Tag Archives: U.S. Congress

December 1918: House hearing on ‘The Irish Question’

This is the second 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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The U.S. Congress intensified its activism on behalf of Ireland once America entered the Great War in April 1917. “Members seized the moment to revive the issue of Irish independence, which had failed to gain traction in the House a year earlier when Missouri Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R) insisted that Congress support the Easter Rising,” according to the U.S. House of Representatives’ History, Art & Archives blog.

It took until a month after the war ended, however, before the Committee on Foreign Affairs convened a hearing on “The Irish Question.”  Congress was in a “lame duck” session, between the Nov. 5 midterm election and new members taking their seats in early March. Republicans won control of the House and Senate from the Democrats, the party of President Woodrow Wilson.

Dec. 12, 1918, was a Thursday, a fair, late fall day with temperatures in the capital settled into the mid-30s. Post-war news dominated the front page of the The Washington Post, including the projected $120 billion cost of the fight in Europe, and Wilson’s plans for the upcoming Paris peace conference.1

Virginia Rep. Henry D. Flood (D), the committee chairman, opened the hearing at 10 a.m. He set a hour-hour limit on the testimony.

A diverse array of citizens, local politicians, and representatives of civic organizations and labor unions traveled to Washington to submit testimony in favor of Irish independence. Witnesses highlighted the intertwined histories of Ireland and the United States as a reason for intervention. Many also stressed that the United States played a decisive role in ending the war, which thereby endowed the President—and Congress—with the power to request that Britain grant Ireland a seat at the negotiating table in Paris.2

Gallagher

Illinois Rep. Thomas Gallagher (D), one of several members to put forward resolutions supporting Irish “self determination,” Wilson’s phrase, gave the first statement. He noted the issue had been introduced nearly two years earlier, and, as the result, “quite an agitation has gone over the country urging legislative action” on behalf of Ireland. He recognized the “large delegations from different sections of the United States here this morning.”3

Illinois Circuit Court Judge Kickham Scanlan of Chicago was the first witness. His speech, like many of the others that followed, emphasized Irish contributions to the United States:

Scanlan

The Irish helped make America in 1776. The British Parliament said that but for the aid of the people of Ireland the freedom of America would not have been won. And in every war from that day to this they have stood by America, and they stood by America to a man in the last war. Do not let any paper, do not let any propaganda in the world, every make any member of this committee think that there was any man of Irish blood in America who could dream for one moment of anything but the success of America. We kept the faith.4

One-by-one, the following witnesses gave their statements and introduced into the record letters from other individuals and resolutions passed by groups at earlier public meetings. Some highlights include:

  • A letter from former Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, who in a few months time would travel to the Paris peace talk as one of three representatives of the American Commission on Irish Independence.
  • The Madison Square Garden address of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell of Boston, delivered two nights earlier to some 25,000 supporters of Irish freedom.
  • “Ireland’s Plea for Freedom,” by William J.M.A. Maloney, M.D., a former British Army captain.
  • The Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
  • The Sinn Féin platform of October 1917. The hearing came two days before the party’s massive wins in the first British elections since 1914.

George Fox, a New Haven, Conn., university teacher, voiced rare opposition to the overwhelming support for the Irish cause. He said:

…these men come in here and ask the Congress of the United States to adopt a joint resolution that they have no right to ask the Congress to adopt, and which they have no right to present. If Germany had won, they would have had to go before some other peace conference aligned with Germany, but when the empire which they have supported was beaten they switch around and ask the United States to go to the peace conference in their behalf. … I take the position … that it is entirely a matter for England to decide.5

The Foreign Affairs Committee cleared a bill of support for Ireland to the floor, where it was debated March 4, 1919, the last day of the 65th Congress. Texas Rep. Thomas Connally (D), echoing Fox, reminded his colleagues that Great Britain was an ally in the war, and the principle of self-determination championed by Wilson only applied to countries “under the dominion of our enemies.”  Wilson adopted a similar stance in Paris.

The House passed a resolution by a vote 216 to 45, but the Senate did not take up the issue before the session ended. The upper chamber did pass a separate measure early in the 66th Congress. “Ultimately, the long battle in the House over the ‘Irish question’ did not have a decisive effect on the peace process in 1919 or the political status of Ireland.”6

Nevertheless, the support of Irish immigrants, Irish Americans, and others is worth remembering 100 years later. Click the cover image below to see the full hearing transcript.

 

NEXT: Pittsburgh rally for Irish freedom

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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.