Category Archives: History

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’  

Irish ambassador, film producer discuss “Black ’47”

“Black ’47,” a fictional big-screen treatment of the Great Famine, debuted in March at the Berlin Film Festival; opened in September in Ireland; and has shown since October on limited U.S. screens. The New York Times described the film as an “occasionally exhilarating action-revenge plot” set against the bleak historical period. John Dorney at The Irish Story wrote:

Essentially it is a kind of revenge western epic – imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood’s the “Outlaw Josey Wales” and Quentin Tarnatino’s “Django Unchained” – but set in Famine era Ireland.

Think of “Rambo” in mid-19th century Ireland, with single-shot pistols and rifles (which more than once fail to fire), rather than automatic weapons.

My wife and I attended a 2 December screening at the American Film Institute’s “European Union Film Showcase.” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall spoke about the Famine before the lights dimmed, and Jonathan Loughran, one of the film’s producers, participated in a Q & A session after the credits rolled.

The Famine is “fundamental to any understanding of Ireland’s story,” Mulhall said, and also is the “origin story” of more than 33 million Irish Americans.

With more than 1 million dead and 1 million emigrated, it was “a food crisis of unparalleled scale,” he said, the last mass hunger event in the Western world. Ireland’s population was 8.5 million at the time, a level not expected to recover until 2045, nearly 200 years later.

Loughran, originally from Dublin, said working on the film “re-woke feelings I forgot” in leaning about the Famine as a child. He said reactions to the film have been better than expected, especially among the Irish.

“It stoked some republican feelings in people,” Loughran said.

He praised Australian actor James Frecheville, who plays former Connaught Ranger Martin Feeney, for learning Irish, which is spoken by various characters the film, their words either interpreted by others in the scene, or shown in subtitles.

“Black ’47” is said to be the first feature film about the Famine, and Loughran thinks there is room for more treatments. “It could become its own genre, there are so many stories to be told.”

Here’s the official trailer:

A few of my previous posts about the Famine:

JFK, Ireland, and the Sixth Floor Museum

U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 55 years ago 22 November. In May, I visited the scene of that historic crime, now The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

The scene of the crime. Assassin shot from far right window, square, not arched. Sixth floor is one floor below top row of windows.

A museum about any murder would be a sad place. This one is particularly depressing (though well designed), since it also represented a huge loss of American innocence and idealism. In my opinion, it also marked the end of an Irish-American century that began with massive immigration of the Great Famine.

The museum doesn’t display much about JFK’s Irish heritage or his June 1963 homecoming. One video display quickly flashes the day after the assassination front page of The Irish Press, which contained a statement from Irish President Éamon de Valera:

During his recent visit here we came to regard the President as one of ourselves … We were proud of him as being of our race.”

Four oral histories held by the museum do contain Irish connections in interviews with:

  • Peter Rice, an Army presidential helicopter pilot who accompanied Kennedy on the 1963 trip to Ireland.

  • Rosian Zerner, who was in Dublin, Ireland, at the time of the assassination.

  • Eamon Kennedy, an Ireland native and photographer at the Dallas Times Herald during the assassination.

  • Dr. Peadar Cremin, who as a 14-year-old boy witnessed JFK in Ireland.

Kennedy was flawed, I know, and it’s easy to slip into sentimentality about him. But my stop at the Dallas museum seemed inevitable and necessary, the completion of a history trail on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have visited the Kennedy Homestead in County Wexford, where JFK made his triumphant June 1963 homecoming, five months before the murder, and seen the Kennedy tributes in Galway, his last stop in Ireland. I have been inside the Dáil Éireann chamber, where he gave a memorable speech.

When I lived in Boston, I explored the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, but skipped the boyhood home tour.

I have attended Mass at Holy Trinity, St. Stephen Martyr, and St. Matthew’s churches in Washington, D.C., where he worshiped in the Roman Catholic faith. Kennedy’s former presence is recognized at all three churches, most notably St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where a marble plaque is imposed in the floor in front of the sanctuary. This is the spot where Kennedy’s casket was stationed during his funeral Mass.

Most movingly, I have stood at the eternal flame next JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Now, too, the Philip Johnson-design cenotaph in Dallas.

John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, Dallas.

Q & A with Felix Larkin, Irish newspaper historian

Historian Felix M. Larkin specializes in the study of Irish newspapers, including editorial cartoons. He is an expert on the Freeman’s Journal, the prominent Dublin newspaper published from 1763 to 1924. His work is widely published in books and journals. See Larkin’s website for more details of his biography and bibliography.

In 2008, Larkin helped found the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI), a “very cumbersome name – which, however, does have the merit of accurately describing what the focus of our activities is,” he said in a 2013 address. The organization’s mission, as stated on its homepage, is to facilitate contact between researchers and writers in the field of newspaper, periodical, journalism and printing history, and strengthen the links between teaching and research institutions, libraries, and other organizations concerned with media history.

I met Larkin earlier this month at NPHFI’s 2018 conference at the National University of Ireland/Galway. In the Q & A below, conducted via email shortly afterward, Larkin discusses the importance of studying history through newspapers; weighs the advantages and pitfalls of such research in the digital age; and cautions about “State-sponsored jamborees relating to supposedly iconic anniversaries,” such as the Irish War of Independence and Civil War over the next five years. MH

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You helped found the NPHFI in 2008. What are your surprises, insights, delights, or disappointments about its first decade? What would you like see happen with the Forum by 2028?

LARKIN: I have been genuinely surprised by the success of the NPHFI, as newspaper history is really a niche subject. We have had 11 successful annual conferences, and have inspired six essay collections and at least two more that are in preparation. In addition, we have put together and maintain the immensely useful on-line Irish Bibliography of Press History, which is a great resource for scholars.

The insight that I have gained from my experience with the NPHFI is the extent to which journalism history benefits from an inter-disciplinary approach – and I say this as someone who is trained as a historian and deeply respects the rigorous methodology of history. The delights are, of course, the very interesting people I have met through the NPHFI and the friendships that I have made.

My only real disappointment is that, notwithstanding the NPHFI’s 10 years of effort, mainstream history does not yet acknowledge the importance of newspapers in the social and political life of the last two centuries. Thus, for example, the new Cambridge History of Ireland doesn’t have a chapter, or even a dedicated subsection within a chapter, on newspapers. (Editor’s note: See Larkin’s 7 June 2018 piece in The Irish Catholic.)

As regards 2028, my main hope is that I will still be around to enjoy the proceedings of the NPHFI conferences! My hope more generally for the future of the NPHFI is that it will remain faithful to its focus on the print media – newspapers and periodicals – as distinct from broadcasting and the electronic media which receive quite enough attention in other forums. Ironically, as newspapers decline in popularity and influence, it is all the more necessary to have a place specifically dedicated to the study of their history – lest they fall off our radar completely.

Digital newspaper archives are more common today than in 2008, allowing more people to access the content. What tips or cautions would you offer about historical research of newspapers/periodicals? Any specific advice for those exploring Irish papers, especially regarding the run of War of Independence and Civil War centenaries over the next five years?

LARKIN: I have always believed that one of the reasons why so few people have worked on newspaper history is the sheer quantity of material to be waded through – whether you are using the print editions, microfilm or a digital archive. Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.

Using a digital archive also means that you miss out on a sense of what the paper looked like – its size and general appearance – and this is important for context, especially for specialist newspaper historians.

As regards newspapers in the period of the War of Independence and the Civil War, during such periods of great conflict there is a tendency for newspapers to become more partisan than in normal times – and there is a greater risk of censorship and intimidation – and so historians using newspapers as a source need to be even more conscious of bias in newspaper coverage than they would ordinarily be.

Are there any periods of history, or types of stories, or kinds of research, that you think are under-explored in the realm of Irish newspapers and periodicals?

LARKIN: Oh yes! There is relatively little work done on Irish newspapers before the 1840s. I accept that newspapers don’t reach the zenith of their power and influence until the second half of the 19th century, but there is a rich earlier history of the press to be explored – and we have not done that. For instance, only one early-period paper was offered in response to the Call for Papers for the most recent NPHFI annual conference – and we were very glad to have it.

A century from now, will there be a Digital Content History Forum of Ireland? Your thoughts about the shrinking contemporary newspaper industry, and whether today’s digital content will even be available for future research, given the rapid evolution of technology?

LARKIN: Well, I am a historian – not a fortune-teller. I find it difficult enough to deal with the past without worrying about the future. So I would be very reluctant to speculate about the future of newspapers as a print medium – or about what aspects of the media, print or otherwise, will interest historians in future years.

What does concern me, however, is the declining quality of journalism in the print media – e.g. the jettisoning of sub-editing and other “checking” functions in the interests of cutting expenditure – which means that newspapers are an increasingly less reliable source for future historians, as well as for their current readers. We seem to have come a long way from the Woodward & Bernstein standard of “the best obtainable version of the truth”.

As regards access to digital sources, I am old enough to remember accessing music on vinyl, then tape cassette, then CD and now via my computer – such rapid change, and nothing was compatible with the previous iteration of the technology. The same thing will inevitably happen with today’s digital portals. We can only hope that libraries will retain – and maintain in working order – obsolete equipment so that data can be recovered as technology progresses and made available in whatever new forms emerge. But I am not optimistic on that score.

Other thoughts or comments about NFPHI … or the upcoming centenary period?

LARKIN: There have been four chairpersons of the NPHFI to date, and each of us was a founding member. The term of office of our current chair, Regina Uí Chollatáin, ends next year – and we will have to find her successor from the ranks of those who have come on board in the years since our foundation. The baton is being passed to the next generation, and this will bring its challenges – but it is also healthy, an opportunity for renewal. We have a great crop of younger scholars who work with the NPHFI and I am satisfied that the NPHFI will be in good hands for many years to come.

On the upcoming centenary period, suffice it to say that I am not much in favor of commemorating or celebrating historical events. It is more important to try to understand the past in all its complexity. That’s the responsibility of the historian, and historians should be very uneasy when faced with State-sponsored jamborees relating to supposedly iconic anniversaries. Such jamborees rarely add anything to the sum of human knowledge.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Killone photos

ENNIS ~ My “Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited” series explores aspects of the book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert.

The Charleston, S.C.-born, Harvard-educated, New York City newspaper editor traveled around Ireland during the first six months of 1888, a period of resurgent agrarian violence and nationalist political agitation. His book, published later that year, focused on these topics. Like most visitors to Ireland, however, Hurlbert also explored the country’s landscapes and landmarks, including the ruins of Killone Abbey in County Clare.

The American journalist leveraged his visit to the abbey ruins to criticize the violence in the land reform movement, as discussed in my original post about this section of Hurlbert’s diary. A year later, an Irish priest mocked the characterization in his Hurlbert unmasked rebuttal pamphlet.

See black and white images of the abbey, circa 1865, or more than 20 years before Hurlbert’s visit, at this link to the Robert French photography collection at the National Library of Ireland. Below, photos from my 11 November 2018 visit to the site, 130 years after Hurlbert.

Approach to Killone Abbey, November 2018.

The abbey opened in 1190 and abandoned in the 17th century.

Looking back toward the photo vantage above.

During his 1888 visit, American journalist William Henry Hurlbert commented about the “picturesque lake” and the “confusion, squalor and neglect” of the abbey graveyard.

I’m always drawn to the view from the surviving window frames of ancient ruins.

Photo feature: John F. Kennedy in Galway, 1963

GALWAY ~  John F. Kennedy, great grandson of an Irish emigrant and America’s first Irish-Catholic president, 55 years ago made this West of Ireland city the last stop of his historic homecoming to Ireland.

“You send us home with the warmest memories of you and of your country,” Kennedy said during 29 June remarks in Eyre Square. “Though other days may not be so bright as we look toward the future, the brightest days will continue to be those in which we visited you here in Ireland.”

He spent about an hour in Galway. Less than five months later he was assassinated in Dallas.

Below is a video clip from the Galway event; two photos of the memorial bust in Eyre Square; and two photos of the mosaic of Kennedy, located inside the Galway Cathedral, which opened two years after his visit.

Earlier and coming posts:

Between Duganstown and DallasA unique cohort of Irish and Irish Americans lived through the triumph of Kennedy’s return to Ireland; but died before the tragedy in Dallas.

I’ll have a post on the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza later this month.

NPHFI 2018 Conference: Women, press & the vote

GALWAY ~ The Irish Citizen, a Dublin-based feminist newspaper published from 1912 to 1920, not only covered women’s struggle to obtain the right to vote, but also produced ground-breaking reporting about sexual assault and other abuses, especially among domestic servants. The paper was 100 years ahead of the #MeToo Movement.

As alternative media, the Citizen “privileged a journalism wedded to social responsibility rather than the ideology of objectivity” claimed by the mainstream press, Louis Ryan, professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield, told the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland 2018 Conference, “The Press and the Vote.”

Irish suffragettes faced a more complex struggle than their British sisters, Ryan said. When Irish women sought support from the Irish Parliamentary Party, then trying to secure Home Rule, the male politicians said wait until Ireland secured domestic political autonomy. Militant Irish republicans criticized the feminists for wanting any franchise at all with the London government.

Women on both shores of the Irish Sea obtained limited voting rights in February 1918. In December 1918, Irish nationalist Constance Markeivicz, who was jailed for her role in an anti-conscription protest, became the first woman elected to the British House of Common. She refused to take the seat, instead joining the revolutionary parliament in Dublin and the ensuing Irish War of Independence.

The Citizen, which survived the turmoil of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Great War on the continent, folded before the Irish conflict was resolved a few years later. But the paper left an invaluable feminist archive, Ryan said.

For this year’s centennial, she has published an updated and revised edition of her 1996 book, Winning the Vote for Women: The Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland, available from Four Courts Press. Listen to an April 2018 podcast on Dublin City FM’s Mediascope.

Louise Ryan

The first day of the NPHFI Conference featured nine other excellent presentations about the role of newspapers in the 1918 British elections, corrupt elections practices in 20th century Ireland, the Catholic Standard newspaper’s anti-communism campaign in the 1950s, and other topics. Nine more presentations are scheduled for 10 November.

See the full agenda.

On returning to Ireland, a look back at previous trips

I’m traveling to Ireland for the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland’s 2018 Conference, “The Press & the Vote,” at NUI Galway. Watch for my tweets (@markaholan) and posts over the coming week.

First, here are links to photo features from my last two trips.

February 2018

Douglas Hyde Center in Co. Roscommon.

July 2016

Belfast mural of nationalist hero Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in 1981. (July 2016)

Pennsylvania pledges to Irish freedom in 1918 U.S. election

A month before the 1918 U.S. elections, a Philadelphia chapter of the Friends of Irish Freedom sent a questionnaire to Pennsylvania candidates for state and federal office that asked whether they would make this pledge:

Will you, if elected to the public office for which you are a candidate, openly and unequivocally support Ireland’s claim to Complete Independence–the form of Government to be determined by the whole male and female population of Ireland?

The Irish Press published the questionnaire,1 which featured seven “historical facts” about England’s subjugation of Ireland “based on force,” including a 250,000-troop “army of occupation … equipped with all the ruthless machinery of modern warfare.” English prisons were “full of Irish men and women” who refused to follow her “tyrannical decrees.”

Wilson

The questionnaire also noted that over 500,000 men of the Irish race were serving in “Uncle Sam’s Army and Navy.” And it included two 27 September 1918, quotes from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson about the rights of smaller, weaker countries to be free from the rule of larger, stronger nations.

Friends of Irish Freedom and other Irish groups had been building support for Irish self-determination since January, when Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress. He said the world should “be made safe for every peace-loving nation, which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world…”

Mass meetings and petition drives mounted through the spring and summer, especially as it became clear that Wilson’s statement likely included only those nation’s controlled by Germany and its allies. “It must be remembered that while President Wilson did not include Ireland, he said nothing about excluding [it],” was the hopeful formulation of one speaker at a May 1918 Friends’ rally at the Lyceum Theater in Pittsburgh.2

As the November election neared, the Irish Press reported that responses to the Friends’ questionnaire were “gratifying to all friends of the cause” and also showed “in a conclusive manner” that 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters were “heartily in favor” of an Irish Republic. The Press continued:

This result should put a little ginger and backbone into the weak and vacillating men of our race who are willing to take anything that England should see fit to grant as a favor. Let our motto be that in the matter of self-determination nothing is too good for the Irish.

It is unclear how the Press determined the 70 percent support figure. There is no reference to voter polling independent of those candidates who returned the questionnaire. In two issues before the 5 November election, the Press named nine congressional candidates, plus the Democrat and Republican contenders for governor, as supportive of Ireland. Over 100 candidates were on the ballot for 33 congressional seats; plus dozens more for state legislative offices.

Letters of support

Focht

The Press reproduced two letters of support from congressional candidates.

“I wish to advise that I believe Ireland has suffered only too long the oppression of a foreign power, and that the day has come for her liberation …,” Republican Congressman Benjamin K. Focht wrote in a letter published on the front page of the Press. Focht was editor and publisher of the Lewisburg Saturday News in his district 60 miles north of the state capitol in Harrisburg.

Hulings

The paper also published a letter from Willis J. Hulings of Oil City, Pa., who was attempting to return to Congress after a two-year absence. Hulings said that he favored Irish freedom and that “sympathy with Irish patriots has been part of my life.”3 However, he did not see how “the United States Congress has any right of interference until after the Irish people have unitedly demanded separation from Great Britain.”

The Press editors acknowledged that Hulings position was shared “by many other honest Americans.” It added:

If Ireland must wait for freedom until Great Britain gives the Irish people an opportunity to unitedly demand separation, we should look for the establishment of the Irish Republic somewhere around the Greek calends.

Historian Joseph P. O’Grady noted that “what influence this [questionnaire and news coverage] had upon the campaign is difficult to assess; but the fact that candidates for high office would publicly endorse such statements [as the pledge] indicates, to some extent, the political power of the Irish at election time.”4

In the election, Democrats lost both chambers of Congress to the Republicans, a bad omen for Wilson, who had cast the midterm in strident personal and national security terms. Only three of the nine congressional candidates named in the Press, including Focht and Hulings, were elected. As the war in Europe ended the following week, the pressure campaign by Irish America continued to heat. The results of British Parliamentary elections in Ireland the following month would have an even bigger impact on the issue.

See archived stories about the Irish in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Note to Readers: Peace and the Irish wars at 100

Now through May 2023 will be packed with the 100th anniversaries of major milestones in Ireland’s struggle for independence and the island’s partition. I’ll be doing original research and reporting about the period, and aggregating the work of others.

Subscribe to the blog via email, at right, and bookmark the site.

The 11 November centennial of the armistice ending World War I, and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, will get plenty of global attention in the coming weeks and months. “The mood during that [1918-19] winter was pregnant with hopes and fears for the future,” historian John Horne wrote in an overview for The Irish Times. “… Paris produced dreams and disillusion in equal measure.”

U.S. and British elections of 5 November and 14 December, 1918, respectively, each had a big impact on the Paris conference and with Irish relations in Washington and London. The Irish War of Independence began on 21 January, 1919, and wasn’t resolved until the end of the Irish Civil War on 24 May, 1923. The island was divided into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

My posts about this period will focus more on how the Irish in America influenced and were impacted by events in their homeland. I’ll be looking for untold stories of how Irish immigrants in America were touched by the upheaval. I intend to access historical materials at the National Archives & Records Administration, Library of Congress, and Irish collections in the U.S.

I also will be attending the 9-10 November Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland conference, “The Press and The Vote,” in Galway, which will focus on the December 1918 U.K. general election. I hope there will be other future trips to Ireland.

This is a fascinating period of history. Please join me in exploring it. Your ideas and comments are very welcome.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was 6 a.m. Eastern in the U.S.