December 1918: Pittsburgh rally for Irish freedom

This is the third 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 nationalist party in the first parliamentary general election since 1910. 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 effortsMH

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On Sunday evening, Dec. 15, 1918, “friends of Irish liberty … crowding every available space in the Lyceum Theater,” a Pittsburgh vaudeville house, demanded that President Woodrow Wilson support their cause in the upcoming Paris peace conference.1 The event was one of the last of the nationwide “Self-Determination for Ireland Week,” which included a New York City rally that drew 25,000 to Madison Square Garden, and a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “the Irish question” in the U.S. Congress.

“A mass meeting in Pittsburgh” was foretold to the committee in a letter signed by representatives of the city’s United Irish Societies and Duquesne University, a Catholic institution.2 The committee also received letters from Pittsburgh’s Allied Irish-American societies and friends; Friends of Ireland; Ulster Society of Pittsburgh; and Brotherhood of Railway Clerks.3

This was the second time in seven months that Pittsburgh’s Irish packed the Lyceum. In the spring, they protested the forced conscription of their countrymen while Britain withheld limited domestic political autonomy, called home rule, from Ireland. The arrangement had been approved in 1914, but immediately suspended with the outbreak of the Great War.

Bishop Canevin

Dioceses of Pittsburgh Bishop Regis Canevin headlined the December rally, following the example of Boston’s Cardinal O’Connell at the Madison Square Garden event, and other Catholic clergy at the Washington hearing. Canevin echoed the theme that Ireland deserved the right of self determination for small nations, which Wilson proclaimed earlier in the year.

“Shall Ireland be free, or shall she be the only exception?,” Canevin asked. “If Ireland be the exception, then lasting peace is doomed to defeat. No pledges to other nations can be kept without freedom of Ireland.”4

Canevin asserted that despite seven centuries of “political oppression and tyranny,” Ireland remained deeply Christian (avoiding Catholic/Protestant division), with distinct literature, music, and other national characteristics. “Ireland had her place on the map for centuries as a nation.” 

Mary McWhorter, Chicago-based president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, also emphasized Ireland’s geographic separation from Britain: “The boundary line of the Irish nation is clearly defined: God, Himself, took care of that,” she said.

Three days earlier in Washington, McWhorter told the congressional committee of her travels to dozens of cities and towns in 30 states to visit Irish mothers with sons fighting with the American forces.5  

The Pittsburgh rally came a day after the Irish Sinn Féin political party won a record number of parliamentary seats in the first British election since the war began in 1914. Many of those in attendance would have read Pittsburgh newspaper coverage of the old-guard home rule party being “hopelessly beaten” by Sinn Féin, even in the moderate nationalists’ former strongholds.6 No longer willing to settle for home rule, Sinn Fein  refused to take their seats in London, declared an Irish republic, and established their own parliament in Dublin.

Anti-conscription rally

The “overflow audience” of the May 1918 anti-conscription rally “brought out the strong attachment that exists between the Irish cause and the Irish people and their beloved priests.”7 Rev. Patrick O’Connor of nearby St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, an Irish immigrant parish since the Great Famine, spoke of “the glorious record of past generations of Irishmen in defense of this great country.”

When America entered the war in 1917, Pittsburgh’s Irishmen ages 18 to 31 registered for the military, my grandfather among them. At the time, the city’s population of native Irish was falling from a post-Famine high of 27,000 in 1890, to about 14,000 in 1920.8

Thomas Enright

First generation Irish Americans now outnumbered their parents. Thomas F. Enright, the son on Irish immigrants in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield district, was among the war’s first U.S. casualties. At first buried on the French battlefield were he died, his remains later were returned to Pittsburgh and re-interred with military honors at St. Mary Cemetery.

Irish and Irish Americans not only sacrificed their blood, Father O’Connor told the Lyceum crowd, but also their treasure. He spoke of an Irish workman who earned $80 a month and purchased $500 worth of Liberty Bonds, or half his annual salary.

People without parallel

It is unknown to me, and probably unknowable, whether my grandfather, Willie Diggin, was among the 4,000 or so attendees at either of the 1918 Irish rallies at the Lyceum. He turned 23 a few months before he registered for the military in June 1917, four years after his arrival in Pittsburgh from Kerry. He was not drafted. 

Willie Diggin

In 1918 he was still six years from marriage. He was established in his job as a streetcar motorman with a regular route that terminated at St. Mary of Mercy, a few blocks from the Lyceum, and thus familiar with these streets. On Dec. 17, 1941–23 years after the second Lyceum rally–he died of a heart attack in front of the church; a priest summoned from inside to give him the last rites aboard the streetcar. He was a month shy of 48.

In the week before Christmas 1918, a month after the armistice and a month before the Irish War of Independence, a “burst of enthusiasm took place” among Irish freedom supporters packed inside the Lyceum as two soldiers marched onstage; one holding the red, white, and blue of Old Glory; the other bearing the green, white, and orange of the new flag of the Irish Republic. The Irish Club Orchestra, with pipes, and several soloists, performed patriotic and sentimental tunes between speeches.9

Perhaps Pittsburgh City Councilman P. J. McArdle best captured the spirit of the evening, and this brief period of peace between two wars: “We are here to make known the appeal without parallel for a people without parallel.”

The Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh, at middle of the block, in 1914.

NEXT: U.S. Press on Sinn Féin Win

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House hearing on’The Irish Question’

The bishop & the president

  1. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 16, 1918, p. 9
  2. The Irish Question“, Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, 65th Congress, 3rd Session, Dec. 12, 1918, p. 82.
  3. Ibid. p. 148-151
  4. Post-Gazette, Dec. 16, 1918, p. 9
  5. “The Irish Question” hearing, p. 34
  6. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 15, 1918, p. 2
  7. The Gaelic American, May 11, 1918, p. 8
  8. P.J. Blessing, “Irish emigration to the United States, 1800-1920” , in P.J. Drudy (ed.), The Irish in America: Emigration, Assimilation, and Impact, Cambridge, 1985, table 2.5, p. 23
  9. Post-Gazette, Dec. 16, 1918, p. 9