This is the second in a series of short posts exploring December 1918 events that became a turning point in the struggle for Irish independence. In Ireland, the republican Sinn Féin party routed the 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. A U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing highlighted their efforts. MH
The U.S. Congress intensified its activism on behalf of Ireland once America entered the Great War in April 1917. “Members seized the moment to revive the issue of Irish independence, which had failed to gain traction in the House a year earlier when Missouri Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R) insisted that Congress support the Easter Rising,” according to the U.S. House of Representatives’ History, Art & Archives blog.
It took until a month after the war ended, however, before the Committee on Foreign Affairs convened a hearing on “The Irish Question.” Congress was in a “lame duck” session, between the Nov. 5 midterm election and new members taking their seats in early March. Republicans won control of the House and Senate from the Democrats, the party of President Woodrow Wilson.
Dec. 12, 1918, was a Thursday, a fair, late fall day with temperatures in the capital settled into the mid-30s. Post-war news dominated the front page of the The Washington Post, including the projected $120 billion cost of the fight in Europe, and Wilson’s plans for the upcoming Paris peace conference.
Virginia Rep. Henry D. Flood (D), the committee chairman, opened the hearing at 10 a.m. He set a hour-hour limit on the testimony.
A diverse array of citizens, local politicians, and representatives of civic organizations and labor unions traveled to Washington to submit testimony in favor of Irish independence. Witnesses highlighted the intertwined histories of Ireland and the United States as a reason for intervention. Many also stressed that the United States played a decisive role in ending the war, which thereby endowed the President—and Congress—with the power to request that Britain grant Ireland a seat at the negotiating table in Paris.
Illinois Rep. Thomas Gallagher (D), one of several members to put forward resolutions supporting Irish “self determination,” Wilson’s phrase, gave the first statement. He noted the issue had been introduced nearly two years earlier, and, as the result, “quite an agitation has gone over the country urging legislative action” on behalf of Ireland. He recognized the “large delegations from different sections of the United States here this morning.”
Illinois Circuit Court Judge Kickham Scanlan of Chicago was the first witness. His speech, like many of the others that followed, emphasized Irish contributions to the United States:
The Irish helped make America in 1776. The British Parliament said that but for the aid of the people of Ireland the freedom of America would not have been won. And in every war from that day to this they have stood by America, and they stood by America to a man in the last war. Do not let any paper, do not let any propaganda in the world, every make any member of this committee think that there was any man of Irish blood in America who could dream for one moment of anything but the success of America. We kept the faith.
One-by-one, the following witnesses gave their statements and introduced into the record letters from other individuals and resolutions passed by groups at earlier public meetings. Some highlights include:
- A letter from former Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, who in a few months time would travel to the Paris peace talk as one of three representatives of the American Commission on Irish Independence.
- The Madison Square Garden address of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell of Boston, delivered two nights earlier to some 25,000 supporters of Irish freedom.
- “Ireland’s Plea for Freedom,” by William J.M.A. Maloney, M.D., a former British Army captain.
- The Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
- The Sinn Féin platform of October 1917. The hearing came two days before the party’s massive wins in the first British elections since 1914.
George Fox, a New Haven, Conn., university teacher, voiced rare opposition to the overwhelming support for the Irish cause. He said:
…these men come in here and ask the Congress of the United States to adopt a joint resolution that they have no right to ask the Congress to adopt, and which they have no right to present. If Germany had won, they would have had to go before some other peace conference aligned with Germany, but when the empire which they have supported was beaten they switch around and ask the United States to go to the peace conference in their behalf. … I take the position … that it is entirely a matter for England to decide.
The Foreign Affairs Committee cleared a bill of support for Ireland to the floor, where it was debated March 4, 1919, the last day of the 65th Congress. Texas Rep. Thomas Connally (D), echoing Fox, reminded his colleagues that Great Britain was an ally in the war, and the principle of self-determination championed by Wilson only applied to countries “under the dominion of our enemies.” Wilson adopted a similar stance in Paris.
The House passed a resolution by a vote 216 to 45, but the Senate did not take up the issue before the session ended. The upper chamber did pass a separate measure early in the 66th Congress. “Ultimately, the long battle in the House over the ‘Irish question’ did not have a decisive effect on the peace process in 1919 or the political status of Ireland.”
Nevertheless, the support of Irish immigrants, Irish Americans, and others is worth remembering 100 years later. Click the cover image below to see the full hearing transcript.
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