Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary parliament of the Irish Republic, on 21 January 1919, adopted the fledgling nation’s Declaration of Independence at Mansion House, Dublin. The political statement and same day IRA ambush of Royal Irish Constabulary officers (British police) at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, marked the start of Ireland’s War of Independence.
“Nearly 100 American and European journalists are in Dublin” to cover the parliamentary meeting, The Washington (Washington, D.C.) Herald reported a day earlier. Their wire service dispatches and other cables appeared in newspapers across America, home to more than 1 million Irish immigrants and 3.1 million U.S. citizens with at least one parent from Ireland. Many of the stories read like mashups from multiple sources, with key details and phrases either rewritten or reordered in the long columns, typically without source attribution.
Some Irish Americans complained about the coverage. At a public gathering in Chicago, supporters of Irish independence suggested “the American press was ‘muzzled’ when it came to printing the truth about the Irish question.” Someone in the audience shouted, “Let’s boycott the press.”
In Louisville, 300 miles south, the Kentucky Irish American editorialized under the headline:
The majority of the reports of the convention in Ireland appearing in the American press are filled with slurs of the Irish people and their rights to freedom. They bear all the earmarks of being doctored in London, and only emphasize the fact that the English propagandists in this country are but hearkening to their master’s voice.
In Philadelphia, The Irish Press bristled at perceived slights. Noting the declaration was read in Irish, the Press complained, “Some of the newspaper dispatches speak of the Irish language as ‘dead.’ … The correspondent evidently regards no language as living unless he can understand it.”
The Irish Press had direct ties to the revolutionary government through its editor and Dáil Éireann member, Patrick McCartan. In his 1932 monograph (which some historians have criticized as mistake-filled and self-serving), McCartan recalled, “To keep the Republic prominently before Irish-Americans, the Staff of the Irish Press were instructed to substitute the words Irish Republic for Ireland, as far possible, in all articles that appeared in the newspaper.” By this and other steps, he wrote, the American public was prepared for Ireland’s Declaration of Independence.
We were no longer an English domestic issue. Home Rule, Dominion Self Government, and such like phrases, in which the Irish issue had hitherto been concealed, had little meaning for Americans and no appeal to their republican tradition and sympathies. Now, for the first time, with a fearless demand for recognition, of the existing Irish Republic, the Irish issue was stated in terms that commanded American interest and respect.
In Ireland, the Dáil soon launched its official organ, The Irish Bulletin. “[T]he stenciled news sheet of the revolutionary movement … written in the restrained, neutral tone of the news itself” became part of a larger publicity operation devoted to the care of “potentially sympathetic correspondents.” In America, the Friends of Irish Freedom’s National Bureau of Information (or Irish National Bureau) also “supplied political and literary articles to Catholic papers and sympathetic politicians free of charge.”
Below are some colorful and controversial passages of U.S. press coverage of the first Dáil. The stories were datelined 21 January 1919, and published in the next day’s editions of big city dailies.
The New York Times, page 1
“The rotunda of the Mansion House, where the congress met, is a dingy old place, lighted by stained glass windows overhead. The platform and half the floor were fitted with tables for officers and delegates. The remainder of the floor and the circular gallery were reserved for the public, admission being by ticket. A large portion of the audience consisted of women. The number of young priests was conspicuous. … The youthfulness of the Sinn Féin leaders was their most noticeable characteristic. There were hardly a half dozen gray heads in the group (of 27).”
Pittsburgh Daily Post, page 1
“Infuriated over their detention in jail while their comrades were inaugurating the ‘Irish parliament,’ and declaring their independence, Sinn Féin prisoners–how many is not known–in jail at Belfast started a riot today. The police intervened and quelled the rioters. … The declaration of independence read to the assemblage and thunderous and constant cheers, asserts that ‘the Irish people alone have the power to make the laws binding on the Irish people.’ ”
The Chicago Tribune, page 2
“Some of their names may be made famous by future results of today’s work but none of the (Sinn Féin ) delegates impressed outsiders as national figures of the calibre of Redmond, Dillon, Healey, Devlin and other Nationalists, who in the epoch now apparently closed fought for home rule along constitutional and legal paths. The Dáil Éireann begins a new page in the many chaptered history of Irish protest against government by Great Britain. It throws down the gauntlet to British law. What may be the consequences to its members, if there be any consequences, no one in Dublin can foresee or predict. Dublin’s everyday life was undisturbed by the defiance to the government registered at Mansion House.”
The Houston Post, page 1
“Perhaps no country except Ireland could present an episode as remarkable as the assembly of the Dáil Éireann … Perhaps no writer except an Irishman like George Bernard Shaw could do justice to the paradoxical nature of the proceedings.”
The San Francisco Examiner, page 1
“The atmosphere … is tremendously charged. Any moment may bring an explosion. A spirit of restiveness, daring and defiance is sweeping the Isle of Erin on this, the day which the Sinn Féin proclaim the greatest in Irish history. The trouble near Tipperary is all that has been reported so far in the way of violence. One thing seems certain–that if there is any sort of recurrence of the disturbances and the bloodshed of Easter, 1916, some absolutely unexpected provocative action from either side will be responsible.”
More coverage of the Dáil Éireann opening in the Kentucky Irish American and The Irish Press, Philadelphia, in a future post. Project home page.