Tag Archives: Friends of Irish Freedom

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

‘Intrigue of Deception’ at Catholic University of America, 1919

A Philadelphia newspaper in early 1919 alleged that “some prominent men” at Catholic University of America were conspiring with British Embassy officials.1 The aim of their Washington, D.C.-based “plot,” the story said, was to keep Ireland within the British Empire rather than establish an independent republic.

“So far the scheme has met with some success and is receiving consideration,” The Irish Press, a nationalist weekly, reported Jan. 4, 1919, in a page 4 story headlined “An Intrigue of Deception.”

Irish voters had just elected 73 separatist Sinn Féin candidates who had no intention of claiming their seats in the London parliament. Instead, within weeks of the Press story, they would form their own government in Dublin. A gorilla war of independence erupted at the same time. In America, Congress debated “the Irish question” as President Woodrow Wilson prepared to sail to Paris to join his British allies in helping to reshape the post-world war global order.

The Irish Press reported:

“It is understood that the scheme will be launched by the publication of a letter written by President Wilson on the eve of his departure for Europe to a prominent man at the Catholic University at Washington. The gentleman concerned is a sincere friend of Ireland and it is to be hoped that he will sever his connection with the British plot and persuade his colleagues to do likewise. Their action will not affect Ireland but we hope for the reputation of the one big and sincere man connected with the scheme that he will refuse at this critical juncture to play false to the cause so dear to his heart.”

The newspaper did not name anyone at Catholic University, but faculty member Joseph Dunn wrote a private letter to challenge the allegation. “To say that the article in question surprised and provoked me is putting it mildly,” he wrote to Dr. Patrick McCartan, the Press editor.2

Shahan

Dunn was a Celtic language and literature professor and a supporter of Irish independence. A few weeks earlier he had appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Ireland.3 Dunn entered into the record the Nov. 30, 1918, letter from the university’s rector, Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, to President Wilson. It cited the president’s professed commitment to “self-determination” for small nations.

“We hold that the right of Ireland to ‘self-determination’ is immeasurably stronger than that of any other nation for which you have become the advocate,” Shahan wrote. “Moreover, Ireland’s claims are a hundredfold reinforced by her centuries of brave, though unavailing, struggle against foreign domination, tyranny, and autocracy.”4

Dunn testified that Wilson “not only acknowledged receipt of the bishop’s letter, but replied in such a sympathetic tone as would make interesting reading for members of this honorable committee.” This was an optimistic interpretation of Wilson’s Dec. 3, 1918, reply; barely 100 typed words of generalities on White House stationary that never mentioned Ireland by name.5 Wilson wrote:

Wilson

“It will be my endeavor in regard to every question which arises before the Peace Conference to do my utmost to bring about the realization of the principals to which your letter refers. The difficulties and delicacies of the task are very great, and I cannot confidentially forecast what I can do.”

Shahan was a national vice president of the Friends of Irish Freedom, a U.S.-based group of Irish immigrants, Irish Americans, and other supporters of the separatist cause. Dunn was a national trustee.6 As events accelerated in Ireland, the Friends were being torn apart by internal feuding over the best way to help the homeland.

The Irish Press was in the middle of this fight, as personified by the growing hostility between McCartan, Press publisher Joseph McGarrity, and their supporters; and John Devoy, veteran Irish republican activist and publisher of the New York City-based Gaelic American, and his allies. Dunn acknowledged these crosscurrents in his letter.

Dunn told McCartan that he did not show the Press article to Shahan, “who, I suppose, is meant by the words ‘a prominent man at Catholic University’ ” … “to spare him the pain of reading it, it is so unfair to those of us who have kept the faith at this institution.” Like Dunn, the bishop would have been troubled by the allegation of conspiring with the British, especially as the Friends of Irish Freedom developed plans for an upcoming national strategy meeting in Philadelphia.

“The harm done is not irreparable, however, if you take occasion in the very next issue of ‘The Press’ to correct it and give prominence in a good strong article to the denial,” Dunn wrote in the typed body of his letter. After the “faithfully yours” closing and his signature, he hand wrote, “You realize, of course, how much the University might suffer if that your yarn is not corrected.”

McCartan’s reply to Dunn carried the same Jan. 11, 1919, date as the professor’s letter.7 

McCartan

“I was very glad to get your letter and your assurances that nobody connected with the University has anything to do with the British Embassy Plot,” McCartan wrote under his newspaper’s letterhead. “I realize that your letter is authoritative, and we here are glad to learn that instead of cooperating with the plotters you are taking steps to counteract them.”

McCartan, a native of Ireland, was among more than 30 Sinn Féin separatists elected the previous month while either living outside Ireland or held in prison. In addition to his role as editor, he also described himself as “envoy of the provisional government of Ireland.” This was news to the U.S. State Department, which claimed it “knew nothing of Patrick McCartan.”8

McCartan wrote to Dunn that he would be “delighted to correct the error we made last week as you request.” The editor acknowledged he was responsible for all of the newspaper’s stories, “even though I do not write them all, or even read them before publication.”

On Jan. 18, 1919, The Irish Press published this “correction” under another “Intrigue of Deception” headline, once again without naming any names.9

“We have now on the very best authority” that no one at Catholic University was cooperating with the British, the story said. “The existence of the plot is known there but those in that institution who are interested in the subject take the same view of the Irish question as The Irish Press.”

A few weeks later, the Press reported on Shahan’s speech at Gazanga Hall in Washington, D.C. “Ireland is a nation, not a province of the British Empire,” it quoted him under the headline “Bishop Upholds Irish Republic.”10

Dunn and Shahan remained active in Irish nationalist politics. The professor taught at Catholic University until 1931.11 The bishop died the following year and is interred in the crypt level of the neighboring Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The Irish Press folded in 1922 as Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State, an interim status that later became today’s full republic, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of Britain. McCartan returned to Ireland.


EXTRA NOTES: Top image, “Proposed Plan,” is a 1914 photo gelatin view of the Catholic University of America campus in Washington, D.C. produced by the Albertype Company of Brooklyn, New York. I have been unable to locate an image of Joseph Dunn. Thanks to Shane MacDonald at CUA’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and to James Harte at the National Library of Ireland for their assistance. 

Names & numbers: 1919 Irish Race Convention, Philadelphia

As the first Dáil Éireann met in Dublin, the Friends of Irish Freedom in America called for a mass meeting to discuss the December 1918 Sinn Féin victory, declaration of the Irish Republic, and the U.S. role on behalf of Ireland at the Paris peace conference. About 5,000 delegates would attend the Feb. 22-23 “Irish Race Convention” in Philadelphia.

More about the convention in coming posts.

First, I want to present the roster of 311 FOIF national officers at the time, as published in the official organization booklet shown at the top. Several of these officers were national figures in America’s Irish republican movement, such as Joseph McGarrity and John Devoy. More of the people on the list were well-known only within their local Irish communities. Do not assume that every person on the list below traveled to Philadelphia.

Here is a quick by-the-numbers breakdown of the roster, followed by seven pages of names, as photographed from the booklet. I hope it is useful to other researchers and genealogists.

74: members from New York City and its boroughs, about 24 percent

57: women, or 18 percent

55: members of the clergy

37: states represented, of 48 at the time

27: members from Philadelphia

This booklet is part of the Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.