Tag Archives: Gaelic American

Guest post: Irish-American isolationism and Irish internationalism

I am pleased to welcome Dr. Michael Doorley, associate lecturer in History at the Open University in Ireland, as guest writer. He is a graduate of University College Dublin and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is widely published on the history of the Irish diaspora in the United States, including numerous book chapters. His own books include, Irish American Diaspora Nationalism: The Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916—1935 (2005), and Justice Daniel Cohalan, 1865-1946: American patriot and Irish-American nationalist, from Cork University Press. MH

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Irish-American isolationism and Irish internationalism: The dispute between Justice Daniel Cohalan and Éamon de Valera in 1920

In June 1919 Éamon de Valera, then leader of the Irish nationalist movement Sinn Féin and president of the newly established Irish Dáil, arrived in the United States. He would remain there until December 1920. De Valera sought to win American recognition for the self-proclaimed Irish Republic and raise money for the ongoing political and military campaign against British forces in Ireland. 

In achieving these objectives, de Valera sought the help of two Irish-American nationalist organizations. The secret Clan na Gael, then led by the aged Fenian leader John Devoy and the more broad-based Friends of Irish Freedom organization (FOIF), founded by Judge Daniel Cohalan, at the first 1916 “Race Convention” in New York. The FOIF had branches across the United States and by the end of 1920 numbered 275,000 regular and associate members.1. The American-born Cohalan, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland during the Famine, was a New York State Supreme Court Justice with close connections to the American Catholic hierarchy and leading politicians from both main parties. In 1919, Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised Cohalan as “one of the ablest men to ever come to Washington to plead a cause. The citizens of Irish blood are fortunate in having him as a leader”.2

That de Valera, the leader of Sinn Féin, would choose to remain in the United States for 18 months at such a momentous time, highlights the importance of the American dimension to the Irish struggle for independence. In justifying American intervention in the war, President Woodrow Wilson had called for the establishment of a League of Nations which would adjudicate disputes between nations so as to prevent future conflicts. Wilson had also highlighted that the war was being fought for the principle of justice for all nationalities though he had not the Irish in mind when he made this pronouncement. 3.

Judge Daniel Cohalan and Éamon de Valera soon after the Irish leaders June 1919 arrival. Library of Congress.

Irish-American nationalists had other ideas. In May 1919, just before de Valera’s arrival in the United States, Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho, a close ally of Cohalan, introduced a resolution in the Senate calling on the American delegation at the ongoing Paris Peace Conference to secure a hearing for an Irish delegation at the event. The resolution also expressed sympathy for Irish “self-determination” and was passed by 60-1, with 35 senators abstaining.4 President Wilson, unwilling to offend Britain, chose to ignore this resolution but de Valera had every reason to hope that further Irish-American political pressure could be applied to force the American government to back Irish demands.   

One might have expected a close working relationship between the leaders of Irish and Irish-American nationalism and indeed relations between de Valera and Cohalan were initially good. In particular, De Valera recognized that Cohalan, with his social and political connections, could be a vital ally to his mission. In February 1919, a few months before de Valera’s arrival in the United States, an Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia, chaired by Judge Cohalan, launched a “Victory Fund” in support of the Irish cause. A portion of these funds facilitated de Valera’s successful tour of the United States. While Cohalan initially objected to de Valera’s bond drive, believing that the sale of bonds on behalf of a country that did not yet exist would be illegal, a compromise was found. Bond “certificates” rather than actual bonds were sold. FOIF National Secretary, Cork-born Diarmuid Lynch, who had fought heroically in the 1916 Rising, turned over the names and address of the organization’s members to de Valera’s bond drive committee. Meanwhile, members of the Clan and the FOIF enthusiastically participated in the Bond Drive. Over $5 million was collected and this aspect of de Valera’s American mission proved to be a resounding success.5

Tensions Developed

Despite Cohalan’s cooperation with de Valera’s bond drive, tensions developed between both men. Given Cohalan’s relative obscurity in Irish history, it would be easy to explain this dispute in terms of personality factors. Indeed, de Valera has lent credence to this view. In one report to Arthur Griffith, then acting head of the Irish cabinet in Dublin, de Valera expressed his frustration with Cohalan. “Big as the country is, it was not big enough to hold the Judge and myself”.6 

John Devoy

However, a close study of Cohalan’s background and belief system offers another explanation for the growing tension. While the American-born Cohalan was an Irish nationalist and strongly anti-British, he also saw himself as a defender of the Irish “race” in the United States. Since its foundation in 1903, the Clan newspaper, the Gaelic American, edited by Devoy, confronted claims that the Catholic Irish were not fully loyal to the American nation and followed the orders of the Pope and Irish nationalist leaders. Cohalan was also an American isolationist and many of his publications attacked perceived attempts by so-called “pro-British” elements in the United States to forge an Anglo-American alliance. Cohalan believed that such an alliance would not only be detrimental to Irish-American and American interests but would also enhance the power of the British Empire and thus weaken Irish struggle for independence.7.

Like Devoy, Cohalan associated Wilson with a dominant Anglo-Saxon elite in American society that identified with the interests of Britain as much as the United States. He believed that Wilson’s proposed League of Nations was merely a cover for an Anglo-American alliance. As Cohalan remarked in a speech in Brooklyn, New York in March 1919: “How clever the Englishman who devised the term, but oh, how much more strongly an appeal a ‘League of Nations’ makes to mankind in general than a League for the preservation of the British Empire.”8   

In contrast, de Valera was generally supportive of Wilson’s idea of a League of Nations once an independent Ireland could be a member. In a predatory international system of powerful and weak states, a functioning League could offer a degree of security to an emerging state like Ireland. In July 1919, just after he arrived in the United States, de Valera informed Arthur Griffith in Dublin that he was trying to let Wilson know that “if he goes for his 14 points as they were and a true League of Nations, men and women of Irish blood will be behind him”.9 De Valera’s awareness of the weakness of small independent states was also apparent in his famous Westminster Gazette interview in February 1920. Conscious of British security needs and the limited sovereignty of small nations, de Valera suggested that the Platt Amendment, which governed Cuba’s relations with the United States, could provide a possible model for Anglo-Irish relations after Ireland became independent10. This provoked a furious reaction from both Devoy and Cohalan who feared that such a move would only strengthen the British Empire. Devoy in the pages of the Gaelic American now openly attacked de Valera claiming that giving such rights to England would be “suicidal” for Irish interests.11

Joseph McGarrity

Broadly, the dispute between Cohalan and de Valera related to who should determine the strategy of the Irish nationalist movement in the United States. Some leading members of the American Clan such as Joseph McGarrity, publisher of The Irish Press in Philadelphia, believed that the direction of the movement should lie in Irish hands. Other followers of Cohalan such as Bishop Michael Gallagher of Detroit questioned de Valera’s right to dictate policy to Americans. According to Gallagher, such a policy would only confirm American nativist prejudice that the Irish followed the instructions of “foreign potentates”.12

Matters came to a head in June 1920 at the Republican National Convention in Chicago where a Cohalan delegation and a de Valera delegation appeared, each urging the U.S. political party to adopt competing policy planks in favor of Irish independence. Cohalan’s resolution was a loose wording in favor of Irish self-determination and had majority support within the Resolutions committee. In contrast, de Valera’s resolution called for recognition of an Irish republic and was rejected by the committee. Following de Valera disavowal of Cohalan’s policy plank, a perplexed committee decided to wash their hands entirely of the Irish question and adopted no resolution in favor of Ireland.13

New Group

In November 1920, Sinn Féin in America broke off relations with the Clan and the FOIF and formed a new organization called the American Association for the Recognition of an Irish Republic (AARIR). It is debatable whether de Valera really believed that he could persuade any American government to recognize an Irish Republic. To do so would lead to a serious rupture in relations between the U.S. and the U.K. In a letter to Michael Collins on his return to Ireland de Valera admitted as much:

Though I was working directly for recognition in America, I kept in mind as our main political objective the securing of America’s influence, in case she was to join the League of Nations, to securing us also a place with the League…. Recognition of the Irish Republic we will only get in case of a [US] war with England tho’ of course we should never cease our demand for it.14

Pro-Ireland parade outside the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago. 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. Photo and original caption from the Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1920.

From de Valera’s perspective, to have accepted Cohalan’s resolution at the Republican convention would have made him appear a “puppet” of other forces. De Valera believed that Irish-Americans should follow the dictates of the “Home Organization” and in this regard he had the full support of the IRB in Ireland.15 However, Cohalan and Devoy were not only motivated by loyalty to Ireland but also by loyalty to what they felt were the interests of the United States and Irish America. These interests were not always compatible with de Valera’s goals and the resulting tension and strife came at a time when a united front between Irish America and Ireland was sorely needed.

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Potential guest writers are welcome to contact me through the comments feature. See my “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series for more articles about this period.

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

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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

The Tyrone-born publisher of Philadelphia’s Irish Press

Joseph McGarrity, publisher of The Irish Press in Philadelphia, played a more direct role in America’s effort to secure Irish independence than William M. Higgins, publisher of the Kentucky Irish American in Louisville. [See earlier posts on the series landing page.]

Joseph McGarrity, circa 1900.

McGarrity was born in 1874 in Carrickmore, County Tyrone, 22 years after Higgins in Syracuse, N.Y., to Famine-era Irish immigrants. McGarrity immigrated to America in 1892, a year after Charles Stewart Parnell’s death. The 18-year-old McGarrity settled in Philadelphia, where he lived until 1940–15 year longer than Higgins.

The same name Irish Press in Dublin, begun nine years after McGarrity folded his Philadelphia journal, published this description at his death:

Joseph McGarrity was big in everything. Well over six feet in his socks, with the proportions of an athlete, and the strength of a lion, he was an Irishman good to look upon. Vigour radiated from him. In his talk … he could not keep still–the hands, the toss of the head, the sudden pacing of the floor, all drove home the point he was making. His voice–the American accent making musical the hard speech of his native Tyrone–was big, too, and he did not hesitate to use it to drown yours if the day was to be won by emphasis. Yet this virile person could suddenly become as gentle as a woman.1

McGarrity pursued business enterprises, including liquor wholesaling and real estate in Philadelphia and nearby New York and Atlantic City, N.J. He also was a leading member of the Clan na Gael, the secretive Irish republican organization in the United States that worked closely with the separatist movement in Ireland.

In March 1918, a week after St. Patrick’s Day, McGarrity launched The Irish Press as the U.S. Post Office, “yielding to British diplomatic pressure,”2 banned the New York-based Irish World and the Gaelic American newspapers from the mail due to war-related suspicions of espionage.

Patrick McCartan, another Tyrone native who McGarrity picked as editor of The Irish Press, recalled in his 1932 monograph:

He believed an Irish paper with a circulation of even two thousand would keep our flag flying [in Philadelphia], till the war ended. … [Clan na Gael members] sold the Irish Press at the doors of the churches, with the result that the circulation soon passed ten thousand. … [V]olunteers took the Irish Press in suit cases, or my motor express to New York, where they sold it at the churches.3

Circulating The Irish Press in New York City aggravated the feud between McGarrity and John Devoy, veteran Irish republican activist in America and publisher of the Gaelic American. “Even through the [mail] ban on the Gaelic American had lapsed, the new paper competed with Devoy’s as the voice of the militant exiles,” Devoy biographer Terry Goloway wrote.4

The core of the Devoy-McGarrity fight centered on how, or whether, America should recognize the newly proclaimed Irish Republic as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson negotiated the post-war order in Paris; how funds raised in America should be used to help the Irish; and who should control the message and the money. These tensions mounted in the weeks before the February 1919 Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia, and the June 1919 U.S. arrival of Irish President Eamon de Valera. Golway continued:

…this distrust, verging on paranoia and evident on all sides, would cripple the American movement. As war raged in Ireland, Irish rebels in America would watch each other with studied care, looking for nuances, hints, and suggestions that the war in Ireland might conclude with something less than the Republic the men of Easter [1916] had proclaimed and died for. It was as though they knew that the end would be bitter, that compromise would taint the purity of victory–and that somebody would have to bear the blame.5

More on McGarrity and Devoy and their newspapers as this series continues.

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Joseph McGarrity’s papers are held at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. The McGarrity Collection at Villanova University, Philadelphia, contains monographs focusing on Irish history, literature, folklore, travel, music, and Irish-American history, in addition to microfilm of his papers held in Dublin. A selection of the material, including digitized copies of The Irish Press, is available in an online collection.