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
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.. 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”.
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. .
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. 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.
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”.
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..
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.”
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”. 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 independent. 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.