The two-year war between Irish separatists and the British military grew so bitter by 1921 that even providing humanitarian relief to innocent victims turned controversial. British and U.S. government officials said money from the American Committee for Relief in Ireland succored the rebels. Historic animosity between pro-unionist Protestants and pro-nationalist Catholics became another factor.
The campaign against the American Committee described below is an under-examined, if not untold, story of the 1921 Irish relief drive. It probably suppressed fundraising in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, though it was not widely covered by the press in 1921 or mentioned in the 1922 final reports of the American Committee and Irish White Cross, which is not surprising. Historians Francis M. Carroll and Bernadette Whelan have not referenced this counter campaign in their analysis. Readers are encouraged to point out work I might have missed or suggest sources of further exploration.
American Committee leaders in Pittsburgh asked clergy of all denominations to announce from their pulpits on Sunday, April 3, 1921, the nationwide fundraising campaign to aid victims of the war in Ireland. The committee emphasized “impartial distribution of food and clothing to Protestant and Catholic women and children who are suffering.” The Ulster Society of Pittsburgh countered with a quarter-page advertisement that denied the need for relief in Ireland and alleged the appeal was “purely a political stunt.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 2, 1921.
This was the latest provocation between Pittsburgh’s Irish Protestant immigrants, who settled in the city from the early 19th century, and famine-fleeing Irish Catholics who arrived mid-century. In 1914, a ground-breaking sociological study of the city observed “here the old Irish cleavage has been repeated in the two strong religious elements in the community life.”
The “cablegram of inquiry” mentioned in the Ulster Society ad was initiated by Rev. Edward M. McFadden, who founded the group soon after the 1912 Ulster Covenant was signed in Belfast. He organized an annual “Ulster Day” commemoration of the declaration against Irish home rule and was quoted using the familiar formulation of “Home rule means Rome rule.” McFadden had emigrated from Larne, County Antrim, in 1883, age 20, and settled in Philadelphia. After being ordained by the city’s Reform Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he preached in Rhode Island, Iowa, and Ohio, as well as Dumbarton, Scotland. He arrived in Pittsburgh about 1911.
McFadden in undated photo used for his 1933 obituary.
Once the Irish war began in January 1919, McFadden would have become more familiar to the city’s 14,000 native Irish and their offspring. That July, he invited Ulster unionist leader Sir Edward Carson to the United States to “offset the propaganda for Irish independence.” In December, he testified against recognition of the Irish republic at a U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C.
Also in December 1919, McFadden traveled to New York City to meet a delegation of Protestant ministers from Ulster who sailed to America to speak against Irish separatism. The group included the same C. Wesley Maguire quoted in the 1921 Ulster Society ad against Irish relief. McFadden welcomed the Ulster delegation to Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque theater in January 1920 for what became a raucous evening of anti-Sinn Féin speeches and pro-independence counter protest. Afterward, he joined the visiting ministers as they toured other cities, while members of the Ulster Society of Pittsburgh boasted about the delegation’s local visit in letters back to Belfast:
“Sinn Feinism is dead in this country. No chance of any recognition of Irish republic,” one wrote. Another cheered: “Hurrah! Hurrah! Our society slew that horrid monster, Sinn Fein … and it will see that it is never resurrected.”
On the first Sunday of April 1921, when Pittsburgh’s religious leaders were asked to announce the American Committee’s relief drive, McFadden scheduled a sermon titled, “What The Starving Irish Need.” He likely reflected the Ulster Presbyterian view of Irish Catholics as misled by Rome and republican radicals. His preaching probably sounded similar to what Ulster delegation ministers had delivered 15 months earlier, as recalled by Maguire: ” … the secret of Irish unrest is neither oppression nor lack of self-determination, but a closed Bible, with all that a closed Bible means in the life of the community.”
The Protestant Ministerial Union of Pittsburgh passed a resolution that also denied the existence of hunger in Ireland. It cast the Irish relief campaign as a “scheme … of Sinn Féin propaganda to raise funds to assist those who are in rebellion against the constituted authorities of their country.” The resolution urged “our people to do nothing to aid a movement having for its object creating a spirit of antagonism between the United States and its friend and ally in the late war, Great Britain.”
In addition to Maguire’s cable to McFadden, the resolution referenced a second message from Belfast to Ulster Society Secretary John H. Fulton. This statement made a simple and incendiary sectarian connection: “Relief fund, Roman Catholic administration.”
Above the fold: The Pittsburgh Catholic, April 7, 1921.
The Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper described the counter campaign as “malicious propaganda introduced by bigoted factionalists” in one of four front page stories on April 7. Only the death of Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore competed for space above the fold. An advertisement for the American Committee campaign filled the issue’s back page. Inside, one editorial lamented “Ireland’s Plight” of poverty and another urged “all liberty-loving Americans” to attend the fifth anniversary observance of the Easter Rising, the failed 1916 strike for independence.
A week before the Ulsterite counter campaign, the Catholic complained that a “preliminary canvas” of city parishes yielded poor responses to the plea for Irish relief. “In hundreds of homes where they called at the supper hour, the head of the family left a table weighted down with food, to ignore the call from Ireland. It is a notable fact that few gave more than a dollar,” the paper reported.
While the Catholic newspaper fumed, the city’s secular press ignored the controversy, including the Ministerial Union’s demand that its resolution be published in full. There were a few exceptions outside the region.
Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1921.
Some 2,500 miles west of Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Times did publish the resolution. Publisher Harry Chandler was a critic of Irish nationalism’s impact on the League of Nations, which he supported. In November 1919, the Times splashed its front page with seven negative headlines about Sinn Féin leader Eamon de Valera’s visit to the city.
News of Maguire’s cable and the Ministerial Union’s resolution also reached a Sacramento paper, which reported it reignited “war” and “bickering” between the local Protestant church federation and pro-nationalist Irish societies. These hostilities had smoldered since Maguire and the Ulster delegation visited the California state capital in January 1920, soon after their stop in Pittsburgh.
A secular newspaper in central Ohio also published the resolution in a letter to the editor. The writer indicated the content was copied from the pages of the Methodist Recorder in Pittsburgh, which demonstrates some extra attention to the resolution in the originating city.
Other secular and religious publications probably reported this story but are not available to review in digitized newspaper archives. The limited search returns from the hundreds of digitized titles indicates the coverage was not widespread. The trouble in Pittsburgh was not covered by the National Catholic Welfare Council News Service, which supplied content to diocesan newspapers, and pro-Irish republican organs including The Irish Press, Philadelphia; The Gaelic American, New York City; and the Friends of Irish Freedom News Letter, Washington, D.C.
The Catholic New Service did report on a cablegram to the American Committee from 30 “prominent non-Catholics” in Ireland, including poet William Butler Yeats, writer George Russell, and playwright Lennox Robinson, in addition to Church of Ireland, Methodist, and Jewish clergy who attested to the need for immediate relief. “Having heard that statements have been made in America that there is no distress in Ireland … we desire to express our opinion that there is work to be done,” the signatories wrote. It is unclear whether they were responding to the counter campaign in Pittsburgh (and the quoted cables from Belfast), or statements by the British Embassy in Washington, which also cast doubt on the need for Irish relief. It’s possible that government propaganda operatives had planted the Ulster Society effort from the start.
The Ulster Society of Pittsburgh fraternized with local Orange Order lodges and other Protestant groups, newspaper society columns show. More insight about the Society is found in the personal papers of businessman and former Memphis, Tennessee, mayor Harry H. Litty. The collection includes three Society newsletters from January, February, and March 1922, each signed by Fulton, the secretary who received the “Roman Catholic administration” cablegram from Belfast a year earlier. I have not determined whether the newsletter was published in spring 1921, and, if so, the circulation of the mailing list. But the three 1922 issues illustrate how it could have further damaged the Irish relief campaign.
March 1922 issue of the Ulster Society of Pittsburgh newsletter.
One issue fondly recalls the 1920 Ulster delegation visit to America. Another urges the year-old Northern Ireland parliament to “put down the Sinn Fein murderers.” And the Society’s anti-Catholic bias is clear: “It is certainly an anxious time for those of us who have relatives living on the old sod, but we know that Ulster will fight to the death before it submits to be ruled by murderers and cut-throats who represent that blood-stained fabric called the Roman Catholic Church.”
Anti-Catholic bias was a regular feature of the war, from the bigotry in Birmingham, Alabama, when de Valera visited in April 1920, to the brutality of Belfast later that summer. Though the American Committee described itself as a “non-political and non-sectarian body, solely humanitarian in aim,” it closely affiliated with the Catholic Church through Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, an honorary national vice chairman, and other high-profile clergy.
“The whole Catholic Church of America is deeply indebted to the Irish people,” Gibbons wrote in a St. Patrick’s Day appeal at the start of the relief drive, shortly before his death. “It is not too much to expect that in every parish of our land effective means be taken to collect funds for the relief of suffering in Ireland.” Several U.S. Catholic dioceses, institutions, and individuals sent money directly to Ireland outside the collections by the American Committee; notably, newly-elevated Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty of Philadelphia.
This ad appeared on the back page of the May 5, 1921 issue of The Pittsburgh Catholic, front page show above.
The American Committee also deployed hardball tactics. An advertisement in Pittsburgh said the executive committee, in reviewing the donors list, “was surprised to note the number of well-known men and women … conspicuous by their absence.” Its name-and-shame threat targeted the local Irish immigrant community, “the very people who have drawn the line when their own flesh and blood is appealing have had their names high up in the lists of every other movement in Pittsburgh.”
The American Committee assigned a $1.5 million quota to Pennsylvania, or 15 percent of the campaign’s nationwide goal. The 23-county Western Pennsylvania region set a $400,000 goal, or just over a quarter of the state quota from a third of its 67 counties. Pittsburgh businessman J. Rogers Flannery, chairman of the Pennsylvania campaign, expressed early confidence in meeting both the state and regional goals.
By late May, as the national campaign was ending, Flannery announced that $256,321 was collected toward a new $300,000 goal, without a reason reported for the 25 percent reduction. In reporting both these figures, the Pittsburgh Catholic noted the returns of eight counties and 50 local teams remained outstanding. “The Pittsburgh result will be more than was raised throughout the entire state,” the Catholic predicted, without providing any details of the Pennsylvania total.
The newspaper also qualified its enthusiasm. “No campaign ever conducted in Western Pennsylvania encountered so much public opposition,” it wrote. In addition to the Ministerial Union’s resolution and Ulster Society’s ad, the paper suggested that Pittsburgh’s department stores, “which have contributed in all worthy causes, sent out a message that they would not assist in the Irish drive.” This is curious, given that Flannery announced the $256,321 total during a meeting at Kaufmann’s department store, also site of the campaign’s mid-April kickoff banquet.
The Catholic also insisted the final record would show “few dollars came from other than Catholic sources.” If true, this could be more evidence the Ulsterite counter campaign had hurt the relief drive, at least in Western Pennsylvania.
This March 31, 1921, advertisement in The Pittsburgh Catholic quoted Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, a national leader of the American Committee for Relief in Ireland, who died a week after the campaign’s St. Patrick’s Day kickoff.
A June 3 benefit show raised another $10,000 for the campaign, now largely closed. By November, when an Irish White Cross leader visited Pittsburgh to thank contributors, city newspapers reported “approximately $300,000” in local contributions.
There is a contradiction, however, between the $300,000 reportedly collected in Western Pennsylvania and the $210,798 credited to the entire state in the American Committee’s 1922 audited report. Moreover, even including separate Catholic donations, the state campaign failed to reach a third of its $1.5 million quota. America’s second most populous state, with the third largest number of Irish immigrants, finished seventh in donations to the relief campaign.
The $5 million collected nationwide by the American Committee, though only half the goal, was still “a remarkable amount of money,” Carroll wrote. He also notes that by 1921, Americans had donated millions to post-war relief in Europe, and more than $6 million to Irish causes: $1 million to the Irish Victory Fund in 1919, and $5.1 million to the Irish bond drive of 1920.
The Pittsburgh fight over Irish relief was surely another factor that depressed the result in Western Pennsylvania.
See more stories in my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series, and Pittsburgh Irish series.
© 2021, Mark Holan