This blog series focuses on U.S.- Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day over the past 100 years. Since this is the centennial of the Easter Rising, I’m looking at 1916 and each 25 years afterward: 1941, 1966 and 1991. I’m also writing a post on St. Patrick’s Day 1976, the year of the American bicentennial.
Part 2: The Rising’s 25th anniversary & Ireland’s neutrality
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not recognize St. Patrick’s Day 1941 with any Irish guests or events, according to his official calendar. But with the war in Europe now in its second year, Ireland was certainly on the president’s mind nine months before the Pearl Harbor attack.
Roosevelt knew the U.S. would enter the conflict sooner or later. On March 15, 1941, he told the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association:
Upon the national will to sacrifice and to work depends the output of our industry and our agriculture. Upon that will depends the survival of the vital bridge across the ocean—the bridge of ships that carry the arms and the food for those who are fighting the good fight. Upon that will depends our ability to aid other Nations which may determine to offer resistance. Upon that will may depend practical assistance to people now living in Nations that have been overrun, should they find the opportunity to strike back in an effort to regain their liberties and may that day come soon! This will of the American people will not be frustrated, either by threats from powerful enemies abroad or by small, selfish groups or individuals at home.
Perhaps of note to Irish and Irish-Americans who heard the speech or read accounts of it, Roosevelt said:
The world has no use for any Nation which, because of size or because of military might, asserts the right to goosestep to world power over the bodies of other Nations or other races. We believe that any nationality, no matter how small, has the inherent right to its own nationhood. (My emphasis.)
At the time, Roosevelt, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland (since April 1940) David Gray and other American officials were frustrated with Ireland’s position of neutrality in the war. The U.S. and Britain wanted access to Irish ports and airfields. On St. Patrick’s Day 1941 (two days after Roosevelt’s speech) Irish leader Eamon de Valera addressed the Irish people and America in a radio broadcast.
“A small country like ours that had for centuries resisted imperial absorption, and that still wished to preserve its separate national identity, was bound to choose the course of neutrality in this war,” he said. “It has taken an effort of centuries to win back the independence we have got. We are determined that it shall not be lost again.”
On March 18, Gray wrote to Roosevelt from Dublin. He opened by saying “we are very full of your speech made the other night at the White House Correspondents dinner.” Then he complained about de Valera:
“He cannot get out of this self-centered dream world and realize that the lrish will be goose-stepping if Britain goes down. … This running a government on hatred of another country is a very dangerous thing and is bound to land him on the scrap heap eventually.”
The struggle over Irish neutrality would continue through the war years. All of Roosevelt’s Irish-related correspondence for 1941 and other years is available online.
In New York City, County Roscommon native Father Edward Flanagan supported Ireland’s neutral stance in a St. Patrick’s Day homily commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising. In Washington, D.C., Irish-Americans gave “serious thoughts to the present situation of their ancestors’ homeland,” The Washington Post reported. Rev. Dr. Tracy John Ellis compared the barbarism of St. Patrick’s fifth century Europe to the “barbarism on the loose” in 1941 Europe.
Very Rev. Ignatius Smith of Catholic University told several hundred men gathered at the Mayflower Hotel for the annual Society of Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banquet that “subjugated nations can learn from Ireland that they are never really conquered as long as they are determined to be free.” The Post‘s reporting is silent as to whether he mentioned the Rising anniversary or offered an opinion about Irish neutrality.
The growing militarism of the day was visible elsewhere in Washington as the Irish War Veterans Post 17 conducted a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and also laid a wreath at the statue of Commodore John Barry (a Wexford man) in Franklin Park.