Tag Archives: American Commission on Conditions in Ireland

Irish Pittsburgh’s November to remember, 1920

Terence MacSwiney

Pittsburgh’s Irish community in November 1920 mourned the hunger-strike death of Terence MacSwiney and remembered the Manchester Martyrs of 1867. It followed news of “Bloody Sunday” in Dublin; the opening of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland hearings in Washington, D.C.; and the launch of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) to rival the established Clan na Gael and affiliated Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF).

About 14,000 Irish immigrants lived in Pittsburgh at the time, or 2.4 percent the city’s population; down from an 11 percent post-Famine peak of 27,000 in 1890.1 The population of first generation Irish Americans with at least one Irish-born parent in the city and surrounding regions is not clear.

Mourning MacSwiney

A reported 5,000 Irish sympathizers packed the Lyceum Theater in downtown Pittsburgh the evening of Oct. 31, 1920, to mourn MacSwiney’s death six days earlier. Another 2,000 unable to get inside held an overflow demonstration on Penn Avenue. Both groups listened to speeches for more than two hours about MacSwiney and the other hunger strikers Joseph Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald.2

Lyceum Theater sign can be seen in middle of the block of this 1914 photo. The downtown vaudeville house was a popular meeting place for Pittsburgh’s Irish community, including an anti-conscription protest and “Self-Determination for Ireland” rally in 1918.

Three days later, Catholic church hierarchy and over 2,000 mourners attended a solemn high mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the city’s Oakland district. An Irish tricolor was placed over a coffin. Subsequent memorial masses were held at St. Patrick’s Church, near downtown, with a sermon on “Destiny of the Irish Race”; and St. John the Evangelist, on the city’s Southside. 3

Martyrs Meeting

Western Pennsylvania representatives of the Clan na Gael packed the Lyceum again on Nov. 21 to hear Fenian legend John Devoy, then 78. There is no indication in the Pittsburgh newspaper coverage that news of the Bloody Sunday events hours earlier that day in Ireland reached the meeting. Instead, Devoy framed his Manchester Martyrs remembrance around the launch of the AARIR by Harry Boland and Éamon De Valera.

Pittsburgh newspaper headline the morning after John Devoy appearance in the city.

The “attempt to wreck the old organization which has kept the I.R.B. in Ireland alive for half a century, has had no effect whatever in Pittsburgh, except to make the members angry at [the] unwarrantable action, and they crowded the theater with their wives, children and neighbors to testify to their unbroken faith in the organization and the cause it represents in America but for its steadfastness and devotion.” Devoy’s Gaelic American reported two weeks later.4

The New York newspaper said its editor’s Pittsburgh hotel quarters were crowded “with old timers and young men who came to pledge their support in opposing the attempt to break the organization and to learn the inside history of the latest scheme to make a split among the American Irish.”

John Devoy

In his speech, Devoy recounted that he was locked up at Millbank Prison in London, about 200 miles south of Manchester, when William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien were executed. He said newspaper accounts were smuggled to him by the I.R.B.’s Tom O’Bolger, who had avoided capture in the attempt to free Fenian prisoners from English custody, the event that ensnared Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien.

“The executions were intended to strike terror into the Irish people, but they had the very opposite effect. A wave of anti-English feeling swept over Ireland,” Devoy told the Lyceum audience.5

‘Avoid Splits’

Devoy also warned the Pittsburgh Irish to “avoid splits, which have ruined every Irish movement for the past 100 years. … Now, when the Irish in America are more united than at any other period in the history of the country, a new split is launched. It can only help England and bring discouragement to the people in the Old Land. The one thing that Ireland needs most is a United Irish Race in America, standing shoulder to shoulder, and acting under their own elected leaders.”

The split did occur, as further reported in the same issue of the Gaelic American: “… De Valera … said there was no split and that the two organizations could get along without friction. While making this statement he was making all the friction he possibly could. … [FOIF members were] induced by gross falsehood and misrepresentation to succeed and join the rival organization which is creating disunion in America while Lloyd George is butchering the people of Ireland.”6

Commission Hearings

The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland was a non-U.S. government body created in autumn 1920 to generate political support for the Irish cause. Pittsburgh Leader Publisher Alexander P. Moore was selected to sit on the high-profile panel. A year earlier, as event co-chairman for de Valera’s visit to Pittsburgh, Moore described himself as “the son of an Ulster Protestant whose father was driven out of Ireland because he fought for Irish freedom.”7 The newspaper man excused himself from commission service because he was “unable to give the time necessary to the inquiry,” with hearings that lasted from November through January 1921.8

In early December, Pittsburgh innkeeper and Irish immigrant Patrick J. Guilfoil was called before the commission to testify about his experiences in Ireland earlier in the year. He described how Irish republican gunmen killed two Royal Irish Constabulary officers at Feakle, Co. Clare, where he was staying, which resulted in military reprisals on the village 50 miles north to Limerick city. Guilfoil also described the Cork city funeral procession of hunger striker Michael Fitzgerald. “Pittsburgh Witness In Irish Probe P.J. Guilfoil Tells of Raid by Military on County Clare Town’ and “Local Man Tells of Burning of Town in County Clare,” the city’s newspapers headlined.9

Guilfoil’s testimony was noted in other U.S. newspaper coverage of the Dec. 10 hearing, but it was overshadowed by the same-day testimony of Mary MacSwiney, sister of the late hunger striker; and by three former RIC officers who quit the force in protest of British “misrule” in Ireland. A treaty to separate Ireland from that rule and end the war would be agreed within a year. But the island was partitioned and the new free state plunged into civil war.

Related Work:

Irish government launches 5-year diaspora strategy

The Republic of Ireland has issued a new strategy to support and engage the state’s dispersed communities. “It takes a broad and inclusive definition of the diaspora, reflecting the diversity of the global Irish community today,” the government said.

At just 20 pages, Global Ireland: Ireland’s Diaspora Strategy 2020-2025 “is slender, but it contains real substance,” Minister of State for the Diaspora, Colm Brophy T.D., said during the report’s Nov. 19 virtual American debut, which was hosted by Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Muhall.

The plan has five strategic objectives:

  • People: ensure that the welfare of the Irish abroad remains at the heart of the state’s diaspora support.
  • Values: work with diaspora to promote Irish values abroad and celebrate the diversity of the diaspora.
  • Prosperity: build mutually beneficial economic ties with the diaspora.
  • Culture: support cultural expression among the diaspora.
  • Influence: extend Ireland’s global reach by connecting with the next generation.

The strategy vows to establish pathways to legal migration by Irish citizens to the US, continuing to support the E3 Visa bill, and seeking solutions for undocumented Irish citizens in the US to regularize their status. U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden figures to be a helpful partner in this regard.

The strategy also promises to “deepen our connection to people for whom Irish heritage is more distant, including the African-American and Hispanic communities in the United States.” The Embassy of Ireland in Washington and its U.S. consulates currently are partnering with organizations on both sides of the Atlantic to mark the 175th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s 1845-46 visit to Ireland.

The strategy contains only one reference to Northern Ireland, a vow to build ties to the Ulster-Scots diaspora.

Brophy, a Fine Gael T.D. who has represented Dublin-South-West since 2016, assumed the role of diaspora minister in July. He has been unable to travel outside Ireland due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cover image of the Global Ireland report (at top) is the lamp at Áras an Uachtaráin, a symbolic beacon, lighting the way for Irish emigrants and their descendants, welcoming them to their homeland.

See my recent article for the Irish Diaspora Histories Network: Home at War, 1920: Diaspora Witness Statements to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.

Feakle ambush & reprisals: Multiple views of an event

At midmorning Oct. 7, 1920, nearly two dozen Irish Republic Army gunmen hidden in houses fired on six Royal Irish Constabulary officers outside the Feakle, Co. Clare, post office. Two policemen were killed in the ambush; another badly wounded as he escaped with the other three officers after they exchanged fire with the snipers. 

What happened next was typical of the tit-for-tat of Ireland’s revolutionary period, as described by three people involved in the events:

  • “Everybody anticipated reprisals,” a local priest wrote a week later to an Irish newspaper. He described being “thrashed” by soldiers who also set fires “to illuminate the night’s proceedings.”1  
  • “The police and military come down the street banging and shooting and throwing hand grenades in all directions,” an American visitor to Feakle testified two months later at a Washington, D.C. hearing.2
  • “I asked for reinforcements … and wanted to teach the enemy a lesson that this form of activity could be costly,” the IRA leader who instigated the ambush recalled more than three decades later for an oral history project.3

The three witness perspectives, combined with the findings of a military inquiry, press reports, and related documents provide a multidimensional snapshot of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. These sources also illustrate the dangers of reconstructing such emblematic events. In a History Ireland piece about the Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statements of the Irish revolutionary period, Fearghal McGarry warned: 

Such a source inevitably raises a host of problematic issues, both ideological and practical: these include the subjectivity of oral history, the role of the state in the creation of a project intended to record and shape historical memory, the selective nature of the testimony collected, the reliability of the witnesses’ memories, the influence of subsequent events and knowledge, and the potential for bias …Like any historical source …  they must be evaluated carefully. They record not the events of the revolution but the witnesses’ imperfect recollections of them  … Dates, numbers and other details are often inaccurate, and some claims seem less plausible than others. 

However imperfect the individual recollections, they collectively help to form a vivid mosaic of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. This event, in turn, is another piece of the larger mosaic of the Irish War of Independence.

Prelude 

Feakle, middle right, on modern map.

Feakle village and the same-named townland and Catholic parish is located 50 miles north of Limerick city and 20 miles east of Ennis in the northeast corner of Clare. The upland topography includes the southern declivities of the Slieve Baughta mountains. People there still talk about herbalist and healer “Biddy” Early, an independent woman accused of witchcraft in the mid-19th century.   

In 1917, the young Éamon de Valera, a participant in the year-earlier Easter Rising, challenged an older establishment candidate in an historic by-election for the East Clare constituency. Feakle parish priest Father Michael Hays declared de Valera’s Sinn Féin “a party of socialism and anarchy and bloodshed which struck at the roots of society.”4 The London government at Dublin Castle reported “disaffection lurked under the surface ready to break out on very small provocation” and “turmoil increased with the approach of election day, intimidation was freely practiced, and there was growing disregard for all law and order.”5 The maverick de Valera won by more than 2 to 1 margin, and two years later declared president of Sinn Féin’s breakaway Irish republic. 

Thomas “Tomo” Tuohy, IRA captain:

Tuohy was born Nov. 23, 1898, in Laccaroe townland, neighboring Feakle, the eldest of 10 children. He joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers in 1915 and rose to leadership by October 1920, according to his 1954 BMH statement.

Volunteers in Clare attacked the Feakle RIC barracks in June 1920, and three months later attempted to capture the Scarriff RIC Barracks, about six miles to the east. Such efforts were part of the IRA’s national strategy to drive the authorities from the countryside to boost its own operational base. Shortly after the Scarriff attack, Volunteers seized mail from the postman making a delivery to the Feakle RIC barracks. Postal and railroad hold ups also were typical IRA tactics at the time. To counter this, Feakle RIC began collecting their mail at the post office. 

“I decided to attack this party and gave instructions to the Volunteers living in the Feakle village to keep the patrol under close observation, particularly as to the time on which it left the barracks and the formation in which it moved,” Tuohy said.

On the morning of Oct. 7, as six RIC officers spaced apart in three pairs began the three quarter mile walk from their barracks to the post office, a scout notified Tuohy. He quickly positioned 20 Volunteers and told them to wait for his warning shot. One man, “contrary to orders,” fired directly at a constable who had given him “a bad beating” the previous evening, Tuohy said. The other five officers scrambled for cover as the remaining Volunteers opened fire.

Military inquiry:

Constable William Stanley and Sgt. Francis Doherty were killed in the ambush. Both men were 46; each with more than 20 years of RIC service. Doherty was a bachelor from Mohill, Co. Leitrim; Stanley a Co. Cork native with a wife and four children.6

Doherty and Stanly shown in register of cases for courts of inquiry in lieu of inquest, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. The National Archives, Kew, WO 35/162.

A military inquiry at Dublin Castle issued this statement:7

The police party were walking in couples 10 yards apart towards the P.O. when fire was opened on them from the upper windows of the P.O., from the adjoining house, and from a farmyard on the opposite side of the road, thus placing them in the centre of a triangle of fire. … The Court found the two men were willfully murdered by rifles, revolvers and shotguns fired at close range by persons unknown, that a large number of men took part in the shooting, which was premeditated, and that deceased were robbed after death. … The third constable named Murphy was wounded by an expanding bullet. … The police had a dog with them, and when the sergeant [Doherty] fell it ran to him and stood by him on the road. In the next volley the dog fell wounded, three of his legs being broken.

Seán Moroney, Irish Volunteer:

Moroney was 23 at the time of the Feakle attack, a year older than Tuohy. Moroney’s 1956 BMH statement8 provides several examples of McGarry’s warning about such records:

  • Moroney said the RIC officers “travelled in pairs, with about 200 yards between each pair.” This is a big difference from the 10 yards of separation mentioned in the military inquiry. He probably said 20 yards, but the transcript typist added an extra “0” keystroke.
  • One of the Volunteers “accidentally discharged a shot” at the police, Moroney said, rather than taking revenge on the constable for an earlier beating, as suggested in Tuohy’s statement. Both could be true. Either way: “This, of course, alerted the patrol and spoiled our plan,” Moroney said.
  • Moroney said the IRA captured two carbines and about 150 rounds of ammunition. Tuohy claimed they collected 4 carbines, one .45 revolver, 300 rounds .303, and 24 rounds .45 ammunition, and 1 Mills bomb [a World War I era British hand grenade].
  • Tuohy is not mentioned in Moroney’s statement. Moroney is not among the 19 attackers listed by Tuohy. 

Freeman’s Journal headline over Oct. 15, 1920, story that introduced priest’s letter.

Rev. Patrick O’Reilly, Feakle priest:

“On Thursday last, October 7th, there occurred here the tragic event in which two policemen lost their lives,” the priest began his letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published eight days later.

“I was immediately called by a courageous girl to administer the last Sacraments to them. I went at once and did so. This was about 10:30 a.m. Irish time. The doctor arrived shortly after, but could then do nothing.”

Thomas Tuohy:

He said the IRA sustained no deaths or injuries. The rebel’s search for weapons and other victims of the ambush lasted about 20 minutes “when Fr. O’Reilly, C.C., Feakle, came on the scene to administer the last rites of the church to the police. He shouted to us from the road ‘The horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes as a messenger had gone for them before I left the village.’ ” 

Patrick J. “PJ” Guilfoil, American tourist:

Guilfoil was born in Scarriff on May 29, 1880, emigrated to America in 1900, and naturalized as a U.S. citizen at Detroit in 1906. He married a Clare woman and they had two sons. Guilfoil was working as a Pittsburgh innkeeper in March 1920 when he applied for his family’s U.S. passports.9 They sailed to Ireland two months later to visit his wife’s sister in Feakle, where they remained through October.10 

Patrick J. Guilfoil, left, and his family in 1920 passport photos.

In Dec. 10, 1920, testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, Guilfoil said that on the morning of Oct. 7 he learned that two policemen had been shot outside the post office a quarter mile away from where he was staying. He said that he already intended to walk to the post office to wire the Thomas Cook & Sons travel firm in Dublin about his family’s return to Pittsburgh. “Being an American citizen and having my passport there, and being of good courage, I went out there after this happened,” he said.

He found the two slain policemen attended by “a young priest, Father O’Reilly,” the town physician having already left the scene.  “I asked the priest if he did not run great danger of reprisals for remaining there. But he said, what could he do? He could not leave two dead bodies by the road, because there were pigs and dogs around there, and what could he do? I told him that if he felt that way about it, I would remain with him, which I did.”

He said the military arrived about 2 p.m. “They got the priest to provide a horse and cart to carry the remains into town.”

Father O’Reilly:

“From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I remained alone practically all the time to take care of the remains and I could find no means of having them removed. At 2:30 the military arrived and I was peremptorily ordered to commandeer a horse and cart to remove the bodies. I did so and returned no more. I had had quite enough.”

PJ Guilfoil:

He testified that once he returned to his sister-in-law’s cottage in the village, a military officer asked to see his American passport and recorded his name and number. “And he said he was going to put me on the black list.”

Guilfoil said that at 6:30 p.m. a District Inspector and six soldiers arrived at Father O’Reilly’s house and dragged the priest outside–three at the head, three at the feet. They accused him of murdering the two policemen. “I stood directly across the street taking it all in,” Guilfoil said.

One of the officers commanded, “ ‘Let him have it.’ ” and a soldier delivered “three horrible blows across the hips” of the priest with the butt of his rifle, an attempt to coerce a confession, Guilfoil testified. An officer told the priest to get up and get back into his house, but as the cleric complied with the order, the officer kicked him and “called him some terrible names.” 

Father O’Reilly:

“An officer, a district inspector, and eight or ten soldiers knocked at 5:30 p.m. I opened the door and was ordered out. I was told I was to be ‘thrashed soundly,’ and there and then the soldiers caught hold of me by the hands and feet, knocked me down, and dragged me to the wall in front of the house, and proceeded to thrash me with a stock of a rifle. The officer struck me very violently with a stick when I protested. The District Inspector then interceded, be it said to his credit, and thereby saved me from further ill-treatment.

“I was ordered in, while being told I would be shot. I closed the door and thanked God I had come off so well.”

PJ Guilfoil:

“I went across the street and knocked at the door of the priest’s house, and he let me into the house, and I said, ‘My God, are you able to stand up?’

“And he said, ‘I got some awful wallops and am suffering some great pain, but what am I going to do?’

“And I said, ‘I don’t suppose your feet can carry you very far, but as far as they can carry you, I would advise you to get out of the town. There are going to be reprisals tonight.’

“He said, ‘Well, if there are reprisals, there will be people dying and they will need a priest.’” 

Father O’Reilly:

“The kind neighbors rushed in at the back to see if I was hurt. They were terrified and expected my death at each moment. They besought me most earnestly to leave the house for the night. I refused to leave until I would see things out, and I consoled them to the best of my ability. They left.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Guilfoil said he met Dr. O’Hallaron, the village physician, on the street as he returned from treating the wounded officer at the RIC barracks. “The conditions up there are terrible. They are all wild drunk,” the doctor said.

Reprisals on the village, which Guilfoil estimated at about 300 people, began soon after. He testified that he moved his family to an upstairs room and told them to lie on the floor next to the walls. “I do not need to tell you how nervous those children were,” he said. “They were shaking so that I got to shaking myself.”

The police and military set fire to the thatched roof of the Considine house, about 50 yards away, he continued. Then they torched the cottage where the Guilfoils were staying, which was partitioned and also occupied by members of the O’Brien family. 

“We have no time to fool around here,” Guilfoil said he yelled to his wife and sons as the flames surrounded the windows. “Take what you have and get out of here. I prefer to be shot than to be burned to death.”

Thomas Tuohy:

The IRA summoned “over 40 men” to defend Feakle and “teach the enemy a lesson,” Tuohy said. As the group got within a quarter mile of the village at about about 8 p.m., “flames were seen rising from three houses – Considines, O’Brien’s and Fr. O’Reilly’s. Realizing that we had been forestalled it was agreed right away to send back the reinforcements.”

The rebels abandoned the village and withdrew to the hills for the next three days.

Father O’Reilly:

“I lay in the centre of the kitchen floor, and I anticipated death at any moment. I made many an Act of Contrition, said the Rosary a few times … A bomb came through the parlour window, exploded with a deafening sound, and drove broken glass in all directions.It sprinkled the oil from the table lamp all over the room, and it is a miracle no fire resulted.”

The priest said he escaped about 3:30 a.m. to a house in the country, where he found other refugees from the town. He remained there the next evening, which was fortunate “as the [village] house was again bombed and densely riddled with bullets. The door was driven in and all my belongings piled on the village street and burned.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Some neighbors helped put out the fire at the O’Brien house as the police and military withdrew to their barracks, Guilfoil testified.

“At six o’clock in the morning I got hold of a car to convey my baggage and the children out of town, and about ten o’clock I left myself” to “a place in the country” where his wife’s family lived.

The police and troops returned in the daylight. They asked the woman who rented the house to Father O’Reilly whether any of the furniture inside belonged to her. When she said no, they pulled it into the street and set it on fire.

“And they said they were only sorry that they did not have that bloody bastard, as they called the priest, to put him on top of it,” Guilfoil testified.

A local history book published 70 years later claims the police dressed an effigy in the priest’s clothes and tied it to a chair, which was burned with the other furniture. The officers danced and sang, “The rebel padre is roasting.”11  

Press Reports:

Irish and British newspapers coverage of Feakle tended to emphasize the slain officers or the reprisals, depending on when the reports were published and the target readership. The military inquiry statement was published in papers on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Several Irish dailies carried a Press Association, Dublin, account, which corrected an Ennis correspondent’s early reporting that the Feakle RIC barracks had been attacked.12 The reprisals got more attention after the Freeman’s Journal published Father O’Reilly’s letter eight days later.

In London, The Times, an establishment paper, attributed its next day story to Dublin Castle, with nothing said about reprisals.13 A week later, The Guardian’s Dublin correspondent noted the burning of houses at the “little out-of-the-way village” of Feakle in a roundup of other reprisals in Ireland.14

The Weekly Summary, an RIC newspaper launched two months earlier to bolster force morale, published an editorial that said:

Reprisals are wrong. They are bad for the discipline of the force. They are bad for Ireland, especially if the wholly innocent suffer. Reprisals are wrong but reprisals do not happen only by accident. They are the result of the brutal, cowardly murder of police officers by assassins, who take shelter behind the screen of terrorism and intimidation they have created. Police murder produces reprisals. Stop murdering policemen.15 

This Associated Press dispatch appeared in an Oct. 24, 1920 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Oct. 23 dateline says the officers were killed “yesterday.”

The first Associated Press report published in American newspapers said Stanley was killed and Doherty only wounded. An updated version saying both officers were killed “yesterday” continued to be published through late October.16

In November, the pro-Irish Gaelic American, a New York weekly, over two issues republished the Limerick Echo’s report about Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal.17 The News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, Washington, D.C., included Father O’Reilly in a roundup of attacks on other priests and looting of Catholic churches. “The latest phase of the ruthless campaign against the Irish nation seems to have taken the form of ‘reprisals’ for the crime of being Irish and Catholic,” the weekly newsletter said.18

A constable’s life, 1920:

An RIC Division before the force was disbanded in 1922. Note the dog at front right. Image from Royal Irish Constabulary.com.

A day before the Feakle ambush, the Royal Irish Constabulary Office at Dublin Castle announced a pay bonus for “permanent members” of the force, veterans such as Constable Stanley and Sgt. Doherty.19 The money was intended to boost morale in the difficult circumstances of “the life of the average constable,” as described a year later by a Dublin Castle intelligence officer:

He lived in a fortified barrack, probably overcrowded owing to the concentration of the Force, and certainly never designed to resist determined assault with modern weapons. He was surrounded by a populace which, if not definitely hostile, was at all events so intimidated that the members of the civil population hardly dare be seen speaking with him. Lurking throughout the countryside were members of the Republican Army, who, instigated by their leaders, regarded him not as an enemy to be faced in the open, but to be prosecuted by every means from petty annoyance to treacherous murder. His life was spent in constant apprehension of danger. His barrack might be attacked at any hour of the day or night, but usually the latter, by overwhelming numbers of callus ruffians, who would use every weapon of brutality against him. If he would go out of the barracks, he was compelled to do so as one of a party operating in practically an enemy’s country. He could never predict the moment when a hail of bullets would burst upon him from a carefully prepared ambush, his assailants being the apparently harmless citizens who surrounded him every day.20

Stanley and Doherty’s deaths raised to 120 the toll of RIC fatalities in Ireland since Jan. 1, 1919. Another 72 officers were killed by the end of 1920.21 Stanley’s widow received “special advances” to survivors of RIC murdered on duty at least through 1922, when the force was disbanded.22

Thomas Tuohy:

“After the Feakle ambush the local parish priest, Father Hayes [Father O’Reilly’s superior, who spoke against Éamon de Valera during the 1917 election.23 ], a violent imperialist who regularly entertained members of the enemy forces, strongly denounced the IRA from the pulpit. He referred to us as a murder gang, and declared that any information which he could get would be readily passed on to the British authorities and that he would not desist until the last of the murderers was swung by the neck. This denunciation led to unpleasant consequences and for some time services at which he officiated were boycotted by most of the congregation.”

Remember that Tuohy said Father O’Reilly had warned the IRA ambushers that military “horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes.” Tuohy also said that Father O’Reilly administered Confession and Holy Communion to about nine IRA men in December 1920. If true, the local priests were certainly at odds, and the police and soldiers seem correct in their suspicions of Father O’Reilly.

A few days after receiving the sacraments from Father O’Reilly, Tuohy was arrested by the RIC and accused of having seditious documents. He was sentenced to two years hard labor, but released from Limerick County Jail 11 months later.

Father O’Reilly

Given Tuohy’s statements, the conclusion of the priest’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal is ambiguous:

“My last sermon in the parish prior to the occasion had been solely a counsel of moderation.  … I have appealed for nothing but peace and unity amongst all Irishmen. … I most heartily forgive all who attacked me, and also those who were the deliberate and malicious cause of it. … I stand for peace, peace with honor, and though my life may now be in danger I will never be a traitor to the flag of my country. God save Ireland.”

Father O’Reilly and Father Hayes were each soon relocated from the Feakle parish.24

PJ Guilfoil:

The Guilfoil family traveled from the Clare countryside to Cork city, about 100 miles south, where they waited a week for the ship back to America. PJ and his young sons witnessed another scene of revolutionary Ireland, which concluded his commission testimony at the Lafayette Hotel, a few blocks from the U.S. capitol.  

Guilfoil testified at the Lafayette Hotel in Washington D.C. shown here between 1910 and 1926. Library of Congress.

The father and his two boys, ages eight and six, watched the funeral procession of Irish Republican Army volunteer Michael Fitzgerald, who died a few days earlier on hunger strike in jail. As the line of mourners passed the Windsor Hotel, troops plucked the mourning wreaths and Irish tricolor flags from the hearse with their bayonet tips and flicked them to the curb, Guilfoil testified.

“Anything more horrible I never want to see than an armored military body following a coffin,” Guilfoil said. “They followed that coffin with rifles and machine guns all the way out to the cemetery. … I took the boys and got away from there, for I thought there might be trouble.”

Guilfoil’s testimony was exactly what the pro-Ireland commission had sought to publicize in its effort to turn U.S. opinion against Britain. The blue-ribbon panel of two U.S. senators and six other military, religious, and civic leaders held six public hearings from November 1920 through January 1921. It was not an official U.S. government enterprise. Years later, Irish politician Patrick McCartan wrote of the hearings that “only the rustle of the reporters writing broke the silence in which America strained to hear the story of British savagery withstood and defeated by the indomitable courage of the citizens of the Irish Republic.”25

Guilfoil, 1920

Guilfoil—5-foot, 8-inches, with a ruddy complexion and blue eyes under receding brown hair—seemed like an enthusiastic witness.26 “Yes, O, yes,” he answered when asked whether most Irish civilians supported the IRA. He displayed a bullet he said had pierced the cottage before his family fled from the fire. He shuffled a sheaf of “literature” and newspaper clippings about events in Ireland.

These papers may have included Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published in the nationally-circulated paper five days before Guilfoil sailed back to America, or the Gaelic American’s two-part reporting of it a few weeks after he returned to Pittsburgh. Father O’Reilly’s letter said he “remained alone practically all the time” outside the post office with the bodies of the two policemen. Guilfoil testified he spent over two hours with the priest at the scene. Father O’Reilly might have wanted to protect the American visitor, emphasize his own ordeal, or both. Guilfoil might have inflated his experience based on such published accounts, but it is also possible that he offered the truest version of the events. 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 11, 1920.

How Guilfoil came to be called before the hearing was not explained during his testimony, in the commission’s report, or newspaper coverage. Alexander P. Moore, editor of the Pittsburgh Leader, was a member of the nationwide steering committee that organized and funded the commission, but his paper did not report on Guilfoil’s testimony. The city’s other dailies headlined the appearance: “Pittsburgh Witness In Irish Probe P.J. Guilfoil Tells of Raid by Military on County Clare Town’ and “Local Man Tells of Burning of Town in County Clare.”27 Guilfoil’s testimony was noted in other U.S. newspaper coverage, but it was overshadowed by the same-day appearances of three former RIC men who quit the force in protest of British “misrule” in Ireland, and the sister of an Irish republican politician who had died on hunger strike.

Guilfoil died in 1946 at age 66.28 The obituaries do not mention his 1920 commission testimony, or suggest that he ever returned to Ireland.

The “striking contrast” of Dev’s second ‘Lapland’ boarding

John J. and Edmond I. O’Shea, County Waterford emigrants turned American priests, reunited with a famous friend at the June 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.

The O’Shea brothers were among the Philadelphia area priests who attended the Eucharistic Congress. From pilgrim list published the Catholic  Standard & Times, May 27, 1932.

It was not the brothers first return to Ireland, but this time they arrived with 500 other pilgrims from the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, including Cardinal Dennis J. Doherty, the Pennsylvania-born son of County Mayo parents. More than a million people attended the week-long spectacle of processions and devotional ceremonies, which reinforced Irish-Catholic identity for generations.

In addition to the religious activities, the event also focused international attention on the decade-old Irish Free State and its leader, Éamon de Valera, the O’Shea’s friend. It was in this secular context that the brothers witnessed an ironic moment of Irish history, one that spanned 13 years of de Valera’s political career and their own roles in supporting him and their homeland’s independence. The episode was “so striking in its contrast,” one newspaper reported, “that it could form the theme of as fascinating a novel as any writer of romantic fiction could conceive.”1

Edmond delivered his friend to the reunion location, the deck of an aging ocean liner. John took photos and home movies.

Patriotic Priests

Edmond O’Shea emigrated in 1907 from Dungarvan, age 21, and was ordained in 1912 in Philadelphia.2 John O’Shea arrived in the City of Brotherly Love in 1915, age 31, after working as a newspaper reporter and member of the Dungarvan council. He was ordained by Cardinal Dougherty in 1919.3

Philadelphia, 1920.

The brothers supported the Irish cause from both sides of the Atlantic. They were among “the patriotic priests who encouraged the good work in Philadelphia” during the February 1919 Irish Race Convention, convened in the city soon after the Sinn Féin election victory in Ireland and establishment of a separatist Dáil Éireann parliament. They marched with de Valera later that year when he visited the city during his U.S. tour to raise money and political support for Ireland.4

“We have found a man we can trust,” Edmond declared in The Irish Press, Philadelphia’s pro-independence weekly with direct ties to de Valera and the Dáil.5 He hailed de Valera’s tour as “received with acclaim from coast to coast,”6 though it also had its share of critics.

Home in Ireland in August 1920, Edmond was attacked by two policemen, “thrown down, throttled,” their revolvers drawn, for flying an Irish tricolor flag at Blarney Castle. “Possibly influenced by the crowd which gathered, the police returned to barracks without me,” he swore in testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.7

John spent the first three years of his priesthood at two parishes 100 miles west of Philadelphia’s core Irish community, then second in size only to New York.8 He also spoke against British rule, telling audiences of how soldiers and police dragged innocent Irish from their beds at night and deported them to English prisons without a hearing “for no other reason than that they loved their country.”9 

As events in Ireland settled in the mid-1920s after the founding of the Free State, partition of the island, and civil war, John was transferred back to a Philadelphia parish. Cardinal Dougherty tasked Edmond with founding a new parish and building a church in the city.10 Both brothers regularly returned to Ireland to visit family and friends, including de Valera, who held several political roles through the 1920s and early 1930s.11

Pilgrimage to Ireland

Given such backgrounds, it’s not surprising the O’Shea brothers joined the 500 priests, nuns, and laity from the Archdioceses of Philadelphia at the 31st Eucharistic Congress in Ireland. Cardinal Daugherty announced the trip in October 1931. He told his flock it would be “an occasion for a visit to the place of their birth … [or] a golden opportunity to make a journey to the land of their Fathers. … [It was also an] extraordinary opportunity to profess publicly their devotion to the Blessed Eucharistic, and to refresh their souls by a visit to the land whose soil has been hallowed by the blood of martyrs.”12

Over the next nine months details of the pilgrimage were published in the diocesan Catholic Standard & Times, proclaimed at Sunday masses, and promoted by the Thomas Cook & Sons travel agency. Costs started at $250, about $4,700 today,13 rather dear for the third year of the Great Depression. The tour package included using the luxury steamship chartered for the transatlantic journey as the pilgrims’ floating hotel accommodations in Dublin. That ship was the Red Star Line’s S.S. Lapland

In June 1919, de Valera stowed away aboard the Lapland in Liverpool as he avoided British authorities for his secret mission to America. As I’ve detailed in an earlier post, plenty of other Irish passengers boarded the ship as paying emigrants or tourists, according to the manifest. Built in 1908 in Belfast, the Lapland was a troop transport in the war years immediately prior to de Valera’s crossing. The ship got a makeover in early 1931, as described by the Catholic Standard & Times:

Everything necessary was done to make her physically a most modern cabin liner. Every convenience known to ocean transportation … is available to her passengers. Thus, the Lapland has a delightful newness about her, yet she has retained her former personality that made her so popular with thousands of travelers.14

Philadelphia’s diocesan newspaper promoted the pilgrimage to the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The April 29 issue featured a photo of the Lapland and two stories (“Excellent Accommodations,” left, and “Dublin Beauty,” left center) on the front page.

President Comes Aboard

In Ireland, Edmond O’Shea accompanied de Valera and his two sons on a captain’s launch from the Dublin dockside to the anchored Lapland.15 The Irish Press described the Philadelphia priest as “an old friend of his and a staunch supporter of the Irish cause.” Edmond was a director of The Irish Press Corporation in America, which supported the paper de Valera founded nine months earlier.16

De Valera’s shipboard visit returned the courtesy call Cardinal Dougherty had paid to his government offices a few days prior. The Press revealed:

During his conversation with [Cardinal Dougherty], Mr. de Valera related a dramatic story concerning the last time on which he had been on board the Lapland. It was in 1918 [sic, 1919] in the height of the war with England, that he had been stowed away on board and brought to New York for an important mission there. He had been sheltered in the lamp room and was very sea sick for the entire voyage.  

Details of de Valera’s 1919 crossing were closely guarded at the time and caused wild speculation: “Did he fly?” “Come on a sub?” That doesn’t mean the particulars remained unknown to Irish insiders. By 1931, Cardinal Dougherty almost seemed to wink when he wrote the Lapland was “especially engaged” for the pilgrimage.17 He and de Valera, and their senior aides, communicated during the 1919-1920 U.S. tour and remained in contact up to and after the 1932 event.18

The Press reported the pilgrims who lined the Lapland‘s deck rails gave de Valera “a remarkable ovation” … [and he] shook hands with several hundreds of the American visitors on board.” Any triumphalism for de Valera during the one-hour visit was likely moderated by the death of his County Limerick-born mother less than two week earlier in Rochester, New York. She had planned to attend the Eucharistic Congress.19

Several Irish newspapers reported de Valera’s second boarding of the Lapland, and some repeated the Independent‘s description of a “striking contrast” and “fascinating novel.” The president asked to visit the lamp room where he had hidden 13 years earlier. The captain “gladly acceded to his request.”

American secular papers ignored the story.20 The Catholic Standard & Times noted Edmond’s role in bringing de Valera aboard the Lapland, but not the Irish leader’s past association with the ship. John surly recounted the visit weeks later when he gave a presentation about the Eucharistic Congress to his home parish. The evening featured his “seven moving picture reels” of highlights and photos of the Irish leader.21

Benediction in Dublin during the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

It’s worth remembering that de Valera was opposition leader, not president, in the fall of 1931 when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made its Lapland arrangements. It’s unlikely the ship was chartered intentionally. It seems just as unlikely that Cardinal Dougherty and the O’Shea brothers were hearing about Dev’s 1919 crossing for the first time in 1932, as suggested in the press accounts. The reveal appears designed to generate those accounts, especially since the same papers also described the visit as “purely private.” De Valera and his supporters recognized the opportunity presented by the coincidence and leveraged it to bolster his reputation.22

If there was a conspiracy or inside joke among the priests and the politicians, they likely carried it to their graves. When Edmond O’Shea died in 1949, The Irish Press noted his close friendship with de Valera and said his “last letters home spoke of his deep longing for the re-unification of the country.”23 John O’Shea died in 1956, five years after Cardinal Dougherty. De Valera remained in government until 1973, after a political career of more than 50 years. He died two years later. 

As for the Lapland, its 1931 makeover was short-lived. The ship was sold to Japan for scrap a year after the Eucharistic Congress and the second boarding of the former stowaway.24

FURTHER READING: “History Now” presenter Barry Sheppard has written several articles about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress for The Irish Story:

An American reporter in 1920 Ireland: Reactions

Harry F. Guest

American journalist Harry F. Guest of the New York Globe spent January and February 1920 reporting from revolutionary Ireland. Upon his return to America, he wrote two dozen stories based on his interviews and observations, which were syndicated to U.S. and Canadian newspapers through May 1920. This is the last of 10 posts in this series. Earlier posts and other stories about American reporting of Irish independence are found at the linked project landing page. MH

***

Near the end of his series on Ireland, Guest wrote that “extremists of both sides have been busy writing letters to the editor” of the New York Globe.1 He continued:

First, the articles were damned by one group as ‘British propaganda,’ and later denounced by the other camp as briefs for the Sinn Féin cause. At the same time there were letters from Englishmen and Irishmen, and from Americans who were free enough from prejudice and sufficiently fairminded to appreciate that blame probably attached to both sides, and that an unbiased presentation of the facts would perhaps contribute to better understanding all around. As the Globe has pointed out editorially, it is to these middle-grounders that both Ireland and England must look for a solution of the Irish question.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been unable to access the original 1920 New York Globe series on microfilm at the Library of Congress.2 Instead, I have reviewed Guest’s stories as published in The Baltimore Sun and Akron (Ohio) Evening Times, both available online. Such digital sources also reveal some of the reactions to his stories. Here are three examples; the first two critical, the third more nuanced :

  • In The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct links to the separatist Sinn Féin government in Ireland, Associate Editor Joseph A. Sexton accused the Globe of publishing the series “for the evident purpose of influencing American opinion in favor of English domination in Ireland. We make mention of these articles, not because such of them that have come to our attention are essentially different from the usual anti-Irish article, but rather because on the contrary they are of just the type that has become so common … [filled with] the stock tale of outrages, of secret societies and so forth.”3 Sexton published these comments two weeks before the Guest series was concluded.

 

  • In The Baltimore Sun, which published some but not all of Guest’s stories, “Two Youthful Sinn Féiners” wrote a letter to the editor that suggested the reporter “compiled his series from stories he heard during his stay in London.” The writers described Irish bond buyers in America as “men and women of stout Irish lineage and we are sure that reports of ‘such shocking outrages’ will not cause them to withdraw their subscriptions.”4

 

  • More significantly, Irish-born writer Ernest A. Boyd referenced Guest’s “excellent articles” in an April 30, 1920, dispatch from Dublin, also published in the Sun. “That there are crimes and outrages nobody can deny,” Boyd wrote. “If the government department concerned produces statistics, what can one do but reprint them? Mr. Guest did so, and was accordingly denounced as a sinister agent of John Bull.”5

Boyd warned:

To understand these statistics it is essential to have an idea of the peculiar position of the English administration in Ireland … [which is] to prove that Sinn Féin is a criminal conspiracy. … In official circles all Irish crimes are now Sinn Féin crimes, just as they were all Nationalist crimes in the days of Parnell. … It is easy to conceive the impossible position of a special correspondent who has to rely for information upon informants of this type.

To partisans and propagandists, Boyd noted, “the journalist who accepts their own dope is an unbiased champion of truth and justice; the journalist who accepts the other fellow’s is a scoundrel. The illusion is inevitable and human. … For many obvious reasons the American press has given the best outside accounts of current affairs in Ireland.”

It should also be remembered that Guest’s series debuted a month after the New York Globe published a controversial story about Éamon de Valera’s views on foreign policy. The Sinn Féin leader, then touring America to raise money and political support for Ireland, made an awkward comparison of U.S. government relations with Cuba under the Monroe Doctrine to potential British recognition of Ireland, provided Ireland agreed to avoid international alliances hostile to Britain.

De Valera had given a draft of his views to the American correspondent for The Westminster Gazette, presumably hoping to influence prominent politicians back in London. He didn’t realize the Gazette had a cooperative arrangement with the Globe, which Feb. 6, 1920, published a story under the headline “De Valera Opens the Door”. De Valera’s enemies in America seized on the Globe’s (mis)interpretation, which widened hostilities among pro-Irish independence factions.6 The episode also might have biased reactions to Guest’s series, at least among Sinn Féin supporters.

The outcome of Guest’s Ireland trip and reporting differed from the simultaneous 1920 experiences of Ruth Russell of the Chicago Daily News. He did not turn his Ireland reporting into a book, as she did. He was not invited to testify before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, which in November 1920 opened public hearings in Washington, D.C., as she was.

British forces confront Irish republican rally in Dublin, 1920.

AFTERWARD

Guest became the Globe’s “special stock investigator.”7 He wrote a series of stories about securities fraud and other schemes “in which the promoters appeal to the cupidity of the public through the lure of large possible profits on small investment.”8

In June 1923, the Globe was merged into the New York Sun. Guest eventually left journalism. The 1930 U.S. Census shows he held a “council” position in the “public retail construction” industry.9 By the mid-1930s he became executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, where he shaped industrial development reports, similar to those he had focused on in several of his Ireland stories.10

It appears that Guest died in late September 1960, age 81, though I haven’t located an online obituary to confirm he is the person whose cremated remains were placed in the urn garden at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.11 If this Harry F. Guest is the former Globe reporter, he joined journalists Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, and Henry Chadwick, the British-born sportswriter who became the “father of baseball,” as Green-Wood denizens in eternal rest.

REFLECTION

Harry F. Guest traveled to Ireland and wrote his series for the New York Globe as the two-year-old influenza pandemic began to ease. More than 20,000 people died in Ireland, though Guest didn’t mention the outbreak in the reporting available for review.12 It is ironic, to be sure, that I have revisited his series while quarantined in my Washington, D.C. apartment due to another pandemic.

Having survived the Spanish flu era, Guest probably considered the possibility of a similar outbreak during his lifetime. It is unlikely, however, that he imagined the technology that has allowed me to read his work 100 years later. Newspaper preservation on microfilm didn’t begin until some 15 years after the publication of his Ireland series,13 let alone digital access to those images via computer and internet. Eventually, I hope to review the 1920 issues of the Globe on microfilm at the Library of Congress. I want to see the paper’s promotion and placement of Guest’s stories, its other news coverage and editorials about Ireland, including de Valera and related activity in the U.S., and the letters to the editor.

Ruth Russell lived among the poor in Dublin’s slums, stood outside factories with striking and unemployed workers; and listened to the animated conversations of Irish revolutionaries in their homes and meeting places. Guest was less of a participant and more journalist-as-observer, his reporting almost technocratic. Unlike Russell, his work leaves the impression of someone who was around the Irish people and the British authorities, but not fully among them. His coverage of the Glengarriff mummers performance and the Ballynahinch market confrontation are notable exceptions.

Russell picked a side. She stated her case for Irish independence and against British imperialism in print and in public. It probably cost not only her job at the Daily News, but also her career as a journalist. She became a school teacher. Guest presented his aspects of the Irish situation,” nine points each for the Irish and English sides, then left “the weighting of the evidence to the reader.” He became an industrial development lobbyist. 

Charges that Guest was pro-British or pro-Sinn Féin missed the mark. He was objective to a fault. His arms-length engagement with 1920 Ireland resulted in a series that, 100 years on, is an interesting and informative snapshot of the period, but ultimately unsatisfying. In times of revolution and pandemic, readers generally prefer more passion in the prose.

With many thanks to those who have read my series about Guest’s 1920 Ireland reporting during these difficult weeks of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. As always, comments, corrections, and other feedback are welcome. Stay safe. MH

Another scene of confrontation between Irish citizens and British troops in 1920 Dublin.

Ruth Russell in Revolutionary Ireland: Witness

Chicago journalist Ruth Russell reported from revolutionary Ireland in 1919, followed by a year of activism for its independence. This five-part monograph is part of my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. © 2019

***

The Library of Congress received What’s the matter with Ireland?, Russell’s expansion of her 1919 Daily News reporting, on July 20, 1920, nearly a year after she returned from Ireland.1 The front page of that day’s Washington Post reported on a “night of terror” in Cork city, as civilians threw home-made bombs at two military lorries in reprisal for an earlier “boyonetting incident” and “indiscriminate firing” by British troops, the latest example of how violence had escalated since Russell’s departure.2

Publisher Devin-Adair Co. of New York does not appear to have aggressively marketed the 160-page book, which was not widely reviewed. Russell’s split from the Daily News and participation in the British Embassy protests3 are not mentioned in the reviews or advertising that I have located. The book’s title, which implies something is wrong with Ireland, may have soured ardent nationalists able to select other 1920 offerings with more uplifting names, such as The Invincible Irish and Why God Loves the Irish.

Original edition of Russell’s 1920 book at the Library of Congress. Digital versions of the book are widely available online.

The New York Tribune’s review suggested the title was “misleading since this little volume … offers not a solution but a statement of the problem.”4 It added: “Her volume is a forthright presentation of the situation as it offers itself to the inquiring sojourner, given in the journalist’s terms of first-hand observation and current statistics.”

The Tribune also found: “Not the least interesting actors in the Irish drama are the women leaders of the revolutionary party.” It pointed to Russell’s reporting of Countess Markievicz; Maud Gonne McBride; suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst; writer and activist Susan Langstaff Mitchell; and Countess Elizabeth Burke-Plunkett, president of the United Irishwomen.

The Catholic World was tougher on Russell: “She succeeds in rousing our sympathy for the poor working girls of Dublin, and other unfortunate people of the city and the bog-field. But when she takes up the political she seems unable to do justice to her subject. … There is no doubt Miss Russell’s intentions are good, but it is doubtful if such books as this will help Ireland’s cause.”5

The Chicago-based Illinois Catholic Historical Review supported the hometown author. It described Russell as a “brilliant young writer” whose “powerful book, in language simple and direct, and yet at times dramatic or poetic” was worthwhile for anyone “interested in knowing the truth about the Irish question.”6 By coincidence, the same issue of the Review featured a story on “The Irish of Chicago,” which mentioned Russell’s editor father and referred readers to the review of his daughter’s “most interesting book.”7

An advertisement for the book8 declared: “Only a determined woman can get at the bottom of the facts,” and Russell “saw Ireland, its people, and its problems as no one else has seen them.” It quoted Eamon de Valera’s January 1920 letter from the front matter, and a testimonial from Frank P. Walsh, a member of the American Commission on Irish Independence, whom Russell met in Ireland. He wrote:

“It is a most valuable contribution to the literature of Ireland. It is a breezy, well-told narrative of Irish life, is more human and charming than anything which I have read, while the economic background is presented in a way that should bring home with terrific force to the reader the real heart of the Irish controversy.”

Here’s the full ad:

On a personal level, Russell dedicated the book to her widowed mother, who she lived with in Chicago. As the year drew to a close, the reporter received one more opportunity to publicly address her experiences in Ireland and her views on its struggle for independence.

COMMISSION TESTIMONY

Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, in 1920 organized the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. He invited U.S. senators, state governors, big city mayors, college presidents and professors, religious leaders, newspaper editors, and other prominent citizens to establish a “Committee of One Hundred” to form and oversee the eight-member
commission of inquiry.

“The situation in Ireland was a proper subject of concern for all peoples claiming either humanity or civilization,” the commission summarized. “It seemed to us that we could best serve the cause of peace by placing before English, Irish and American public opinion the facts of the situation, free from both agonized exaggeration and merciless understatement; for a knowledge of the facts might reveal their cause, and recognition of that cause might permit its cure, by those whose purpose was not to slay but to heal.”9

The commission held six hearings from November 1920 through January 1921, with 18 witnesses from Ireland; two from England (others were invited, but declined); and 18 Americans. The opening session came three weeks after the hunger-strike death of Irish nationalist and Cork Mayor Terance MacSwiney generated international headlines. His widow and sister testified in early December; Russell appeared a week later, Dec. 15, 1920, at the Lafayette Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Mary MacSwiney, sister of the late Cork mayor, testified Dec. 8, 1920, at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, a week before Ruth Russell. Library of Congress.

Commission Chairman Frederic Howe called the session to order at 10:05 a.m.10 After stating her name for the record, Russell told the commission she “was employed” by the Daily News “when I went to Ireland … as foreign correspondent studying special economic, social, and political conditions.” She was not asked why she no longer worked at the paper. Questioned about her investigative methods, Russell answered she “used both interviews and personal experiences,” including living in the Dublin slums.

And her views about the Irish republican leaders she met?

“They were extremely cool-headed and intelligent,” Russell replied. “The crowd of Sinn Féin leaders … were, I think, the most brilliant crowd of people that I have met in my life, and as a newspaper person I have mixed in at a good many gatherings.”11 In Russell’s opinion “it would have been impossible for these brilliant young leaders to rally the forces in Ireland behind them unless the people were driven to revolt by the economic conditions that are pressing into them.” She blamed Protestant politicians in the province of Ulster, today’s Northern Ireland, who “work on the religious prejudices of the people, so that the rich mill owners profit by the division of the people, especially the laboring people.”12

For more than two hours,13 Russell answered the commission’s questions about political, economic,  social, educational, and religious conditions. Jane Addams, the Chicago-based progressive social reformer referenced in one of Russell’s Daily News stories, was one of the eight commissioners. She asked Russell about Irish schools, labor laws, and housing conditions.

Near the end of session commission attorney Basil M. Manly asked Russell how conditions in Ireland compared to the streets of New York, Chicago, or other American cities.

“I felt perfectly safe,” Russell replied. “I walked from the telegraph office in Limerick at two o’clock in the morning through perfectly black streets to my hotel. I inquired the direction several times, and was finally assisted to my hotel by a member of the Black Watch (an ancient form of civilian night guard). But there was no interference with my progress at all. … I only had one unpleasant experience while I was in Ireland. It was about three o’clock in the morning in [the Galway] railroad station; but that was all.”14

Manly did not ask her for details.

PRESS COVERAGE

Associated Press coverage of Russell’s testimony identified her 1919 Irish reporting trip for the Daily News,15, and this detail was repeated by newspapers that used the wire service across the country. These reports did not identify Russell with the April 1920 demonstrations at the British Embassy, which also was absent in her testimony. The Daily News did not publish a story about that day’s commission hearing.

The AP highlighted Russell’s comment that religious differences between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster were “artificially worked up.”16 The Irish News and Chicago Citizen quoted her more localized remark that “in some of the southern towns of my own state there is more religious intolerance than there is in Ireland.”17 The Irish Press, Philadelphia, reported Russell’s testimony that blamed British authorities for economic distress in Ireland by turning small farms to gazing land and exporting cattle on the hoof, thus idling farm laborers and industries dependent on agriculture.18 

Coverage of that day’s commission testimony appeared two weeks later in Irish newspapers and focused more on the testimony of nationalist legislator Laurence Ginnell. The Evening Herald of Dublin reported that Russell “gave a terrible picture of poverty in Ireland, and on sweating in mills and factories in the North of Ireland.”19

In spring 1921 the commission released a 152-page interim report. It quoted Russell only once: “On the whole, testified Miss Ruth Russell of Chicago, ‘I think there is possibly the greatest unanimity there that has ever existed in any country of the world.’ “20 Her response had been to a question from U.S. Sen. David I. Walsh, a Massachusetts Democrat, who asked Russell if she had ever known “unanimity of opinion upon any great question anywhere in the world?”21

Iconic image of an IRA patrol on Grafton Street in Dublin during the Irish Civil War.

Russell was mentioned in some press coverage of the report, which British officials dismissed as biased toward the revolutionaries. Fast-moving developments in Ireland continued to eclipse Russell’s 1919 reporting, as violence escalated up until a July 1921 truce. Five months later, Irish and British authorities agreed to treaty that created the 26-county, majority Catholic, Irish Free State, while the 6-county, predominantly Protestant, Northern Ireland remained part of Britain. The dominion status of southern Ireland fell short of the full republic sought by Sinn Féin leaders.

Bitter disappointment about this outcome in 1922 erupted in a bloody civil war in the Free State that lasted for the next two years. By then, Russell had slipped from the spotlight of Irish politics and returned to a quieter life in Chicago.

NEXT:  The rest of Russell’s life, and my personal thoughts, in the series conclusion.