Category Archives: Irish America

March 1919: First interviews with escapee Éamon de Valera

Éamon de Valera and two other Sinn Féin revolutionaries escaped from Lincoln Gaol (prison) in England on Feb. 4, 1919. The Irish republican leader was spirited back to Ireland on Feb. 20, where he balanced the need to evade British authorities with the desire to communicate with the Irish people, including the diaspora in America, which he knew was critical to support for the fledgling republic.

American journalist Ralph F. Couch, a United Press correspondent, claimed he “found” de Valera, or was provided the opportunity to interview the escapee. The reporter was taken on a two-hour, late-night drive on winding country roads near Dublin, pushed into a second car, his cap pulled over his eyes, before finally being ushered up a stairway and let into a room.

“Before the great fireplace, warming his hands, was a tall man in a baggy black suit, with a black silk handkerchief around his throat instead of a collar. He wore rubber sole slippers. This was de Valera,” Couch reported.1

Couch obtained a signed statement from de Valera, smuggled it out of Ireland, and returned to the United States, “thus insuring safe delivery to New York of his information without interference by the censors,” United Press reported. The Feb. 24 interview was not published until the middle of March.

In addition to appearing in mainstream U.S. dailies, the interview was published on the front page of the March 15 issue of The Irish Press, Philadelphia, which had direct ties to the revolutionary government.

DE VALERA INTERVIEWED IN HIDING

Secret Meeting With Newspaper Correspondent Near Dublin.

Issues Message to America

“Violence will be the only alternative remaining to Irish Patriots if the Peace Conference at Paris fails to take steps to extend self-determination to Ireland. The means continued revolution until Ireland’s rights are recognized,” de Valera said in the interview, now two months after the first meeting of Dáil Éireann, parliament of the provisional republic, and early skirmishes of the Irish War of Independence.

The story noted that de Valera was the “American-born son of an Irish mother and Spanish father.” Some versions say that de Valera’s “black eyes flashed” when he spoke the quote above, “his big jaw squared. He spoke quietly. Nevertheless he was emphatic.” 

Eamon de Valera during his 1919 tour of America.

De Valera’s Feb. 25 statement to Couch was datelined “Somewhere in Ireland.” It began:

“England has no right in Ireland. England’s de facto government here rests solely on the number of her bayonets. We challenge England to allow Ireland the principal of self-determination.”

On March 27, de valera arrived at Mansion House in Dublin, where he was received by the Lord Mayor. The Associated Press reported “that owing to the attitude of the censors [de Valera said] it would be useless to make a statement at present, but that he would take the opportunity later to express his views.”2

Within days, an interview by Henry Hyde of the Chicago Tribune was syndicated in U.S. newspapers. “I had an interview with de Valera shortly before he entered Dublin,” it began. “Up to a certain point he proved a very mild and constitutional rebel with his eyes fixed on Paris.”3

Another Chicago correspondent, Ruth Russell of the Daily News, also interviewed de Valera in late March.

“In a small white room where reddish tapestry and draperies concealed closed doors and shaded windows … the tall, pale man, 37 years of age, stood against the glow of a grate fire and spoke with a student’s concentration. He was slightly breathless, as he had just arrived and was about to leave again. His white silk muffler was still pinned with a bar about his throat.”4

The reporter promised that soon “de Valera will let himself be seen in Dublin.” On April 1, he was named president of the second Dáil Éireann. In June, he sailed secretly to America to begin a campaign for political recognition and funding for Ireland.

Photo essay: Visiting Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago

Old St. Patrick’s parish in Chicago was founded by Irish immigrants on Easter Sunday, 1846, at the onset of the Great Famine. The current church building was dedicated on Christmas morning, 1856. The church’s website timeline provides more history. The church also is detailed in the 1997 book, At the Crossroads: Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish, by Ellen Skerret.

Images below from March 15, 2019. See the more than 20 St. Patrick’s churches that I have visited in America and Europe.

St. Patrick’s Day in America, 1919

UPDATE:

Against the backdrop of Brexit chaos, the classic “England Get Out of Ireland” banner in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day is damaging political discourse, Stephen Collins writes in The Irish Times. Plus, a 2018 New York Times piece about the sign. See bullet points below.

ORIGINAL POST:

U.S. President Donald Trump will host Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar March 14 at the White House, continuing a St. Patrick’s week tradition that began in 1952. Things were much different in 1919: the revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic, Dáil Éireann, had been established for two months; skirmishes and ambushes in the War of Independence flared across Ireland; more than 5,000 supporters of Irish independence gathered in late February in Philadelphia to bring attention to the cause; and the U.S. House of Representatives at the beginning of March passed a resolution in favor of Irish self-determination. All of this nationalist activity on both sides of the Atlantic influenced 1919’s annual celebration of Ireland’s patron saint.

Trump and Varadkar in 2018. White House photo

Below, a look at March 1919 coverage in the Irish-American and mainstream press. MH


“Irish freedom was demanded, and the league of nations, as proposed at present, was condemned at a mass meeting last night at Liberty Hut under the auspices of the United Irish Societies of the District that was the climax of the National Capital’s celebration of St. Patrick’s day. Ten thousand people were packed in the spacious auditorium, while more than 5,000 other clamored for admission to the most wildly enthusiastic meeting ever held in Washington in the cause of Irish independence. There was almost constant applause as the speakers extolled the virtues of Ireland and her sons.” The Washington Post, March 18, page 1

Of course, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City drew plenty of press attention:

“The existence of the Irish Republic, and the demand that it be recognized as one of the sovereign nations of the earth, were proclaimed by the great demonstration held [in New York City]. Probably the most notable feature of the parade, and one in which it differed considerably from the processions of earlier days, was display of thousands upon thousands of tri-colored flags, the emblem of the Republic of Ireland. The old green flag with the harp on it was entirely abandoned … ” The Irish Press, Philadelphia, March 22, page 1

The New York Times coverage of the massive parade, placed on page 4 of the March 18 issue, said “it was a perfect day” for the event, and “not a single unpleasant incident marred the celebration.” Rather than noting the change of flags, the report made an extensive inventory of political banners carried by the marchers. These included:

  • England–Damn your concessions. We want our country.
  • “No people must be forced under a sovereignty under which it has no desire to live.”–President Woodrow Wilson
  • There will be no peace while Ireland is ruled by a foreign force.
  • If there is right and justice in the world, then Ireland should have its share.
  • A true American is a true Sinn Feiner.

More mainstream celebrations occurred in the American heartland:

“Ireland and St. Patrick were by no means forgotten on Monday, the greatest of Irish holidays, in Minneapolis. Many store windows were dressed up in green in honor of the day. The shamrock, the harp, and many other emblems of the old sod were seen in generous abundance.” The Irish Standard, Minneapolis, Minn., March 22, page 1

“In a room hung with the green flag of old Ireland, and the three-colored flag of the hopes for a new Ireland, intermingled with shamrocks and entwined around the Stars and Stripes of America, 450 members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians sand the songs of old Erin, and cheered and applauded each expression of faith in the hoped-for republic, when the annual St. Patrick’s day dinner of the order was held in the Fort Pitt Hotel last night.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 18, page 11

“Native born and American born Irish men and women of Louisville paid fitting and credible tribute to St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland. The religious observances began with the Ladies Auxiliary and the Ancient Order of Hibernians who filled St. Patrick’s Church early Sunday morning … Monday night there were numerous attractions … but it remained for the AOH to eclipse it all with their celebration at Bertrand Hall, which was profusely decorated with the national colors and the flag of the Irish republic and flags and banners of the Ancient Order.” Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, Ky., March 22, page 1

Washington, D.C. in 1919.

March madness 1919: So close, yet so far

American-based supporters of Irish independence on March 4, 1919, appeared tantalizingly close to winning U.S. government backing for their cause. But they fell short.

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives voted 216 to 41 in favor of self-determination for Ireland. It was the last day of the legislative session, however, and a parliamentary maneuver in opposition delayed consideration of the measure in the U.S. Senate for several months.

Cohalan

Later that evening, in New York City, President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly met a delegation from the Friends of Irish Freedom before returning to the post-war peace conference in Paris. The meeting began badly, as Wilson banned New York Supreme Court Judge Daniel F. Cohalan, a longtime political nemesis and member of the delegation. It ended, Francis M Carroll wrote, “with Wilson refusing to commit himself to the Irish-Americans, the Irish-Americans very displeased with Wilson, and all of them on the worst of terms.”1

Irish-American newspaper coverage of the House vote was fairly straightforward. Reporting about the Wilson meeting ranged widely.

Wilson

The Irish Press, Philadelphia, said the president “declared that he was in thorough accord with the aspirations of the Irish people for the right to live without foreign interference” … and “gave the committee to understand that he fully expects the case of Ireland to be dealt with by the Peace Conference.” This was wishful spin of Wilson’s intentions, at best, or intentionally deceitful, at worst.

More significantly, the story ignored Wilson’s ouster of Cohalan, a close ally of John Devoy, leader of the New York faction of the FOIF. By March 1919, a feud had opened between the New York wing and Joseph McGarrity, the Press publisher, and his Philadelphia allies, over the best approach to help Ireland. While the Press was silent about Cohalan in this instance, its editor, Patrick McCartan, took other opportunities to “slander and misrepresent” the judge, historian Charles Callen Tansill wrote.2

In Louisville, front-page coverage in the Kentucky Irish American combined the House vote and Wilson meeting into one story, which gave a more clear-eyed assessment of the latter:

The hope that had been entertained that President Wilson would espouse Ireland’s cause was rudely checked Tuesday night when he met the committee from the Irish race convention in New York on the eve of his departure for Paris. Wilson urged that no questions be urged [sic] and gave no indication of what his action at the Peace Conference would be. In some quarters there is belief that so far as he is concerned Ireland’s case has been closed before it has ever been heard.

The Irish Standard, Minneapolis, was even closer to the real story. Under the page 1 headline “Rumored President Had Old Grudge Against Cohalan,” it noted Cohalan’s work against Wilson’s 1916 re-election and refusal to support him when America entered World War I in 1917. A sidebar story reported that two days after the meeting, the FOIF in Boston passed a resolution that stated “Americans of Irish blood were grievously offended at the action of President Wilson” in banning Cohalan from the meeting.

Here’s more background on the two events:

‘Intrigue of Deception’ at Catholic University of America, 1919

A Philadelphia newspaper in early 1919 alleged that “some prominent men” at Catholic University of America were conspiring with British Embassy officials.1 The aim of their Washington, D.C.-based “plot,” the story said, was to keep Ireland within the British Empire rather than establish an independent republic.

“So far the scheme has met with some success and is receiving consideration,” The Irish Press, a nationalist weekly, reported Jan. 4, 1919, in a page 4 story headlined “An Intrigue of Deception.”

Irish voters had just elected 73 separatist Sinn Féin candidates who had no intention of claiming their seats in the London parliament. Instead, within weeks of the Press story, they would form their own government in Dublin. A gorilla war of independence erupted at the same time. In America, Congress debated “the Irish question” as President Woodrow Wilson prepared to sail to Paris to join his British allies in helping to reshape the post-world war global order.

The Irish Press reported:

“It is understood that the scheme will be launched by the publication of a letter written by President Wilson on the eve of his departure for Europe to a prominent man at the Catholic University at Washington. The gentleman concerned is a sincere friend of Ireland and it is to be hoped that he will sever his connection with the British plot and persuade his colleagues to do likewise. Their action will not affect Ireland but we hope for the reputation of the one big and sincere man connected with the scheme that he will refuse at this critical juncture to play false to the cause so dear to his heart.”

The newspaper did not name anyone at Catholic University, but faculty member Joseph Dunn wrote a private letter to challenge the allegation. “To say that the article in question surprised and provoked me is putting it mildly,” he wrote to Dr. Patrick McCartan, the Press editor.2

Shahan

Dunn was a Celtic language and literature professor and a supporter of Irish independence. A few weeks earlier he had appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Ireland.3 Dunn entered into the record the Nov. 30, 1918, letter from the university’s rector, Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, to President Wilson. It cited the president’s professed commitment to “self-determination” for small nations.

“We hold that the right of Ireland to ‘self-determination’ is immeasurably stronger than that of any other nation for which you have become the advocate,” Shahan wrote. “Moreover, Ireland’s claims are a hundredfold reinforced by her centuries of brave, though unavailing, struggle against foreign domination, tyranny, and autocracy.”4

Dunn testified that Wilson “not only acknowledged receipt of the bishop’s letter, but replied in such a sympathetic tone as would make interesting reading for members of this honorable committee.” This was an optimistic interpretation of Wilson’s Dec. 3, 1918, reply; barely 100 typed words of generalities on White House stationary that never mentioned Ireland by name.5 Wilson wrote:

Wilson

“It will be my endeavor in regard to every question which arises before the Peace Conference to do my utmost to bring about the realization of the principals to which your letter refers. The difficulties and delicacies of the task are very great, and I cannot confidentially forecast what I can do.”

Shahan was a national vice president of the Friends of Irish Freedom, a U.S.-based group of Irish immigrants, Irish Americans, and other supporters of the separatist cause. Dunn was a national trustee.6 As events accelerated in Ireland, the Friends were being torn apart by internal feuding over the best way to help the homeland.

The Irish Press was in the middle of this fight, as personified by the growing hostility between McCartan, Press publisher Joseph McGarrity, and their supporters; and John Devoy, veteran Irish republican activist and publisher of the New York City-based Gaelic American, and his allies. Dunn acknowledged these crosscurrents in his letter.

Dunn told McCartan that he did not show the Press article to Shahan, “who, I suppose, is meant by the words ‘a prominent man at Catholic University’ ” … “to spare him the pain of reading it, it is so unfair to those of us who have kept the faith at this institution.” Like Dunn, the bishop would have been troubled by the allegation of conspiring with the British, especially as the Friends of Irish Freedom developed plans for an upcoming national strategy meeting in Philadelphia.

“The harm done is not irreparable, however, if you take occasion in the very next issue of ‘The Press’ to correct it and give prominence in a good strong article to the denial,” Dunn wrote in the typed body of his letter. After the “faithfully yours” closing and his signature, he hand wrote, “You realize, of course, how much the University might suffer if that your yarn is not corrected.”

McCartan’s reply to Dunn carried the same Jan. 11, 1919, date as the professor’s letter.7 

McCartan

“I was very glad to get your letter and your assurances that nobody connected with the University has anything to do with the British Embassy Plot,” McCartan wrote under his newspaper’s letterhead. “I realize that your letter is authoritative, and we here are glad to learn that instead of cooperating with the plotters you are taking steps to counteract them.”

McCartan, a native of Ireland, was among more than 30 Sinn Féin separatists elected the previous month while either living outside Ireland or held in prison. In addition to his role as editor, he also described himself as “envoy of the provisional government of Ireland.” This was news to the U.S. State Department, which claimed it “knew nothing of Patrick McCartan.”8

McCartan wrote to Dunn that he would be “delighted to correct the error we made last week as you request.” The editor acknowledged he was responsible for all of the newspaper’s stories, “even though I do not write them all, or even read them before publication.”

On Jan. 18, 1919, The Irish Press published this “correction” under another “Intrigue of Deception” headline, once again without naming any names.9

“We have now on the very best authority” that no one at Catholic University was cooperating with the British, the story said. “The existence of the plot is known there but those in that institution who are interested in the subject take the same view of the Irish question as The Irish Press.”

A few weeks later, the Press reported on Shahan’s speech at Gazanga Hall in Washington, D.C. “Ireland is a nation, not a province of the British Empire,” it quoted him under the headline “Bishop Upholds Irish Republic.”10

Dunn and Shahan remained active in Irish nationalist politics. The professor taught at Catholic University until 1931.11 The bishop died the following year and is interred in the crypt level of the neighboring Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The Irish Press folded in 1922 as Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State, an interim status that later became today’s full republic, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of Britain. McCartan returned to Ireland.


EXTRA NOTES: Top image, “Proposed Plan,” is a 1914 photo gelatin view of the Catholic University of America campus in Washington, D.C. produced by the Albertype Company of Brooklyn, New York. I have been unable to locate an image of Joseph Dunn. Thanks to Shane MacDonald at CUA’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and to James Harte at the National Library of Ireland for their assistance. 

Catching up with modern Ireland: February

A short roundup for a short month. … Just over two week until St. Patrick’s Day, and less than a month until the scheduled Brexit. As I publish, however, there is growing talk of postponing the split until June. We’ll see.

  • The British are about to kick us in the teeth again,” Irish border resident Patrick O’Reilly tells The New York Times.

“The Brexit Apocalypse Bill, a belching omnibus of a vehicle, reversed into Dáil Éireann at teatime on Tuesday, polluting the chamber with rancid fumes which nobody requested and nobody wanted,” Miriam Lord writes in The Irish Times.

“If we’re heading for a hard Brexit, then we’re heading for a united Ireland,” Patrick Kielty opinions in The Guardian.

  • Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum has until June 2020 to become self-sustaining, Quinnipiac University President Judy Olian announced. The Hamden, Conn., school also withdrew its financial support and participation in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade after 30 years.

This is more than just an institutional belt-tightening story; it’s another example of the “fading of the green.” As Charles F. McElwee III wrote last year in The American Conservative: “The Irish Catholic experience peaked during the Second Vatican Council, but has slowly faded with the death of older relatives, the changed cultural makeup of urban neighborhoods, the dissolution of cash-strapped and scandal-ridden parishes, and an overall indifference towards tradition in this modern era.”

Don’t be fooled by the upcoming St. Patrick’s celebrations.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University. Photo by Robert Benson.

    • Irish workers were described as the most productive in the world, adding an average of $99.50 (€87) to the value of the economy every hour they work, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Republic’s rate was higher than its biggest trading partners, the United States ($72) and the United Kingdom ($61.10), and nearly twice the OECD average of $54.80. … The Irish Central Statistics Office, however, cautioned that Irish workers in the domestic sector, which excludes multinationals, added an average $54.20, just below the OECD average.
    • Irish novelist John Banville defended Irish actor Liam Neeson’s comments about wanting to revenge kill any “black bastard” 40 years ago after his friend was raped. Neeson apologized on Good Morning America. “I am not a racist,” he said.
    • The head of an 800-year-old mummy known as “The Crusader” was stolen from its crypt below St. Michan’s Church in Dublin.
    • The 17.3 C. (65 F.) 23 February temperature in Roscommon was shy of the record 18.1 C., set 23 February, 1891, in Dublin. Met Éireann forecaster Siobhán Ryan told the Times the high temperature was not attributable to global warming, but more likely the result of natural variability in the weather.
    • The first teaser for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was screened during the Academy Awards. The movie tells the story of Irish hoodlum Frank Sheeran, who claimed to have killed American union boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. The release date is unclear.
    • Finally, the end of February is the anniversary of the 1888 opening of Kerry’s unique Lartigue monorail, a favorite historical curiosity.

The Lartigue monorail opened Leap Year Day, 1888, and closed in 1924.

AT TOP: St. Patrick and St. Briget at  Saint Muredach’s Catholic Cathedral,facing the River Moy in Ballina, Mayo. February 2018.

First words on the 1919 Irish Race Convention

Below are the ledes of front-page stories about the Feb. 22-23, 1919, Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia. The stories appeared in U.S. newspapers, either during or the day after the convention, except the Irish weeklies (hyperlinked), which published March 1, 1919. I’ve edited references to dates and Philadelphia, and added a few other notes. Convention meetings were held in multiple venues, as can be seen on the agenda at bottom. Visit the project landing page. MH


“A platform declaring that a state of war exists between England and Ireland were passed … [during the convention] with numerous overflow meetings. One and a half million dollars, in round figures, was subscribed for the purpose of carrying forward the Irish movement to enforce the principle of self-determination. Of that amount, New York, Massachusetts, Chicago, Philadelphia and the women of the Ancient Order of Hibernians pledged $150,000 each, while communities organizations and individuals underwrote lesser amounts.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the host city’s several dailies.

“England was bitterly denounced and the new ‘Irish Republic’ praised by more than 5,000 delegates attending the Irish race convention … . The convention was held in the mammoth Second regiment armory, which was decorated with the Stars and Stripes and the orange, white and green flags of the Sinn Fein republic.”

The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.

Cardinal Gibbons

“A resolution presented by Cardinal Gibbons urging the peace conference to apply to Ireland the doctrine of national self-determination, and a declaration of principals demanding that if any league of nations be created, all feature which may infringe on the traditional policy, including the Monroe doctrine, shall be eliminated, were adopted unanimously today at the closing session of the convention of the Irish race in America.”

Associated Press story appeared in Feb. 24, 1919, issues of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many other papers. It was probably the most widely distributed account of the convention.

“One of the most important steps taken by the Irish Race Convention … was its demand that President Wilson secure from the Peace Conference for the envoys chosen by the Dáil Éireann, the Parliament of the Irish Republic, the same status and recognition which have been accorded to those of other small nations. … The convention also decided, if necessary, to send to Paris, if necessary, delegates who will assist the representatives of the Irish Republic in securing for the Irish Government recognition of its sovereign claims.”

The Irish Press, Philadelphia. The paper’s editor and publisher were deeply involved in planning the convention. The three-member American Commission for Irish Independence soon traveled to Paris and Ireland.

“With all their inherent passion and humor, with all the love of Erin and freedom and hatred of England that have been smoldering for generations, the more than 5,000 delegates to the two-day Irish Race Convention of the Friends of Irish Freedom … responded enthusiastically to the fervent appeals for Ireland’s self-determination made by distinguished members of the clergy and laity from every part of the United States, as well as from “the old country.”

“Special Dispatch” in The Boston Globe and other papers.

“Men and women of Irish birth and descent, more than 5,000 in number, gathered … and by acclamation adopted resolutions which said a state of war exists between England and Ireland. These resolutions were passed with a storm of cheers and applause. … The Peace Conference at Paris, the resolution stated, cannot ignore this state of war; and President Wilson’s task of establishing permanent peace will not be completed until the Irish question is settled on those principals of self-determination to which he as committed himself and the United States.”

The Irish Standard, Minneapolis.

“The convention of the Irish race … adopted a platform of self-determination for Ireland. … [that] was read before thousands of delegates in the Academy of Music, amid a scene of unsurpassed enthusiasm, and was adopted without a dissenting voice.”

Universal Services report in the The San Francisco Examiner.

“[The convention was] the greatest and most influential gathering of representatives and friends of Irish freedom for Ireland in the history of America, the delegates coming from all classes and nearly every State in the Union.”

Kentucky Irish American, Louisville.

Below, the agenda for the Third Irish Race Convention. See the full 76-page program from the Villanova University digital collection.

Henry Clive’s ‘face’ of Ireland in 1921

The image above was created by graphic artist Henry Clive. It appeared on the program cover of a June 1921 Pittsburgh benefit event for the American Committee for the Relief of Ireland.

Clive was born Henry Clive O’Hara in 1881, in Australia, to an Irish father and an English mother, according to the Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists. He began his career in theater, then gradually transitioned to full-time work as an illustrator. In 1925–four years after this image appeared on the Pittsburgh program cover–Clive joined The American Weekly,  a Sunday magazine supplement of the Hearst newspaper syndicate. He died in 1960.

Many of Clive’s illustrations are available in online galleries, and its easy to see the stylistic similarities to the image above. The event program, part of the John B. Collins Papers at the University of Pittsburgh, does not contain details about his commission for this work.

Did the American Committee for the Relief of Ireland commission the work for other publications? Is the young woman the “Dark Rosaleen” of James Clarence Mangan’s 19th century nationalist poem? Was Clive influenced by the women featured in the 1913 first color photographs from Ireland, produced by Madeleine Mignon-Alba and Marguerite Mespoulet?

Does anyone know more about this image?

Promoting the February 1919 Irish Race Convention

Philadelphia in the 1910s.

Fast-moving events in Ireland compelled nationalist supporters in America to call their third “Irish Race Convention” since 1916 for late February 1919. The Friends of Irish Freedom would mobilize 5,000 delegates to Philadelphia within two months of the Sinn Féin election victory and first meeting of the Dáil Éireann.

The Philadelphia turnout was a tribute to the organizational skills of the FOIF’s national officers and the passion of its rank and file members. It built on momentum since the May 1918 second Irish Race Convention in New York City, including months of lobbying President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to recognize Irish independence, which culminated in “Self-Determination for Ireland Week” in December 1918.

The Irish Press, Philadelphia, unabashedly promoted the home city convention. The Feb. 8, 1919, edition contained content that made little distinction between the front page and the editorial page.

“Although several remarkable gathering representative of the Irish throughout the United States have been held in recent years, there is no no room for doubt that the convention to be held in Philadelphia, February 22 and 23, will be by far the most notable event of the kind that has ever taken place in this country,” the page 1 story said.

“In personnel and importance, the coming convention of the Irish Race in America completely overshadows all similar gathering held in these United States,” the page 4 editorial declared.

Press publisher Joseph McGarrity, and editor, Patrick McCartan, were each involved in planning the convention and behind the scenes struggles over what would be publicly declared at the event. Historians have debated how much influence the newspaper’s leaders and their Philadelphia supporters  exerted on the convention, or if John Devoy, Judge Daniel Cohalan, and other Irish activists in New York City really pulled the strings.

Far from these Irish hubs, the Feb. 8 issue of the Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, featured a front page notice that “all societies in favor of Ireland’s national independence” were entitled to send five delegates to Philadelphia. Registrations were to be sent to FOIF National Secretary Diarmuid Lynch, care of the group’s headquarters, 1482 Broadway, in New York City. (Lynch and McCartan each won parliamentary seats in the December 1918 general election while in America. They were in absentia members of the first Dáil.)

The Feb. 15 issue of The Irish Standard, Minneapolis, noted on its front page that requests for credentials were due to New York by Feb. 12. “Delegates presenting themselves without credentials cannot be seated until after those bearing credentials have been dealt with,” it warned. Not to worry. A second story named six delegates selected from Minneapolis and St. Paul, including Rev. Jeremiah Harrington, a member of the FOIF national board.

In a page 4 editorial, the Standard complained: “The transactions and conclusions of the convention will command world wide attention, despite the apparent conspiracy of silence that seems to prevail among many of our great American newspapers when anything is done to arouse public interest in the promotion of Ireland’s welfare.”

In fact, mainstream newspapers did publish the names of local delegations heading to Philadelphia in the weeks before the convention. Many also announced the confirmation of headline speakers such as Cardinal James Gibbons, of Baltimore; Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, of Boston; Archbishop Dennis Joseph Dougherty, of Philadelphia; U.S. Senator William Borah, R-Idaho; and Pennsylvania’s newly-elected Republican Gov. William C. Sproul, among others.

More news coverage would come from the two-day event, as we will see in future posts. See previous posts in this series at: American reporting of Irish Independence, 1919-1922.

View the full 76-page Third Irish Race Convention program from the Villanova University digital collection.

On new Oscar Wilde biography and old newspapers

Dublin-born writer Oscar Wilde in 1882 made a yearlong, coast-to-coast lecture tour of America. It’s the focus of a new book, Making Oscar Wilde, by Michèle Mendelssohn. In the Jan. 25 issue of America magazine, reviewer Jeffrey Myers says the author:

developed a new approach to biographical research. Vast online archives and databases provided a digital treasure trove of local newspapers in the obscure towns where Wilde had lectured that was unavailable to previous life-writers. Her innovative approach and exploration of unsuspected territory has yielded rich results, illuminating new aspects of Wilde’s life and afterlife.

Wilde, in 1882, the year of his U.S. tour.

Digitized database and online newspaper archives are fairly recent conveniences, to be sure. But the material was always there for earlier biographers; it just required more time, travel, and tribulation to dig from bound, clipped, or microfilmed editions of the old papers.

As a journalist, I once did this sort of thing all the time in what where called “morgues,” usually a musty back corner of the newsroom. It’s important to know the past, the back story, whether writing about today’s news developments or yesterday’s events.

The work can be tedious. In his Jan. 28 essay for The New Yorker, L.B.J. biographer Robert A. Caro recalls the advice he received from one of his early newspaper editors about doing investigative research; in Caro’s case, a cache of government records. “Turn every page,” the editor said. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.”

Digital searching quickly and seductively whisks you to what the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software finds. But it may bypass misspellings; pages that are smudged and damaged; or relevant stories that don’t contain your search term(s).

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland co-founder Felix Larkin addressed other concerns in our November 2018 interview:

Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.

I’ve been scrolling through microfilm of 1919 Chicago newspapers for a project I’ll unveil later this year. Seeing the surrounding headlines puts the Irish stories in wider context. And there are delightful distractions, such as following the game-by-game performance of Chicago baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson in the months before that year’s controversial World Series.

I have benefited from digital access to old newspapers since 2008, when I found the 1941 account of my Kerry-born grandfather’s death in Pittsburgh. It prompted me to write his biography. I am currently reading digitized 1919 editions of The Irish Press, Philadelphia; Kentucky Irish American, Louisville; and similar ethnic papers to explore U.S. reporting of Ireland’s revolutionary period.

But I still love viewing original records inside archives and libraries. The undigitized material forces me to turn every goddamn page; every … faded … page.

Irish-American files in the Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.