Guest post: Pro-Treaty delegation in Pittsburgh, May 1922

Dr. Anne Good Forrestal is a former lecturer in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her 2021 historical novel, ‘Fierce Tears, Frail Deeds’, is based on the experiences of her grandparents, Seán and Delia MacCaoilte, in the first half of 1922; between the January Dáil Éireann vote to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and the June outbreak of the Irish Civil War. MacCaoilte was part of the pro-Treaty delegation that visited America that spring, including a stop in Pittsburgh. This story is based on one of his actual letters from the city. Dr. Forrestal’s novel is available from seaweedmillpress.com.

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Seán’s photo in the Boston Globe, April 3, 1922.

One hundred years ago, Seán MacCaoilte, Sinn Féin leader on the Dublin Corporation (or city council) visited Pittsburgh as part of the delegation sent by Michael Collins to argue the case for the Anglo-Irish Treaty in America. Seán was joined by Dáil Éireann member Piaras Beaslai, and James O’Meara, a prominent businessman.

The mission had been urgently organized in response to concerns expressed by John Devoy, head of the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) and editor of the Gaelic American newspaper. Devoy, who reluctantly supported the Treaty, warned the Provisional Government in Dublin of the consternation produced among Irish Americans by press rumors of possible civil war in Ireland. The mission’s task was to convince America that the Dáil’s ratification of the Treaty had been the correct decision in the prevailing circumstances. In Ireland, Treaty supporters and opponents prepared to face Irish voters in a critical election set for June. Both Seán and Beaslai were due to stand for Sinn Féin in the election.

The trio arrived in New York in mid-March, having crossed the Atlantic on the same ship as a rival delegation opposed to the Treaty. That evidence of disunity and rancor within the formerly united Sinn Féin movement caused dismay and even derision in America.[1]

The pro-Treaty mission began with private meetings in New York City and then proceeded to Boston. The delegation visited dozens of American cities and towns over subsequent weeks and reached Pittsburgh on May 6, near the end of their tour. Pittsburgh press reports noted the arrival of the “three distinguished Irishmen.”[2]

While in Pittsburgh, Seán, 37, wrote to his wife, Delia, who remained in Dublin with their four, soon to be five, children. His letter describes the delegation’s work and comments on his impressions of Pittsburgh itself. The letter, written on stationary from the William Penn Hotel[3], is held in a private collection of Seán’s surviving papers at the National Archives in Dublin.

Top portion of the first page of Sean’s letter to his wife.

Irish Pittsburgh’s views on Treaty

From Pittsburgh, Seán’s letter offered an optimistic assessment of the delegation’s work. He was convinced the trio could return to Ireland as planned on May 16, since, in his view, their job was largely done. He wrote:

We hear here that the A.A.R.I.R.[4] has gone to pieces. They had the best Council in the States in Pittsburgh but as usual it depended on the work of a few persons. Tomorrow a Miss (Margaret) McQuaide the vital force in the Council lunches with us and we are told is altogether with us.

The meetings in Pittsburgh bolstered his view that Irish America was now with Collins and the Provisional Government. Any anti-Treaty efforts to convey a different impression were, in Seán’s view, deceptive and dishonest.  He continued:

We have heard no reports yet from the Washington (D.C.) Convention (of the A.A.R.I.R.). It will, we understand, be a sorry affair in comparison with previous conventions …the great majority of the members have already fallen away considering the work for which it was started done. It will be sought to represent their actions however as the actions of the old-time association though the membership has fallen by 80 or 90%. Many of the States have dissolved automatically through non-renewal of membership subscriptions and will not of course be represented at the Convention.

Subsequent developments confirmed Seán’s assessment. Newspapers in Ireland reported several cables sent to Collins declared that most Irish American organizations backed the Provisional Government. “Supporters of Irish cause in Pittsburgh desire an early decision of the Irish people on the treaty, and depreciate intimidation,” said one letter signed by Margaret McQuade and others.[5]

Ideas for the new Ireland

Seán was a forward-thinking young man with a growing family, whose prospects he hoped would be improved by independence. On Dublin Corporation, he represented a deprived area of the city and was especially interested in a new public housing program. For these reasons he regularly punctuated his political comments with descriptions of what he was learning about America and what lessons he drew for improving the lives of the Irish people. In Pittsburgh, his thoughts were focused on possible new industrialization in the Free State.

Seán was interested in potential employment opportunities for Irish working people in industries that might be established or expanded through American investment. In April, the delegation had visited the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Michigan. They heard about plans for the Ford plant in Cork, which opened a few years earlier. Ford employed almost 2,000 Irish workers from hitherto impoverished parts of the city, where the British military had notoriously attacked civilians and burned buildings in December 1920.

However, as Seán was driven around Pittsburgh, he reflected on the somewhat worrying impact of the city’s large-scale industry. He wrote to Delia:

We have had a ride around Pittsburgh today in a car owned by a Mr. Collette. The centre of the town is a maze of great Chimney stacks. The mills are not all working yet and so the air is somewhat cleaner than usual. This is a great iron and steel manufacturing centre. Here is where the Ohio river starts from the confluence of two others. The mills extend for miles down the river and in themselves are a tribute to the value of waterpower for manufacturing industry.

Pittsburgh in 1916, six years before the delegation visit.

As a man who had been raised in a quiet rural area of Co. Offaly, Seán also had concerns about the negative impact of such industrialization, which he could see in Pittsburgh: “I’m afraid however I should not like to see the beautiful valleys of Ireland filled with such huge smoke-belching stacks as crowd this erstwhile beautiful valley of the Ohio.”[6]

After Pittsburgh

This was not Seán’s final reflection about Pittsburgh. When the delegation reached Washington, D.C, his thoughts turned back to the Pennsylvania city, to the pros and cons of large-scale industrialization for Ireland. His view was characteristically practical and pragmatic. He wrote again to Delia:

Washington is certainly a beautiful place. It has all the airs and dignity of a capital. After Pittsburgh it is a restful experience to drift in here. But I suppose only for places like Pittsburgh you would scarcely have Washington!

Seán returned to Ireland a few weeks later. But his health deteriorated that summer, having already been weakened from months in prison during 1920 and 1921, stress from the American tour, witnessing horrors of the civil war, and grief over the August 1922 assassination of Collins. Seán died a month later.

[1]  See Dual delegations at St. Patrick’s Day, 1922.

[2] “Irish Free State Chiefs Ask America To Be Neutral”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 8, 1922. Local coverage named James M. Sullivan, an attorney, not O’Meara, as the third member of the delegation. Sullivan is also referenced in articles from Ohio and Kentucky, immediately before the trio arrived in Pittsburgh.

[3] The William Penn Hotel, still operating in the city center, opened in March 1916, a month before the Easter Rising in Dublin. Other Irish visitors of the period included Eamon De Valera in October 1919 and James G. Douglas of the Irish White Cross in November 1921.

[4] American Association for the Recognition of an Irish Republic, created by Eamon de Valera in late 1920 and anti-Treaty rivals of Devoy and the FOIF.

[5] “Let The People Decide”, Freeman’s Journal, May 11, 1922, and “Cablegrams to Irish Leaders”, Irish Independent, May 11, 1922.

[6] Irish language scholar Douglas Hyde described Pittsburgh as “the dirtiest and blackest city in America” during his January 1906 visit. See When Irish Was Spoken in Pittsburgh.

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