“The Irish republic leaders were so surprised, or angry, or both, that they refused to talk last night.”1
By early June 1920, Éamon de Valera had spent nearly a year traveling across America to raise money and political support for the fledgling Irish republic. The Sinn Féin leader had escaped from a British prison and crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway aboard the steamship Lapland. Left untouched by U.S. officials, he was mostly cheered by the Irish diaspora, first-generation Irish Americans, and other anti-British or pro-freedom supporters. Thousands donated to the bond drive he helped launch in January 1920 to fund Dáil Éireann, the separatist parliament in Dublin.
There were problems, too. Congressman William E. Mason, an Illinois Republican, failed to gain traction for a bill to provide U.S. government recognition of the Dáil. Worse, divisions widened between de Valera and his supporters, and the Friends of Irish Freedom, the U.S.-based activists who believed they should steer Ireland’s bid for American political support.
Now, both sides headed to the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention, held June 8 to 12 in Chicago. Their goal was to fasten a plank of support for Ireland in the party’s official political platform. For de Valera, the effort began with a torchlight procession down Michigan Avenue, which concluded with a rousing speech to 5,000 inside the Chicago Auditorium, and the large crowd outside.2
“I cannot believe the committee framing the platform for the Republican Party will be content unless they include such a plank,” he said. “I know all of Chicago wants this–I know the entire country wants this–I have been all over the country and I know. The Republicans must promise to recognize the Irish republic.”
His public confidence was misplaced. Despite efforts behind the scenes to broker a compromise between the Irish factions, both sides submitted plank proposals. De Valera asked the Republicans to call on the U.S. government to provide the Irish republic with “full, formal and official recognition.” New York State Justice Daniel F. Cohalan, a Friends of Irish Freedom leader, asked the G.O.P. to “recognize the principle that the people of Ireland have the right to determine freely, without dictation from outside, their own governmental institutions.”
A convention subcommittee rejected de Valera’s measure by 12-1. It passed Cohalan’s proposal 7-6, but a committee member later changed his vote, reportedly after hearing de Valera’s public grumbling. The Republican Party “gladly dropped” any reference to Ireland from its platform, David McCullagh has written.3 Consternation prevailed on both sides of the Irish split.
Whether the plank failed “because of dissension among its proponents or because of some consideration on the part of the committee of American interests we do not know,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized.4 “It got far enough to give Americans serious occasion for meditation on the subject of the Irish cause as a factor in our most important foreign relations.”
Less then two years after the armistice ending the Great War, however, the editorial concluded:
[We must not] produce a condition from which war [with ally Britain] is likely, if not certain … Sympathy for those [Irish] we think victims of injustice is a worthy emotion, but it is our duty to consider the welfare of our own people. … In this case the American people would not make the sacrifice, and in our opinion ought not to make it, whether from the viewpoint of national expediency, or on the perhaps higher ground of world welfare. Irish independence is not worth the embroilment of America and Great Britain. The quicker we realize that the better for all concerned, not excepting the Irish people themselves.
Each side of the Irish split offered it own post-convention analysis of the failure in Chicago. The Washington, D.C.-based News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom never mentioned de Valera by name as it scolded the “brass band dictatorial and unwarranted methods” of putting forward a plank “that never had even a remote chance of adoption.”5 The Friends, founded shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising to “encourage and assist any movement that will tend to bring about the national independence of Ireland,” by 1920 numbered 100,000 regular members, with an additional 175,000 associate members, and claimed to represent 20 million “Americans of Irish blood.”6
The News Letter continued:
American activities on behalf of Ireland must be directed by American brains … The Americans who founded the Friends of Irish Freedom and gave it life and a powerful voice in American affairs are first, last and always, Americans. American leadership only will they follow in shaping American activities in behalf of the people of Ireland.
The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to de Valera and the Dáil, exaggerated the size of his Michigan Avenue procession by a factor of at least 10: “100,000 Hail De Valera in Chicago,” proclaimed the June 19 front page headline. Unsurprisingly, its coverage downplayed the failure to pass the plank. “Though the immediate objective of President De Valera was not obtained, the way has been cleared and attention forcibly focused upon the clear issue of the recognition of the Irish Republic.”
In two editorials, the paper blamed Cohalan and the “Irish Americans” for the plank failure, and dismissed suggestions that de Valera made trouble for himself and the Irish republican cause in Chicago by meddling in American politics:
“He did not go there to sell Irish votes or speak for the Irish race in America,” the paper said. “[He] made no attempt at any time to interfere in purely American concerns, nor did he at any time attempt to interfere in American votes. His aim was and is to win the friendship of all the American people irrespective of their political affiliation.”7
At the end of June 1920, de Valera traveled west to San Francisco, where he attempted to insert a similar Irish plank into the Democratic Party platform. That will be the subject of Part 2 in early July.8
- “Irish Plank, Spurned by Irish, Loses” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1920.
- “De Valera Rivals the G.O.P.”, Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1920.
- McCullagh, David, De Valera, Rise 1882-1932, Gill Books, New York, 2017, p. 181.
- “Ireland and American Interests”, Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1920.
- “The Chicago Convention“, News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, National Bureau of Information, No. 51, June 19, 1920.
- Doorley, Michael, “The Friends of Irish Freedom: a case-study in Irish-American nationalism, 1916–21” in History Ireland, Issue 2, March/April 2008; and Ibid.
- “The President at Chicago” and “The Chicago Failure”, The Irish Press, June 19, 1920. Front and editorial pages linked in text.
- See my American reporting of Irish independence series landing page for other sources that have been consulted in this and other posts.