December 1918: The bishop & the president

This is the first in a series of short posts exploring December 1918 events that became a turning point in the struggle for Irish independence. In Ireland, the republican Sinn Féin party routed the 19th century home party in the first parliamentary elections since 1914. This set the stage for the Irish War of Independence, which began in January 1919. In America, Irish immigrants and their first-generation offspring submitted hundreds of letters and petitions, and held public rallies, to pressure the U.S. government to support Irish freedom. A U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing highlighted their efforts. MH

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Ireland and other small nations seeking independence from imperial rulers seized on the January 1918 words of President Woodrow Wilson: “National aspirations must be respected. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

Supporters of Irish independence in Ireland and in America, whether immigrants or their offspring, embraced “self-determination” more than any other ethnic group. And they weren’t shy about demanding it.

Shahan

Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, rector of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., wrote a Nov. 30 letter to Wilson.1

In keeping these words of truth, we hold that the right of Ireland to ‘self-determination’ is immeasurably stronger than that of any other nation for which you have become the advocate. Moreover, Ireland’s claims are a hundredfold reinforced by her centuries of brave, though unavailing, struggle against foreign domination, tyranny, and autocracy.

A similar appeal by “the principal Irish societies of Washington” also was delivered to the Wilson White House, The Washington Post reported.2 “It voices the opinion of a public meeting, held by representatives of the Irish societies, that the American nation, through its president, has a unique opportunity to enforce this fundamental principal for the freedom of Ireland at the upcoming peace table, and the president is petitioned to use his good office to that end.” 

The signatory groups included the Friends of Irish Freedom; Ancient Order of Hibernians; Ladies Auxiliary of the AOH; Irish-American Union; Gaelic Society; Irish History Society; Irish History Study Club; and Shamrock Club.

At the time, the Irish were the largest ethnic group in the U.S. capital, representing about one fifth of all foreigners.3 Nationwide, Irish immigrants were about 10 percent of the foreign-born population, down from the one third post-Famine peak of 50 years earlier. First-generation Irish Americans far outnumbered their immigrant parents.

Bishop Shahan was the New Hampshire-born son of Irish immigrants. His letter to Wilson (grandson of an Ulster-Scot) was read at the Dec. 12 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “The Irish Question” by  Professor Joseph Dunn of the Catholic University of America faculty. Dunn testified that Wilson “not only acknowledged receipt of the bishop’s letter, but replied in such a sympathetic tone as would make interesting reading for members of this honorable committee.”4

Wilson

This was an optimistic interpretation of Wilson’s Dec. 3, 1918, note to Shahan; barely 100 typed words on White House stationary that never mentioned Ireland by name, only generalities:5

…it will be my endeavor in regard to every question which arises before the Peace Conference to do my utmost to bring about the realization of the principals to which your letter refers. The difficulties and delicacies of the task are very great, and I cannot confidentially forecast what I can do.

Once Wilson got to Paris, the self-determination of countries formerly ruled by vanquished Germany was easier to support than pressing ally Britain to loosen its grip on Ireland. By summer 1919, Wilson’s reluctance to support Ireland disappointed the Irish, by then at war with Britain. 

Shahan remained an “ardent supporter of Irish independence,” according to the Catholic University of America archives of his papers. His concerns were “not only as a source of personal interest, but also because religious matters were inextricably bound into the struggle for freedom and recognition for Ireland.”

NEXT: House hearing on the ‘Irish Question’  

  1. “The Irish Question,” Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs. 65th Congress, 3rd Session, Dec. 12, 1918. Government Printing Office, 1919, pgs. 129-30.
  2. The Washington Post, Dec. 3, 1918, p. 3
  3. 1910 U.S. Census
  4. Foreign Affairs Committee, Dec. 12, 1918, p .130
  5. Dec. 3, 1918, letter from President Woodrow Wilson to Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Box 16, Folder 11. Provided to me Nov. 30, 2018, in digital format by the archivist.

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