Post-treaty Ireland’s brief ‘nationalist happiness’

Col. Frederick Palmer, a veteran American war correspondent, sailed into the Queenstown harbor on Feb. 2, 1922. His use of the town name that honored Victoria’s 1849 visit drew a quick correction from “an Irishman on board my steamer,” Palmer later reported. The passenger informed him the name was changed to Cobh with the establishment of the Irish Free State. The correspondent used the anecdote to open his exploration of “how it feels for the Irish to be free, and what the Irish are going to do with their freedom.”

Palmer told his U.S. readers: “It is from the people by the way-side that one gets the real story of Ireland today. They would not be Irish if they did not know how to talk. An Irishman can tell more in a sentence than some people can in a book.”

Col. Frederick Palmer, about 10 years before his 1922 trip to Ireland.

As he waited for the tender to take him to shore, Palmer, 48, stood 5-foot, 9-inchs tall under “brown-gray” hair; a “long oval” face, “fair” complexion, and “prominent” chin, with gray eyes behind glasses, in the parlance of his U.S. passport.[1]1921 Passport application. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Roll #: 1478; Volume … Continue reading He had accumulated more than two decades of reporting from conflict zones: the Greco-Turkish War of 1897; the Philippine-America War of 1899-1902; the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900); the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902); the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905); the Balkans in 1912; Mexico City in 1914; and the First World War.

As a New York Herald correspondent before the Great War, Palmer earned what today would be an $800,000 annual salary. But he gave it up to become what he called “the pioneer press censor and general utility public relations” man with the American Expeditionary Force.[2]John Maxwell Hamilton, Manipulating The Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda [Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2020], 110, 237. Other top American journalists had joined the Wilson administration: George Creel, Charles Edward Russell, and Ray Stannard Baker, among others. Only Palmer earned a military rank.

As he arrived in Ireland, Palmer’s 1921 exploration of international conflicts, The Folly of Nations, was drawing positive press reviews in America. In one passage of the 400-page book, he wrote:

If the Irish had relied upon propaganda, would they have won concessions from the British government? They have proved that when a people are in the exalted mood to offer blood sacrifice, even in the era of the machine gun and rapid-firing artillery, there is no preventing the progress of a sniping warfare, with the connivance of the masses, from month to month and from year to year.[3]Frederick Palmer, The Folly of Nations [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1921] 197.

It was not the correspondent’s first visit to Ireland. “I had seen it in the old days of Redmond and Healy, and again two years ago (1920) under the reign of terror when the faces of all the people were gray and the Sinn Fein leaders proscribed. I had always thought of the Irish as at heart the kindest of peoples, generous of impulse as they were obliging and civil of manner. Confirmation of that view is complete after the severest of tests.”[4]“People Of Ireland Get Down To The Task Of Learning Gaelic”, The Toronto Star, Feb. 27, 1922. Story dated Feb. 10, 1922. The same story appeared in other papers at later dates with later … Continue reading

Later in his opening piece, Palmer continued:

There is something in the smile on all the Irish faces, in the light in Irish eyes worth coming from afar to see. It is happiness, sheer nationalist happiness; the happiness glowing out of great depths, over a dream come true after hundreds of years of waiting and striving. It is enough for the men and women in the streets of the towns and in cottage doorways from Bantry Bay to Donegal that the British are going. People who live faraway in the back country, and who doubt if it really can be true, journey to the railroad stations to watch the passing of the ancient enemy, and meanwhile bear themselves in a way that amounts to fine dignity—a finer dignity than some of the other people who have recently achieved nationhood have shown.”

The Buffalo Times, March 12, 1922.

For six weeks Palmer traveled Ireland “end to end” from his base at the Shelborne Hotel in Dublin. His six-part series for the New York Evening Post was distributed to other U.S. and Canadian newspapers under the title “Building The Irish Free State.” The stories appeared in newspapers through April, the datelines changed to appear more recent than it really was.

Palmer devoted most of his reporting to interviewing the now divided pro- and anti-treaty Irish leaders, who faced a general election in mid-June. He described Eamon de Valera as “the voice for another man’s words,” insisting “the real power behind him is Erskine Childers, who is not Irish in blood, manners or training.” Further, Palmer continued, “the driving force behind Childers himself is Mrs. Childers. She does not appear in public. There is no mention of her in the press, as there is of Miss MacSwiney, the sister of the martyr mayor of Cork; or Mrs. O’Callaghan, the wife of the martyr mayor of Limerick, and other female extremists.”[5]“Silent, Frail Little Englishman And Boston Wife Real Force Behind Valera, Says Palmer”, The San Francisco Journal and Daily Journal of Commerce, April 16, 1922, and other papers before and after … Continue reading [6]Mary Alden “Molly” Childers, nee Osgood, was a native of Boston. Her husband was executed by Free State forces in November 1922. “Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the … Continue reading

The next time Palmer disembarked from a liner was in mid-March at New York City. He told a dockside reporter: “What Ireland needs now more than anything else perhaps is a sturdy and quick development of her industries. The people realize this and are striving to bring it about. They want the Irish in America to come back home and with capital and brain power (to) assist in building up the country. When I left Ireland there was a project underway for big development in the harbor of Queenstown.”[7]“Free Staters Will Win, Say Frederick Palmer”, New York Tribune, March 21, 1922.

Palmer had already forgotten the name change to Cobh. And the deepening rupture among Irish republicans would soon spoil the country’s brief nationalist happiness.

References

References
1 1921 Passport application. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Roll #: 1478; Volume #: Roll 1478 – Certificates: 135500-135875, 29 Jan 1921-31 Jan 1921. Cedric “Arriving Passengers” List, Queenstown, Ireland, February 2, 1922. The National Archives in Washington, DC; London, England, UK; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and Successors: Inwards Passenger Lists; Class: Bt26; Piece: 715; Item: 45.
2 John Maxwell Hamilton, Manipulating The Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda [Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2020], 110, 237.
3 Frederick Palmer, The Folly of Nations [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1921] 197.
4 “People Of Ireland Get Down To The Task Of Learning Gaelic”, The Toronto Star, Feb. 27, 1922. Story dated Feb. 10, 1922. The same story appeared in other papers at later dates with later datelines.
5 “Silent, Frail Little Englishman And Boston Wife Real Force Behind Valera, Says Palmer”, The San Francisco Journal and Daily Journal of Commerce, April 16, 1922, and other papers before and after this date.
6 Mary Alden “Molly” Childers, nee Osgood, was a native of Boston. Her husband was executed by Free State forces in November 1922. “Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest,” de Valera declared.
7 “Free Staters Will Win, Say Frederick Palmer”, New York Tribune, March 21, 1922.

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