Category Archives: Politics

Washington, D.C.’s Irish hot spots, 1919-1921

Irish efforts to win U.S. political recognition and financial support for the fledgling state occurred across America during the 1919-1921 revolutionary period. Éamon De Valera traveled coast-to-coast from June 1919 to December 1920. Chapters of the Friends of Irish Freedom and Ancient Order of Hibernians met in large cities and small towns. In Washington, D.C., it’s tempting to think of only the hearing rooms and hallways of the U.S. Capitol, or White House and diplomatic offices, as the center of such activity. But important work and key events of Irish interest unfolded at other locations beyond these landmarks. Here’s a look at several of them:

Munsey Building in 1919. Smithsonian Archives

In August 1919, the Friends of Irish Freedom moved most of its activities from New York City to Washington, D.C. “Headquarters of the Irish National Bureau have been established in the Musey Building, which will carry on the fight of the Americans interested, under the noses of Congress and the Executive departments of the government,” one of the city’s daily newspapers reported on its front page.1

The building opened in 1905 at 1329 E Street N.W., about three blocks from the White House. It was named after Frank Munsey, a Guilded Age capitalist who bought and sold newspapers across America and also perfected a printing processes that used low-quality “pulp” paper for periodicals that were inexpensive to produce and filled with racy fare that made them widely popular: pulp fiction.2

The FOIF’s Irish National Bureau located on the 10th floor of the 13-floor Munsey. Canadian journalist Katherine Hughes, the Bureau’s secretary, furnished the offices in mahogany with green velvet rugs.3 There, a small staff of writers produced the weekly News Letter, pamphlets, and press releases, in addition to facilitating meetings with elected leaders and government officials, much like any other interest group or trade association in Washington.

“The national council of the Friends of Irish Freedom believe the President and Congress should have the assistance of a Bureau located at the Nation’s Capitol,” declared Bureau Director Daniel T. O’Connell. “All the societies associated with the thoughts, traditions and interests of Americans of Irish blood have constantly urged the formation of a bureau that could from Washington respresent them in functioning more directly with national live.”4

On Jan. 8, 1920, De Valera opened offices of  the Irish Government in Exile in the building. The night before, he gave his first Washington speech to more than 5,000 supporters at the Y.M.C.A. Liberty Hut, a large event venue for everything from circuses to conventions, opposite Union Station. The Munsey lease document is held in De Valera’s official papers at University College Dublin. The Irish Legation offices later moved to the Hotel Lafayette.

***

Lafayette Hotel in Washington D.C., between 1910 and 1926. Library of Congress

Opened in 1916 at the southeast corner of 16th and I (or “Eye”) streets, about two miles west of the Capitol, the Hotel Lafayette hosted at least two key Irish events during 1920.

On April 7, members of the U.S. Senate and House, “dignitaries of the church, bankers, educators, writers and representatives of the bar” honored De Valera at a “Free Ireland” banquet in advance of his tour of the American South. Guests dined on “Baked Sea Trout Florida” and roast turkey with cranberry sauce. “The speaking continued until nearly 2 a.m.”5

From November 1920 through January 1921 the hotel also became the headquarters for the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, a non-U.S. government body created by pro-Irish interests to generate publicity and political support for the fledgling Irish republic. The blue-ribbon panel included two U.S. senators and six other military, religious, and civic leaders. It interviewed 18 American, 18 Irish, and two British witnesses, with a focus on military reprisals against citizens and the revolutionaries.

An early news story reported “several halls in the city have been placed in the disposal” of the commission, but the Lafayette’s ballroom hosted all but one of the six hearing sessions.6 The exception occurred in December at the Odd Fellows Hall. See below.

***

Headlines about the De Valera protest march and rally, and the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, in The Evening Star, Nov. 17, 1920, page 16.

The commission hearings opened the same week that De Valera launched the FOIF rival organization American Associaiton for Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) at the Raleigh Hotel, a short walk from the Munsey Building. “The conference which opened with an address by De Valera yesterday morning remained in almost continuous session behind closed doors for 15 hours, adopted a policy, a name, a constitution, and a plan of organization,” a local papeer reported.7

Located at the northeast corner of 12th Street N.W., and Pennsylvania Avenue, the site had been occupied by several earlier inns and office buildings, including where Andrew Johnson took the presidential oath in April 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The 13-story Beaux Arts hotel where De Valera and the AARIR huddled was built in 1911.8

The night before the AARIR formation meeting, more than 2,000 Irish sympathizers marched past the White House “through a driving cold rain” to the Coliseum, “where they joined waiting thousands at the auditorium in a monster protest meeting against America’s silence on conditions in Ireland. … Undaunted by the refusal of the fire marshal to permit more than 3,500 persons in the hall, fully 4,000 persons awaited outside in the rain, where they were addressed during the evening by De Valera …”9

Center Market, 1920s.

The “Coliseum” at the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue was a wing of the Center Market, “a massive, sprawling marketplace, one of the biggest in the country,” located there since the early 1800s. The building used for the 1920 Irish meeting opened in 1872 and closed in 1931.10

***

Odd Fellows Hall, cirica 1921. Library of Congress

On Dec. 8 and 9, 1920, the Odd Fellows Hall at 419 Seventh Street N.W., hosted American Commission hearings featuring the highly anticipated testimoney of Murial MacSwiney, wife of the late hunger striker, and his sister, Mary. The building opened in 1917 replaced the fraternal organization’s earlier, more ornate home.11

“A large crowd assembled at Odd Fellows Hall this morning long before the hearing was scheduled to begin,” one of the dailies reported. “Only 600 tickets of admission were distributed, but more than three times that number waited in the corridors of the building in an effort to gain admission.”12

St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Church image from 1976

Murial MacSwiney also attended Mass at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church. “Hundreds of persons thronged the vacinity of the church to catch a glimse of the visitor,” the press reported.13

St. Matthew’s was designated a cathedral in 1939, and in 1963 it was site of the funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy. The city’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, established in 1792 as “the oldest parish in the Federal City” and the site of an annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass.

It’s also worth noting that Irish-born and pro-independence Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne, Australia, stopped in Washington in July 1920, a month before his arrest by British authorities while trying to visit Ireland. During his stay Mannix attended events at Catholic University of America, and Georgetown University, both church-affiliated institutions.

St. Matthew’s, St. Patrick’s, the Odd Fellows Hall, and the two universities survive today. The Munsey Building, both downtown hotels, and the two event venues were scraped from the Washington, D.C. cityscape decades ago.

Ireland and JFK’s 1960 U.S. presidential victory

Irish-American Catholic Joe Biden’s victory as U.S. president recalls the historic election of Irish-American Catholic John Fitzgerald Kennedy 60 years ago. I couldn’t resist a nostalgic look back to November 1960:

In many Irish homes people stayed up late on Tuesday to get the early results, and tens of thousands were at their television sets from 6 a.m. on Wednesday to follow the count,” Derry People reported.1 Irish people and Irish papers also coped with tragic news from beyond the island: “Rejoicing throughout the country [at Kennedy’s success] was turned to gloom … when news came over the radio that a patrol of 11 Irish soldiers, serving with the United Nations’ force in the Congo, had been ambushed by Baluba tribesmen and that 10 of them were feared dead.”2

The Irish Examiner editorialized that Kennedy’s election was received “with gratification” and:

… hailed as a victory for Irish blood and the old faith, but others saw in it the culmination of the battle for recognition of the descendants of this land, from the generation which took part in the great diaspora of our race after the famine years. Their fight has been a hard one but eventually they gained admission to the councils of their adopted country only to be denied the supreme honor. Senator Kennedy is the symbol of that victory.3

Kennedy had visited Ireland three times before he was elected president: in 1939 with his father, then U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy; in 1945 after his service in World War II, when he interviewed Taoiseach Éamon de Valera for the New York Journal-American; and in 1955, as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, when he met with T.D. Liam Cosgrave.

“We should like to think that during his term of office he will visit again the land of his forebears,” wished the Evening Herald, Dublin.4 Kennedy did return to Ireland in June 1963, a triumphal, multi-stop visit overshadowed five months later by his assassination in Dallas.

Kennedy’s election came 32 years after anti-Catholic bias was used to help defeat New York Gov. Al Smith’s campaign for the presidency. The issue of religious prejudice resonated in 1960 Northern Ireland, a decade before the Troubles, as editorialize by Derry People:

By the election of Senator John F. Kennedy as next President of the United States a bigoted and vengeful tradition has come to an end, the voters showing that they will no longer accept that a Catholic candidate must be denied the highest office is his country’s gift.  … Here in Ireland there is rejoicing at the result. It is indeed a wonderful thing that the great-grandson of a poor Irish farmer, one of the millions of victims of the artificial Famine in this land, has ascended to the highest post, which a layman can occupy in the world today. …

We are not at all reluctant to point the moral of the Catholic candidate’s success, and as we see it, Senator Kennedy’s victory shows what can be done for truth and justice if decent people unite against bigotry and spleen. Let our readers reflect that if Senator Kennedy were today an applicant in these Six Counties for appointment as a consultant physician, the higher civil service, a county surveyorship, a clerk of the Crown and Peace or any of the other top jobs, he would not be successful. The truth is that the distinguished young man who today is America’s President-Elect would be voted down, as a Catholic if he dared to stand for the Mayoralty of Derry.5

Kennedy and De Valera in 1963.

Kennedy never mentioned his Catholic faith in his 1963 address to the Dáil. He acknowledged Ireland’s many contributions to the United States and its contemporary work at the United Nations, including, by then, the deaths of 26 peacekeeping troops in the Congo.

And Kennedy humorously noted the irony of how he was the first American president to visit Ireland during a term of office, while the American-born de Valera (who tried to influence the 1920 U.S. presidential election) watched in the chamber as the president of Ireland.

“I am deeply honored to be your guest in a Free Parliament in a free Ireland,” Kennedy said. “If this nation had achieved its present political and economic stature a century or so ago, my great grandfather might never have left New Ross, and I might, if fortunate, be sitting down there with you. Of course if your own President had never left Brooklyn, he might be standing up here instead of me.”

Earlier posts on Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for U.S. president:

Catching up with modern Ireland: October

Monument in Eyre Square, Galway city, marks JFK’s June 1963 visit. November 2018 photo.

In a few days (or weeks?) we should know whether Irish-American-Catholic Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidency, 60 years after the historic election of Irish-American-Catholic John F. Kennedy. A sentimental milestone for some (and eye roll for others), a Biden administration appears poised to pay close attention to the impact of Brexit on the Irish border and any U.S.-U.K trade deal, as well as visa and citizenship issues for Irish people in America. A Biden win would help take some of the sting from this year’s cancelled St. Patrick’s Day events on both sides of the Atlantic and the lost summer of tourism in Ireland. Let Trump rule his links at Doonbeg.

Here’s the October roundup:

  • On Oct. 22, the Republic of Ireland became the first European country to reimpose a nationwide lockdown following a surge in coronavirus cases. New quarantine rules apply until Dec. 1.
  • The five-year Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report is to be finalized Oct. 30, though its public release date remains unclear. Expect a wave of damning coverage about how the Catholic Church and the State handled Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens.
  • “I continue to be amazed by the lack of knowledge or interest in the political and social affairs of both a part of the UK – the North – and also of our near neighbour – the Republic,” Conservative MP Simon Hoare wrote in a column for The Irish Times.
  • The Police Service of Northern Ireland began a three-month pilot program for new-look uniforms, but a proposal to drop the words “Northern Ireland” from the force’s official crest, replaced only with NI, was rejected, the Belfast Telegraph reported. PSNI was formed after the Good Friday Agreement as a more inclusive successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
  • “Sublime Chaos” is the headline of a short New Yorker piece about the “mystical Irish Dadaism” of Dublin composer Jennifer Walshe. “When I was younger, I wanted to run away from Irish identity, which at times can be so narrow and confining and politically problematic,” said Walshe, born in 1974. “But it’s part of me, and it belongs to everyone here.” (Thanks ADH.)
  • The Book of Lismore, created in the late 15th century, has been donated to University College Cork (UCC) after centuries in a British estate. This major medieval manuscript, created at Kilbrittain, Co. Cork, in a golden age of Irish literature, is considered as one of the Great Books of Ireland.

Three from Kerry:

  • Europe’s rarest fern has been discovered in Killarney. Stenogrammitis myosuroides, has only ever previously been found in the mountainous cloud forests of Jamaica, Cuba, and Dominican Republic, according to The Guardian. “Kerry mousetail” has been suggested as the common name for the plant.
  • A plant appears, an animal disappears: Fungie, the resident male, bottlenose dolphin that helped transform Dingle from a small fishing and farming community into a global tourist destination, has vanished after 37 years, The New York Times (with lovely photos) and other media reported.
  • Finally, there’s some anthropologic evidence that natives of the Kingdom are less susceptible to COVID-19, says Maynooth University’s Ciarán Walsh.

Alas, the annual November conference of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland is cancelled due to COVID. See details of previous conferences. Best wishes to members and past participants.

See past monthy and annual roundups.

The grounds of the Belfast Botanic Gardens and Palm House. November 2019 photo.

MacSwiney’s martyrdom in the Irish-American press

MacSwiney

The Oct. 25, 1920, hunger strike death of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney in an English prison increased international attention on Ireland’s fight for independence. Irish leader Eamon de Valera, nearing the end of his 18-month tour of the United States, said that MacSwiney and other Irish hunger strikers “were forced by the tyranny that would deprive them of liberty to make death the alternative.” The Friends of Irish Freedom organized “manifestations of indignation and sorrow” in American cities. At New York City’s Polo Grounds, an estimated 40,000 attended an observance inside the baseball stadium, with another 10,000 kept outside the gates.

Below are short excerpts from four editorials in the Irish-American press about MacSwiney’s martyrdom. Click the hyperlinked headline below each quote to see the digitized newspaper page with the full editorial.

“What must be the infamy of a system that survives only by sending Pearse and Casement to a quicklime grave, or MacSwiney to a death such as that described by the dispatches of recent days have given so much space.”

MacSwiney, The Irish Press, Philadelphia, Oct. 30

“At the funeral in the city of which MacSwiney was the Chief Magistrate, the English savages made utterly needless display of machine guns, armed motor lorries and ‘Black and Tan’ murderers and looters for the purpose of overawing the people, but which only succeeded in demonstrating to the world that England holds Ireland only by brute force. The whole MacSwiney episode, designed by Lloyd George as a means of striking terror into the Irish people has had the very opposite effect.”

MacSwiney’s Spirit Still Lives, The Gaelic American, New York, Nov. 6

“During the past week the tricolor of the Irish republic, carried in tremendous demonstrations on every continent of the globe, has been saluted as the emblem of the universal freedom sanctified and made secure by the voluntary sacrifice of the martyred Irishman.”

The Tribute of Humanity, News Letter, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6

” ‘It is not,’ MacSwiney told his fellow countrymen upon his election as Lord Mayor of Cork on March 30, 1920, ‘to those who can inflict the most suffering, but to those who can suffer most that victory will come.’ ”

Martyred, Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, Oct. 30

Catching up with modern Ireland: September

The extraordinary year 2020 is three quarters done. On the island of Ireland two big questions hang over the remaining quarter: can the COVID-19 pandemic be managed and contained without too large an increase of infections and deaths; and can Britain and the E.U. agree a final Brexit trade deal? The monthy roundup picks from there:

  • The Republic of Ireland postponed the scheduled April 2021 Census until April 2022 because of the pandemic and to ensure the decenial count “achieves the highest possible response rate, across all facets of Irish society,” Central Statistics Office Director General Pádraig Dalton said.
  • The pandemic has relieved Dublin’s housing crunch that in recent years sent rents skyrocketing and left many people struggling to afford, or find, a place to live, The New York Times reported. How so? Denied tourists and business visitors, short-term Airbnb rentals have been returned to the market.
  • U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney said the American government is “confident the EU and UK will be able to work this [trade deal] out in a way that’s acceptable to everybody.”
  • Ireland’s 3 billion euro ($3.5 billion) plan to connect rural areas to high-speed broadband is proceeding quicker than expected, according to David McCourt, chairman of National Broadband Ireland (NBI), the vehicle created by U.S. media and telecoms investment firm Granahan McCourt. He told CNBC that despite some hurdles in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, the project could be completed in about seven years, under the originally slated 10 years. See my earlier post: Ireland’s broadband push recalls rural electrification effort.
  • As more of the world’s leading tech companies expand their operations in Ireland, the county is being forced to choose between its climate ambitions and investment from these giant firms, OilPrice.com reported. Massive data centers are great for the nation’s finances, but wearing on its energy infrastructure and increasing its carbon footprint.
  • Wild salmon returns have improved, likely due to an easier run for the fish into Ireland’s rivers during the COVID-19 lockdown, SeafoodSource says. But The Guardian carried a troubling report about how urban wastewater and nutrient runoff are polluting Ireland’s waterways.
  • Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden referenced his “Irish Catholic” roots during the Sept. 29 debate with President Donald Trump. The Irish Times described the televised confrontation as “shouting, interruptions and often incoherent cross talk.”

History News:

  • Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut received a $10,000 grant coronavirus relief grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities. It will be used to defray financial losses incurred during the museum’s extended closure during the pandemic.
  • The 100-mile (165K) National Famine Way hike/bike/history trail from Strokestown, Co Roscommon, to Dublin, opened after a decade of development. It follows the route of 1,490 tenants evicted from the Strokestown estate of Major Denis Mahon in 1847 and forced to walk to the “coffin ships” that would take them from Ireland to America and Canada.
  • The Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland has decided to bring charges against no more than one of 15 soldiers involved in the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights demonstrations in Derry, the BBC reports. Thirteen were killed and 15 wounded when troops opened fire on demonstrators.

The old man and the clock:

  • This photo of an old man enjoying his pint in a Galway pub captured international media attention. He apparantely didn’t have a watch or smart phone to avoid overstaying the 90-minute limit imposed by Ireland’s COVID-19 restrictions, so he brought a bedside alarm clock. 

John Joe Quinn at McGinn’s Hop House in Galway city. Photo, Fergus McGinn.

John Feerick on ‘Irish roots and American promise’

The dust jacket and marketing materials for John D. Feerick’s memoir, That Further Shore [Fordham University Press], say the author’s life “has all the elements of a modern Horatio Alger story: the poor boy who achieves success by dint of his hard work.” It’s also an Irish-American success story: the son of 1920s Co. Mayo immigrants who became the first in his family to attend college and law school.

Feerick was inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to service in the 1960s. He helped frame the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in part because of Kennedy’s assassination. He became dean of Fordham University Law and president of the New York City Bar Association.

In 1995, Feerick joined the American delegation for Bill Clinton’s historic visit to Northern Ireland, which set the stage for the Good Friday Agreement. He was a founder of Fordham Law’s Belfast/Dublin Program, now in its 20th year.

John D. Feerick on Zoom, Sept. 23.

Ireland was always very present,” in songs, stories, and pictures on the wall of the small South Bronx apartment where he grew up, Feerick said during a Sept. 23 digital “fireside chat” hosted by Brehon Law Society. Like most Irish immigrants, his parents “never saw their parents again; they never saw their siblings again. They didn’t have any money to go back.”

Feerick has made numerous trips to both sides of the Irish border, including genealogical reasearch for his memoir, a labor of love some 18 years in the making. He enthused about meeting distant relations and finding records with small but dear details of information. He acknowledged the opportunites lost to question key people while they were alive: he doesn’t know for sure how his parents met in America.

“It means everything to me,” Feerick said of his Irish heritage. “It’s part of my roots.”

He has hesitated, however, to place his name on Ireland’s Foreign Birth Register, which confers citizenship and elegibilty for an Irish passport, as so many of us have done.

“I’ve wrestled with it, but haven’t done it,” he said. “I consider myself an American Irishman.”

Feerick was diplomatic in answering a question about the impact of Brexit on the Irish border, subject of my last post:

“I can’t imagine that responsible leadership would remove the open border between the north and south,” he said. “That was so integral to the Agreement.”

Feerick also briefly discussed his work with two recently deceased figures, one from each side of the Atlantic:

  • Irish nationalist politician John Hume of Derry, who died Aug. 3: They were introduced during a 1994 luncheon at Fordham. “I really didn’t appreciate how important he was,” Feerick said. “He said, ‘Great lunch, but I want more from you. Come to Northern Ireland.’ ” During the Clinton visit the following year, they laid the groundwork for the Fordham-Ulster Conflict Resolution Program, then the summer law program.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18: They met in New York City law school circles. Feerick testified on Ginsburg’s behalf at her 1993 U.S. Senate confirmation hearing. “She was a person of fantastic commitment, especially on the issue of descrimiation against women,” he said. She became the outstanding lawyer in America in terms of gender descrimination.”

More of Feerick’s reflections about his life and writing his memoir are found in his Aug. 9 post for History News Network.

Brexit and the Irish-American vote

In 1920, many Irish-American voters were focused on their homeland’s struggle for independence from Britain. It was hardly the biggest issue of the campaign, dominated by domestic economic and social concerns in America’s first post-World War I election. U.S. Sen. Warren Harding, an Ohio Republican, defeated the state’s Democratic Gov. James M. Cox.

In 2020, Irish-American voters with relations, friends, or business interests on either side of the Irish border are watching Britain’s departure from the European Union, the so-called Brexit. British officials recently suggested they might break an earlier trade deal regarding the Irish border. As National Review explains:

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with a member of the EU — the Irish Republic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the decades-long civil conflict in the province between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists (That’s NR’s word, I’d say nationalists.), established an open border on the island of Ireland so that people and goods could travel seamlessly between North and South. This was a rather easy measure to implement because both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were in the EU at the time, and so they were bound by the same customs and market regulations.

The sticking point in the exit negotiations between the British and EU delegations was how to maintain an open border in Ireland once the UK had left the EU regulatory framework. Differing regulations and standards between the two countries could, without any physical border infrastructure, lead to rampant smuggling and undermine the internal integrity of the EU market. But all sides balked at the idea of putting up a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic given the violent history and still-volatile politics surrounding the constitutional question.

Now, as The Washington Post reported, “relations between Europe and Britain have grown shouty.” American politicians want to be heard, too.

The border on Killeen School Road County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Oliver Dixon

“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. Former Vice President Joe Biden, this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, issued  a similar Sept. 16 tweet:  “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland weighed in a few days later:

“Everyone assures me that no one is interested in seeing a hard border between the republic and Northern Ireland,” Mick Mulvaney said in an interview with the Financial Times. “We appreciate that, we respect that and we agree with that. The one thing I keep trying to assure is on the front of everybody’s mind is avoiding a border by accident. The Trump administration, state department and the U.S Congress would all be aligned in the desire to see the Good Friday agreement preserved to see the lack of a border maintained.”

Still, Brexit is hardly the top of mind issue for Irish-American voters, or any segment of the American electorate. With early voting underway in several states, the 2020 campaign is a referendum on Trump’s overall behavior, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, and now a fierce fight over filling, or waiting to fill, a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

Which helps illustrate another point:

“The Irish vote has become not, unfortunately, the lockup of the Democratic Party,” Brian O’Dwyer, vice president of the Irish American Democrats, told The New York Times in May. “But it is one of the few swing votes, along with the Catholic vote, left in the United States, and you can see various patterns back and forth where the Irish in particular have gone one way or another.”

Or as a columnist Tom Deignan wrote in August in Irish America magazine, “2020 may finally be the year we recognize the many shades of green out there amidst the red and blue of politically-polarized America.”

Also see:

Guest post: Irish-American isolationism and Irish internationalism

I am pleased to welcome Dr. Michael Doorley, associate lecturer in History at the Open University in Ireland, as guest writer. He is a graduate of University College Dublin and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is widely published on the history of the Irish diaspora in the United States, including numerous book chapters. His own books include, Irish American Diaspora Nationalism: The Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916—1935 (2005), and Justice Daniel Cohalan, 1865-1946: American patriot and Irish-American nationalist, from Cork University Press. MH

***

Irish-American isolationism and Irish internationalism: The dispute between Justice Daniel Cohalan and Éamon de Valera in 1920

In June 1919 Éamon de Valera, then leader of the Irish nationalist movement Sinn Féin and president of the newly established Irish Dáil, arrived in the United States. He would remain there until December 1920. De Valera sought to win American recognition for the self-proclaimed Irish Republic and raise money for the ongoing political and military campaign against British forces in Ireland. 

In achieving these objectives, de Valera sought the help of two Irish-American nationalist organizations. The secret Clan na Gael, then led by the aged Fenian leader John Devoy and the more broad-based Friends of Irish Freedom organization (FOIF), founded by Judge Daniel Cohalan, at the first 1916 “Race Convention” in New York. The FOIF had branches across the United States and by the end of 1920 numbered 275,000 regular and associate members.1. The American-born Cohalan, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland during the Famine, was a New York State Supreme Court Justice with close connections to the American Catholic hierarchy and leading politicians from both main parties. In 1919, Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Cohalan as “one of the ablest men to ever come to Washington to plead a cause. The citizens of Irish blood are fortunate in having him as a leader”.2

That de Valera, the leader of Sinn Féin, would choose to remain in the United States for 18 months at such a momentous time, highlights the importance of the American dimension to the Irish struggle for independence. In justifying American intervention in the war, President Woodrow Wilson had called for the establishment of a League of Nations which would adjudicate disputes between nations so as to prevent future conflicts. Wilson had also highlighted that the war was being fought for the principle of justice for all nationalities though he had not the Irish in mind when he made this pronouncement. 3.

Judge Daniel Cohalan and Éamon de Valera soon after the Irish leaders June 1919 arrival. Library of Congress.

Irish-American nationalists had other ideas. In May 1919, just before de Valera’s arrival in the United States, Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho, a close ally of Cohalan, introduced a resolution in the Senate calling on the American delegation at the ongoing Paris Peace Conference to secure a hearing for an Irish delegation at the event. The resolution also expressed sympathy for Irish “self-determination” and was passed by 60-1, with 35 senators abstaining.4 President Wilson, unwilling to offend Britain, chose to ignore this resolution but de Valera had every reason to hope that further Irish-American political pressure could be applied to force the American government to back Irish demands.   

One might have expected a close working relationship between the leaders of Irish and Irish-American nationalism and indeed relations between de Valera and Cohalan were initially good. In particular, De Valera recognized that Cohalan, with his social and political connections, could be a vital ally to his mission. In February 1919, a few months before de Valera’s arrival in the United States, an Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia, chaired by Judge Cohalan, launched a “Victory Fund” in support of the Irish cause. A portion of these funds facilitated de Valera’s successful tour of the United States. While Cohalan initially objected to de Valera’s bond drive, believing that the sale of bonds on behalf of a country that did not yet exist would be illegal, a compromise was found. Bond “certificates” rather than actual bonds were sold. FOIF National Secretary, Cork-born Diarmuid Lynch, who had fought heroically in the 1916 Rising, turned over the names and address of the organization’s members to de Valera’s bond drive committee. Meanwhile, members of the Clan and the FOIF enthusiastically participated in the Bond Drive. Over $5 million was collected and this aspect of de Valera’s American mission proved to be a resounding success.5

Tensions Developed

Despite Cohalan’s cooperation with de Valera’s bond drive, tensions developed between both men. Given Cohalan’s relative obscurity in Irish history, it would be easy to explain this dispute in terms of personality factors. Indeed, de Valera has lent credence to this view. In one report to Arthur Griffith, then acting head of the Irish cabinet in Dublin, de Valera expressed his frustration with Cohalan. “Big as the country is, it was not big enough to hold the Judge and myself”.6 

John Devoy

However, a close study of Cohalan’s background and belief system offers another explanation for the growing tension. While the American-born Cohalan was an Irish nationalist and strongly anti-British, he also saw himself as a defender of the Irish “race” in the United States. Since its foundation in 1903, the Clan newspaper, the Gaelic American, edited by Devoy, confronted claims that the Catholic Irish were not fully loyal to the American nation and followed the orders of the Pope and Irish nationalist leaders. Cohalan was also an American isolationist and many of his publications attacked perceived attempts by so-called “pro-British” elements in the United States to forge an Anglo-American alliance. Cohalan believed that such an alliance would not only be detrimental to Irish-American and American interests but would also enhance the power of the British Empire and thus weaken Irish struggle for independence.7.

Like Devoy, Cohalan associated Wilson with a dominant Anglo-Saxon elite in American society that identified with the interests of Britain as much as the United States. He believed that Wilson’s proposed League of Nations was merely a cover for an Anglo-American alliance. As Cohalan remarked in a speech in Brooklyn, New York in March 1919: “How clever the Englishman who devised the term, but oh, how much more strongly an appeal a ‘League of Nations’ makes to mankind in general than a League for the preservation of the British Empire.”8   

In contrast, de Valera was generally supportive of Wilson’s idea of a League of Nations once an independent Ireland could be a member. In a predatory international system of powerful and weak states, a functioning League could offer a degree of security to an emerging state like Ireland. In July 1919, just after he arrived in the United States, de Valera informed Arthur Griffith in Dublin that he was trying to let Wilson know that “if he goes for his 14 points as they were and a true League of Nations, men and women of Irish blood will be behind him”.9 De Valera’s awareness of the weakness of small independent states was also apparent in his famous Westminster Gazette interview in February 1920. Conscious of British security needs and the limited sovereignty of small nations, de Valera suggested that the Platt Amendment, which governed Cuba’s relations with the United States, could provide a possible model for Anglo-Irish relations after Ireland became independent10. This provoked a furious reaction from both Devoy and Cohalan who feared that such a move would only strengthen the British Empire. Devoy in the pages of the Gaelic American now openly attacked de Valera claiming that giving such rights to England would be “suicidal” for Irish interests.11

Joseph McGarrity

Broadly, the dispute between Cohalan and de Valera related to who should determine the strategy of the Irish nationalist movement in the United States. Some leading members of the American Clan such as Joseph McGarrity, publisher of The Irish Press in Philadelphia, believed that the direction of the movement should lie in Irish hands. Other followers of Cohalan such as Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit questioned de Valera’s right to dictate policy to Americans. According to Gallagher, such a policy would only confirm American nativist prejudice that the Irish followed the instructions of “foreign potentates”.12

Matters came to a head in June 1920 at the Republican National Convention in Chicago where a Cohalan delegation and a de Valera delegation appeared, each urging the U.S. political party to adopt competing policy planks in favor of Irish independence. Cohalan’s resolution was a loose wording in favor of Irish self-determination and had majority support within the Resolutions committee. In contrast, de Valera’s resolution called for recognition of an Irish republic and was rejected by the committee. Following de Valera disavowal of Cohalan’s policy plank, a perplexed committee decided to wash their hands entirely of the Irish question and adopted no resolution in favor of Ireland.13

New Group

In November 1920, Sinn Féin in America broke off relations with the Clan and the FOIF and formed a new organization called the American Association for the Recognition of an Irish Republic (AARIR). It is debatable whether de Valera really believed that he could persuade any American government to recognize an Irish Republic. To do so would lead to a serious rupture in relations between the U.S. and the U.K. In a letter to Michael Collins on his return to Ireland de Valera admitted as much:

Though I was working directly for recognition in America, I kept in mind as our main political objective the securing of America’s influence, in case she was to join the League of Nations, to securing us also a place with the League…. Recognition of the Irish Republic we will only get in case of a [US] war with England tho’ of course we should never cease our demand for it.14

Pro-Ireland parade outside the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago. The sign says, “Our Dead in France Demand Ireland’s Freedom. Don’t Break Faith with Our Dead.” The marchers waved U.S. flags to generate enthusiasm and avoid protest. Photo and original caption from the Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1920.

From de Valera’s perspective, to have accepted Cohalan’s resolution at the Republican convention would have made him appear a “puppet” of other forces. De Valera believed that Irish-Americans should follow the dictates of the “Home Organization” and in this regard he had the full support of the IRB in Ireland.15 However, Cohalan and Devoy were not only motivated by loyalty to Ireland but also by loyalty to what they felt were the interests of the United States and Irish America. These interests were not always compatible with de Valera’s goals and the resulting tension and strife came at a time when a united front between Irish America and Ireland was sorely needed.

***

Potential guest writers are welcome to contact me through the comments feature. See my “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series for more articles about this period.

Catching up with modern Ireland: August

This month’s round up leads with two deaths, one on each side of the Atlantic, both connected to Northern Ireland: 1998 Nobel Prize-winning Irish politician John Hume, 83, of Derry, who helped forge the Good Friday Agreement; and journalist and author Pete Hamill, 85, the Brooklyn-born son of Belfast Catholic immigrants.

Hume

“Hume combined moral clarity against violence and strategic vision for what peace might entail with a politician’s embrace of life’s complexities, the need to compromise and to take risks, to find where power lies and to exploit it,” Tom McTague wrote in The Atlantic. “Hume was supremely successful in this effort, whether you agree with the ends he pursued or the tactics he deployed to achieve them; he was not a saint, but a man who made judgments that are not beyond reproach. He abhorred violence, but brought Sinn Fein’s leaders (who did not) to the top table of Northern Irish politics. In seeking out giants, we are too quick to seek out perfection, when no such thing exists. Hume’s legacy lies in the compromises he championed and the complexities he recognized.

***

Hamill

“Hamill was among the last symbols of a bygone era, when idiosyncratic newspaper columnists like Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York were celebrities in the cities they covered,” Harrison Smith wrote in the Washington Post. “He was in the vanguard of the New Journalism movement, when writers such as Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Breslin applied the traditional tools of literary fiction to works of reporting, often while writing about ordinary people who usually never made headlines.”

***

Also in August:

  • The Irish Examiner was first to report that more than 80 people attended an Irish golf society event in Clifden, County Galway, breaching COVID-19 restrictions in spirit, if not in fact. Three Irish politicians have resigned their posts. The scandal is emblematic of larger problems in the three-party coalition cobbled together four months after Irish elections, the Examiner’s Gerald Howlin wrote under the headline, “Golfgate shows the government has the wrong clubs in the bag“.
  • In the Republic of Ireland, 1,777 people died of coronavirus as of Aug. 30, and 142 new cases at month’s end caused health officials to warn of a second national lock down, The Irish Times reported. At least 871 people have died from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland through Aug. 21.
  • The North’s top tourist attraction reopened Aug. 1 with safety measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic. “But it could be months, possibly years, before Titanic Belfast is anywhere near back to delivering the sort of economic statistics which has earned it international plaudits,” The Irish News reported.
  • Next to the museum, Harland & Wolff has benefited from ferry and cruise ship firms using the famous shipyard’s dry docks to carry out maintenance during the pandemic shutdown. The firm is still fighting for its long-term financial survival.
  • One more from the North: “No United Ireland. Not Now. Not Ever,” says Briefings For Britain, which insists “the impact of Brexit on Irish unity remains unclear.” … U.K. and E.U. negotiators are still trying to reach a trade agreement before the Dec. 31 end of the Brexit transition period.  
  • Fitch Ratings affirmed an A+ Stable Outlook for the Republic, factoring the uncertainties of the pandemic, Brexit, and the coalition government.
  • The Republic’s population is on the threshold of 5 million, reaching an estimated 4.98 million as of April, according to the Central Statistics Office. Total population on the island of Ireland, including the North, reached 5.1 million in 2016, exceeding the 1851 post-Famine census total for the first time.

A road on Inisheer, August 2019.

Votes for women, support for Ireland

National Museum of American History

In 10 weeks American women are expected to have a large impact in deciding the U.S. presidential election, which arrives at the centenary of their enfranchisement. The August 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution also was followed by a presidential vote in America as the war of independence unfolded in Ireland.

“Women of Irish blood in the United States should lose no time in qualifying as voters, so that their wonderful influence may be used to make better laws in the United States, as well as assisting to secure recognition of the Irish Republic,” The Irish Press of Philadelphia editorialized. “Those who fail to do so are neglecting their duty and will be held responsible for their negligence by those of the race who make use of this new and powerful weapon, which the vote places in the hands of every woman who can qualify as a citizen of this Republic.1

Irish women had received restricted voting rights in February 1918. Ten months later they helped sweep republican Sinn Féin candidates to office, including Constance Georgine Markievicz, the first women elected to Parliament. “Countess” Markievicz and the other separatists refused their seats in London and instead formed a breakaway government in Dublin.

By August 1920, the war in Ireland was turning more brutal. Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney and others were dying in prison hunger strikes. “Will the newly-enfranchised American Women show their love for freedom and justice by asking their Government to prove its good faith to the democracies of the world by stopping the murder of Mayor MacSwiney and his companions?” Irish activist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington asked in a public cable.2

A small but determined group of American women activists continued their months-long protest against imperial rule in Ireland through demonstrations outside the British embassy and other locations in Washington, D.C. Some suffragists and supporters of Irish independence criticized their tactics as counterproductive.

In a pair of early September 1920 editorials, The Irish Press addressed both the “women pickets” and MacSwiney’s pending martyrdom:3

American women will appreciate the suffering of the wives and mothers of Irishmen who are forced to sacrifice all for their motherland. American women are now fully enfranchised citizens; will they by their votes permit the continued recognition by the United States of the Government in Ireland [Britain] that is responsible for conditions such as this? …

The people of Ireland … may expect the utmost assistance of all American women. … Picketing … is not easy work [and] many men would not care to undertake it. … If all the women in the United States would take action, not necessarily in the same manner, but with the same earnestness, the mothers of Ireland would never again need to sacrifice their sons.

Ireland was not a major issue in the November 1920 election. Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio overwhelmed the state’s Democratic Gov. James M. Cox in a rebuke to Woodrow Wilson’s eight years in the White House. Women swelled the voting turnout to nearly 27 million from 18.5 million four years earlier. Harding supported Irish humanitarian relief early in 1921, but his administration took an arms-length approach the war, then quickly endorsed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Irish-American influence ebbed in Washington as Americans focused on domestic affairs.4

American women pickets on behalf of Ireland, April 1920.

Further reading:

Tara M. McCarthy’s Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920 is “an important and understudied perspective on the evolution of women’s activism in the United States … emphasizing the particular role of Irish American women in the politics of reform through the interlinked lenses of Irish nationalism, labor, and suffrage,” the Women’s History Association of Ireland said in a review. “These are explored using local, national, and transnational contexts and therefore provide a useful addition to the study of American politics in addition to the Irish diaspora’s experiences abroad.”

The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial website offers several profiles of native Irish and Irish-American women who helped win the vote a century ago. They including:

Burns and other women are also in the “Fearless: A Tribute to Irish American Women” feature from the Library of Congress.

My “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series includes an interview with American historian Catherine M. Burns about the 1920 women’s pickets. A separate post about Mary Galvin of Philadelphia explores the activity of one of the women.

Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City, October 1917.