A Philadelphia newspaper in early 1919 alleged that “some prominent men” at Catholic University of America were conspiring with British Embassy officials. The aim of their Washington, D.C.-based “plot,” the story said, was to keep Ireland within the British Empire rather than establish an independent republic.
“So far the scheme has met with some success and is receiving consideration,” The Irish Press, a nationalist weekly, reported Jan. 4, 1919, in a page 4 story headlined “An Intrigue of Deception.”
Irish voters had just elected 73 separatist Sinn Féin candidates who had no intention of claiming their seats in the London parliament. Instead, within weeks of the Press story, they would form their own government in Dublin. A gorilla war of independence erupted at the same time. In America, Congress debated “the Irish question” as President Woodrow Wilson prepared to sail to Paris to join his British allies in helping to reshape the post-world war global order.
The Irish Press reported:
“It is understood that the scheme will be launched by the publication of a letter written by President Wilson on the eve of his departure for Europe to a prominent man at the Catholic University at Washington. The gentleman concerned is a sincere friend of Ireland and it is to be hoped that he will sever his connection with the British plot and persuade his colleagues to do likewise. Their action will not affect Ireland but we hope for the reputation of the one big and sincere man connected with the scheme that he will refuse at this critical juncture to play false to the cause so dear to his heart.”
The newspaper did not name anyone at Catholic University, but faculty member Joseph Dunn wrote a private letter to challenge the allegation. “To say that the article in question surprised and provoked me is putting it mildly,” he wrote to Dr. Patrick McCartan, the Press editor.
Dunn was a Celtic language and literature professor and a supporter of Irish independence. A few weeks earlier he had appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Ireland. Dunn entered into the record the Nov. 30, 1918, letter from the university’s rector, Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, to President Wilson. It cited the president’s professed commitment to “self-determination” for small nations.
“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,” Shahan wrote. “Moreover, Ireland’s claims are a hundredfold reinforced by her centuries of brave, though unavailing, struggle against foreign domination, tyranny, and autocracy.”
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.” This was an optimistic interpretation of Wilson’s Dec. 3, 1918, reply; barely 100 typed words of generalities on White House stationary that never mentioned Ireland by name. Wilson wrote:
“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.”
Shahan was a national vice president of the Friends of Irish Freedom, a U.S.-based group of Irish immigrants, Irish Americans, and other supporters of the separatist cause. Dunn was a national trustee. As events accelerated in Ireland, the Friends were being torn apart by internal feuding over the best way to help the homeland.
The Irish Press was in the middle of this fight, as personified by the growing hostility between McCartan, Press publisher Joseph McGarrity, and their supporters; and John Devoy, veteran Irish republican activist and publisher of the New York City-based Gaelic American, and his allies. Dunn acknowledged these crosscurrents in his letter.
Dunn told McCartan that he did not show the Press article to Shahan, “who, I suppose, is meant by the words ‘a prominent man at Catholic University’ ” … “to spare him the pain of reading it, it is so unfair to those of us who have kept the faith at this institution.” Like Dunn, the bishop would have been troubled by the allegation of conspiring with the British, especially as the Friends of Irish Freedom developed plans for an upcoming national strategy meeting in Philadelphia.
“The harm done is not irreparable, however, if you take occasion in the very next issue of ‘The Press’ to correct it and give prominence in a good strong article to the denial,” Dunn wrote in the typed body of his letter. After the “faithfully yours” closing and his signature, he hand wrote, “You realize, of course, how much the University might suffer if that your yarn is not corrected.”
McCartan’s reply to Dunn carried the same Jan. 11, 1919, date as the professor’s letter.
“I was very glad to get your letter and your assurances that nobody connected with the University has anything to do with the British Embassy Plot,” McCartan wrote under his newspaper’s letterhead. “I realize that your letter is authoritative, and we here are glad to learn that instead of cooperating with the plotters you are taking steps to counteract them.”
McCartan, a native of Ireland, was among more than 30 Sinn Féin separatists elected the previous month while either living outside Ireland or held in prison. In addition to his role as editor, he also described himself as “envoy of the provisional government of Ireland.” This was news to the U.S. State Department, which claimed it “knew nothing of Patrick McCartan.”
McCartan wrote to Dunn that he would be “delighted to correct the error we made last week as you request.” The editor acknowledged he was responsible for all of the newspaper’s stories, “even though I do not write them all, or even read them before publication.”
On Jan. 18, 1919, The Irish Press published this “correction” under another “Intrigue of Deception” headline, once again without naming any names.
“We have now on the very best authority” that no one at Catholic University was cooperating with the British, the story said. “The existence of the plot is known there but those in that institution who are interested in the subject take the same view of the Irish question as The Irish Press.”
A few weeks later, the Press reported on Shahan’s speech at Gazanga Hall in Washington, D.C. “Ireland is a nation, not a province of the British Empire,” it quoted him under the headline “Bishop Upholds Irish Republic.”
Dunn and Shahan remained active in Irish nationalist politics. The professor taught at Catholic University until 1931. The bishop died the following year and is interred in the crypt level of the neighboring Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The Irish Press folded in 1922 as Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State, an interim status that later became today’s full republic, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of Britain. McCartan returned to Ireland.
EXTRA NOTES: Top image, “Proposed Plan,” is a 1914 photo gelatin view of the Catholic University of America campus in Washington, D.C. produced by the Albertype Company of Brooklyn, New York. … I have been unable to locate an image of Joseph Dunn. … Thanks to Shane MacDonald at CUA’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and to James Harte at the National Library of Ireland for their assistance.