Irvine, Alexander Fitzgerald (1863–1941), minister, social activist, orator, and author, was born 19 January 1863 in Scott's Entry, Antrim town, ninth among twelve children (five of whom died young) of Jamie Irvine, an illiterate protestant shoemaker, and Anna Irvine (née Gilmore), an educated catholic, whose parents had disowned her on her marriage, rightly suspecting that her married life would be poverty-stricken and her education wasted. What is known of his life comes almost entirely from his own works, which present a remarkable picture.
With the increasing production of machine-made shoes, the family's circumstances worsened. Soon after Irvine's birth, the family moved to Pogue's Entry nearby. He briefly attended Antrim parish school but left to become a newspaper seller and then a stableboy. After other menial jobs in Belfast, he joined his brothers as a ‘mucker’ in Scottish coalmines for 1s. a day; inspired by the preaching of Henry Drummond, he decided to better himself. When he was 19 he entered the Royal Marines in the British navy, in order to learn to read and write; on leave in England, he undertook evangelical work. He became a boxing champion after secretly training to repay a bully's ill-treatment, and volunteered in 1884 to remain in the service to go on the dangerous expedition to Khartoum to attempt to relieve General Gordon; Irvine was mentioned in dispatches. Though he earned a first-class certificate of education and was promoted, Irvine was tired of military life, and felt that his Ulster accent, of which all his life he was ashamed, stood in the way of his advancement. He returned to Antrim to lecture in the YMCA; it was a triumphant homecoming, but his mother, whom he idolised, had not lived long enough to know of his success.
In 1888 he left the service and emigrated to New York, where he took up menial employments, including that of elevator man; he offered suggestions on improvements to a projected English dictionary, and was employed to work on it for a time at $100 a month. In 1890 he accepted a monthly salary of $60 to work as a missionary in the Bowery in New York city, home of social outcasts and criminals; his commitment to saving their souls was matched by his zeal for social justice. He opposed the Tammany Hall system of corruption and patronage in the city, and joined the Knights of Labor and the People's Party, hoping that the labour movement would clean up local government, reform conditions for those living in poverty, and deal with prostitution. He felt that his religious work suffered from a right-wing campaign against his political affiliation, and retired for a time, disgusted with public life. He held several posts with the YMCA over the years, and was also prominent in several labour unions. Later he was a member of the national executive of the American Socialist Party; his support of farmworkers’ rights made him so unpopular with big business that opponents had him kidnapped, beaten up, and left for dead in the California desert. It is almost certain that Irvine was one of the founder members in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organisation subsequently important in the struggle in America for black civil rights.
Graduating (1903) with a doctorate from Yale divinity school, he was ordained a congregational minister, and served as a pastor in Omaha, Nebraska; Avoca, Iowa; and Cleveland. He also worked with Harvard students in a social project in New Haven and met the author Jack London. Soon afterwards he joined the Socialist Party and severed his links with the congregational church. He once went undercover to Tennessee to report on the conditions of near-slavery in which men worked for the Tennessee Coal & Iron Co. In 1906 he disguised himself as a Finnish migrant to expose the peonage, or near-slavery, in which such people had to work in the lumber camps of Louisiana, and wrote magazine articles to draw public attention to the findings. Irvine's experience of poverty, manual labour, and military life often helped in his mission to improve the lot of disadvantaged people and to be understood by them.
Early in his life, he came to believe that the gospel message was as socially radical as it was theologically comforting, and he developed views about race and class relations that were very unpopular with the elites who normally financed church work. Even so, for a time Irvine was a lay preacher at the fashionable episcopal Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue, New York (1907–10). Encouraged to write his life history by Jack London, in 1913 Irvine published a tribute to his mother, My lady of the chimney corner; it was a long-time best-seller in Britain and Holland and has seldom been out of print since. He wrote other autobiographical books, From the bottom up (1910, 1914) and A fighting parson (1930), and a partly autobiographical novel, The Magyar: a story of the social revolution (1911). A theatre producer offered him the chance to utilise his evident acting talents in a vaudeville show; Irvine seized the opportunity to get his message of self-improvement and social consciousness across to a wide audience in an entertainment-hungry working class, and in a mere ten days wrote a short play, in which he himself was the eponymous lead, ‘The rector of St Jude's’. In 1913 it had a Broadway run and (he claimed) was seen by 30,000 people. The overt sentimentality and use of stage-Irish dialect in his books, even when writing of Co. Antrim family and neighbours, may jar readers; Irish-American nostalgia in the period, and particularly in material performed in the vaudeville shows, encouraged the appearance in his work of stereotyped Irish characteristics.
He visited Britain several times; on 2 July 1916 he lunched at the house of commons with the pro-war Irish MP Arthur Lynch (qv) and met other Irish MPs. Desperately anxious to be involved in the war against Germany, he had an interview with Lloyd George and, assisted by the YMCA, went to the front as a semi-official morale-raiser. He hated war, but was committed to trying to make it a more bearable experience for the thousands of soldiers to whom he spoke. Invited to visit the forces in Ireland during the aftermath of the Easter rising, he travelled in disturbed areas, and may have met Michael Collins (qv). A long article in the London Evening News on his experiences in Ireland and assessment of the Irish situation was widely acclaimed. His newspaper articles were syndicated by the Hearst newspapers, and Irvine met many prominent people, including both Lord Aberdeen (qv) and Lady Aberdeen (qv), the duke of Cambridge, and W. B. Yeats (qv).
Lloyd George asked him to help reconcile the labour movement to the disappointments of the post-war economy and social conditions, and he toured in Yorkshire and south Wales, speaking in areas that were often tense and dangerous. He spoke all over Britain and in Ireland on behalf of the League of Nations Union, and also campaigned for university extension; he sold shilling bonds in factories to benefit the University of Manchester. Irvine continued to write: The carpenter and his kingdom was written during the retreat from the Somme in 1918, published in 1922, and reissued as The life of Christ (1927). He wrote God and Tommy Atkins (1918), Souls of poor folk (1921), and Anna's wishing chair (1937) about the experiences in childhood and in the Great War that helped form his social theology and belief in the innate holiness of ordinary people. In 1934 and 1938 he visited Belfast and met John Hewitt (qv); in both years his socialist views caused controversy, and the YMCA cancelled his 1934 appearances.
In the last years of his life Irvine became interested in unorthodox theologies, social movements, and mental and physical self-therapies; he supported an attempt to found an ideal community in Mexico. He retired to California, where he died 15 March 1941; five years later, his ashes were brought to Antrim parish churchyard. It is somewhat ironic that it is only in the town of Antrim, where his childhood home at Pogue's Entry is preserved as a museum, that his remarkable attainments and character are still celebrated.
He married first (1886) Ellen Mary Skeens (b. 1868 in Gosport, Hampshire); they had three sons. The marriage seems to have been unhappy, and by 1894 she had either died or had left him to bring up their children on his own. He married secondly (2 June 1897) Maude Hazen, from Council Bluffs, Iowa, daughter of John T. Hazen, a prominent attorney; they had three sons and a daughter, named Anna after her grandmother. By 1910 his private life was tragically unhappy as his wife's mental health gave way. She tried to drown her two youngest children, and then attacked Irvine when he prevented her from poisoning them all; she believed she had been commanded by God. Irvine had her committed to a mental hospital, and the children were looked after by family and friends across the USA.