U.S. opinion on Ireland, 1919: the view from Rome

Msgr. John Hagan

Monsignor John Hagan became rector of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome during the Irish War of Independence. The County Wicklow native, who had been vice-rector of the Catholic seminary since 1904, succeeded Michael O’Riordan in late 1919. Both priests were staunch Irish nationalists. Hagan was in close contact with Irish separatists and used the May 1920 beatification of Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681) as a propaganda coup that became known as “Sinn Féin Week in Rome.”

In summer 1919, shortly before O’Riordan’s death, Hagan drafted an article for Vatican officials that sketched his views on Irish affairs abroad since the end of the First World War. Below are excerpts on how public support for Ireland in the United States was unleashed after the November 1918 armistice. It is unclear whether any of Hagan’s material was ever published. Reader beware: the monsignor wrote sprawling sentences.

Till the signing of the armistice, and indeed for some months after, it could with truth be asserted that outside Ireland there was no such thing as an Irish question, or if there was anything in the shape of feeling on the matter it was one of hostility or indifference or coolness. … Even in the United States where the program of Irish independence had always reckoned millions of supporters, sympathy had been dimmed considerably after the (spring 1917) intervention of that country in the European arena; and naturally enough English propaganda had left no stone unturned to foster feelings of hostility or indifference, partly by the old methods of defamation, partly by periodic discoveries or inventions of alleged German plots, and partly by making it appear that as far as England was concerned there was no difficulty in the way of a solution of the Irish question and that if any difficulty existed it was due to the failure of the Irish themselves to formulate anything in the shape of a substantial claim supported by practical unanimity. …

(In the United States) public expression of opinion could be cooled by the ardor of war, and could be retarded or perverted by English control of the ocean cables, and could be rendered impossible by an iron discipline imposed on the country by President (Woodrow) Wilson and an army of English propagandists, but only as long as hostilities lasted. The moment hostilities ceased the previous attitude of indifference or aloofness gave way as if by magic to an outburst of enthusiasm and to a loud-voiced demand that to Ireland first of all should be applied the principles in defense of which the President had led his country into war. As early as December (1918) the country was ablaze; and a series of meetings, culminating in a huge gathering of the Friends of Irish Freedom at Philadelphia, brought the United States into line and led to an active program which has admittedly brought Ireland out of the purlieus of a simple question of English domestic policy into the forefront of international considerations affecting the immediate outlook and the future good understanding that has to be arrived at if England is to face the financial and commercial burthens arising out of the five years’ struggle that is just drawing to a close.

In the 10-page typescript, Hagan also described the activities of the American Commission on Irish Independence; Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit’s outspoken view on the Irish question (quoted extensively); and Eamon de Valera’s then month-old tour of the United States, including his July 13, 1919, address in Chicago (also quoted extensively). Hagan’s papers have been digitized by Georgetown University. I’ll have more about this valuable source in a future post.

In 1926 Hagan moved the Irish College at the Church of St Agata dei Goti to its present site on the Via dei S.S. Quattro. Photo from my April 2024 visit. (I got inside the gate.)

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