March madness 1919: So close, yet so far

American-based supporters of Irish independence on March 4, 1919, appeared tantalizingly close to winning U.S. government backing for their cause. But they fell short.

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives voted 216 to 41 in favor of self-determination for Ireland. It was the last day of the legislative session, however, and a parliamentary maneuver in opposition delayed consideration of the measure in the U.S. Senate for several months.

Cohalan

Later that evening, in New York City, President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly met a delegation from the Friends of Irish Freedom before returning to the post-war peace conference in Paris. The meeting began badly, as Wilson banned New York Supreme Court Judge Daniel F. Cohalan, a longtime political nemesis and member of the delegation. It ended, Francis M Carroll wrote, “with Wilson refusing to commit himself to the Irish-Americans, the Irish-Americans very displeased with Wilson, and all of them on the worst of terms.”1

Irish-American newspaper coverage of the House vote was fairly straightforward. Reporting about the Wilson meeting ranged widely.

Wilson

The Irish Press, Philadelphia, said the president “declared that he was in thorough accord with the aspirations of the Irish people for the right to live without foreign interference” … and “gave the committee to understand that he fully expects the case of Ireland to be dealt with by the Peace Conference.” This was wishful spin of Wilson’s intentions, at best, or intentionally deceitful, at worst.

More significantly, the story ignored Wilson’s ouster of Cohalan, a close ally of John Devoy, leader of the New York faction of the FOIF. By March 1919, a feud had opened between the New York wing and Joseph McGarrity, the Press publisher, and his Philadelphia allies, over the best approach to help Ireland. While the Press was silent about Cohalan in this instance, its editor, Patrick McCartan, took other opportunities to “slander and misrepresent” the judge, historian Charles Callen Tansill wrote.2

In Louisville, front-page coverage in the Kentucky Irish American combined the House vote and Wilson meeting into one story, which gave a more clear-eyed assessment of the latter:

The hope that had been entertained that President Wilson would espouse Ireland’s cause was rudely checked Tuesday night when he met the committee from the Irish race convention in New York on the eve of his departure for Paris. Wilson urged that no questions be urged [sic] and gave no indication of what his action at the Peace Conference would be. In some quarters there is belief that so far as he is concerned Ireland’s case has been closed before it has ever been heard.

The Irish Standard, Minneapolis, was even closer to the real story. Under the page 1 headline “Rumored President Had Old Grudge Against Cohalan,” it noted Cohalan’s work against Wilson’s 1916 re-election and refusal to support him when America entered World War I in 1917. A sidebar story reported that two days after the meeting, the FOIF in Boston passed a resolution that stated “Americans of Irish blood were grievously offended at the action of President Wilson” in banning Cohalan from the meeting.

Here’s more background on the two events:

  1. Francis M. Carroll, “The American Commission on Irish Independence and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919,” in Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1985) p. 107
  2. Tansill, Charles Callen, America and the fight for Irish freedom, 1866-1922, an old story based on new dataThe Devin-Adair Co., New York, 1957. p. 301.

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