a regiment, if not brigade, should be organized for the purpose of going to Ireland to aid in the good cause.’”
Phelan’s proposal was endorsed by everyone present, and Phelan himself made a sizable contribution toward the arming of a militia. “His example on the occasion in question was contagious; other names and contributions followed, and the nucleus of a brigade was formed on the spot.” Celtic Magazine reported that from the military association Phelan formed in 1848 “sprang successively the greater number of of the armed Irish revolutionary societies which have since existed under various names in New York.”
It’s unclear from my reading what function, if any, these armed militias served in abetting their compatriots back in Ireland. What’s clear, however, is that there was a serious rebellion in Ireland that year — undoubtedly mounted with outside assistance — and that it was quickly put down by British troops. Revolutionary leaders were arrested and sent to the penal colony in Australia, or fled the country, settling most commonly in New York City and San Francisco.
According to William D’Arcy, writing in his 1947 dissertation entitled The Fenian Movement in the United States, Phelan met with a number of these exiles, and with them formed an Irish revolutionary society called “The Silent Friends.” This secret group devoted itself to nothing less than the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. The Silent Friends were led by a council, all the members of which were known only to one person, the “communicating officer.” This person was Michael Phelan — a further sign of his leading role in the seditionist movements of his day.
The Silent Friends helped establish yet more Irish military groups, and from those sprang the Sixty-Ninth New York State National Guard. Phelan himself was one of the originators of the Irish-American regiment of New York State Militia. He also met with a leading Irish revolutionary, Thomas Francis Maeger, who had escaped from a British penal colony. According to one account, Phelan “placed his pocketbook, containing all his available funds, in Meagher’s hand, delicately requesting him to make use of the contents, until such time as he could hear from his friends in Ireland.”
Now keep in mind that Phelan’s conspiratorial works took place even as he was establishing himself as the nation’s foremost pool player. These parallel paths converged in 1851 when he traveled to Britain and Ireland, ostensibly to engage in a number of publicized challenge matches. In reality his purpose was to meet, on behalf of his Silent Friends conspirators, with Irish seditionists. Phelan spent a few weeks in London and Liverpool, playing exhibitions in both cities, and then crossed over to Dublin. He met with leading rebels in that city, as well as with rebels in Waterford, Tipperary and Kilkenny. He left Ireland after three months, and in a hurry, upon orders of the English authorities.
There are other accounts here and there of more such activities, of his meetings in New York with troublemakers, of how he ended an “odious” tradition of toasting the Queen during Irish national holidays. Interestingly, Hugh W. Collender, who, with Phelan, would build the largest billiard table factory in the world, apparently also shared in this revolutionary zeal.
In the 1850s Phelan resettled in San Francisco, undoubtedly attracted by its thriving Irish community. He built a great pool hall there, a city wonder. And then not long afterwards he would play his famous $15,000 challenge match with John Seereiter. It was the talk of the nation. And of course he invented a new cushion, and he added diamonds to the tables, and he entered the manufacturing business with Hugh Collender, forming the predecessor of our modern day Brunswick Billiards.
But through it all, until the very end, he remained a son of Ireland.
“Of all the prosperous Irishmen I have ever known, Michael Phelan stands pre-eminent,” wrote Michael Cavanaugh, in a posthumous tribute. “His patriotism was inherited from his forefathers; his every youthful heart was the gift of his creator.”
Phelan died in 1871. He was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame in 1993.