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
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
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.
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.