Category Archives: History

Guest post: Kennedy and Parnell, lost leaders

I am pleased to welcome back Dublin-based historian Felix M. Larkin, who has contributed an essay – entitled “Judging Kennedy” – to a new volume From whence I came: The Kennedy Legacy, Ireland and America, edited by Brian Murphy and Donnacha Ó Beacháin (Irish Academic Press). The 15 essays in the collection had their origin in papers given at the Kennedy Summer School, held annually in New Ross, Co. Wexford, since 2012 (though not in 2020, because of the pandemic). New Ross is the small port from whence John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather left Ireland. The title of the volume is taken from Kennedy’s speech in nearby Wexford town during his June 1963 visit to Ireland. An adaptation of part of Larkin’s chapter follows below.

***

Charles Stewart Parnell

In reading, thinking and writing about Kennedy over many years, I have often been struck by the parallel between his death and that of the great nineteenth-century Irish constitutional nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Though Parnell was not the victim of an assassin, he was hounded to his death by his enemies and the shadow that his death cast – memorably captured in the writings of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats – had an effect similar to that of Kennedy’s, albeit on a narrower canvas. Parnell and Kennedy have thus become part of the mythologies, as well as part of the history, of their respective countries. Parnell’s idealization by Joyce and Yeats is the Irish equivalent of the characterization of the Kennedy presidency as “Camelot on the Potomac”.

There are many other correspondences in the lives of these two remarkable men: 

  • both were young leaders – Parnell was 45 when he died, Kennedy was 46; 
  • whereas Kennedy had Irish ancestors, Parnell had an American mother;
  • Kennedy was a Catholic leader in a predominantly Protestant country, while Parnell was a Protestant leader in a predominantly Catholic country;
  • Parnell made a triumphant visit to the US in 1880, and Kennedy came to Ireland in June 1963; and
  • the sense of possibility in Kennedy’s vision of the “New Frontier” chimes with Parnell’s assertion that “no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation”.[1]
       

John F. Kennedy

Parnell and Kennedy are good examples of the “lost leader” syndrome, great men cut down in their prime whose reputations are more enduring than those of their contemporaries who lived on to make a more substantial contribution to their country’s fortunes. As Stephen Collins, the Irish Times journalist, has suggested, lost leaders are remembered with such fascination and admiration precisely because they “have not had to govern for long, if at all, and so don’t get sucked into the messy compromises that are the inevitable fate of long-serving politicians entrusted with the thankless task of government”.[2]

Surprisingly, there is some evidence that Parnell may have influenced Kennedy’s style and mode of operation as a political leader. Robert Dallek records that Kennedy “was conversant with Irish leader Charles [Stewart] Parnell’s counsel: Get the advice of everybody whose advice is worth having – they are very few – and then do what you think best yourself”.[3] Moreover, Kennedy referred to Parnell in his speech to the Irish parliament during his visit to Ireland in 1963. He first mentioned the fact that he had in his office – the Oval Office – the sword of Commodore John Barry, the founder of the American navy, who was born in County Wexford. He then went on to note: 

Yesterday [27 June 1963] was the 117th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose grandfather fought under Barry and whose mother was born in America, and who, at the age of 34, was invited to address the American Congress on the cause of Irish freedom. “I have seen since I have been in this country”, he said, “so many tokens of the good wishes of the American people towards Ireland”. And today, 83 years later, I can say to you that I have seen in this country so many tokens of good wishes of the Irish people towards America.[4

Kennedy’s grave, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.

Parnell’s grandfather and namesake was Admiral Charles Stewart, commander of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, and Kennedy had on his desk in the Oval Office two bookends with brass replicas of cannons on the USS Constitution and on the walls flanking the fireplace in the office were pictures of the famous naval engagement between the Constitution and the British frigate Guerriere. A model of the Constitution was displayed on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, and when Kennedy met Krushchev in Vienna in June 1961, he presented the Soviet leader with another model of the ship – perhaps as a gentle reminder of the power of the U.S. Navy. 

Parnell’s grave, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

The USS Constitution (nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’) is now a tourist attraction in Boston Harbor, in the city that was Kennedy’s political base from 1946 when he was first elected to the US House of Representatives. Admiral Charles Stewart’s magnificent desk is among the exhibits in Avondale House, the ancestral home of the Parnells in county Wicklow.

See Larkin’s “The Slow Death of the Freeman’s Journal”, October 2019, and other essays from our guest contributors. Consider offering a proposal through the provided form, or message me at @markaholan

[1]For Parnell’s speech in which these lines occur, see Pauric Travers, ‘The march of the nation: Parnell’s ne plus ultra speech’ in Pauric Travers and Donal McCartney (eds), Parnell reconsidered (Dublin: UCD Press, 2013), pp. 179-96.

[2]Stephen Collins, ‘Romantic Ireland lives on in our fascination with the leaders who left us too young’, Irish Times, 3 August 2013.

[3]Robert Dallek, Camelot’s court: inside the Kennedy White House (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), p. 35. Parnell’s words here are as recorded in William O’Brien, An olive branch in Ireland and its history (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 47. They were quoted by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his Parnell and his party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 145, n. 1.

[4] Speech to the joint session of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, 28 June 1963.

American investigators visit Ireland, February 1921

American relief workers sailed to Ireland early in 1921 to assess the country’s humanitarian needs after two years of guerrilla fighting between republican separatists and the British state. The team’s Feb. 12 arrival and six-week, island-wide investigation coincided with the most violent period of the war.1 Their report of widespread hardships and economic devastation bolstered an American fundraising campaign that would send $5 million in relief to Ireland. It also created tensions between the U.S. and British governments.

This is the first of several articles about the American Committee for Relief in Ireland (ACRI), part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series. I’ll post the next installment in mid-March.

Clemens J. France of Seattle led the American relief delegation. A lawyer, he helped oversee development of the city’s port during the war years. In November 1920, as a progressive Farmer-Labor candidate, he lost a U.S. Senate campaign in Washington state. His brother, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. France, a Maryland Republican, supported the Irish cause. During a stop in London before crossing the Irish Sea to Dublin, Clemens France told the Irish Independent that American citizens were deeply interested in Ireland.

“There is no group of people in our country who are liked better than the Irish,” France said. “The Irishman has been a good citizen, and has played a great part in the development of our country. I have great affection for Irishmen, and that feeling is general in the States.”2

This image of the visiting group appeared in U.S. newspapers in February 1921, before and after the team sailed to Ireland. Walter Longstretch is not included.

Author and journalist Samuel Duff McCoy of New York City served as the delegation secretary and the lead writer of the report it would issue in April. Other members were connected to the American Friends Services Committee, a Quaker humanitarian organization founded in 1917 and said to give the group a neutral perspective. They included:

  • R. Barclay Spicer, Philadelphia, former editor of the Friends Intelligencer and head of the post-war Friends Reconstruction Unit in Europe;
  • Oren Wilbur, Greenwich, N.Y., a creamery and dairy farming expert who had attended the Friends’ 1919 conference in Dublin;
  • William Price, Philadelphia, an architect and builder involved in the post-war reconstruction of France; 
  • Philip W. Furnas, Indianapolis, Ind., a housing expert with experience in France;
  • John C. Baker, Everett, Pa., a farm implements and agricultural machinery expert, also experienced with post-war reconstruction; and
  • Walter C. Longstretch, Philadelphia, a lawyer and the group’s mystery man. His U.S. passport application noted his affiliation with ACRI and intention to travel to Ireland aboard a different ship days behind the others. He was not in the publicity photo widely published in U.S. newspapers, shown on this page, or a different photo of the group’s arrival in Dublin. Longstretch stayed at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, the group’s headquarters, but left Ireland weeks before the others.3

American Committee & Commission

James G. Douglas, a Quaker, businessman, and Irish nationalist met the group in Dubin. Weeks earlier, Douglas established the Irish White Cross Society to partner with ACRI, the visitors’ sending organization. The creation of both groups became necessary when the American Red Cross, urged by U.S. and British government officials, declined to distribute aid to Ireland because of “grave risk of the Red Cross involving America in a national controversy foreign to our interests.”4

New York-based physician and Irish nationalist Dr. William Maloney formed the ACRI in December 1920 as conditions worsened in Ireland, including the mid-month burning of Cork city by the British military. Maloney also established the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (ACCI) a few months earlier. The non-U.S. government investigative panel held hearings in Washington, D.C., from November 1920 through January 1921.

Ironically, the ACCI in November 1920 sought permission to send a five-member delegation to Ireland to conduct a first-hand assessment of conditions. British Ambassador to the United States Sir Auckland Geddes approved the trip, but was soon reversed by his superiors in London. The British government decision drew a protest letter from 10 U.S. senators, including Joseph I. France, brother of the relief group leader who arrived in Ireland three months later.5

ACRI’s appeal published in U.S. newspapers during February 1921.

Maloney intended to utilize the ACCI witness testimony to benefit the ACRI fundraising effort,6 Nine of the commission witnesses were Irish immigrants naturalized as U.S. citizens who had returned home during 1920. These Irish diaspora accounts of “dangerous and unpleasant encounters with British authorities … gave credibility to the work of the commission … (and) remains one of the most important and most moving accounts of the suffering caused by the war in Ireland.”7

As its investigative delegation headed to Ireland, ACRI sought to collect more stories about suffering in Ireland through an appeal published in U.S. newspapers:8

Persons who have received letters from friends or family in Ireland which give a picture of present conditions are urged to send a copy of the letters, addressed to the publicity department of the ACRI. First-hand human interest material of this character will aid the committee greatly in its drive for funds to relieve the destitute women and children. 

The American relief team headquartered at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.

ACRI received early donations and distributed money to the Irish White Cross before the official U.S. fundraising campaign began on St. Patrick’s Day, 1921. Days after the American team arrived in Ireland, Lord Mayor of Dublin Laurence O’Neill sent a cable to America to thank the Catholic Archdiocese of New York for its donation. He also praised the just-arrived ACRI team. “Their study of relief needs here, and reports to you, will be invaluable to industrial re-construction work and alleviation of economic suffering here,” he said,9

In pairs and other combinations, the Americans would visit nearly 100 cities and villages in 22 of Ireland’s 32 counties through the end of March. As with the ACCI hearings in Washington, British and U.S. government officials worried the ACRI mission would either intentionally or unintentionally help the Irish separatists. Their concerns would grow in the months ahead.

NEXT: “A Summons to Service,” the St. Patrick’s Day 1921 official launch of the Irish relief campaign in America.

Irish centenary series continue this week

Mulhall

Irish President Michael D. Higgins and Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall continue their separate lecture series on Ireland’s century-old revolutionary period. Both presentations can be accessed in virtual formats.

“Reflections on the War of Independence, 1919-1921”, second of the Embassy of Ireland USA’s “A Further Shore” series is 7 p.m. U.S. Eastern (Midnight, Ireland), Feb. 23. Register here.

The event will be moderated by Mary McCain, director of Irish Studies at DePaul University Chicago. In addition to Mulhall, other speakers include:

  • Dr. Mary McAuliffe, University College Dublin
  • Dr. Tim McMahon, Marquette University
  • Dr. Justin Dolan Stover, Idaho State University

Higgins

Higgins will present the second seminar of his Machnamh (Reflections) 100 series from Áras an Uachtaráin at 7 p.m. Ireland (2 p.m. U.S. Eastern) Feb. 25. Register here.

It will consider Europe after World War I, especially the British Empire’s attitudes and responses to events in Ireland. Higgins will focus on “the relationship between culture and empire, and how British cultural hegemony at the time attempted to shape and general cultural values in Ireland.”

Other participants include:

  • Professor John Horne, Trinity College Dublin
  • Dr. Marie Coleman, Queen’s University Belfast,
  • Dr. Niamh Gallagher, St. Catharine’s College Cambridge
  • Eunan O’Halpin, Trinity College Dublin
  • Professor Alvin Jackson, University of Edinburgh

Challenges of Public Commemoration, the first Machnamh 100 event, is available in audio and video recordings. Here’s a link to Was it for this, the first Further Shore webinar. 

My American Reporting of Irish Independence series offers more than 80 posts about US & Irish newspaper coverage of 1918-1921 events on both sides of the Atlantic, plus links to digitized Irish-American papers, reports & books.

Mrs. Brophy’s late husband

James Brophy, of Dublin or New York?

James Brophy died in Dublin on Feb. 12, 1921, a civilian casualty of a stray bullet in Ireland’s War of Independence. About the same time, an Irish immigrant of the same name disappeared from his family in New York City.

The odd coincidence offers a glimpse of early 20th century Irish lives on both sides of the Atlantic, when handwritten letters crossed at sea, and personal identification was more vague than today. After newspapers in Ireland and America reported the Dublin man’s death, Mrs. Brophy of New York urged U.S. diplomats and Irish police to investigate the case.

I wrote “Mrs. Brophy’s Late Husband” for The Irish Story in December 2016. It offers a unique view of Ireland’s revolutionary period and Irish America from the perspective of these smaller stories at the edges of century-old events.

Guest post: From Donoughmore, Co. Cork, to Altoona, Pa.

Donoughmore, County Cork, historian Gerard O’Rourke is the author of ‘Ancient Sweet Donoughmore: Life in an Irish Rural Parish to 1900.’ He is trying to reach people with Donoughmore ancestors who settled in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The story below offers a clue about the connection. Visit Gerard’s website, donoughmore.com, or reach him at gerorour@gmail.com. MH

***

Ireland’s Great Famine devastated Donoughmore, a rural parish 17 miles west northwest of Cork city. About 3,000 people died in Donoughmore from 1841 to 1851, which was 40 percent of the population at the time and roughly equal to the number living there today.

“There died of famine and fever from November 1846 to September 1847 over 1,400 of the people and one priest …. numbers remained unburied for over a fortnight, many were buried in ditches near their houses, many without coffins,” reads an entry in the Donoughmore parish Roman Catholic Baptismal register.

As in other parts of Ireland, this upheaval resulted in mass emigration. Many people from Donoughmore settled in Altoona, about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. Among them was John Tuigg, who sailed to America in December 1849, just shy of age 30. He studied in St. Michael’s seminary in Pittsburgh, was ordained in 1850, and became missionary pastor to Altoona from 1853 to 1876, when he was consecrated as the third bishop of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s first bishop, Michael O’Connor, also was a Corkman, born at Queenstown/Cobh. He administered the new Pittsburgh dioceses from 1843 to 1860. He was succeeded by Michael Domenec, originally from Spain, who was transferred to a new dioceses in the region when Tuigg was appointed to oversee Pittsburgh.

Bishop Tuigg

Upon his accession, Bishop Tuigg found that the diocese’s property was financially encumbered. With foresight, energy, and extraordinary ability he reformed the diocesan finances with measures that, though harsh, endorsed and substantiated his wisdom and supreme management.

The Altoona Times reported that “he combined to a rare degree the unusual qualities of firmness and gentleness. Strong and unyielding … he was kind and courteous to those who differed and tender and sympathetic to the weak and erring. He possessed astonishing executive abilities, as the schools, the convent, and the splendid church of St John bear witness. Those that listened to his fervent and lucid appeals ranked him among the foremost preachers of the state.”

Bishop Tuigg became ill in December 1882 and remained in poor health for the next seven years. He died Dec. 7, 1889, just six months after a record flood killed more than 2,200 people in Johnston, 45 miles southeast of Altoona and part of the Pittsburgh dioceses.

Bishop Tuigg’s death created a vast outpouring of grief and loss. Altoona Mayor Edmund H. Turner described him as “one of Altoona’s oldest and most honourable citizens.” He urged residents to suspend business during the funeral. Fire companies were directed to attend the service. Other organisations, both secular and Christian, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, also paid tribute. The Altoona Tribune reported it was “the largest funeral ever held” in the city.

Bishop Tuigg was buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Altoona. He was succeeded by Richard Phelan of Ballyragget, County Kilkenny.

Whether Bishop Tuigg’s affiliation with Donoughmore influenced many people from this part of Ireland to settle in Altoona is a matter of debate. The fact that he was a native of the parish and held a prestigious position in America possibly attracted many of Donoughmore’s Catholics. Altoona’s thriving economy in the second half of the 19th century, a hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad, also would have lured these emigrants.

Your assistance with my research about the Donoughmore-Altoona connection is greatly appreciated.

Altoona in the late 19th century, with Pennsylvania Railroad shops in the foreground.

Irish officials remember revolutionary centenaries

Irish President Michael D. Higgins and Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall have launched separate lecture series focused on Ireland’s century-old revolutionary period. Both presentations can be accessed in virtual and recorded formats.

Mulhall

Mulhall’s “A Farther Shore: American Reflections on the Advent of Irish Independence (1921-22)” is joined by the American Conference for Irish Studies, and U.S. and Irish scholars. The Jan. 26 debut focused on the 1916 Rising, renewal of Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, the spring 1918 conscription crisis, December 1918 election, and the First Dáil in January 1919. A Feb. 23 session will explore the War of Independence. A third presentation is planned for March 25.

Higgins

Higgins began his Machnamh (Reflections) 100 series in December with a talk entitled “Of Centenaries and the Hospitality Necessary in Reflecting on Memory, History and Forgiveness.” A February session (no date yet) will focus on “Instincts, Interests, Power and Resistance.” Another event, “Recovering Imagined Futures,” is planned for sometime in May. Check the Machnamh 100 homepage for updates and details.

Mulhall noted the youth of the Irish republican leaders compared to the aging home rule proponents who lingering from the late 19th century. “This was a very talented generation” that exhibited “extraordinary boldness and bravery” in establishing the Dáil less than a month after the December 1918 election. “Prudence would have called for contacting London,” the veteran diplomat said.

He singled out the October 1920 hunger strike death of Terence MacSwiney as having extraordinary international impact on the Anglo-Irish War in ways that other events did not. Viewed from today, Mulhall said he is amazed by  how quickly events moved in Ireland in the six years from the Rising to the Free State, as compared to more than a century of earlier failed armed and political action opposed to the 1800 Act of Union.

See my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.

On Irish poets and an American president

The new Holy Trinity of Irish-American relations is Biden-Heaney-Yeats. To wit:

President Biden has never hidden his enthusiasm for Irish poetry. Reciting W.B. Yeats’s poetry helped him overcome a childhood stutter. In the latter part of the campaign, he released a video of his stellar reading of Seamus Heaney’s powerful poem, The Cure at Troy, with its brilliant phrase about making ‘hope and history rhyme’.” — Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Dan Mulhall on The Inauguration of President Biden.

“In some of his most important speeches over the course of a long career, Joe Biden has repeatedly quoted the work of Seamus Heaney, an Irish, Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright. … He’s also a fan of William Butler Yeats, dating back to the days when he used to recite Yeats’ words in the mirror, working to overcome his stutter.” — Town & Country

“In his four decades-long career from a Senator in Delaware to the man at the helm of affairs at the Democratic party, Mr Biden earned a reputation of peppering his speeches with Heaney and his contemporary, WB Yeats.” — The U.K. Independent

Biden in 2013.

There are more examples. Biden’s Jan. 20 inaugural address1 only lightly evoked the Heaney line as he described “a day of history and hope.” He did not directly quote either Irish poet. Instead, Biden quoted from the song American Anthem, written by songwriter Gene Scheer and first sung by Denyce Graves in 1998 for President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at a Smithsonian Institution event. It was subsequently performed at other ceremonies, covered by Patti Labelle, and sung by Graves at George W. Bush’s 2005 inauguration, says Variety.

Biden became only the fourth U.S. president to invite a poet to join his inauguration platform, following John F. Kennedy (1961), Clinton (1993, 1997) and Barack Obama (2009, 2013), The Week reports. Biden’s inaugural committee selected 22-year-old Amanda Gorman to read her poem The Hill We Climb, which drew wide praise. Watch it here.

Irish Poets

Heaney

Heaney died in 2013, while Biden was Obama’s vice president. Heaney lived part-time in the United States from 1981 to 2006, including time as Harvard’s poet in residence. American poet Robert Lowell described him as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” Last summer, when Biden accepted the Democratic nomination, The Washington Post detailed the candidate’s citations of The Cure at Troy.

Yeats

Yeats, who died in 1939, visited America in 1903/4, 1911, 1914, 1920, and 1932/33. Cumulatively, he spent more than a year of his life in the United States, according to the Embassy of Ireland, USA. Washington, D.C. trial lawyer and literary critic Joseph M. Hassett has just published his third book about the poet, Yeats Now: Echoing into Life. By focusing on Yeats’s most memorable lines of poetry, it reveals new ways of enjoying a body of work that speaks eloquently and urgently to the 21st century, the publisher says.

On Jan. 27, Solas Nua, the D.C.-based contemporary Irish arts organization, and New York University, will present an experimental non-narrative film-poem drawing on the life of Yeats and using only his writings. Click here for more information and free registration.

MacSwiney’s ‘Principals of Freedom’ makes U.S. debut

Terence MacSwiney

Nearly 150 Irish civilians were killed by military and police forces from the Oct. 25, 1920, voluntary hunger strike death of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney to the January 1921 U.S. publication of Principles of Freedom, a collection of his essays.1 Many of these deaths were reported in U.S. newspapers, most notably “Bloody Sunday” in November 1920, but few received as much ongoing attention as MacSwiney’s martyrdom. Three months after his death, the posthumous book prompted a new round of headlines. 

E.P. Dutton & Co. of New York published the 244-page book six months before the first Irish edition from Talbot Press Limited, Dublin.2 The book contained 19 chapters, what MacSwiney called “articles,” all but one of which was previously published in the Irish republican newspaper Irish Freedom during 1911-1912. In the preface, MacSwiney said:

It was my intention to publish these articles in book form as soon as possible. I had them typed for the purpose. I had no time for revision save to insert in the typed copy words or lines omitted from the original printed matter. I also made an occasional verbal alteration in the original. One article, however, that on “Intellectual Freedom,” though written in the series in the place in which it now stands, was not printed with them. It is now published for the first time.”

MacSwiney devoted three pages of the preface to explain his essay “Religion” to “avoid a possible misconception amongst people outside of Ireland.” He continued:

In Ireland there is no religious dissension, but there is religious sincerity. English politicians, to serve the end of dividing Ireland, have worked on the religious feelings of the North, suggesting the dangers of Catholic ascendancy. There is not now, and there never was, any such danger, but our enemies, by raising the cry, sowed discord in the North, with the aim of destroying Irish unity. 

Arrested Aug. 12, 1920, for possession of “seditious articles and documents,” MacSwiney was tried four days later and sentenced to two years at Brixton Prison in south London. He probably wrote the preface and finalized the book deal during his hunger strike.

Correspondence between MacSwiney and E.P. Dutton & Co. is held by Syracuse University.3 My request for copies of this material is backlogged by COVID-19 slowdowns and lower priority due to being unaffiliated with the university. I’ll update in a future post.

U.S. Reviews

Reviews of MacSwiney’s book began to appear in U.S. newspapers the last week of January 1921, a month after his wife, Muriel, and sister, Mary, testified at American Commission on Conditions in Ireland hearings in Washington, D.C. The widow returned quickly to Ireland, but the sister remained in America to make the rounds of pro-Irish independence speaking engagements. 

MacSwiney’s “dying plea for Ireland” was “the peroration of a poet, an idealist, a dreamer, who possessed, nevertheless, a sense of humor, a leaning toward the practical, an insight into human nature which illuminate at frequent intervals the pages of the book,” The Evening World’s Martin Green wrote in one of the earliest reviews.4

“The martyr to the Irish cause was strong for the ‘dreamers, cranks and fools’. In his opinion those so designated are the backbone of a movement such as Ireland is undergoing.”

The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to the separatist government in Dublin, said the book was “a valuable contribution to philosophy … universal in its viewpoints; it happens to have Ireland as a particular and living illustration … though it can hardly be called a piece of Irish republican propaganda.”5

An editorial in the St. Louis Star said MacSwiney’s book “will not only prove a memorial to his life and his sacrifice, but it furnish the world a fresh insight into the spirit of the Irish people.”6

Period newspaper adverts show the book retailed for $2, or just under $30 with a century of inflation.7 Today, a California antiquarian and used book dealer advertises a 1921 first edition of the E.P. Dutton version in “Very Good Plus” condition for $150. (Digitized U.S. and Irish editions are linked in Note 2.)  

“Here is a document of extraordinary interest,” says the book’s original dust jacket. “It is the mind of an Irish irreconcilable turned inside out by himself for our inspection.”

From New York Herald, March 13, 1921.

A letter from troubled Kerry, January 1921

On Jan. 24, 1921, widowed farmer John Ware of Killelton townland, Ballylongford, mailed a hand-written letter from the rural County Kerry community on the south shore of where the wide mouth of the River Shannon empties into the sea. It was addressed to his same-name, bachelor son, a streetcar motorman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a noisy, smokey manufacturing city of more than a half million people, a hub of Irish immigrants, including two of his sisters, with a brother on the way.1

The 87-year-old father2 began the letter by thanking his 35-year-old son for an earlier postal order for £3, equivalent to about $200 today.3 Such remittances from immigrants were vital to the Irish economy and perpetuated still more departures.

Your prosperity in America is a great consolation to me. Your generosity and kindness since you left home.

John Ware of Pittsburgh in World War I military uniform.

John Ware the younger left home in 1910. Sisters Nora4 and Bridget followed him to Pittsburgh in 1912 and 1916, respectively. He was naturalized in 1917, entered the U.S. Army as as private in April 1918, and shipped to France two months later. John survived the Great War and returned to Pittsburgh in February 1919.5

The father reported that another son in Ireland had just welcomed a baby girl to his family three weeks earlier. A third son had sailed from Queenstown four days before he wrote the letter, also destined for Pittsburgh.

We all felt so happy he [was] able to get away giving to the present state of the country. That state of the case in Ireland at present is very bad.

War in Ireland

Ireland was in turmoil in January 1921. Two years had passed since Irish separatists established the first Dáil Éireann in Dublin. The Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla war against British authority, typically followed by military and police reprisals, had escalated steadily since summer 1920.

There was a policeman shot in Listowel a week ago. There is a fear there will be great damage done the town of Listowel through envy.

D.I. Tobias O’Sullivan

District Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan was shot multiple times at close range mid-afternoon Jan. 20, 1921. He was only a few yards from the Listowel barracks. The victim was accompanied by his 5-year-old son.6

In Pittsburgh, John Ware may have read the next-day, front-page newspaper coverage of the O’Sullivan killing,7 which occurred about eight miles from his father in Killelton, Ballylongford. The city’s papers reported several of the shootings and fires deliberately set to houses, creameries, and other businesses that occurred in North Kerry since fall 1920,8 one episode only a few weeks earlier:

At Listowel, in the marshal law area, crown forces  were fired on by civilians while arresting men wanted. They returned the fire, killing one and wounding two who were captured and sent to a hospital. Five arrests were made.9

The most notorious event in the area, however, flared a month after John Ware’s letter, on Feb. 22, 1921, when two constables were ambushed and killed at Ballylongford, followed by retaliation from the authorities:

In the history of reprisals no place has proportionally been visited with such wholesale destruction as the prosperous little town of Ballylongford. What was one time the business center of North Kerry, the wealthiest district in the county because of its port … is now little more than a smoking ruin. … The houses remaining are shattered and the people occupying them are confined indoors. Those whose places were destroyed and who fled in terror in the dead of night with no notice save the discharge of rifle, revolver, and machine-gun fire,  the rattle of petrol tins and crackling of flames found refuge with their country friends and are afraid to return.10

These and other episodes of violence against civilians, but not IRA attacks on military and police, were cataloged by the Dáil in a document titled “The Struggles of the Irish People,” presented in May 1921 to the U.S. Senate.11 A century later, the burning of Ballylongford “has still not been forgotten locally.”12

Agricultural distress

War violence was not the only trouble John Ware mentioned in his letter from Kerry:

The past year in the country is the worst that was ever remembered. The most of the year was all raining, the farm produce was never before so bad.

Farming in Kerry in the early 1920s.

His assessment is confirmed in Kerry newspapers of autumn 1920, which reported the impacts of a “late spring” and “continuous wet weather” that created a “black outlook not only for the farmers but for the people in the towns as well.”13 Government reports also recognized the decline in agricultural activity that year, though quantifying it was complicated by the war and relied on estimates and summaries. “In 1920 it was not found practicable to obtain particulars of either crops or livestock on all farms.”14

John Ware in Kerry did not mention his two daughters in Pittsburgh, both of them working as household servants, perhaps also sending remittances. He concluded the letter to his son with wishes for a Happy New Year, a year that in six months would bring a truce to the fighting and conclude with a treaty that created the Irish Free State.

When ‘northern’ Ireland became ‘Northern’ Ireland

On Jan. 5, 1921, The New York Times published an Associated Press dispatch from London, which began:

Ulstermen are preparing to make the opening of the Parliament for Northern Ireland as picturesque and imposing as possible, endeavoring to obtain the consent of the King to open the first session in person, or to have the Prince of Wales do so if the King is unable to be present, says the London Times.

Daily papers in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in America and Canada printed the same report, with two small but significant differences to the sentence: a lowercase k in king and n in northern. These papers followed AP style rules, which only capitalize “king” or “queen” when used before a proper name: King George V.1

Using a capital K to refer to the monarch without his name was a New York Times’ style preference, a sign of deference to the title, one that probably reinforced the opinions of the paper’s Irish-American critics. The Times, many said, was anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and a “proponent of dead and gone imperialism.”2

The copy editing decisions about Northern Ireland or northern Ireland were trickier. In January 1921, it became simultaneously a new political place in addition to an ancient geographic location.

Names & Places

Northern Ireland in bright orange, rest of Ireland uncolored. United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, and Wales, at right in light orange. (Alpha History map.)

King George gave “royal assent” to the Government of Ireland Act 1920 less than two weeks earlier, just days before Christmas. The legislation had slogged through Parliament since before the Great War began in 1914. What started as a “home rule” bill to provide domestic autonomy for all of Ireland now engineered the island’s post-war partition.

Under the new law, “Northern Ireland” consisted of the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry. The rest of the island became “Southern Ireland”, including the remaining three counties in the province of Ulster: Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan.

The law allowed northern Protestants to manage their domestic affairs without having to share home rule with southern Catholics. The new names had begun to appear in 1920 U.S. press reports. Both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland would remain part of what was then called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Republican Opposition

Since December 1918, however, Irish separatists had won elections and fought a guerrilla war to secure a republican government independent of London. They were not about to accept a home rule parliament still tied to the crown. In April 1921, the National Catholic Welfare Council (predecessor of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) News Service reported:

Election under the partition act are, according to arrangements made by the British government, to take place on May 3rd next in “Southern Ireland” and “Northern Ireland.” So detested is partition by the majority that the refusal of the people of four-fifths of the country to work the act is a certainty.3

The Southern Ireland parliament was never formed. The war of independence continued through December 1921, when a treaty resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State. It was not yet a republic, but it was more independent than Northern Ireland. In 1930, Irish immigrants in America for more than a decade would answer the U.S. Census “Place of Birth” question with political names they had never used before leaving.

King George V did attend the June 1921 opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament at the Belfast City Hall, a “picturesque and imposing” Baroque Revival building opened 15 years earlier. In his speech, the king hoped the arrangement would be temporary and appealed for eventual reconciliation, “a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one parliament or two, as those parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.”4

King George V opens the Northern Ireland Parliament in Belfast in June 1921.

Centenary & Brexit

Ireland has remained divided for 100 years. Tensions between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants in the late 1960s erupted into the three decades of sectarian violence known as The Troubles. This year’s Northern Ireland centenary and simultaneous departure of the United Kingdom (which includes Northern Ireland, but not the southern Republic) from the European Union has put fresh attention on the Irish border.

By placing a new customs border in the Irish Sea rather than the 300 mile land line with the Republic, Brexit has turned Northern Ireland into “a place apart.” In essence, Northern Ireland has been partitioned from the rest of the U.K. Staunch unionists say they are “much better off in the United Kingdom than they are within the Republic of Ireland or within a European superstate,” Reuters reports.

Some Irish nationalist politicians and other Irish island proponents, refusing to acknowledge the century-old political state of Northern Ireland, refer to the place as “The North,” “The north of Ireland,” or the “Six Counties.” They sense an opportunity to press the case for reunification, though a referendum to undo partition appears a few years away, at the soonest. And there is no guarantee it would pass on both sides of the border, as required by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement … or imagined by King George V during his 1921 speech in the new Northern Ireland.

I’ll have more posts on these historic and contemporary topics throughout the year.