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.
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:
Numerous Irish politicians, writers, and other public figures espoused the rights of their homeland during late 19th century and early 20th century visits the United States. They included Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt in the 1880s; William Butler Yeats in 1903/4, 1911, 1914, and 1920; and Éamon de Valera’s 18-month tour from June 1919 to December 1920.
Leftist labor activist James Larkin is also among this cohort, but his American experience was more troubled than the others. He arrived shortly after the 1913/14 Dublin strikes and became involved with the Socialist Party of America, Industrial Workers of the World, and eventually the Communist Party of America. His association with the latter group in the aftermath of World War I, “with America gripped by major strikes and a ‘red scare’ ” resulted in his November 1919 arrest for “criminal anarchy.”1
Larkin was convicted in April 1920 and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. He was sent to New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a notorious maximum security prison opened nearly 100 years earlier. Advocacy for Larkin’s release and return to Ireland gathered pace by August 1920:
The Irish Labor Party and Trade Union Congress meeting in Cork city passed a resolution calling Larkin’s imprisonment a “gross outrage of every principal of justice, a violation of individual liberty, and the right of freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, a brutal and criminal act of class hatred, inspired by ruthless and unscrupulous capitalism, an attack upon the rights of the working class as much in Ireland as in America.”2
The Associated Press reported that several of the town and county councils elected in June “have taken up the matter and are busy passing resolutions about it.”3
In America, the James Larkin Defense Fund raised money and circulated an appeal on his behalf that was published in friendly U.S. newspapers.4 It said in part:
We feel that he is the victim of as foul a conspiracy as was ever hatched against a member of our race by the hidden hand of the British government. It is your fight as well as ours. Today it is Larkin who lies in jail on a trumped up charge of ‘criminal anarchy.’ Tomorrow it may be de Valera. Irishmen and Irishwomen and lovers of human freedom, your attitude toward Larkin in this critical hour will be the acid test of your professed devotion to the Gael. Larkin today is in a felon’s cell, but remember in the Irish history it was no disgrace to be a felon. Larkin is in jail because he was fighting your battle.
Actor Charles Chaplin and Irish activist Constance Georgine (Countess) Markievicz, who had participated in the 1913 lockout, visited Larkin in prison. It took three years, however, until he was pardoned and deported by newly-elected New York Gov. Al Smith, who later became the first Irish Catholic presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party. Larkin returned to Ireland in April 1923 and renewed his trade union activities.
Larkin also was elected three times to Dáil Éireann. When he died in 1947, Irish newspapers dismissed his U.S. imprisonment as simply “because of his pacifist and labor activities.”5. His burial at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery drew much attention, and he has been immortalized in songs, poems, and a 1979 statue on O’Connell Street.
After six months overseas, Russell returned to America in August 1919, back to her widowed mother and two sisters in Chicago.1 In January 1920, her story of being “broke” in England during a two-week wait for her ship appeared in The Ladies Home Journal.2 Determined to pass the time as inexpensively as possible, Russell reported that she walked more than 100 of the 234 miles from London to Liverpool. She detailed sights and adventures along the way and concluded: “There was one thing lacking to make the trip a complete success. But that was not a motor [car]; it was a friend.”3
Russell’s penny-pinching departure from England appears contrary to the January 1919 promise her Daily News editor made to the U.S. State Department, that she “would continue to be on a salary basis”4 while outside of America. The magazine story never mentions the Daily News or says why Russell was in England or Ireland. My research of the Daily News archives, including the 1919-1920 papers of Victor Lawson, the publisher; Charles Dennis, the editor; and Henry J. Smith, the news editor who wrote to the State Department; did not yield any documentation of her work or relationship with the paper.5
It is unclear whether her “special correspondent” relationship with the newspaper was so informal6 that it didn’t warrant any discussion, or because such records are lost or undiscovered. There are a few clues about what might have happened.
As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the Daily News enhanced its reputation through the aggressive pursuit of foreign news. It excelled during the Great War and 1919 Paris peace conference. This coverage wasn’t cheap.
Chicago Daily News Publisher Victor F. Lawson, 1920. (Photo of a photo.) Chicago History Museum.
In March 1919, as Russell reported from Ireland, Lawson explained to outside newspaper executives that his paper’s foreign news service cost $260,585 in 19187, nearly double the $148,419 in 1915, the first full year of the war. Syndicate papers contributed $76,265 in 1918, Lawson revealed, leaving the Daily News to cover the $184,320 balance.8
By September 1919, less than a year after the war ended, the paper began to shift emphasis. Dennis wrote to Lawson: “I heartily agree with all you say about the enormous importance of making The Daily News a stronger local paper in every possible way. … I can see immense gain in circulation if we could be markedly stronger and more interesting locally.”9
In December 1919, Dennis outlined to Lawson 11 important issues facing the paper, including the return of its chief correspondent from the Paris peace conference; plans for an anthology book of its war coverage; discovery that a recently purchased 14-story feature package had previously appeared in the Saturday Evening Post; and the latest fundraising details for the “Chicago’s 100 Poorest Families” Christmas charity drive.10
After Christmas, Dennis advised the paper’s London bureau: “Now that the war is over war expenses must be lopped off. Some of our correspondents have spent money altogether too freely, having full regard of war conditions. They have wasted money on loosely constructed and overwritten dispatches, and dispatches telegraphed and cabled when they should have been mailed.”11
As Russell’s Ladies Home Journal story circulated in January 1920, an “advance copy” of her book was provided to Éamon de Valera, according to his letter to her, published later that year as front matter in What’s the matter with Ireland?12 The Irish leader had slipped into America in June 1919 to raise money and build U.S. political support for the fledgling Irish republic. His 18-month tour of the country included several stops in Chicago.
Russell or her publisher likely provided the book to de Valera’s entourage, which must have believed it could be useful propaganda. Support staff probably drafted the letter for de Valera, who was in Washington, D.C., on the date of the published facsimile. Charles N. Wheeler, who reported from Ireland in spring 1918 for the Chicago Tribune, published his own book about Ireland in August 1919, then joined de Valera’s tour as an advance man and press spokesmen, might have assisted his fellow Chicago journalist. De Valera’s diary and related papers from the U.S. tour do not mention his March 1919 Dublin interview with Russell, any exchanges with her in America, or providing the letter for her book.13
At the start of April 1920, days before Easter, Russell joined a few dozen other women at a protest in front of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. The demonstration was organized to increase support for the Irish republic as the war there grew more brutal. Irish and Irish-American activists disagreed on the strategy, however, with opponents worried it would undermine de Valera’s mission in America.14
Mainstream newspapers accounts identified many of the women demonstrators, including “Miss Ruth Russell of Chicago”. The coverage did not associate her 1919 reporting from Ireland for the Daily News. The Daily News published a front-page brief about the embassy protest, but it did not name any of the women.
Ruth Russell was in the crowd of women protesters, or “Irish pickets,” outside the British Embassy on April 1, 1920. Library of Congress.
The Irish News and Chicago Citizen, a pro-nationalist weekly, did connect Russell to the Daily News; her late father, a well-regarding editor; and an older brother who worked as a journalist.15 The front-page story described her as “one of the most indefatigable of these vigilante sentinels” outside the embassy. Moreover, it suggested the Daily News sent Russell to Ireland “with a pot of the blackest paint, with, perhaps, a big order to besmirch the character and objects of the Sinn Féiners.”
The overheated, but unsourced, report continued: “…on investigation, [Russell] discovered the odious and detestable nature of the services expected of her and in disgust renounced and repudiated them. She is now engaged, with her devoted associates, in shaking the tottering stronghold of British tyranny like a heroine in Joshua’s besieging army at the fall of Jericho.”
Russell was “among other women connected to journalism” at the protests.16 Perhaps she participated only in the role of undercover reporter. It does not appear Russell was among several women who were arrested, or who participated in subsequent demonstrations in the following months.
Longer and more detailed versions of her Ireland reporting soon appeared in The Freeman17, a monthly magazine edited by libertarian author and social critic Albert Jay Nock. Its editorial, “The Recognized Irish Republic,” was circulated by the women outside the British Embassy a week in advance of publication.18
Russell’s Freeman profiles of Dungloe community organizer Paddy Gallagher and Dublin political celebrity Countess Markievicz are similar in style and substance to her Daily News dispatches and passages in What’s the matter with Ireland? There is more narrative in the book and magazine pieces, but no new ground. This undercuts the Irish News’ suggestion of bias by
the Daily News, notwithstanding Russell’s comment about her former colleague’s “testy impatience with Ireland.”19
Russell’s 1919 passport photo was used on one of the pages of her Life and Labor magazine coverage about evictions in a West Virginia coal mining “hollar.”
In 1920, Russell also reported for Life and Labor magazine about women being evicted from their homes in the coal-mining “hollar” of Williamson, West Virginia. An editor’s note described her as having “the wide outlook on life which is the natural accompaniment of a journalistic career.”20
It is curious that none of the three magazines that published Russell’s work in 1920 referenced her former association with the Daily News; likewise that it was ignored in newspaper coverage of the British Embassy protest, the Irish News and Chicago Citizen excepted. Her writing and comments about Ireland would continue to gain attention through the end of the year.
Russell arrived in Ireland the day before St. Patrick’s Day, 1919, a week before her 30th birthday. Over the next few months she reported from Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, and rural Dungloe in County Donegal.1 At least two dozen of her dispatches appeared in the Chicago Daily News, and other U.S. and Canadian newspapers that subscribed to its foreign news service.
She was not the only Daily News reporter in Ireland, which had attracted scores of American and other foreign correspondents after Dáil Éireann, the break away parliament of the Irish Republic, was established Jan. 21, 1919. As Maurice Walsh notes, “The Irish revolution became an international media event … The way in which visiting correspondents wrote up the Irish revolution was crucial to its outcome, both in the sense that they affected perceptions of the war and that they connected Ireland to the world.”2
Russell’s 1919 passport photo.
Russell’s first story from Ireland appeared in the Daily News on March 18, 1919, a day after the newspaper recognized St. Patrick’s Day with a full page of “greetings from noted Irish writers to their compatriots in Chicago.”3 She covered the prison release and triumphal Dublin return of Constance Georgine Markievicz, known as “Countess” Markievicz, who in December 1918 became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. As a separatist Sinn Féin candidate, Markievicz won a Dublin constituency while incarcerated for her role in Ireland’s anti-conscription protests earlier that year, months before the armistice.
Markievicz’s election and the Sinn Féin route of old guard Irish parliamentary nationalists received considerable press coverage in America. Her release from prison and decision to join the revolutionary parliament in Dublin was largely ignored by U.S. newspapers, giving Russell a scoop. Her story4 did not contrast Markievicz’s historic election win to American women still struggling for the vote. Her home state of Illinois would not ratify the 19th amendment until June, and U.S. suffrage waited until August 1920.
Instead, Russell offered a narrative, scene-setting approach to the homecoming that differed from most straight-news reporting of the day. She even placed herself in the action, close enough for Markievicz to whisper an aside. Listen to a lightly edited passage of the story, read by my wife, and reproduced below:
Down one curb of the Eden quay uniformed boys with coat buttons glittering in arc lights were ranged in soldier formations. Up the other curb squads of girls were blocked. All were members of the citizens’ army of the Transport Workers union. … Up in the bare front room of the Liberty hall headquarters, where dim yellow electric bulbs were threaded from the ceiling, the countess welcomed her friends of the days of the revolution of 1916. … With her eyes slight behind her metal rimmed glasses, the countess marched to the big central window and flung it wide open to the spring night. Before she addressed the crowd below, she said to me: “Our fate all depends on your president [Woodrow Wilson] now.”
Russell interviewed other leading political and cultural figures of the Irish revolutionary movement, including:
Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera, describing his “white, ascetic, young–he is thirty-seven–face lined with determination”5;
“sharp-mustached, sardonic little”6 Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Féin founder;
Maud Gonne McBride, widow of an Irish revolutionary leader, “tall and slim in her deep mourning”7;
“keen, boyish” Michael Collins8, the revolution’s guerrilla warfare strategist; and
George William Russell [no relation], “the famous AE, poet, painter and philosopher, the ‘north star of Ireland.’ ”9
Russell witnessed the Dublin arrival of the American Commission on Irish Independence, a non-U.S. government delegation of three prominent Irish Americans sent to the 1919 Paris peace conference to lobby for Ireland. She reported on a failed effort in the international race to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight.
The three members of the Irish-American delegation, at right, receive an address written in Irish from Cumann na mBan Photo: Irish Life, 16 May 1919. From the National Library of Ireland collection, via Century Ireland.
As in her Markievicz piece, Russell was self-referential in other reporting, in both first and third person, such as her March 1919 interview with de Valera, then hiding from British authorities: “In a small white room where reddish tapestry and draperies concealed closed doors and shaded windows Mr. de Valera was talking to me as a representative of the Chicago Daily News,” she wrote. Later in the same story, Russell described being escorted from the secret meeting location: “In the darkness the correspondent was guided along a narrow garden walled to a waiting car.”10
IN THE SHADOWS
Russell’s reporting was at its best when she mixed with Ireland’s poorest citizens, those in the shadow of the revolution. She lived in the Dublin slums with families crammed into one-room tenements. She applied for hard-to-find jobs with other women, many caring for children and supporting unemployed husbands and brothers. “Their constant toil makes the women of Ireland something less than well-cared for slaves,” Russell wrote.11
Checkpoint in Limerick, April 1919.
She interviewed workers and labor leaders in the short-lived Limerick soviet, at Belfast textile mills, and outside a soon to open Ford-owned tractor plant: “On the edge of the sidewalks in Cork there is a human curbing of idle men,” she reported. “Just now most of them are sons of farmers or farm hands, for the farmer of the south is turning his acres back to grazing and extra hands are not needed.”12
Most of Russell’s stories were published on inside pages of the Daily News with dispatches of its other foreign correspondents. A few times the paper promoted her by name in secondary headlines, such as “Ruth Russell Describes Barring of Workers from Home Town” (Limerick), and “Ruth Russell Tells Pathetic Story of Why Women Go to England”.13 It is unclear if this was an attempt by the Daily News to market her as a “stunt girl” reporter, or leverage the reputation of her late father, Martin J. Russell, one of Chicago’s pioneering newspaper editors.
In this reading from “Why Women Go to England”, Russell describes looking for work in Dublin with recently unemployed female munitions workers, like those she had labored with two years earlier in a Chicago armament plant.14:
Down a puddly, straw-strewn lane we were blown by the wind to a candy factory. It was next in factory size to the biscuit plant. Dublin considers a 50 to 100 hand plant very large. At this place, it was possible to earn $4.50 a week, but the thumbed sign on the door read: No hands wanted. … Up the narrow wooden treaded stairs we mounted to a big room where girls sitting sideways on a long table nailed yellow wooden candy containers together. Through a crack between the planks of the floor we could see hard red candies swirling below. As the melting sleet was pooling off our hats, the ticking aproned manager came out to sputter: Can’t you read? … That night along Gloucester Street, past the Georgian mansions built before the union of Ireland and England, flat uprising structures from behind whose verdigrised brass trimmed doors came the mummers of many membered tenement families–I walked until I came to a shining brass plated door. “Why don’t you go to England?” was the first question the matron of the working girls home put to me when I told her I could get no work. “All the girls are.”
Note how this story was published on June 3 but has a May 5 dateline.
IRISH CHILDREN, CHICAGO CONNECTIONS
Russell detailed malnourishment, mental illness, and other social problems in Ireland’s cities and rural western counties. She reported about children, teachers, and schools, likely drawing on her own earlier classroom training. Perhaps 175,000 of 500,000 enrolled children did not attend school; and only 3,820 of 13,538 teachers were efficient because their pay was low, $405 to $1,440 per year, she reported from government data.15
“Dead, mentally dead, teachers are frequent in Ireland,” Russell wrote.
Russell followed Daily News Publisher Victor F. Lawson’s advice about the paper’s correspondents to stay close to the native people. Here is an example from her stay in the Dublin slums16:
Then as a lodger I was given the only chair at the breakfast table. The mother and girl sat at a plank bench and supped their tea from their saucerless cups. As there was no place else to sit, the children took their bread and jam as they perched on the bed, and when they finished, surreptitiously wiped their fingers on the brown-covered hay mattress. Before we were through they had run to the streets to warm their cold legs inside the fender till the floor was tracked with mud from the street, ashes from the grate, and bits of crumbling bread.
Russell named other children in her reporting, detailing their young ages and harsh circumstances:
Six-year-old Mary Casey “has some difficulty curling her arm about the papers she carries” as the youngest member of the Dublin Newsgirls’ Club.
“Eight-year-old Michael Mallin drags kelp out of a rush basket and packs it down for fertilizer between the brown ridges of the little hand-spaded field in Donegal.”
“Nine-year-old Patrick Gallagher may go to the Letterkenny Hiring Fair to sell his baby services to a farmer.”
“Ten-year-old Margaret Duncan can be found sitting hunched up on a doorstep in a back street in Belfast.”17
And like any good reporter, Russell found Chicago connections in Ireland to relay back to her hometown readers:
Fr. J. P. Flannigan at St. Mary’s procathedral in Dublin, who led a committee of Catholic priests trying to quell Irish labor unrest, had studied in Rome with Archbishop George William Mundelein of Chicago.18
Progressive social reformer Jane Addams of Chicago helped send rubber boots to war-torn Germany through the Women’s International League.19
“Chicago girl” Stella M. Franklin, former secretary-treasurer of the city’s Woman’s Trade Union League, worked to improve housing conditions throughout the British Isles.20
Russell’s story on the Irish economy questioned whether England prevented Ireland from developing “all the Chicago side industries that can be established in connection with the cattle trade.” Money was lost shipping the animals across the Irish Sea for slaughter and processing. Russell reported that a London firm “has just issued a prospectus for a plant designed for slaughtering, tanning, chandlery, glue making, and which is intended to transform Drogheda in Ireland into a Chicago.”21
Some of Russell’s stories published up to two months after their dateline. Her byline from Ireland appeared in American newspapers at least through October 1919, though she returned home in August.22
In 1920, Russell would expand her reporting into magazine articles and her book, What’s the matter with Ireland? She also would take on a new role of publicly speaking out for Irish independence beyond the printed page.
When Constance Georgine Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British parliament in December 1918, she was far from the Dublin St. Patrick’s constituency she won with two thirds of the vote. The republican leader known as Countess Markievicz was held at Holloway Prison, in England, for her role in anti-conscription protests earlier in the year, before the Great War ended in November.
Upon her release from the prison 15 March, 1919, Markievicz returned to Dublin, where she was greeted by cheering supporters. The Irish Times, on page 6 of its St. Patrick’s Day issue, reported:
A demonstration of welcome had been organized at Liberty Hall for Madame Markievicz, and at 6 p.m. a large crowd assembled at Beresford place, where a procession was formed by the Citizen Army, headed by the St. James band, and including such bodies as the Cuman na mBan, Fianna, Irish Women’s Franchise League, Sinn Fein bodies, Irish Volunteers, and trades organizations. … She entered Liberty Hall amidst loud cheers and the waving of Sinn Fein flags from the windows. Addressing the crowd from one of the windows as “Fellow Rebels” … she said that it was worthwhile going to prison to find such a reception awaiting her … and advised them to work for an Irish republic.
The Times reported “a strong force of policemen was on duty,” but “the proceedings passed off without any incident of a disorderly character, and when the procession had passed by, the crowd rapidly melted away.”
The Irish Independent of 17 March, page 5, published the photo at the top of this post under the headline, “Warm Welcome Home From Prison.” The caption underneath said, “A big demonstration of welcome was accorded to Countess Markievicz on her arrival in Dublin on Sat. evening. In the photo … taken at Liberty Hall, she is in the center with bouquet.”
Markievicz’s release was largely ignored in the American press, including the New York Times and Washington Post, except for one or two lines in wire service stories. The Chicago Daily News, however, published an account from its own correspondent, Ruth Russell, who had arrived in Dublin about the same time. Here is some of Russell’s reporting from the 18 March 1919, issue of the Daily News. Note how the American female reporter places herself inside Liberty Hall, close enough for the Irish female politician to make a personal aside:
Down one curb of the Eden quay uniformed boys with coat buttons glittering in arc lights were ranged in soldier formations. Up the other curb squads of girls were blocked. All were members of the citizens’ army of the Transport Workers union. About them were grouped laborers shamrocked for St. Patrick’s day. On the railway bridge that spans the Liffey above Butt bridge soldiers on night patrol were silhouetted against the moon whitened sky, impatiently the crowd awaited the coming of the Countess Markievicz, released eight years before the expiration of her term in Holloway jail. … Up in the bare front room of the Liberty hall headquarters, where dim yellow electric bulbs were threaded from the ceiling, the countess welcomed her friends of the days of the revolution of 1916. … With her eyes slight behind her metal rimmed glasses, the countess marched to the big central window and flung it wide open to the spring night. Before she addressed the crowd below, she said to me: “Our fate all depends on your president [Woodrow Wilson] now.”
The Irish Press, Philadelphia, which had direct ties to the two-month-old Dáil Éireann, suggested that “it seemed as though everyone in the Irish metropolis had turned out to do honor to this notable Irish woman patriot.” The story disputed wire service reports that Markievicz would take her seat in the British House of Commons.
In December 1918, the upstart Irish republican Sinn Féin party routed 19th century nationalist party in the first parliamentary general election since 1910. This set the stage for the Irish War of Independence, which began in January 1919. In America, Irish immigrants and their first-generation offspring submitted hundreds of letters and petitions, and held public rallies, to pressure the U.S. government to support Irish freedom. This post is from my American Reporting of Irish Independence series. MH
First reports of the Sinn Féin victory in the Dec. 14, 1918, British parliamentary election reached large American newspapers the next day. The official election count was delayed until Dec. 28, so that outstanding votes from soldiers still serving overseas could be included in the final tally. Early U.S. press coverage of the election faded by Christmas, then resumed in the final days of 1918. Election coverage in the weekly Irish-American press generally did not begin until the January 1919 issues.
Below are samples of the early coverage in U.S. dailies, with additional context provided after some of the selections. A few editorial passages are included toward the bottom:
“A Dublin dispatch says the Irish Times predicts the Sinn Féin will win at least 60 seats in the present election and will be invited to sit at Westminster and vote with the British labor party in return for the labor parties support of home rule. The Irish Times says the Sinn Féin may accept this offer because of its policy of keeping away from Westminster must injure important Irish interests and soon become highly unpopular.”–Dec. 13 “special cable” from the London Times (via Public Ledger Co.), published in the Dec. 14 issue of The Washington Post, page 1.
Sinn Féin won 73 of 105 contested seats, but four of its candidates were elected in two constituencies, thus 69 individuals. The party did not take its seats at Westminster.
“Reports from Ireland say the Sinn Féin is believed to have swept the country. In Ireland also the keenness of the women voters was noteworthy.”–Dec. 14 London dispatch from The New York Times, published in the Dec. 15 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, page 1.
The British parliament extended the vote to women age 30 or older, householders, and university graduates, earlier in the year. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) won seven of 57 contested seats.
“Polling in the greater part of Ireland passed quietly except for minor collisions between Sinn Féiners and [IPP] Nationalists. A close analysis of the voting shows that the Nationalists have been hopelessly beaten by the Sinn Féin, even in places supposed to be Nationalist strongholds.”–Dec. 14 London dispatch from the Associated Press, published in the Dec. 15 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, page 2.
Election-related “violence was worst not between nationalists and unionists but between rival nationalists of Sinn Féin and the IPP,” historian John Dorney writes in The Irish Story.
“The defeat of John Dillon, the Irish Nationalist leader, in East Mayo is anticipated when the final count is completed. The Sinn Féiners polled a heavy vote in the county and city of Dublin and Cork. In Northwest Ulster the Sinn Féiners will carry the City of Derry, three seats in Donegal, and South Fermanagh and Northwest Tyrone. The Unionists expect to retain all their seats in the North. Joseph Devlin, Nationalist for West Belfast, has been re-elected by several thousand vote.”–Dec. 15 Belfast dispatch from The New York Times, published in the Dec. 16 issue of the Times, page 1.
Dillon was defeated by Éamon de Valera and replaced by Devlin as leader of the diminished IPP. Devlin defeated de Valera in the other constituency.
Sinn Féin leader Eamon de Valera, left, and (Irish Party leader John Dillon addressed the May 1918 anti-conscription rally in Ballaghderreen, County Roscommon. RTÉ Archives
“The broad features of the election results announced today are the sweeping triumph of the Lloyd George coalition, the complete route of the Asquithians, the pacifists and the women candidates and, perhaps most significant of all, the victory of the Sinn Féiners all along the line.”–Dec. 28 dispatch by the Associated Press, published in the Dec. 29 issue of The Washington Post, page 1.
“Of 14 women candidates, only one will be entitled to sit in the House of Commons, namely, a Sinn Féiner, Countess Markievicz, who was elected for St. Patrick’s Division of Dublin city. But, as the Sinn Féiners refuse to sit at Westminster, the House of Commons will, as hitherto, be composed entirely of males.”–Dec. 28 London dispatch from The New York Times, published in the Dec. 29 issue of the Times, page 1.
“The sweeping Sinn Féin victory is a plain referendum for revolution. … It seems impossible to contemplate the success of a revolution for the independence of 4 million people against a nation of 45 million people only 25 miles away. Yet is it possible in these days for a civilized nation to be ruled by naked force? … The situation in Ireland is an international scandal. The British government has entangled itself, and that government must find a way out. Championship of ‘the rights of small nations’ properly begins within one’s own political household. … Friends of Ireland and of England are loath to believe that there can be a repetition of the bloody scenes of the Easter revolution. But if there should be, it would not be Ireland that a watching world would blame.”—The Boston Globe, Dec. 30, 1918, page 8.
“Apparently the Sinn Féin is going to establish Irish independence without waiting for the peace conference or action by parliament. There will be the same old trouble–Ulster doesn’t want to be independent.”-–The Decatur (Illinois) Herald, Dec. 29, page 6.
“The winning party has new ideas, new methods, a different ruling spirit. … What Parnell demanded England has conceded to Canada, to Australia, to South Africa, and could concede to Ireland without danger to herself. What the Sinn Féiners demand could not and cannot concede while self-defense is the first law of nature. Hence the movement is either Quixotic, or abortive, or both; probably both. Yet it contributes a new feature to the drama of British politics, and a new feature to the troubled history of Ireland.”—The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 30, page 6.