Tag Archives: Eamon De Valera

Ireland & the 1920 U.S. presidential election: Part 2

Less than a month after he failed to win recognition of the Irish Republic at the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention in Chicago, Éamon de Valera tried for a better outcome at the Democratic Party gathering in San Francisco. His effort was doomed from the start.

National Democratic Convention, San Francisco, June 28-July 6, 1920. From the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

“Even before he’d gotten off the train, the local papers were speculating that his chances of getting the type of resolution he desired were almost nonexistent and that he well might end up with no resolution,” Dave Hannigan wrote. 1

The Democrats were the party of President Woodrow Wilson, who disdained the Irish independence movement and denied their repeated requests for support since the 1916 Rising. The GOP’s earlier rejection of an Irish plank in their party platform gave the Democrats additional cover with their Irish voters.

Read Part 1 about the Republican Convention

Glass

“We shall have our hands full for some time attending to the affairs of America without going farther afield,” U.S. Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia, chairman of the Democrats’ resolutions committee and Wilson’s former Treasury secretary, said of the prospects for an Irish plank.2 A few days later, the request for “full, formal and official recognition” of the Irish Republic failed 31-17 in the committee, “another resounding defeat for de Valera.”3

Unlike Chicago, however, where the issue died in committee, the full assembly of Democratic state delegates considered a compromise Irish plank on the convention floor. It also was defeated, but The New York Times reported the second Irish plank “was debated at some length, and finally got more than 400 votes. This is considered an impressive showing, and particularly so in a convention so thoroughly determined as this one to support the policies of the [Wilson] administration.”4

The Times noted the Irish effort would have had more success if operated internally by party leaders instead of being “managed chiefly from the outside.” The paper’s analysis said nothing about the opposition.

State vote totals for and against Irish recognition, and coverage of the San Francisco convention, can be seen on the July 10, 1920, front page of The Irish Press.

The 665-402 state delegate vote against recognition reveals the geographic limits of de Valera’s efforts to win American support for Ireland. Backing remained confined to the Northeast and Midwest regions, to states with thick Irish and Irish-American populations, such as Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. The Irish plank received unanimous support from the Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., delegations.

The plank failed, however, to win even one Democratic delegate vote from 16 states, all but one — Delaware — in the American South and West. This accounted for 270 opposition votes, nearly 41 percent of the total. Another 21 states from the same regions, including convention host California, cast the majority of their ballots against the Irish plank, most by high margins.

Campbell

“It is not an American issue at present,” said former Texas Gov. Thomas M. Campbell, whose entire 40-member delegation voted against the measure. “Ireland is premature in her demands, we believe.”5

Many Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, were reluctant to cross war ally Britain on the Irish issue, which they considered an internal matter. Perhaps some remained suspicious of Irish republican connections to Germany. At least a few of the state delegations probably voted en bloc against Irish recognition simply to please their chairman or other party arm-twisters. It was not a wrenching choice.

“For traditional and practical reasons, sympathy for the Irish problem remained strong within the Democratic Party, but not so strong as to tie the party or presidential candidate to any action on the matter,” Bernadette Whelan observed.6

The Irish Press, the Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to de Valera and the separatist Dáil Éireann in Dublin, quoted the Times’ “impressive showing” analysis of the 400 pro-recognition votes. The Press suggested that “even those who voted against the Irish recognition plank are ill at ease since witnessing the mighty demonstration of popular support accorded the Irish president on his arrival here.”7  

De Valera

De Valera believed the Democratic Party had underestimated “the great volume of public sentiment in this country behind the demand for justice in Ireland.” He vowed to create “a more systematic and thorough organization of the friends of the cause in America” and “an intensive campaign of education will be carried into every state and will reach every citizen.”

This was a remarkable statement from a man who had spent the past year traveling across America, holding hundreds of public rallies and private meetings, to promote Irish independence. His efforts generated substantial local and national media coverage, much of it favorable. A massive bond drive to raise U.S. dollars for Ireland had been underway since January. Nevertheless, de Valera and his supporters soon launched a new organization, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, in a split from the established Friends of Irish Freedom.

More about the new group and the impact of Irish voters in the 1920 U.S. presidential election in future posts.

De Valera’s departure from San Francisco also became the first step of his December 1920 return to Ireland. The Democratic convention failure faded into a few bad days in a political career that would span more than 50 years. In his two-volume biography of the Irish leader, totaling more than 800 pages, David McCullaugh reduced the episode to just one sentence.8

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:

The other Irish aboard the ‘Lapland’ with de Valera

(This post was originally published June 9, 2019. I am currently working on a few long-term projects. Please explore the site archives and check back for occasional new posts over the summer. MH)

Stowaway Éamon de Valera was the most famous passenger aboard the S.S. Lapland’s early June 1919 voyage to America. He was smuggled aboard in Liverpool, suffered seasickness crossing the Atlantic, then secreted down the gangway at New York. It was the start of his 18-month tour of America through December 2020. See my American reporting of Irish independence series for stories about his travels and other developments in 1919 and 1920.

At least three dozen fare-paying Irish, detailed below, also sailed aboard the Lapland.1 They were among the rebuilding wave of emigrants to leave Ireland during the War of Independence and Civil War.

In 1918, the final year of the Great War, fewer than 400 people emigrated from Ireland. That was less than one one-hundredth of the previous 10-year high of 51,000 in 1910.2 The 1915 sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania and similar attacks at sea, and other factors related to the war, caused the reduced flow.

In 1919, however, Irish emigration surged tenfold to more than 4,300, with slightly more than half bound for America. It increased to 30,500 in 1920, as slightly more than three quarters sailed to U.S. ports. During the five-year War of Independence and Civil War period, 1919-1923, a total 115,477 people left Ireland (an average of 23,000 per year), with 73 percent (84,051) destined for America.3

As for the Lapland, it was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, and launched in 1908. In April 1912, the Titanic’s surviving crew returned to England aboard the ship. It was requisitioned during the war as a troop transport; then returned to commercial service between Liverpool and New York within weeks of the armistice being signed in November 1918.

S.S. Lapland

Author Dave Hannigan set the scene as the Lapland made its way through the Narrows and up the Hudson River. As de Valera remained hidden below decks waiting for the cover of darkness:

… hundreds of passengers percolated to the top deck to catch a better glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, coming into view on the port side of the boat. … Manhattan lay off to their right, already steaming in the early morning of June 11, 1919, a shimmering monument to the progress in the still-young century. … From the soldiers returning from Europe to resume live interrupted, to the immigrants dreaming of their new lives, the reactions were similar as the skyline took their breath away. Awe. Excitement. Joy. Relief. Their destination was at hand.4

Below are the names of the Lapland‘s Irish passengers who arrived in New York on June 11, 1919. Most were from locations in today’s Northern Ireland, or northwest portions of the Republic. Several had visited America before the war, just as de Valera was returning to the country of his birth.

I’ve included the last place of residence, age, marital status, who going to see and where, and the length of stay, according to the manifest. Some planned to return within weeks or months; “always” and “permanent” were each used for those who intended to stay. There were probably additional Irish passengers aboard the ship among those listed with “British ethnicity” but no recorded place of residency.

I hope genealogists or relations of these passengers will be inspired to search for more details. Please contact me with any new information, which I’ll be happy to report in a future post.

  • John Bethune Armstrong, Belfast, 18, single, Uncle S. Murdock in Ridgemoor, N.J., 1 year.
  • Florence Carlisle, Belfast, 34, single, Sister Mrs. C.W. Salmond, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1 year.
  • Frank William Chambers, Dublin, 42, married, MacAlpine Hotel, New York, N.Y., 6 weeks.
  • William Mitchell Cooke, Belfast, 21, single, Friend Mr. Jackson, New York, 1 year/uncertain.
  • Agnes Copley, Dublin, 26, single, Sister Mrs. Howe, Brooklyn, N.Y., uncertain, See John James Black Mason below.
  • Minnie Courtney, Moy, 30, married, Brother (illegible), Philadelphia, uncertain.
  • Christopher Courtney, Moy, 3, See above.
  • Annie Dempster, Belfast, 47, married, Husband William Dempster, New York, N.Y., permanent.
  • Elizabeth Dempster, Belfast, 27, married, Father-in-law Wm. Dempster, New York, N.Y., uncertain.
  • John Dempster, Belfast, 25, married, Father Wm. Dempster, New York, N.Y., permanent.
  • Margaret Dempster, Belfast, 17, single, Father Wm. Dempster, New York, N.Y., permanent.
  • William Goag Dempster, Belfast, 13, single, Father Wm. Dempster, New York, N.Y., permanent.
  • John Russell Dempster, Belfast, six months, Grandfather Wm. Dempster, New York, N.Y., permanent.
  • Alice Ferguson, Stradbully, 30, married, Husband William Ferguson, Villanova, Pa., always.
  • William Ferguson, Stradbully, 4, Father Wm. Ferguson, See above.
  • William Dudley Fielding, Dublin, 17, single, Grandfather C. Mallow, Elgin, Ill., uncertain.
  • Delia Gorman, Killkee, 25, married, Husband T.J. Gorman, Kansas City, Mo., always.
  • Thomas J. Gorman, Killkee, 3, Father T. J. Gorman, See above.
  • John Peter Hayes, Roscrea, 35, single, Friend Bishop Schinner, Spokane, Wash., permanent.
  • Winifred Lynch, Ballyhaunis, 32, married, Husband Thomas Lynch, U.S. Army, permanent.
  • John James Black Mason, Belfast, 57, single, Sister Mrs. Howe, Brooklyn, N.Y., uncertain, See Agnes Copley above.
  • Harry A. McCormick, Belfast, 36, single, Mr. Ward, Sausalito, Calif., 1 month.
  • Alfred McClintock, Bruckless, 32, single, Brother-in-law Rev. F. Timperley, Brooks, Maine, 6 months.
  • Patrick Joseph McGrady, Dronmore, 28, married, Friend J. McPoland, Pittsburgh, Pa., permanent.
  • Anna Kathleen McGrady, Dromore, 25, married. See above.
  • Michael O’Connell, Knocklong, 26, single, Right Rev. Bishop Grace, Sacramento, Calif., permanent.
  • Kate Reilly, Belfast, 52, single, Sister Miss Mary Reilly, New York, N.Y., always.
  • Amy Torpey, Kenmare, 30, married, Husband Michael Torpey, Philadelphia, always.
  • Sarah F. Torpey, Kenmare, 3, Father Michael Torpey, See above.
  • Catherine Walsh, Belfast, 60, married, Daughter Mrs. Campbell, Newark, N.J., always.
  • Margaret Walsh, Belfast, 35, single, Sister Mrs. Campbell, Newark, N.J., always.
  • Bridget Walsh, Belfast, 19, single, Sister Mrs. Campbell, Newark, N.J., always.
  • Norman F. Webb, Randalstown, 33, single, Imperial Hotel, New York, N.Y., 7 weeks.
  • William Hubert Webb, Randalstown, 47, married, Imperial Hotel, New York, N.Y., 7 weeks.
  • John Whelan, Youghal, 31, single, Sister Lena Doolan, Elizabeth, N.J., always.
  • Elizabeth White, Tallyearl, 40, single, Uncle George Mano, Philadelphia, Pa., always.

RELATED: ‘The Irish Press’ withheld news of de Valera’s U.S. arrival

Ireland & the 1920 U.S. presidential election: Part 1

“The Irish republic leaders were so surprised, or angry, or both, that they refused to talk last night.”1

***

By early June 1920, Éamon de Valera had spent nearly a year traveling across America to raise money and political support for the fledgling Irish republic. The Sinn Féin leader had escaped from a British prison and crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway aboard the steamship Lapland. Left untouched by U.S. officials, he was mostly cheered by the Irish diaspora, first-generation Irish Americans, and other anti-British or pro-freedom supporters. Thousands donated to the bond drive he helped launch in January 1920 to fund Dáil Éireann, the separatist parliament in Dublin.

There were problems, too. Congressman William E. Mason, an Illinois Republican, failed to gain traction for a bill to provide U.S. government recognition of the Dáil. Worse, divisions widened between de Valera and his supporters, and the Friends of Irish Freedom, the U.S.-based activists who believed they should steer Ireland’s bid for American political support.

Now, both sides headed to the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nominating convention, held June 8 to 12 in Chicago. Their goal was to fasten a plank of support for Ireland in the party’s official political platform. For de Valera, the effort began with a torchlight procession down Michigan Avenue, which concluded with a rousing speech to 5,000 inside the Chicago Auditorium, and the large crowd outside.2

Photo and original caption from the Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1920. The sign says, “Our Dead in France Demand Ireland’s Freedom. Don’t Break Faith with Our Dead.” The marchers waved U.S. flags to generate enthusiasm and avoid protest.

“I cannot believe the committee framing the platform for the Republican Party will be content unless they include such a plank,” he said. “I know all of Chicago wants this–I know the entire country wants this–I have been all over the country and I know. The Republicans must promise to recognize the Irish republic.”

His public confidence was misplaced. Despite efforts behind the scenes to broker a compromise between the Irish factions, both sides submitted plank proposals. De Valera asked the Republicans to call on the U.S. government to provide the Irish republic with “full, formal and official recognition.” New York State Justice Daniel F. Cohalan, a Friends of Irish Freedom leader, asked the G.O.P. to “recognize the principle that the people of Ireland have the right to determine freely, without dictation from outside, their own governmental institutions.”

A convention subcommittee rejected de Valera’s measure by 12-1. It passed Cohalan’s proposal 7-6, but a committee member later changed his vote, reportedly after hearing de Valera’s public grumbling. The Republican Party “gladly dropped” any reference to Ireland from its platform, David McCullagh has written.3 Consternation prevailed on both sides of the Irish split.

Whether the plank failed “because of dissension among its proponents or because of some consideration on the part of the committee of American interests we do not know,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized.4 “It got far enough to give Americans serious occasion for meditation on the subject of the Irish cause as a factor in our most important foreign relations.”

Less then two years after the armistice ending the Great War, however, the editorial concluded:

[We must not] produce a condition from which war [with ally Britain] is likely, if not certain … Sympathy for those [Irish] we think victims of injustice is a worthy emotion, but it is our duty to consider the welfare of our own people. …  In this case the American people would not make the sacrifice, and in our opinion ought not to make it, whether from the viewpoint of national expediency, or on the perhaps higher ground of world welfare. Irish independence is not worth the embroilment of America and Great Britain. The quicker we realize that the better for all concerned, not excepting the Irish people themselves.

Opposing Viewpoints

Each side of the Irish split offered it own post-convention analysis of the failure in Chicago. The Washington, D.C.-based News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom never mentioned de Valera by name as it scolded the “brass band dictatorial and unwarranted methods” of putting forward a plank “that never had even a remote chance of adoption.”5 The Friends, founded shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising to “encourage and assist any movement that will tend to bring about the national independence of Ireland,” by 1920 numbered 100,000 regular members, with an additional 175,000 associate members, and claimed to represent 20 million “Americans of Irish blood.”6

The News Letter continued:

American activities on behalf of Ireland must be directed by American brains … The Americans who founded the Friends of Irish Freedom and gave it life and a powerful voice in American affairs are first, last and always, Americans. American leadership only will they follow in shaping American activities in behalf of the people of Ireland.

The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to de Valera and the Dáil, exaggerated the size of his Michigan Avenue procession by a factor of at least 10: “100,000 Hail De Valera in Chicago,” proclaimed the June 19 front page headline. Unsurprisingly, its coverage downplayed the failure to pass the plank. “Though the immediate objective of President De Valera was not obtained, the way has been cleared and attention forcibly focused upon the clear issue of the recognition of the Irish Republic.”

This cartoon appeared June 11, 1920, in the Chicago Tribune as the U.S. Republican Party held its presidential nominating convention in the city.

In two editorials, the paper blamed Cohalan and the “Irish Americans” for the plank failure, and dismissed suggestions that de Valera made trouble for himself and the Irish republican cause in Chicago by meddling in American politics:

“He did not go there to sell Irish votes or speak for the Irish race in America,” the paper said. “[He] made no attempt at any time to interfere in purely American concerns, nor did he at any time attempt to interfere in American votes. His aim was and is to win the friendship of all the American people irrespective of their political affiliation.”7

At the end of June 1920, de Valera traveled west to San Francisco, where he attempted to insert a similar Irish plank into the Democratic Party platform. That will be the subject of Part 2 in early July.8

Mary Galvin’s year of protest for Ireland, 1920

By spring 1920, Philadelphia’s Mary J. Galvin wanted to fight for Irish freedom. While many details of her decision are unknowable, a few of its roots are certain:

  • The 24-year-old telephone company stenographer was the daughter of post-Famine immigrants in a city of 65,000 native Irish, second only to New York.1
  • The Irish Press, a Philly-based weekly with direct ties to Dublin separatists, had publicized independence since it launched in March 1918. Galvin’s name would soon appear on its pages.
  • Eamon de Valera, one of the separatist leaders, had toured America since June 1919 to raise political and financial support for the war in Ireland, including stops in the City of Brotherly Love. Galvin’s family contributed $25 to the Irish bond drive in February 1920, more than double the usual $10 donation.2

Two months later, Galvin boarded a train for the 150-mile ride south to Washington, D.C., where she marched to the front lines of the transatlantic debate over “the Irish question.” She joined several dozen picket-carrying women outside the British Embassy to protest the Empire’s rule in Ireland.

Galvin and nine other women were arrested and charged under an obscure federal statute with a technical assault on the British government, an offense punishable by a fine and up to three years in prison.3 Most of the women accepted quick release on bond. Galvin, reported to have “recently experienced a long illness,” and Maura Quinn of Boston, spent the night in a D.C. jail.4

The pair were freed the next morning through a ruse. Mrs. James Walsh told them to get ready for court, then informed them of their release once outside the jail.

“We were told to go, and as Mrs. Walsh is our captain we had to obey, though we were perfectly willing to remain in jail,” Galvin said.5

Women pickets outside the British Embassy, April 1920.

Irish separatists in America had organized several days of embassy protests to draw attention to their cause. Some of the pickets were paid, others selected for their appealing looks to attract more press coverage. It is unclear how Galvin came to join the half dozen women from Philadelphia who arrived in Washington for the protests.

The arrests surprised the organizers, who quickly discontinued the media stunt. A split developed between the Irish separatists and more militant American women who extended the picketing through the summer as their own enterprise.6

All factions, whatever the cause, are composed of individuals who must decide whether to continue their participation, or move on. Galvin, back in Philadelphia, soon found other ways to continue her fight for Ireland.

*** 

Irish immigrants and Irish-American activists took offense to the silent movie “Kathleen Mavourneen” since its fall 1919 release. The film included scenes of pigs and chickens kept inside the cottages of Irish peasants, which to the activists was nothing less than British propaganda. In February 1920, young men smashed the movie projector and caused other damage at a San Francisco theater showing the film.7

In May 1920, Galvin, acting as president of the American Economic Society for Irish Freedom, took her complaints about the film to two Philadelphia theater managers. “Convinced by the lady’s argument,” The Irish Press reported, both managers canceled further screenings.8

Another “active and zealous friend of Ireland,” John Ryan, was arrested for protesting outside a third Philly theater. A magistrate ridiculed him as “the kind of Irishman who is a detriment to the Irish cause.”

Galvin’s group quickly issued a statement:

“We, Philadelphians, banded together to resist the baneful inroads of British propaganda on our people admire the action of John Ryan in opposing singlehanded the showing of the insidious libel ‘Kathleen Mavourneen.’ … We consider [him] a detriment to no cause, Irish or American, but rather we consider a dispenser of justice, who passes a hasty judgement on one sided evidence a detriment to American prestige, and we Americans will be proud to be represented at the hearing as coworkers with John Ryan, who will stand Friday where Pearse stood in his day–a scapegoat in the dock for Irish independence.” 

The Philadelphia dailies appear to have ignored the crusade against the film and Ryan’s day in court. The big papers did not miss several of Galvin’s other protests.

***

Photo of Mary Galvin with original caption from the Evening Public Ledger, May 20, 1920.

On May 19, Galvin “escorted” British Ambassador Sir Auckland Geddes to his appearance at the Franklin Institute, the Public Ledger wisecracked under a photo that showed her holding a picket sign.9 Geddes was in Philadelphia to receive a medal on behalf of Charles A. Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine.

A week later, Galvin and Theresa Pont of Philadelphia were arrested in front of the city’s Metropolitan Opera House as the United British Societies celebrated an “Empire Day” event. De Valera had been welcomed to the same venue eight months earlier.

The pair, surrounded by 15 police officers, refused two orders to move along. “Miss Galvin … started to orate and berate the acting [police] lieutenant because of what she termed his ‘lack of justice,’ ” the Inquirer reported.10

“I am an American, born in this country, and if this is justice, I can’t see it,” Galvin “shouted,” according to the paper, which also noted her April arrest at the British Embassy in Washington. 

A crowd “immediately started to sympathize with the prisoners.” The two protesters were hustled away and charged with breach of the peace. Police “compelled the pedestrians to amble along.” 

The two protesters spent a short time at the station house before being released. A magistrate discharged the case the next day.11

In August, Galvin joined other “militant women pickets for the cause of Irish freedom [who] forced their way” into a West Philadelphia suffrage demonstration and “stirred up a lively rumpus” days after the passage of the 19th Amendment. “Their flaming signs urging American women to intercede for Ireland aroused the anger of the local suffrage leaders.”12

By now, Galvin was notorious. The story noted she “has twice been arrested for picketing.”

With federal charges still pending against Galvin and the nine other British Embassy protesters, one of the West Philly demonstrators held a sign that asked: “Shall American women allow ten pickets to be imprisoned by American law for protesting against the slaughter of Irish by English gunmen.”

***

As 1920 drew to a close, the war in Ireland grew uglier. In October, Cork city Mayor Terence James MacSwiney died on hunger strike. In December, British troops torched the city.

Cork city ruins, December 1920.

Galvin’s reaction to these and other events is only partial clear. As secretary of a relief committee effort, she gathered food supplies and other assistance for Ireland. She distributed “credential cards and collection blanks” for financial assistance, the checks payable to one of the city’s Catholic priests.13

Two days before Christmas, the steamship Honolulu sailed from New York City laden with more than 100 tons of relief supplies. “A large portion of the shipment is flour and other foods, and includes quantities of clothing for men, women and children,” the Inquirer reported.14

In the new year, Galvin disappeared from the pages of the Irish Press and the Philadelphia dailies. She was mentioned in a Washington Post story that the U.S. government finally dropped its April 1920 charges against the 10 embassy pickets. The women no longer faced three years behind bars.15

It’s impossible to know what Galvin thought of the July 1921 ceasefire in Ireland, the December 1921 treaty with Britain and partition of the island, or the civil war that followed. A decade after her year of protest, she remained single, lived with her widowed mother, and still worked at the telephone company.16

In 1920, however, Mary Galvin shook her clenched fist at the British Empire. She extended her open hand to the Irish people. More than 60 years before Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands uttered his famous quote, she had found her “own particular part to play,” neither “too great or too small.”   

When bigots tried to ban Dev from Birmingham, Alabama

Éamon de Valera faced one of the most hostile receptions of his U.S. tour to raise money and political support for Ireland during an April 21, 1920, stop in Birmingham, Alabama.

De Valera in 1919

An American Legion post in the southern industrial city urged Alabama Gov. Thomas E. Kilby to declare de Valera persona non grata, in part because Irish separatists had sought German assistance during the late world war, when America allied with Britain. A Pennsylvania chapter of the patriotic veterans organization began grumbling about de Valera as he visited Pittsburgh in October 1919. Similar rhetoric surfaced a month later in Los Angeles

Now, however, the strongest opposition to de Valera’s appearance was driven by “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) hatred of Catholics that prevailed in Birmingham during the second and third decades of the twentieth century,” David B. Franklin wrote in a 2004 History Ireland article. “The Irish-American population in particular was an insidious threat, [because unlike blacks] that ethnic group mixed so freely with the WASP majority in all situations except religion.”

Kilby declined to grant the Legion’s requested declaration and steered away from overt anti-Catholicism. Instead, he released a statement that said the Sinn Féin leader should be deported by the U.S. State Department. And he suggested that some “patriotic Americans” were “seriously misled” in their “zeal for a cause which involves the internal affairs of a friendly nation [Britain].”1

Frank J. Thompson, state chairman of the American Commission on Irish Independence, rebuked Kilby on grounds of patriotism and politics:

The time is coming, whether Governor Kilby realizes it or not, when the same moral law that governs man shall govern nations and when robber nations, like the burglarious individual, will have to realize the truth of the principle and be governed by it. … [He should] familiarize himself more thoroughly with the attributes of a real American and the history of our country, before he attempts to catalogue or classify those who sympathize with the aspirations of the Irish people.”2

Thompson, leader of Alabama’s Irish bond drive effort, a few days earlier had welcomed de Valera to Mobile, the state’s more heavily Catholic port city, where there were no protests. Despite the agitation in Birmingham, de Valera was allowed to make his speech. He was joined by Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister James Alexander Hamilton Irwin of County Antrim, who said that Irish freedom was not only a Catholic concern.

Anti-Catholic bigots tried to block Éamon de Valera from making an April 1920 speech at this Birmingham, Alabama, playhouse, then the Jefferson Theatre, later renamed Erlanger. Birmingham Public Library

Kilby and the Legion got more press attention before de Valera’s visit than the speech received afterward, according to a review of available digital newspaper archives. The New York Times reported de Valera “was greeted with mingled applause and shouts of ‘throw him out’ ” and that “objectors caused considerable confusion inside the crowded theatre.”3 The Irish Press, the Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to Sinn Féin leadership in Ireland, declared “a great throng crowded Jefferson Theatre to its utmost capacity … despite an organized attempt of bigots to prevent the meeting…”4

The Birmingham episode received only minimal attention in Irish newspapers, which focused more coverage on the deadly tornadoes that swept through Alabama and other U.S. southern states in the same week.

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.

An American reporter in 1920 Ireland: Newspapers

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. See earlier posts in this series and other stories about American reporting of Irish independence at the linked project landing page. Reader input is welcomed, including photos or links to relevant source material. For this post only, I’ve linked the headline to a .pdf copy of the story for newspaper historians.  MH

***

British Suspension of Irish Newspapers Raised Great Storm of Protest1

Guest, a veteran New York City reporter and editor, devoted this story to the antagonism between foreign and domestic newspapers and the British administration in Ireland at Dublin Castle. He wrote:

Being a newspaper editor in Ireland is a ticklish job. If you publish something which offends Dublin Castle, the police or military raids your offices and carry away vital parts of the presses. If you criticize Sinn Féin too severely, your office is likely to be stormed and the presses smashed.

As a newspaper man, I have great respect for the Irish newspapers. When one which has been suppressed receives permission to resume publication, it is the custom to come out in the next issue with a blast against the government which makes the previous ‘libel’ read like a hymn of praise.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1920

Guest again referenced the Defense of the Realm Act, or “Dora,” which he noted was used to exert “strict censorship not only over dispatches sent from Ireland, but foreign news sent to Ireland as well.” This may be why Guest waited until he returned to America before writing his series about Ireland, just as United Press correspondent Ralph F. Couch had done in early 1919 after his scoop interview with prison escapee Éamon de Valera.

Guest reported the mid-January 1920, Dublin post office seizures of the New York American, Irish World, and Gaelic American,2 with “thousands of copies … carried off to Dublin Castle” because they contained articles about the Irish bond drive in America. “This was not the first seizure of its kind in Ireland and it probably will not be the last,” he wrote.

It should be remembered that Britain was not the first or only democracy to censor or suppress the press. In America, the Committee of Public Information (CPI), created in April 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson, “became the U.S. ministry for propaganda,” and an “unofficial censor” of the domestic and foreign press. Journalist George Creel and the secretaries of State, Navy, and War ran the CPI, which worked with the U.S. Postal Service to block distribution of the New York-based Gaelic American and Irish World, and the Dublin-based Freeman’s Journal.3

Historian Ian Kenneally has explained the main political motivation for press censorship in Ireland was to keep the views and activities of the separatist Sinn Féin from Irish newspaper readers. He continued:

The situation worsened in September 1919 when the authorities in Dublin Castle abolished the post of censor. The decision was greeted by cynicism from the Irish press with newspaper editors deriding the fact that the censor may have gone but the restrictive regulations remained in place. A wave of newspaper suppressions swept the country. This was because the Irish press now had no censor to guide them as to what would be deemed unacceptable by Dublin Castle.4

Dublin Castle, the seat of the British administration in Ireland. Late 19th or early 20th century image. National Library of Ireland image.

By the time Guest arrived in Ireland in early 1920, more than two dozen Irish newspapers had been suppressed or had their foreign circulation banned for “a few days [or] longer periods,” he reported. The digital Irish Newspaper Archives contains 50 titles that published during 1920. An estimated 332 newspapers circulated in Ireland during the period 1900 to 1922, excluding British or American titles.5

Guest listed these papers as being suppressed:

Mayo News * Clare Champion * Newcastle-West Weekly Observer * Kings County Independent * Belfast Evening Telegraph * Dublin Evening Herald * Meath Chronicle * Galway Express * Ballina Herald * Killkenny People * Irish Republic * Southern Star (County Cork)

Freeman’s Journal nameplate

Most of Guest’s story detailed the December 1919 suppression of the Freeman’s Journal, which extended into January 1920. The action “aroused a storm of protest against the methods of Dublin Castle, in which even the press of England joined … The circumstances attending the suppression of the newspaper and the subsequent negotiations over its resumption of publication constitute a chapter of English history in Ireland that reflects little credit on the present administration.”

As mentioned at the top, Guest’s full story can seen by clicking the linked headline. The Freeman’s Jan. 28, 1920, editorial cartoon about the suppression, referenced by Guest, can be viewed here via the National Library of Ireland’s (NLI) Shemus Cartoon Collection. More on the history of the Freeman’s Journal is available in this October 2019 guest post by Irish historian Felix Larkin, who also wrote the linked NLI collection description.

NEXT: English Interests Hamper Industrial Development in Ireland, U.S. Writer Finds

An American reporter in 1920 Ireland: Mummers

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. See earlier posts in this series and other stories about American reporting of Irish independence at the linked project landing page. Reader input is welcomed, including photos or links to relevant source material. MH

***

Night With Irish Mummer Who Gives Performances In House Or Barn In Secret1

Guest attended “one of the most popular ways of keeping the torch of liberty lighted and fanning the flames of hatred of England in the south of Ireland … a revival of the ‘mummers‘, roving bands of actors who impersonate the ancient and modern Irish heroes.”

The reporter, guided by an escort on a dark and misty evening, “walked, or rather stumbled” across the fields to a farm house about two miles outside of Glengarriff, in County Cork. Approved by a sentry, the pair entered a barn filled with about 40 people, Guest estimated, “a dozen of whom were women.” Two lanterns dimly illuminated a small platform. He continued:

Thomas Ashe

From somewhere out of the darkness at the side of the stage a bent figure slowly made its way to the center. The face of the man was whitened and drawn as if in pain. ‘It’s Tom Ashe’ my companion whispered, meaning that the ‘mummer’ was impersonating Thomas Ashe, who died in Dublin in 1918, [sic, Sept. 25, 1917] following a hunger strike in prison. The bent figure on the platform straightened up and the lips moved:

My name is Ashe
and like a flash
From Kerry’s hills I came
And on the tree of Liberty
I carved a deathless name.

Guest quoted rhymes from other figures: Easter 1916 martyr Padriag Pearse; President of the Irish Republic Éamon de Valera, then touring America; and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Sir John French, the government’s chief administrator at Dublin Castle. “Groans and hisses punctuated the [mummer’s] recital” for French, Guest wrote. Other impersonations included Wolfe Tone, Michael Dwyer, Robert Emmet, and Father John Murphy. 2

Guest noted that “if the audience feels secure enough,” a piper or fiddler might accompany the mummer and a dance after the performance. This was not the case at the show he attended. “The lanterns on the platform were put out, leaving the barn almost in darkness. The audience was not permitted to leave all together: they went out at twos and threes at intervals of a few minutes.”

Guest’s escort returned him to Glengarriff by a different route, “shorter, I’m thankful to say, for it was raining hard.”

Near Glengarrif, Co. Cork.

NEXT: Drastic Gov’t In Ireland Fosters Spirit of Hatred, Leading Churchmen Say 

Protestant preacher helped promote Irish independence

Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister James Alexander Hamilton Irwin of Killead Church, County Antrim, arrived in America in March 1920 to help promote Irish independence. His particular mission: counter the prevailing notion that Irish nationalism was strictly a Catholic desire. The Protestant preacher toured with republican leader Éamon de Valera, who had reached U.S. shores in June 1919.

Rev. J.A.H.Irwin, a Presbyterian minister from near Belfast, arrived in America in March 1920 to present the case of Irish Protestants in favor of self-determination for Ireland. Library of Congress photo.

In one of his earliest U.S. newspaper interviews1, Rev. Irwin, then 44, said:

I have come to the United States mainly because I feel that the Irish issue is likely to be misconstrued to the American public. I knew that a deputation was sent to represent the extreme Unionist, and I knew that the southern aspect was capably presented by Mr. de Valera and his friends, but I felt that there was an entirely different aspect and point of view that neither of these parties could or would put before the American people.

It is absolutely and entirely false to say the issue [of Irish independence] is a religious one. … The question is purely political and economic. [Unionist leader] Sir Edward Carson … has allowed himself and his followers to use [sectarianism] as the last refuge of a defeated politician. He knows that it is the only weapon he can use with effect on the American people, who are lovers of freedom and justice, and who, he knows, would resent any form of Catholic aggression.

The Irish Press of Philadelphia, a pro-nationalist weekly with ties to the provisional republican government in Dublin, reported on Rev. Irwin’s April 5, 1920, address to the Protestant Friends of Ireland2 in New York. “A sea of Irish faces, 5,000 strong, all eagerly wait[ed] to hear the speaker of the evening,” began the story3 by Agnes Newman, sister of 1916 Easter Rising martyr Sir Roger Casement.

Dr. Irwin emphasized the fact that if Britain would withdraw her present army of occupation from Ireland not one hair upon the head of a man, woman or child would be injured in any part of Ireland. He strongly denounced the oppression and cruelty of the present ‘Reign of Terror’ and said he had traveled these thousands of miles not in the cause of humanity alone, but in the cause of Christianity.

Within weeks of his U.S. arrival, Unionist forces began a smear campaign against Rev. Irwin. “His views [are] absolutely opposed to the whole mass of Irish Presbyterian opinion … his statement … a mass of falsehoods and misrepresentations. He has no credentials to speak for either Presbyterians or Protestants,” stated a widely-circulated April 10, 1920, letter from Belfast, attributed only to “responsible representatives.”4

Nevertheless, Rev. Irwin became a regular platform guest with de Valera as the Irish bond drive toured through the Southern states of America, including a controversial stop in Birmingham, Alabama. (I’ll explore that in a future post.) Rev. Irwin also visited several Canadian cities.

Upon his January 1921 return to Ulster, the preacher was arrested by British authorities on weapons charges. As colorfully described by the Fermanagh Herald, “a farmer’s gun for which there was no ammunition, and a revolver which would not revolve, with ammunition that would not fit it.”5

News coverage on both sides of the Atlantic suggested Rev. Irwin was the first Presbyterian minister arrested by the British state since the rebellion of 1798. These contemporary sources reported he was held at the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, and/or the Ballykinlar internment camp in County Down; either for a few days or several weeks of a two-year sentence.

That summer, a special commission impaneled at Killead church considered complaints about  the preacher’s activities in America. The majority opinion was that “if outsiders had left the congregation alone there would have been no occasion for the commission. It was due, they said, to outside influence for political purposes.”6 Rev. Irwin remained at Killead for another five years, moved to Scotland until 1935, then settled in Dublin.7

In 1937, de Valera consulted with Rev. Irwin about the composition of the new Constitution of Ireland. The preacher later joined de Valera’s Fianna Fáil political party, where he served on the national executive from 1945 until his death in 1954.8

Rev. J.A.H. Irwin in March 1921. Library of Congress photo.