Category Archives: Irish America

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

*** 

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:

Catching up with modern Ireland: November

I made my second trip of the year to Ireland in November. As in February, the weather was delightfully mild and mostly dry. As in America, more and more people seemed transfixed by their smart phones. In the West of Ireland, I noticed more wind turbines sprouting from fields and hilltops to supply electrical power to keep those phones charged. At several churches, Mass attendance remained thin, especially at the massive Galway Cathedral. (Below and bottom of the post.)

Here’s the monthly roundup for November:

      • “Successive Irish Governments have abandoned rural Ireland. Their vision is of a prosperous elite, big cities and a trickle down of wealth. A trickle that runs dry before it reaches rural Ireland,” Sinn Féin  President Mary Lou McDonald said. … “Rural Ireland isn’t dying. … The situation is far from perfect, but in contrast to the grim days when rural Ireland raised its sons and daughters for the boat, these days a mix of foreign and indigenous industrial employers has penetrated deep into provincial Ireland with high-quality, interesting and engaging, jobs,” Donal O’Donovan wrote in the Irish Independent.
      • Medical devices now make up almost 10 percent of all Irish exports. The Republic is second only to Germany as the largest European exporter of such equipment, The Irish Times reported. Most of the firms are clustered around Galway.
      • “Lessons from Northern Ireland for Americans who see political opponents as the enemy,op-ed in The Hill.
      • Ireland is moving to reinstate birthright citizenship, bucking the trend in other Western countries to tighten restrictions on immigration, The New York Times reported.
      • Tourism Ireland announced it will increase 2019 spending by €10 million, to €45 million, and will launch its first new global advertising campaign in seven years to help attract more overseas visitors to the island of Ireland. The “Fill your Heart with Ireland” campaign will launch during December in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, then roll out more than 20 other markets in the new year. The promotional boost is driven in part by concerns about Brexit.
      • “Is Ireland Really A Startup Nation?”, column in Forbes.
      • The Irish Aviation Authority is investigating the 9 November spotting by several commercial airline pilots of an unidentified flying object over the Republic. Some have speculated the fast-moving lights were probably meteorites entering Earth at a low angle. 

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.

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.

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.

Catching up with modern Ireland: October

As of 30 October, traffic on this site surpassed our highest annual total, in 2016. Thanks very much for your readership and support, including several of you who emailed suggestions for this month’s roundup, which starts in arts and ends in crime:

  • Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker prize, for Milkman, a novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man during the Troubles. Authors John Banville, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle of the Irish Republic won the prize earlier.
  • On Broadway, Jez Butterworth’s “thrilling new play” The Ferryman “mines the folksy clichés of Irish archetypes — as garrulous, drink-loving, pugilistic souls — to find the crueler patterns of a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance,” according to this New York Times review.
  • “The extent to which many English people are ignorant about Ireland has become painfully clear. … I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English. Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess.” I Didn’t Hate the English — Until Now
  • An Bord Pleanála approved a 25-story residential tower in Cork city. If built, it would become the county’s tallest tower.
  • Ireland ranked 5th on the 2018 CAF World Giving Index, behind the U.S. and ahead of the U.K.
  • The Republic will impose tobacco-style health warning labels on alcohol as part of a sweeping package of restrictions intended to tackle one of the world’s worst rates of binge drinking.
  • “When confronted with a film that identified prime suspects in a massacre of unarmed British citizens [Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994], the authorities made no apparent effort to further question those suspects—and arrested the filmmakers instead.” Why Were a Filmmaker and a Journalist Arrested in Northern Ireland?
  • In a case that reminds me of the “agrarian outrages” of the late 19th century, north Kerry bachelor dairy farmer Michael Ferris, 63, of Rattoo, was found guilty of manslaughter for the 2017 death of John Anthony O’Mahony, an unmarried tillage farmer, 73, of Ardoughter, Ballyduff.  Ferris drove the pallet forks of his teleporter into the car occupied by O’Mahony, apparently enraged by the older man’s use of a crow banger, according to the Irish Examiner.
  • In America, the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, 89, once head of Boston’s Irish mob, was killed in federal prison. Read my “Southie memories” piece from his 2013 trial.

James “Whitey” Bulger in 1959, early in his criminal career.

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.

T. Roosevelt’s letters to the Davitts, and more, now online

In February 1904, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt thanked Irish activist Michael Davitt for the gift of “two blackthorns, which, at the beginning of a Presidential year, I shall accept as good omens.”1 Nine months later, Roosevelt won re-election.

Halfway through that second term, the American president wrote to Davitt’s American-born wife, the former Mary Yore of St. Joseph, Michigan, to express condolences about his death two days earlier in Dublin.  

Theodore Roosevelt

“It was my good fortune to number among my friends your late husband, Mr. Michael Davitt,” Roosevelt wrote.2 “I valued his, and I beg that you will accept my most sincere sympathy in your great bereavement.”

Both letters are part of the massive Theodore Roosevelt Collection, released online 17 October by the Library of Congress. The digital collection contains about 276,000 documents, including letters, speeches, executive orders, scrapbooks, diaries, White House reception records and press releases of his administration, as well as family records, and about 461,000 images.

Michael Davitt

Roosevelt’s 1904 thank you note to Davitt is mentioned in Laurence Marley’s 2007 biography of the County Mayo native.3 The author cites the Papers of Michael Davitt Collection at Trinity College Dublin, which is not fully digitized. Marley also noted Roosevelt’s 1906 letter Davitt’s widow.4 His source for this is an 8 June Reuter’s dispatch from Boston published in the Freemans Journal.

A day earlier, The New York Times reported that Roosevelt declined an invitation by the United Irish League to attend a memorial service for Davitt in Boston.5 The Times reprinted a 4 June letter from Roosevelt that said, “Mr. Davitt was a personal friend of mine, and I sincerely regret his loss. I have written to Mrs. Davitt to express my sympathy.”

These examples illustrate how the digitized Roosevelt papers, part of the ever-expanding universe of similar online collections, is widening historical research opportunities. I’m fortunate to have done in-person research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and at Trinity College Dublin, where I reviewed a one-year portion of the Davitt collection for my Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited series. (See posts 15 & 16.) But not everyone has the chance to make such onsite visits.

The Roosevelt collection contains other Ireland-related letters and documents. These include correspondence from:

  • Irish Folk Song Society, 1910
  • Irish Gaelic League, 1913
  • Irish National Foresters, 1910
  • Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, 1911
  • Irish Unionist Alliance, 1918
  • United Irish-American Society, 1911

I’m sure there is much, much more. I still getting familiar with the collection, as you should, too.

Davitt’s grave, Straide, County Mayo, February 2018.