This post continues my exploration of American Reporting of Irish Independence. MH ©2024
English-born journalist Cyril Herbert Bretherton wrote some of the most anti-Irish stories in the American press during 1920-1921. That he was a naturalized U.S. citizen hardly mattered to Irish nationalists on either side of the Atlantic. They accused him of being a liar, a spy, and a propagandist. Bretherton’s reporting probably reduced American fundraising for humanitarian relief in Ireland. His work at least partially offset pro-independence Irish writers such as Francis Hackett, also a naturalized U.S. citizen, who supported their homeland through books and mass circulation newspaper and magazine articles in America.
Bretherton remained unreconstructed after the creation of the 26-county Irish Free State, predecessor of today’s Republic of Ireland. “I am convinced, after studying the Irish carefully, both in their native land and in America, for a number of years, that they are quite incapable of governing themselves now, and I conclude from that that they never were capable of doing so,” he wrote in a 1925 memoir.
C. H. Bretherton in 1921 U.S. passport photo.
Bretherton emigrated to America in 1906 at the age of twenty-eight after earning a law degree. In California, he joined the bar, worked as a journalist, and secured his new citizenship. But Bretherton returned to his native country at the start of the First World War. He enlisted in the military and was stationed in Dublin.
Bretherton contributed to U.S. newspapers during the Great War. “One seems to step from the pier at New York directly into the war zone,” he wrote of German submarine danger in March 1916, a year before America entered the war. He became a correspondent for the unionist-leaning Irish Times in Dublin and the conservative Morning Post in London. In early 1920 he joined the upstart foreign news service of the Philadelphia Public Ledger at a salary of about $75 a month.
It was in this role that his coverage of the Irish war attracted attention.
Sinn Fein ‘schism’
In a September 1920 story for the Public Ledger and its affiliated papers, Bretherton suggested a “schism in Sinn Fein” was “becoming more evident.” On the one side were “moderates … convinced that Ireland can get the substance of freedom within the empire for the asking and should not throw it away for a shadow of republican independence to which Great Britain will never agree.” Leaders of this view, according to his story, included Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera, then in America to raise money and lobby for U.S. political support for the Irish republic.
On the other side were the “extremists,” Bretherton reported. They included the “strong man” Michael Collins, who believed “an independent republic can and will in the near future be realized.” Anyone who accepted to anything less, Bretherton wrote, was considered “a traitor to the cause.”
Bretherton did not attribute these views to named sources within Sinn Féin, the British government, or elsewhere. His reporting certainly was influenced by his boss, Carl Ackerman, London bureau chief of the Public Ledger’s foreign news service. Ackerman suggested the split within Sinn Féin at least two months earlier.
During their July 1920 interview, Griffith told Ackerman more than once that he would refuse to accept any peace deal that did not result in an Irish republic. Yet Ackerman insisted in the same story, “I believe Sinn Fein would give up this demand and accept a liberal form of home rule.” In another story a few days later Ackerman reported on the “general belief in England that moderate Sinn Feiners do not have the power to control the Sinn Fein organization.”
Carl Ackerman in 1920.
British spy chief Sir Basil Thompson, who had become a key source to Ackerman, encouraged this view. At the time the two men were privately discussing whether former Wilson administration advisor Edward House could mediate a peace deal between Sinn Féin and the British government. House had recently joined the Public Ledger payroll as a foreign affairs expert. Ackerman dangled the possibility of an American mediator–left unnamed–in his July 1920 reporting from Ireland. He quoted Griffith as saying Sinn Féin would “very seriously consider” such an intermediary.
Ackerman privately told Sinn Féin propaganda chief Desmond FitzGerld that British authorities were concerned the moderate wing didn’t have full control of the Irish republican party. And that could jeopardize the proposed mediation by House.
FitzGerald asked Ackerman what it would take to prove there was no division.
“If you, Griffiths, and other moderates remain alive two weeks after talking peace everyone will be convinced you control Sinn Fein. If you are all dead by that time it won’t matter,” Ackerman replied, according to his diary.
A month later, FitzGerald helped Ackerman obtain an interview with Collins. The Public Ledger promoted it as the first interview with the man who had eluded British authorities for two years. Ackerman’s story made a splash in the American press. But Collins’ comments underlined Sinn Féin’s hardline stance and effectively scuttled the proposal for House to mediate.
Sinn Fein will not compromise, will not negotiate, excepting as a republican government. Moreover, there will be no secret negotiation, no dealing with semi-official individuals. … Talk of dominion home rule is not promoted by England with a view to granting it to us, but merely with the view to getting rid of the republican movement.
When Bretherton’s story about a split within Sinn Féin appeared a week after the Collins interview, it raised questions of whether Griffith and others had softened or compromised their republican views. This would have been a significant development.
The pro-Irish Gaelic American republished Bretherton’s story, just as it had done a week earlier with Ackerman’s interview of Collins. “Unconfirmed Report Of Differences” the New York City weekly headlined at the top of its front page. An editor’s introduction described Bretherton as “unknown in Irish circles” and noted that he did not provide direct quotes from either Collins or Griffith. The paper cautioned readers that it reproduced his story “with reserve.”
Negative reactions followed swiftly. One “indignant reader” wrote a letter to the Gaelic American that not only pointed out Bretherton’s English birth, but also accused him of being “a known liar and British spy.” The letter writer insisted: “His article is entirely manufactured. There is no Sinn Fein split.”
Sinn Féin also reacted to the story. Griffith denounced it as “obvious English propaganda.” In two letters to the Gaelic American, Collins wrote that “talk of differences is an old policy with England. It is only to be expect at this time, when the situation becomes more and more difficult for her, shames her more and more before decent people, that she will leave nothing undone to break up the splendid solidarity of the Irish nation.”
Collins demanded that John Devoy, the paper’s editor and longtime proponent of Irish independence, apologize to de Valera. Devoy and de Valera had publicly argued all summer about the best way to secure U.S. government support for Ireland. The Irish Press, which staunchly supported the visiting de Valera, also published the two Collins letters to embarrass Devoy. The Philadelphia-based weekly, which had feuded with Devoy since its launch 1918, accused him of “veiled approval” of the “purely English propaganda.”
The episode stoked division among the Irish in America, and between them and the Irish in Ireland. This would only grow worse.
Bretherton and the Public Ledger published a non-retraction retraction to Sinn Féin’s repudiation of a split. “These denials may well be accepted at their face value and as the last word on the subject, for in a case of this kind direct testimony of the parties concerned must always outweigh evidence that, however convincing, is merely circumstantial,” Bretherton wrote.
But Bretherton’s story of a Sinn Féin split was proved prescient a little over a year later as the party and the British government agreed to a peace treaty. Collins, who emerged from hiding to help negotiate the accord, took the moderate position of supporting the treaty. De Valera became the “extremist” who refused to accept the treaty because it fell short of a republic, setting the stage for the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923.
Collins “should have kept up the role of Unknown Assassin,” Bretherton wrote in his 1925 memoir, three years after the IRA leader was killed in an ambush. “Instead of doing that he allowed himself to be inveigled into writing to an American paper, denouncing a highly plausible story—concocted, perhaps, with the express purpose of ‘drawing’ him—of how he and Arthur Griffith were at loggerheads. A man who writes letters to the papers can never be mysterious or terrible.”
American delegation for Irish relief
The mid-December 1920 burning of Cork city by British troops prompted Irish activists in the United States to launch the American Committee for Relief in Ireland. Its goal was to raise $10 million in aid for victims of the war, regardless of whether they were nationalists or unionists, Catholic or Protestant. The committee also intended to use the effort to keep public attention on Ireland as U.S. president-elect Warren G. Harding succeeded Woodrow Wilson, who refused to recognize the Irish republic. The relief committee planned to launch of its nationwide fundraising appeal on St. Patrick’s Day 1921.
An eight-member committee delegation steamed to Ireland in advance to assess conditions and needs. Clemens J. France, a Seattle labor lawyer who had just lost a campaign for U.S. Senate in Washington state, headed the group. Author and journalist Samuel Duff McCoy of New York City served as the delegation’s secretary and chief writer. The other six members were agricultural and economic experts who belonged to the American Friends Services Committee; a Quaker humanitarian organization. Their affiliation was said to give the delegation a neutral perspective.
The delegation was only in Dublin for a few days when Bretherton produced a four-part series for the Irish Times titled, “Irish Distress and its Relief.” The articles not only sought to minimize the need for American charity, but also criticized those involved in the effort. While the visiting delegation claimed to be non-political and non-partisan, Bretherton noted, “neutrality is a narrow plank on which to walk through the morass of Irish political strife.”
The Public Ledger distributed edited versions of Bretherton’s series to its more than two dozen member newspapers. “Isolated cases of hardship, due to reprisals and burnings, certainly exist,” Bretherton wrote. “Probably there are not 20 such cases all told and the Irish themselves, if they choose, can take care of 20,000 such cases and still have money to spare.”
Bretherton was not the first journalist to minimize poverty in Ireland. For several years American correspondents had described the country as untouched by the ravages of the First World War, as compared to England and the continent. But Bretherton’s descriptions now threatened to undermine the relief committee’s fundraising campaign.
He accused the delegation of sending “lurid tales of Irish distress” to America. He disputed its report that 200,000 civilians were “in dire need” and insisted that “there are not in all Ireland 500 people in that condition.” Likewise, he said property damage in Ireland, estimated at $300 million by the committee delegation, “does not amount to one-tenth that sum.”
France, the delegation leader, quickly cabled the relief committee’s New York City headquarters with a statement for release to U.S. newspapers. France charged that Bretherton “has deliberately ignored facts which any unbiased journalist can obtain and which are known to Crown authorities.” France also said that Bretherton’s series in the Irish Times “obviously sought to persuade our unit that no relief need exists in Ireland, and since he failed in this absurd attempt he is apparently attempting to influence opinion in America.”
Unsurprisingly, the hyper-partisan News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom agreed. The Washington, D.C.-based weekly blasted Bretherton for “industriously cabling” British propaganda to U.S. newspapers. It continued:
It is obviously to the advantage of the English government to make it appear to Americans that the need for relief in Ireland is small or non-existent. … Fortunately these isolated bits of fiction which have appeared in the American press are easily identified and refuted.”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 2, 1921.
Bretherton also reported that the eight-member delegation risked being booted out of Ireland by the British government because it “placed itself unreservedly in the hands of Sinn Fein.” The relief funds, he alleged, “will go to the support of families of fighting Sinn Feiners interned or in jail or to rebuild houses burned by the Crown forces because their owners participated actively or passively in attacks on them.”
Two weeks later Ackerman reported the American delegation would be allowed to stay in Ireland. He backstopped Bretherton by name in the story, revealing British authorities had not reached their decision until after his colleague’s story was sent to America. In other words, Bretherton’s story was accurate when it was published. Ackerman also reported the American delegation was told to avoid contact with the Bretherton suggested Sinn Féin-affiliated Irish White Cross.
“You have cleared up the Irish relief dispute quite satisfactorily,” John J. Spurgeon, the Public Ledger’s Philadelphia-based editor, wrote to Ackerman. Spurgeon warned, however, that Bretherton “must not give even a suspicion of leaning to one side. There is a pretty general feeling over here (in America) among the Irish that he is exceedingly pro-British and anti-Irish and I don’t want them to have anything to point to.”
But Bretherton’s reporting had already cast doubt on the Irish relief effort. An Indiana newspaper editorial suggested:
Americans are entitled to the exact truth, as far as it can be obtained, in order that they may base their gifts on facts rather than rhetoric. It is known that throughout the war Ireland was one of the most prosperous countries in the world. The conditions (now) may be worse than Mr. Bretherton reports, and yet much less bad than we have been asked to believe. The disparity between the two estimates is such as to suggest the great need for a careful, nonpartisan and unbiased inquiry. The American people will insist, also, that what they give be used for the relief of all sufferers and not simply those of the Sinn Fein persuasion.
Others also questioned the need for American relief in Ireland. Protestant preachers in Pittsburgh passed resolutions and paid for newspaper advertising that disclaimed the relief campaign. The Relief Committee collected $5 million—half its original goal—by the time fundraising ended later that summer. France, the delegation head, remained in Ireland after the other members returned home and the American committee continued to distribute money through the Irish White Cross.
Criticized, threatened & sacked
Bretherton’s reporting about the American relief delegation came as Spurgeon complained about the year-old foreign news service. The editor sent several early 1921 letters to Ackerman that detailed his criticisms, including too much document-based political and economic coverage and not enough human-interest features. Like other U.S. newspaper editors, Spurgeon also worried that his overseas staff failed to discriminate between “what to mail and what the cable,” the latter a steep expense to the business.
Of Bretherton, Spurgeon wrote:
Almost daily he has cabled brief articles about ambushes, murders, fires, uprisings, and the actual daily happenings in every part of Ireland. Almost without exception these have been covered by the Associated Press. Result—duplication of effort and unnecessary expense.
Ackerman replied that Bretherton had no way of knowing what stories the Associated Press was sending to America. But he assured Spurgeon that the correspondent would “stop sending what you describe as small crime stories and devote himself more to the larger aspects of the Irish situation.”
Spurgeon’s complaints might have prompted Bretherton’s work on the American relief delegation. Yet the correspondent continued to file stories about some of the same daily developments as the wire service. Bretherton’s story about the sensational Kilmainham jail escape of Frank Teeling, one of the IRA’s “Bloody Sunday” assassins, caught the attention of the Gaelic American. Still smarting from the “split” story five months earlier, the paper attacked Bretherton as “a notorious enemy of Sinn Fein who has previously sent fakes to America.”
Physical threats to Bretherton also emerged. In April 1921 Ackerman obtained a second secret interview with Collins, mysteriously datelined from “somewhere in Ireland.” Ackerman reported that Collins told him American correspondents “could have their own opinions and express themselves freely.” But the IRA commander objected to Bretherton’s story that accused Sinn Féin of murdering three Irish lord mayors: Thomas McCurtain of Cork city in March 1920, and George Clancy and Michael O’Callaghan of Limerick city in March 1921. Collins blamed the slayings on the British military.
Privately, Ackerman told Spurgeon: “Collins said that we need have no fear that as far as he and the leaders were concerned nothing would ever happen to Bretherton. He added, however, that the feeling against Bretherton was high in Cork and Limerick and that he never knew when someone who had a grievance might take it upon himself to harm Bretherton.” Ackerman also wrote that that he told Collins “there would be ‘hell to pay'” if any harm came to an American correspondent and the Public Ledger would not withdraw Bretherton from Ireland “because some members of Sinn Fein did not like what he wrote.”
But Ackerman was lying to Collins and probably boasting to Spurgeon. A few weeks before his interview with Collins, Ackerman accompanied Bretherton to the U.S. consulate office in Dublin to help renew the correspondent’s American passport. Then Ackerman sent Bretherton to the Baltics on assignment. He informed Spurgeon of his decision.
Ackerman’s April 4, 1921, letter about Sinn Fein threats to Bretherton. Ackerman papers, Library of Congress.
“I think it was wise to take Bretherton away from Ireland, as despite the fact that I think he was quite warranted in what he said about the American relief crowd, nevertheless, he was a constant thorn in the flesh to the Sinn Feiners in this country,” Spurgeon replied to Ackerman.
U.S Consul Frederick T. F. Dumont, who signed Bretherton’s passport, also reported the episode to his State Department superiors in Washington. The correspondent “was compelled to leave Ireland … because he had aroused the enmity of Michael Collins and of the Sinn Fein press in Ireland by daring to take any other than the Sinn Fein view in his letters and telegrams to his newspaper,” Dumont wrote. He also suggested the Public Ledger was being threatened in America with reader and advertising boycotts unless it eliminated such coverage.
Ackerman and Spurgeon continued to argue about the foreign news service into the summer. By August, Ackerman returned to America for a face-to-face meetings, which resulted in his resignation. Bretherton was sacked soon after.
Ackerman and Bretherton corresponded across the Atlantic at least until the end of 1921, according to Ackerman’s papers at the Library of Congress. Bretherton asked his former boss to recommend an American publisher who might be interested “in a small book about Ireland.” It is unclear whether Ackerman ever replied or helped. Bretherton’s memoir, The Real Ireland, didn’t appear until four years later from a London publisher. He never mentions Ackerman or the Public Ledger in the book, which was soon suppressed in a libel suit unrelated to his American correspondence.
Bretherton continued to work for Irish and British papers and wrote several other books. He married an Irish woman and is said to have been a devout Roman Catholic. He died in 1939, aged 60, in his native England.