Tag Archives: Woodrow Wilson

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 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 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’  

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.

Irish reaction as America entered World War I

One hundred years ago, during the first week of April 1917, the United States entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson could no long maintain his pledge of neutrality since the war began in 1914, and Congress supported his decision. The American draft began in June 1917.

“Ireland’s interest in the great decision is obvious,” the Freeman’s Journal editorialized. The moderate nationalist newspaper viewed America’s entry in the war as “vindication” for John Redmond, who in 1914 urged Irish soldiers to go “wherever the fighting line extends” in support of Britain. His call shifted Irish American support from home rule toward more militant Irish nationalism and Germany.

“America today is Ireland’s ally, as desired by Sinn Féiners, but she is Ireland’s ally because the Irish leader from the beginning set Ireland’s feet on the one path that every friend of freedom was bound to tread,” the Freeman’s Journal concluded in April 1917.

Redmond and others in the Irish Parliamentary Party believed that America’s presence not only ensured victory on the battlefield, but also guaranteed the implementation of home rule, the limited domestic autonomy for Ireland approved just before the war, but put on hold because of the outbreak. The IPP’s view was mistaken. Militant Irish nationalism, fueled by the 1916 Easter Rising and Britain’s execution of the rebel leaders, continued to manifest with Sinn Féin‘s 1918 electoral victories and the Irish War of Independence. The time for home rule had passed.

Across the Atlantic, Irish America rallied behind Wilson, putting aside criticism that he hadn’t done enough on behalf of the cause of Irish independence after the Rising and the executions of the leaders, historian Robert Schmuhl writes at RTE‘s Century Ireland. He continues:

The president understood that Irish Americans were a loyal constituency of his Democratic Party; however, he viewed the situation in Ireland as an internal matter to be resolved by the government of the United Kingdom. Bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, Wilson hoped he wouldn’t alienate any segment of Irish America. His political ducking and dodging worked to his advantage for just so long.

Following the Armistice, Wilson once again faced the appeals of Irish-Americans to recognize Ireland as one of what he had called the ‘small states’ that deserved ‘self-determination’. … At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which ultimately produced the Treaty of Versailles and created the League of Nations, Wilson refused to allow the subject of an Ireland divorced from the United Kingdom to enter the formal post-war deliberations and discussions. Despite persistent efforts by the American Commission on Irish Independence to get the president to realize how his numerous calls for ‘self-determination’ had rallied the Irish and Irish-Americans throughout the Great War, the obstinate Wilson remained steadfast in his opposition to raising the fate of Ireland.

No Easter Rising without the Irish in America

There would have been no 1916 Easter Rising without Irish America.

That’s a frequent theme in the research and writings of New York University Professor Joe Lee. He lectured on the topic 24 March for Irish Network-DC.

Lee noted that home rule champion John Redmond’s 20 September 1914 speech at Woodenbridge, County Wicklow, “stuck in the craw” of John Devoy and other Fenians in America.

Redmond supported Britain in the Great War, infamously expressed by his urging Irish soldiers to go “wherever the fighting line extends.” This created a backlash in still neutral America, Lee said, that shifted opinion away from home rule and toward militant Irish nationalism.

Support came immediately in the form of “a colossal amount of money” to fund an Irish rebellion, most of it raised in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

“Irish America was ahead of Ireland,” Lee said.

The Proclamation of an Irish Republic read outside the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916 noted that Ireland was “supported by her exiled children in America.” But Lee said this “grossly understates American contributions” to Irish freedom.

Lee engaged in a little speculation about what what might have happened if the Irish rebels had been able to last longer against British troops, generating more attention in America heading into the 1916 presidential campaign. Home rule, passed by Parliament in 1914 but suspended at the outbreak of World War I, was still on the table, Lee noted. Devoy and his followers might have been able to exert more pressure on Woodrow Wilson to make a deal for Irish independence as Britain worked to bring America into the war.

It didn’t work out that way, of course, just as the plans for the Rising didn’t unfold according to plan. Here’s a recent piece by Lee in the Irish Examiner about what might have happened in April 1916 if they had.

 

U.S.-Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day: 1916-2016 (P1)

This blog series focuses on U.S.- Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day over the past 100 years. Since this is the centennial of the Easter Rising, I’m looking at 1916 and each 25 years afterward: 1941, 1966 and 1991. I’m also writing a post on St. Patrick’s Day 1976, the year of the American bicentennial.

Part 1: Before the Rising & afterward

St. Patrick’s Day 1916 arrived in the second year of the Great War and a month before the Easter Rising. The Washington Post reported that President Woodrow Wilson was wearing “a bright green necktie and a little shamrock fresh from the ‘ould sod,’ a present from John Redmond, the Irish nationalist leader.”

Woodrow-Wilson_Health-Crisis_HD_768x432-16x9.jpg (768×432)

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in November 1916.

The Post also published a short message from Redmond, datelined London: “Ireland stands united with the allies in the cause of liberty and civilization, and looks forward with confidence to the union of all her sons in the service of their common country under home rule at the termination of the war.”

The events of April 1916 made sure home rule never came to pass as the war on the continent dragged longer than Redmond and others imagined.

Whether the reporting about Wilson’s sartorial selections for St. Patrick’s Day was accurate or a bit of strategic blarney is impossible to know. But in the years following the Rising the descendant of Ulster Protestants, “deceived Irish America and ignored the execution of Roger Casement,” charges Robert Schmuhl, the author of “Ireland’s Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising.”

In an adaption from his book for Irish Central, Schmuhl writes:

For too long as president, Wilson refused to concentrate on the Irish question. Despite the leadership he tried to exert on the world stage and the radical changes within Ireland after the Easter Rising that deserved his attention, he kept ducking and dodging in public while fuming and fulminating in private. Over time, he appeared weak and indecisive.

Public opinion in the U.S. and elsewhere crystallized that Wilson was not inclined to do anything for Ireland. Though he blamed the American Irish for the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and involve the United States in the League of Nations, they, in turn, blamed him for abandoning Ireland at a critical time.

More on Wilson, Irish exile John Devoy and American poet Joyce Kilmer in this 2012 piece by Schmuhl: ‘All Changed, Changed Utterly’: Easter 1916 and America.

For something less political, read about Wilson’s ancestral home near Strabane, County Tyrone.