The American Committee for Relief in Ireland (ACRI) timed the official launch of its $10 million fundraising campaign to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, 1921. The committee bought newspaper advertising and released a 16-page booklet titled, A Summons to Service from the Women and Children of Ireland. It opened:
Day after day you read with fainting heart the desolation that is gripping Ireland. You know that what you read is but half the story. The destruction of creameries and factories, the firing of homes, the laying waste of cities, these are the tragic symbols of a greater and unrecorded horror that is taking its toll from among the innocent who have not part in political or religious conflicts. …
This is not an “appeal.” It is rather a summons to Americans to join wholeheartedly in an enterprise of mercy. Never has such a summons failed. In full confidence that your response will be as prompt and generous as the need is urgent, we come to you on behalf of those who are looking to America for life itself.
The Summons to Service booklet featured 11 black and white photos of war-related devastation in Ireland, including Athlone, Balbriggan, Mallow, and Templemore. It highlighted testimony from several of the 38 witnesses at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (ACCI) hearings in Washington, D.C., from November 1920 to January 1921. The ACCI report, released in late March 1921, accused the British government of a “campaign for the destruction of the means of existence of the Irish people … [that resulted] in wide-spread and acute suffering among women and children.”1
There were counter narratives about conditions in Ireland. Liverpool-born journalist Cyril Herbert Bretherton, The Irish Times‘ correspondent to the Philadelphia Public Ledger and its affiliated U.S. papers, charged that ACRI supporters “continue to send to America lurid tales of Irish distress.” He disputed reports from the ACRI investigative team in Ireland that 200,000 civilians were “in dire need” and insisted that “there are not in all Ireland 500 people in that condition.” Likewise, he said property damage in Ireland, estimated at $300 million by the ACRI team, “does not amount to one-tenth that sum.”2
Clemens France, leader of the ACRI delegation in Ireland since mid-February, quickly cabled New York headquarters with a statement released to U.S. newspapers. France charged that Bretherton “has deliberately ignored facts which any unbiased journalist can obtain and which are known to crown authorities.” France also said that Bretherton’s four-part series in the Times “obviously sought to persuade our unit that no relief need exists in Ireland, and since he failed in this absurd attempt he is apparently attempting to influence opinion in America.”3
As these disputes unspooled in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, the ACRI and its network of state committees began collecting cash and other pledges for Ireland. The Summons to Service booklet encouraged $1 to $15 donations, with checks payable to the Emigrants’ Industrial Savings Bank in New York, founded during the Great Famine by the Irish Emigrant Society.
Public statements by several prominent figures bolstered the ACRI effort, including James Cardinal Gibbons, the most senior Catholic prelate in the United States. He was more sensitive to suffering in Ireland than most Americans. Born in Baltimore to Irish immigrants, his family moved back to Mayo before the famine, which he witnessed during his teen years, before returning to America.
In a statement issued two weeks before his death, Gibbons said:
I earnestly beg all kind hearted and generous Americans to contribute to the fund for the relief of the many thousands now suffering want in Ireland. … The whole Catholic church of America is most deeply indebted to the Irish people. It is not too much to expect that in every parish of our land effective means be taken to collect funds for the relief of the suffering in Ireland.
President Warren G. Harding, inaugurated at the beginning of March 1921, also issued a statement: “The people of America never will be deaf to the call for relief in behalf of suffering humanity” in Ireland.4
Now, a year after the U.S. launch of a bond drive to support the separatist Dáil Éireann government in Dublin, another fundraising campaign for Ireland was fully engaged in America.
This is the second of several articles about the ACRI. Find the previous story, “American investigators visit Ireland”, in my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series. NEXT: “Distress in Ireland.” The ACRI investigative team returns home from Ireland and releases its report. I’ll post this installment in mid-April.