This post is based on my review of the Samuel Duff McCoy papers at Princeton University. It is part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence series, which I am expanding into a book. MH
Journalist Samuel Duff McCoy began a year of travel in revolutionary Ireland with a three-day side trip to Washington D.C.; arriving Jan. 22, 1921, by train from New York City. His itinerary in the capital included a stop at the Quality Shop, 1307 F Street, N.W., three blocks from the White House. The 39-year-old probably admired the shop’s selection of new phonographs, perhaps he even sampled some music in one of the “soundproof, comfortable demonstrating parlors.” An advertisement promised “the afternoon’s work will be more pleasant and you will work with more zest if you drop in for a half hour or so and hear Art Hickman’s latest jazz hit, Bert Williams’ new ‘blues,’ Nora Bayes’ character song or inimitable Al Jolson.”
McCoy’s 1921 passport photo.
But McCoy visited the shop to pose for a passport photo as he readied to cross the Atlantic. Leaders of the newly-formed American Committee for Relief in Ireland had just appointed him as the secretary of an eight-member delegation that would assess humanitarian needs after two years of war between Irish separatists and British authorities. Dressed in a dark suit and vest, a lightly polka dotted bow tie tucked underneath his white shirt collar, McCoy faced the camera with a serious, determined look.
The Iowa-born McCoy began his newspaper career in 1903 after graduating from Princeton University. He started at the Washington Times, moved on to the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Evening Sun, then the Public Ledger and Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia. In 1917, when the United States entered the war in Europe, McCoy became publicity director for the Philadelphia chapter of the American Red Cross. He rejoined the Sun in New York after the armistice.
But McCoy was no ordinary newspaper man. From age 16 he contributed prose and poetry to national magazines. He was among only a few non-senior editors of Princeton’s Nassau Literary Magazine, and later co-founded the journal Contemporary Verse. In 1904, Chicago’s Marshall Field hired McCoy as a private tutor for his two grandsons during a two-month trip to Augusta, Ga., aboard the private rail car of Robert Todd Lincoln, president of the Pullman Company and son of the assassinated Civil War president. McCoy also worked as an editor at the Bobbs-Merrill book publishing company in Indianapolis, Ind.
As McCoy completed the paperwork for his 1921 passport, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer wrote a letter of introduction on his behalf to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John W. Davis in London. Palmer and McCoy knew each other from Philadelphia, and they potentially reconnected in Washington that January. Palmer wrote to Davis: “I do not know what he is going to England for, but I can vouch for the character of any work undertakes.” He described the journalist as “a loyal American, a keen observer, and a splendid writer.”
Within days of Palmer’s letter, attorney Richard Campbell, the New York City-based secretary of the American Committee, sent a hand-written letter to McCoy about the upcoming trip. The County Antrim native mentioned his family and business contacts in Ireland who would either look up McCoy in Dublin or welcome him to other parts of the country. “Have as good a time as you can. Don’t get shot—remain indoors at night,” Campbell advised.
By mid-February, McCoy and the seven other Americans sat down in London with British officials to discuss the situation in Ireland. Then, the U.S. delegation crossed the Irish Sea to Dublin. They spent six weeks in Ireland, traveling to nearly 100 cities and villages in 22 of the island’s 32 counties.
McCoy wrote the delegation’s official report, “Distress in Ireland,” as he returned to America in April. His narrative, addressed to the American Committee’s executive board and released to the public as a 14-page pamphlet, refers to “your delegation” and “our investigation.” McCoy turned self-referential in the last paragraph of the report:
The need from the burning of homes seems to me to be both great and pressing. We went through dozens of towns where there were homes and shops burnt; in most cases these people have made claims for damages, but in the meantime, these claims have not been paid, in many cases there is little probability of their ever being paid. As an individual I am entirely convinced that many of these people were entirely innocent of any complicity in the acts for which there were punished by having their homes burnt.
Back in Washington, McCoy unsuccessfully lobbied U.S. State Department officials to support the relief effort. The American government balked at providing domestic aid to Great Britain as London officials declared the relief effort succor to the Irish separatists. Despite its stated desire to remain non-partisan, the American Committee would have to work directly with the Irish White Cross, which was sympathetic to the Irish republican cause.
McCoy received correspondence from Clemens J. France, the delegation leader who had remained in Ireland. “I am very anxious to know regarding your reception by the (American) Committee in New York,” France wrote from Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel. “As yet I have received no word from the Committee as to future plans. Every one here, of course, is very anxious about the reconstruction work” being funded by the American relief money.
The relief effort also faced sectarian headwinds. France sent McCoy a copy of his letter to Campbell, the lawyer and Committee secretary, detailing efforts to collect the signatures of 1,000 prominent Irish Protestants who supported the American relief. “I think you will agree with me that these are times which call for active co-operation by all who are interested in the Christian principals of humanity, and it is in this spirt that I am making this appeal for your personal co-operation,” France wrote in his “Dear Sir (or Madam)” cover letter to potential signers. He told Campbell “about two hundred” had signed.
Through May McCoy attended public events to support the American fund raising effort, including Lord Mayor of Dublin Lawrence O’Neil’s stop in Boston. But the reporter soon returned to Ireland, this time accompanied by his wife.
“Welcome back to Ireland,” Frank Daly, chairman of the Cork Harbour Commission and Irish White Cross member wrote to McCoy in Dublin in late June. “We are rather in a state of chaos here just at present. … There are a great many cases requiring attention … “
McCoy’s itinerary through October included a mix of relief work, efforts to market his own writing and the manuscripts of Irish authors, and sightseeing. He was in Ireland for the start of the truce, partition of Northern Ireland, and prison release of separatist leaders as British and Irish negotiators in London hammered out the treaty that ended the war. He reunited with France. They rendezvoused with American Committee Treasurer John J. Pulleyn and Campbell, who had warned about gun violence, then making their own visit to Ireland.
As Pulleyn and Campbell prepared to sail back to America, the Irish negotiators in London issued a special letter thanking the American Committee “and all those in the United States who have contributed to its funds for the generous assistance sent to Ireland for the relief of the suffering, loss and misery incurred by the Irish people in their struggle for national independence.” The letter also expressed “appreciation of the able and devoted work done in Ireland on behalf of your committee my Messrs. France and McCoy and those associated with them.”
McCoy, moved by the acknowledgement, penned a note to Irish leader Arthur Griffith on R.M.S. Aquitania stationary. He wrote:
Throughout my association with the relief work in Ireland my one constantly recurring regret was that I could not do something directly for Ireland’s cause; the little that I might do in other directions seemed, and still seems, nothing compared with the devotion of Irish men and Irish women; and so, although the kind thing said in your letter moved me deeply because it came from such men as you, I can accept it only for what I inwardly hoped to be able to do and not for anything I did do.
‘The Lads’ series
A different image of McCoy was used in this newspaper advertisement for his 1922 series. Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.) Feb. 1, 1922.
Upon completing his fourth Atlantic crossing in mid-November, McCoy began to write a newspaper series about his 1921 experiences in Ireland. He “locked himself in at the Princeton Club (in New York City) and has been writing like mad against time ever since,” United Feature Syndicate manager Norris A. Huse told prospective editors days before Christmas. Huse continued:
“McCoy’s stuff is graphic. It will grip the readers and make an indelible impression. His words are alive. They pulsate. They paint a picture that moves. The papers that run this series will have a tremendous opportunity to make a tremendous circulation building feature of it. It’s big stuff–it’s news–it’s hot off the griddle–it’s a real BEAT!”
Huse syndicated McCoy’s 10-part, 20,000-word series in January 1922 under the headline “The Lads Who Freed Ireland.” The New York Morning World, Chicago Daily News, San Francisco Examiner, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), Fall River (Mass.) Globe, and Grand Island (Neb.) Daily Independent were among the U.S. papers that purchased the series for $20 per article. McCoy’s reporting from Ireland also appeared in Leslie’s Weekly and The Literary Digest magazines.
McCoy had met leading characters and witnessed important events in the final year of the Irish revolution. He didn’t get shot. But the heroic triumph of Irish separatists that he described was soon sullied by the Irish Civil War.
I will explore the series in a future post.