Irish history movie ideas: the Lartigue monorail

This is the second post in an occasional series about aspects of Irish history that I believe provide strong cinematic opportunities if dramatized for narrative and commercial appeal. First post: The Colors of Ireland. Ideas and comments are welcome. Enjoy. MH

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Take a look at this 3:30-minute archival footage of the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway, a unique monorail that opened in 1888 between the two Co. Kerry towns. There’s no sound.

I’m not sure why the footage is dated 1931. The money-losing monorail was discontinued in October 1924 after being rejected for consideration in the Irish Free State’s railway nationalization scheme.

The train was known as the Lartigue, after its French inventor, Charles Lartigue. It was the subject of affectionate poems, as reflected in these opening stanzas published a few weeks after it closed:1

Farewell, old train, beloved train; at last
you’ve ceased to run!
Unlike all other trains we’ve seen, of
wheels you had only one.
You battled hard, ‘gainst might odds
for close on thirty years.
And now to think your race is run, it
almost brings us tears.

In its day, the Lartigue was easy fodder for humorous stories because of the way passengers and freight had to be balanced on each side of the pannier-style rolling stock. One tells of a farmer who bought a cow in Listowel and wanted it transported to Ballybunion. To do so, he had to borrow another cow to balance his purchase. At Ballybunion, he faced the predicament of returning the borrowed cow, which required the balance of another animal. And on and on; a running gag for the potential movie.

Passengers on the Lartigue also were occasionally required to get out to push the train. Some were said to get sickened by sitting sideways instead of facing forward. The train’s plodding pace inspired the story of the conductor who offered a ride to an old woman riding a donkey. “No thanks,” she replied, “I’m in a hurry today.”

I see the Lartigue as a perfect opportunity for the eccentricity and distinctive styles of directors Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers. It needs a quirky story with an ensemble of charming and oddball characters to match the unusual train.

As you can see, the front of the Lartigue locomotive is more anthropomorphic the most regular trains. Perhaps this could be an animated film?

See my earlier posts about the Lartigue:

The Lartigue monorail in Kerry opened on Leap Year Day in 1888. The line closed in 1924.

U.S. reporter scooped last Terence MacSwiney interview

American journalist Dorothy Thompson interviewed Irish seperatist Terence MacSwiney hours before his Aug. 12, 1920, arrest for sedition. He died two months later on hunger strike in a London prison, a martyr for the cause of Irish freedom. She became one of the world’s most famous foreign correspondents, propelled by her “last interview” scoop.

Thompson in 1920.

Thompson turned 27 in July 1920 as she sailed to Europe to pursue a journalism career. The 1914 Syracuse University graduate had worked as an organizer and publicity agent in the women’s suffrage movement, including articles in The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.1

Thompson was three years younger than Ruth Russell, who reported from Ireland in spring 1919 for the Chicago Daily News. More than three dozen women had filed dispatches from Europe during the just-ended Great War for U.S. newspapers and magazines, but such roles for female journalists remained exceptional.2

MacSwiney had worked for the Irish republican cause since at least 1913. He was Lord Mayor of Cork when Thompson arrived in Ireland trying to track down distant relatives. Their interview happened “completely by accident,” according to Thompson biographer Peter Kurth, who wrote the mayor was arrested “barely an hour” after the reporter left his office.3 In fact, Thompson reported MacSwiney’s arrest came “two hours after I left the city hall.”

Kurth maintains that Thompson “had no idea of the value of her notes until, sometime later, she carried them back to England, stuffed casually in the pocket of her coat.” International News Service London chief Earl Reeves recognized their worth as MacSwiney’s arrest made global headlines.4 Yet Reeves dispatched the story to America by mail rather than more expensive wire transmission, which further explains the more than two week gap before the interview began to appear in U.S. papers.

MacSwiney

MacSwiney was 41, married, with a 2-year-old daughter. Thompson described him as “a slender, rather youthful man, with a characteristic south-of-Ireland face, very dark, blue eyes, set in a thicket of black lashes, an impulsive mouth, and dark, curly hair. He looked tired and a little pale.”

Much of their conversation focused on the Sinn Féin courts, which operated as part of the fledgling Irish Republic simultaneous with the established British government. MacSwiney refused to recognize the latter’s authority when charged with possession of seditous articles and documents. Thompson also asked him about police murders in Ireland, and whether such attacks jeopardized “good will” among the Irish people. He replied:

“You must understand that we are in a state of war. For the English government to deny does not alter the facts. The police–the Royal Irish Constabulary–never have been a bona fide police force. They have always been in a measure an army of occupation. They live in barracks. They are armed.”

Read 100 years later, the interview is noteworthy for Thompson’s opening sentences that “a flash of premonition” appeared on MacSwiney’s “almost mystic smile” when she suggested he occupied “a very dangerous position.”

“ ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ he replied slowly, then added with another smile, ‘if I were to think about it.’ ”

The Minneapolis (Minnesota) Star headlined MacSwiney’s “premonition of death” when it published the interview on Sept. 1, 1920,  seven weeks before he passed. (At left.)  

Thompson’s hometown newspaper headlined “Buffalo Girl Last to See MacSwiney” and boasted of her “distinction of being the last representative of the press” to interview the Sinn Féin mayor.5 At least one paper used the sexist “woman reporter” trope to promote the story.6 The interview does not appear to have attracted attention in the Irish press.

Back to Ireland

The International News Service sent Thompson back across the Irish Sea to write a “series of pen pictures from Ireland.” In one dispatch7, she described the “sunny, windy day on which I went to Cork,” finding it “singularly peaceful and remote” at first glance. Thompson continued:

It’s wide, quiet streets, the old plastered houses, clambering up the hillside, many of them buried in rank gardens, the almost total absence of automobiles, the girls sauntering along with shawls over their heads, all add to the impression of age, as thought the city had been left in the backwaters of progress. It seemed so casual and friendly a place that the report that it, among all cities in Ireland, was nearest civil war was incredible.

But the faces of the people, when you looked at them closely, were strained, and their eyes rather abnormally bright. All of them were either profoundly discouraged or showed traces of an ugly mood lying underneath a surface of disciplined restraint. …

On the one night that I spent in Cork I remained out after the 10 o’clock curfew deliberately. The city seemed to be in a nervous mood, greatly augmented when the soldiers rode down from the barracks on the hill with fixed bayonets and with machine guns rattling after them.

Markievicz

Like Russell in March 1919, Thompson interviewed Constance Georgine Markievicz, a leader of the seperatist government. “She is a tall, gaunt, blond woman careless about her dress, nervous and hurried in her speech, with something of the same humorless intensity that distinguishes [Eamon] De Valera [then nearing the end of his 18-month U.S. tour],” Thompson wrote. “In internal politics she is a socialist and very radical, standing in that particular almost alone among the members of the Sinn Fein ministry.”8

Thompson’s Ireland dispatches appeared in U.S. newspapers through October 1920. I have not found any of her clips where she made additional references to the MacSwiney interview or reported on his death.

After Ireland, Thompson’s career took off and evolved to include radio broadcasting. She “was lionized as few journalists before or since have been. … the model for the glamorous foreign correspondent and columnist played by Katherine Hepburn in the 1942 film Woman of the Year. Typically, she was identified as the second most influential and admired women in the United States, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.”9 Thompson died in 1961.

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I’ll explore U.S. mainstream and Irish-American newspaper coverage of MacSwiney’s martyrdom in a future post. See previous stories in my American reporting of Irish independence series, including my Ruth Russell monograph.

Feakle ambush & reprisals: Multiple views of an event

At midmorning Oct. 7, 1920, nearly two dozen Irish Republic Army gunmen hidden in houses fired on six Royal Irish Constabulary officers outside the Feakle, Co. Clare, post office. Two policemen were killed in the ambush; another badly wounded as he escaped with the other three officers after they exchanged fire with the snipers. 

What happened next was typical of the tit-for-tat of Ireland’s revolutionary period, as described by three people involved in the events:

  • “Everybody anticipated reprisals,” a local priest wrote a week later to an Irish newspaper. He described being “thrashed” by soldiers who also set fires “to illuminate the night’s proceedings.”1  
  • “The police and military come down the street banging and shooting and throwing hand grenades in all directions,” an American visitor to Feakle testified two months later at a Washington, D.C. hearing.2
  • “I asked for reinforcements … and wanted to teach the enemy a lesson that this form of activity could be costly,” the IRA leader who instigated the ambush recalled more than three decades later for an oral history project.3

The three witness perspectives, combined with the findings of a military inquiry, press reports, and related documents provide a multidimensional snapshot of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. These sources also illustrate the dangers of reconstructing such emblematic events. In a History Ireland piece about the Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statements of the Irish revolutionary period, Fearghal McGarry warned: 

Such a source inevitably raises a host of problematic issues, both ideological and practical: these include the subjectivity of oral history, the role of the state in the creation of a project intended to record and shape historical memory, the selective nature of the testimony collected, the reliability of the witnesses’ memories, the influence of subsequent events and knowledge, and the potential for bias …Like any historical source …  they must be evaluated carefully. They record not the events of the revolution but the witnesses’ imperfect recollections of them  … Dates, numbers and other details are often inaccurate, and some claims seem less plausible than others. 

However imperfect the individual recollections, they collectively help to form a vivid mosaic of the Feakle ambush and reprisals. This event, in turn, is another piece of the larger mosaic of the Irish War of Independence.

Prelude 

Feakle, middle right, on modern map.

Feakle village and the same-named townland and Catholic parish is located 50 miles north of Limerick city and 20 miles east of Ennis in the northeast corner of Clare. The upland topography includes the southern declivities of the Slieve Baughta mountains. People there still talk about herbalist and healer “Biddy” Early, an independent woman accused of witchcraft in the mid-19th century.   

In 1917, the young Éamon de Valera, a participant in the year-earlier Easter Rising, challenged an older establishment candidate in an historic by-election for the East Clare constituency. Feakle parish priest Father Michael Hays declared de Valera’s Sinn Féin “a party of socialism and anarchy and bloodshed which struck at the roots of society.”4 The London government at Dublin Castle reported “disaffection lurked under the surface ready to break out on very small provocation” and “turmoil increased with the approach of election day, intimidation was freely practiced, and there was growing disregard for all law and order.”5 The maverick de Valera won by more than 2 to 1 margin, and two years later declared president of Sinn Féin’s breakaway Irish republic. 

Thomas “Tomo” Tuohy, IRA captain:

Tuohy was born Nov. 23, 1898, in Laccaroe townland, neighboring Feakle, the eldest of 10 children. He joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers in 1915 and rose to leadership by October 1920, according to his 1954 BMH statement.

Volunteers in Clare attacked the Feakle RIC barracks in June 1920, and three months later attempted to capture the Scarriff RIC Barracks, about six miles to the east. Such efforts were part of the IRA’s national strategy to drive the authorities from the countryside to boost its own operational base. Shortly after the Scarriff attack, Volunteers seized mail from the postman making a delivery to the Feakle RIC barracks. Postal and railroad hold ups also were typical IRA tactics at the time. To counter this, Feakle RIC began collecting their mail at the post office. 

“I decided to attack this party and gave instructions to the Volunteers living in the Feakle village to keep the patrol under close observation, particularly as to the time on which it left the barracks and the formation in which it moved,” Tuohy said.

On the morning of Oct. 7, as six RIC officers spaced apart in three pairs began the three quarter mile walk from their barracks to the post office, a scout notified Tuohy. He quickly positioned 20 Volunteers and told them to wait for his warning shot. One man, “contrary to orders,” fired directly at a constable who had given him “a bad beating” the previous evening, Tuohy said. The other five officers scrambled for cover as the remaining Volunteers opened fire.

Military inquiry:

Constable William Stanley and Sgt. Francis Doherty were killed in the ambush. Both men were 46; each with more than 20 years of RIC service. Doherty was a bachelor from Mohill, Co. Leitrim; Stanley a Co. Cork native with a wife and four children.6

Doherty and Stanly shown in register of cases for courts of inquiry in lieu of inquest, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. The National Archives, Kew, WO 35/162.

A military inquiry at Dublin Castle issued this statement:7

The police party were walking in couples 10 yards apart towards the P.O. when fire was opened on them from the upper windows of the P.O., from the adjoining house, and from a farmyard on the opposite side of the road, thus placing them in the centre of a triangle of fire. … The Court found the two men were willfully murdered by rifles, revolvers and shotguns fired at close range by persons unknown, that a large number of men took part in the shooting, which was premeditated, and that deceased were robbed after death. … The third constable named Murphy was wounded by an expanding bullet. … The police had a dog with them, and when the sergeant [Doherty] fell it ran to him and stood by him on the road. In the next volley the dog fell wounded, three of his legs being broken.

Seán Moroney, Irish Volunteer:

Moroney was 23 at the time of the Feakle attack, a year older than Tuohy. Moroney’s 1956 BMH statement8 provides several examples of McGarry’s warning about such records:

  • Moroney said the RIC officers “travelled in pairs, with about 200 yards between each pair.” This is a big difference from the 10 yards of separation mentioned in the military inquiry. He probably said 20 yards, but the transcript typist added an extra “0” keystroke.
  • One of the Volunteers “accidentally discharged a shot” at the police, Moroney said, rather than taking revenge on the constable for an earlier beating, as suggested in Tuohy’s statement. Both could be true. Either way: “This, of course, alerted the patrol and spoiled our plan,” Moroney said.
  • Moroney said the IRA captured two carbines and about 150 rounds of ammunition. Tuohy claimed they collected 4 carbines, one .45 revolver, 300 rounds .303, and 24 rounds .45 ammunition, and 1 Mills bomb [a World War I era British hand grenade].
  • Tuohy is not mentioned in Moroney’s statement. Moroney is not among the 19 attackers listed by Tuohy. 

Freeman’s Journal headline over Oct. 15, 1920, story that introduced priest’s letter.

Rev. Patrick O’Reilly, Feakle priest:

“On Thursday last, October 7th, there occurred here the tragic event in which two policemen lost their lives,” the priest began his letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published eight days later.

“I was immediately called by a courageous girl to administer the last Sacraments to them. I went at once and did so. This was about 10:30 a.m. Irish time. The doctor arrived shortly after, but could then do nothing.”

Thomas Tuohy:

He said the IRA sustained no deaths or injuries. The rebel’s search for weapons and other victims of the ambush lasted about 20 minutes “when Fr. O’Reilly, C.C., Feakle, came on the scene to administer the last rites of the church to the police. He shouted to us from the road ‘The horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes as a messenger had gone for them before I left the village.’ ” 

Patrick J. “PJ” Guilfoil, American tourist:

Guilfoil was born in Scarriff on May 29, 1880, emigrated to America in 1900, and naturalized as a U.S. citizen at Detroit in 1906. He married a Clare woman and they had two sons. Guilfoil was working as a Pittsburgh innkeeper in March 1920 when he applied for his family’s U.S. passports.9 They sailed to Ireland two months later to visit his wife’s sister in Feakle, where they remained through October.10 

Patrick J. Guilfoil, left, and his family in 1920 passport photos.

In Dec. 10, 1920, testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, Guilfoil said that on the morning of Oct. 7 he learned that two policemen had been shot outside the post office a quarter mile away from where he was staying. He said that he already intended to walk to the post office to wire the Thomas Cook & Sons travel firm in Dublin about his family’s return to Pittsburgh. “Being an American citizen and having my passport there, and being of good courage, I went out there after this happened,” he said.

He found the two slain policemen attended by “a young priest, Father O’Reilly,” the town physician having already left the scene.  “I asked the priest if he did not run great danger of reprisals for remaining there. But he said, what could he do? He could not leave two dead bodies by the road, because there were pigs and dogs around there, and what could he do? I told him that if he felt that way about it, I would remain with him, which I did.”

He said the military arrived about 2 p.m. “They got the priest to provide a horse and cart to carry the remains into town.”

Father O’Reilly:

“From 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I remained alone practically all the time to take care of the remains and I could find no means of having them removed. At 2:30 the military arrived and I was peremptorily ordered to commandeer a horse and cart to remove the bodies. I did so and returned no more. I had had quite enough.”

PJ Guilfoil:

He testified that once he returned to his sister-in-law’s cottage in the village, a military officer asked to see his American passport and recorded his name and number. “And he said he was going to put me on the black list.”

Guilfoil said that at 6:30 p.m. a District Inspector and six soldiers arrived at Father O’Reilly’s house and dragged the priest outside–three at the head, three at the feet. They accused him of murdering the two policemen. “I stood directly across the street taking it all in,” Guilfoil said.

One of the officers commanded, “ ‘Let him have it.’ ” and a soldier delivered “three horrible blows across the hips” of the priest with the butt of his rifle, an attempt to coerce a confession, Guilfoil testified. An officer told the priest to get up and get back into his house, but as the cleric complied with the order, the officer kicked him and “called him some terrible names.” 

Father O’Reilly:

“An officer, a district inspector, and eight or ten soldiers knocked at 5:30 p.m. I opened the door and was ordered out. I was told I was to be ‘thrashed soundly,’ and there and then the soldiers caught hold of me by the hands and feet, knocked me down, and dragged me to the wall in front of the house, and proceeded to thrash me with a stock of a rifle. The officer struck me very violently with a stick when I protested. The District Inspector then interceded, be it said to his credit, and thereby saved me from further ill-treatment.

“I was ordered in, while being told I would be shot. I closed the door and thanked God I had come off so well.”

PJ Guilfoil:

“I went across the street and knocked at the door of the priest’s house, and he let me into the house, and I said, ‘My God, are you able to stand up?’

“And he said, ‘I got some awful wallops and am suffering some great pain, but what am I going to do?’

“And I said, ‘I don’t suppose your feet can carry you very far, but as far as they can carry you, I would advise you to get out of the town. There are going to be reprisals tonight.’

“He said, ‘Well, if there are reprisals, there will be people dying and they will need a priest.’” 

Father O’Reilly:

“The kind neighbors rushed in at the back to see if I was hurt. They were terrified and expected my death at each moment. They besought me most earnestly to leave the house for the night. I refused to leave until I would see things out, and I consoled them to the best of my ability. They left.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Guilfoil said he met Dr. O’Hallaron, the village physician, on the street as he returned from treating the wounded officer at the RIC barracks. “The conditions up there are terrible. They are all wild drunk,” the doctor said.

Reprisals on the village, which Guilfoil estimated at about 300 people, began soon after. He testified that he moved his family to an upstairs room and told them to lie on the floor next to the walls. “I do not need to tell you how nervous those children were,” he said. “They were shaking so that I got to shaking myself.”

The police and military set fire to the thatched roof of the Considine house, about 50 yards away, he continued. Then they torched the cottage where the Guilfoils were staying, which was partitioned and also occupied by members of the O’Brien family. 

“We have no time to fool around here,” Guilfoil said he yelled to his wife and sons as the flames surrounded the windows. “Take what you have and get out of here. I prefer to be shot than to be burned to death.”

Thomas Tuohy:

The IRA summoned “over 40 men” to defend Feakle and “teach the enemy a lesson,” Tuohy said. As the group got within a quarter mile of the village at about about 8 p.m., “flames were seen rising from three houses – Considines, O’Brien’s and Fr. O’Reilly’s. Realizing that we had been forestalled it was agreed right away to send back the reinforcements.”

The rebels abandoned the village and withdrew to the hills for the next three days.

Father O’Reilly:

“I lay in the centre of the kitchen floor, and I anticipated death at any moment. I made many an Act of Contrition, said the Rosary a few times … A bomb came through the parlour window, exploded with a deafening sound, and drove broken glass in all directions.It sprinkled the oil from the table lamp all over the room, and it is a miracle no fire resulted.”

The priest said he escaped about 3:30 a.m. to a house in the country, where he found other refugees from the town. He remained there the next evening, which was fortunate “as the [village] house was again bombed and densely riddled with bullets. The door was driven in and all my belongings piled on the village street and burned.”

PJ Guilfoil:

Some neighbors helped put out the fire at the O’Brien house as the police and military withdrew to their barracks, Guilfoil testified.

“At six o’clock in the morning I got hold of a car to convey my baggage and the children out of town, and about ten o’clock I left myself” to “a place in the country” where his wife’s family lived.

The police and troops returned in the daylight. They asked the woman who rented the house to Father O’Reilly whether any of the furniture inside belonged to her. When she said no, they pulled it into the street and set it on fire.

“And they said they were only sorry that they did not have that bloody bastard, as they called the priest, to put him on top of it,” Guilfoil testified.

A local history book published 70 years later claims the police dressed an effigy in the priest’s clothes and tied it to a chair, which was burned with the other furniture. The officers danced and sang, “The rebel padre is roasting.”11  

Press Reports:

Irish and British newspapers coverage of Feakle tended to emphasize the slain officers or the reprisals, depending on when the reports were published and the target readership. The military inquiry statement was published in papers on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Several Irish dailies carried a Press Association, Dublin, account, which corrected an Ennis correspondent’s early reporting that the Feakle RIC barracks had been attacked.12 The reprisals got more attention after the Freeman’s Journal published Father O’Reilly’s letter eight days later.

In London, The Times, an establishment paper, attributed its next day story to Dublin Castle, with nothing said about reprisals.13 A week later, The Guardian’s Dublin correspondent noted the burning of houses at the “little out-of-the-way village” of Feakle in a roundup of other reprisals in Ireland.14

The Weekly Summary, an RIC newspaper launched two months earlier to bolster force morale, published an editorial that said:

Reprisals are wrong. They are bad for the discipline of the force. They are bad for Ireland, especially if the wholly innocent suffer. Reprisals are wrong but reprisals do not happen only by accident. They are the result of the brutal, cowardly murder of police officers by assassins, who take shelter behind the screen of terrorism and intimidation they have created. Police murder produces reprisals. Stop murdering policemen.15 

This Associated Press dispatch appeared in an Oct. 24, 1920 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Oct. 23 dateline says the officers were killed “yesterday.”

The first Associated Press report published in American newspapers said Stanley was killed and Doherty only wounded. An updated version saying both officers were killed “yesterday” continued to be published through late October.16

In November, the pro-Irish Gaelic American, a New York weekly, over two issues republished the Limerick Echo’s report about Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal.17 The News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, Washington, D.C., included Father O’Reilly in a roundup of attacks on other priests and looting of Catholic churches. “The latest phase of the ruthless campaign against the Irish nation seems to have taken the form of ‘reprisals’ for the crime of being Irish and Catholic,” the weekly newsletter said.18

A constable’s life, 1920:

An RIC Division before the force was disbanded in 1922. Note the dog at front right. Image from Royal Irish Constabulary.com.

A day before the Feakle ambush, the Royal Irish Constabulary Office at Dublin Castle announced a pay bonus for “permanent members” of the force, veterans such as Constable Stanley and Sgt. Doherty.19 The money was intended to boost morale in the difficult circumstances of “the life of the average constable,” as described a year later by a Dublin Castle intelligence officer:

He lived in a fortified barrack, probably overcrowded owing to the concentration of the Force, and certainly never designed to resist determined assault with modern weapons. He was surrounded by a populace which, if not definitely hostile, was at all events so intimidated that the members of the civil population hardly dare be seen speaking with him. Lurking throughout the countryside were members of the Republican Army, who, instigated by their leaders, regarded him not as an enemy to be faced in the open, but to be prosecuted by every means from petty annoyance to treacherous murder. His life was spent in constant apprehension of danger. His barrack might be attacked at any hour of the day or night, but usually the latter, by overwhelming numbers of callus ruffians, who would use every weapon of brutality against him. If he would go out of the barracks, he was compelled to do so as one of a party operating in practically an enemy’s country. He could never predict the moment when a hail of bullets would burst upon him from a carefully prepared ambush, his assailants being the apparently harmless citizens who surrounded him every day.20

Stanley and Doherty’s deaths raised to 120 the toll of RIC fatalities in Ireland since Jan. 1, 1919. Another 72 officers were killed by the end of 1920.21 Stanley’s widow received “special advances” to survivors of RIC murdered on duty at least through 1922, when the force was disbanded.22

Thomas Tuohy:

“After the Feakle ambush the local parish priest, Father Hayes [Father O’Reilly’s superior, who spoke against Éamon de Valera during the 1917 election.23 ], a violent imperialist who regularly entertained members of the enemy forces, strongly denounced the IRA from the pulpit. He referred to us as a murder gang, and declared that any information which he could get would be readily passed on to the British authorities and that he would not desist until the last of the murderers was swung by the neck. This denunciation led to unpleasant consequences and for some time services at which he officiated were boycotted by most of the congregation.”

Remember that Tuohy said Father O’Reilly had warned the IRA ambushers that military “horsemen will be on top of you in a few minutes.” Tuohy also said that Father O’Reilly administered Confession and Holy Communion to about nine IRA men in December 1920. If true, the local priests were certainly at odds, and the police and soldiers seem correct in their suspicions of Father O’Reilly.

A few days after receiving the sacraments from Father O’Reilly, Tuohy was arrested by the RIC and accused of having seditious documents. He was sentenced to two years hard labor, but released from Limerick County Jail 11 months later.

Father O’Reilly

Given Tuohy’s statements, the conclusion of the priest’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal is ambiguous:

“My last sermon in the parish prior to the occasion had been solely a counsel of moderation.  … I have appealed for nothing but peace and unity amongst all Irishmen. … I most heartily forgive all who attacked me, and also those who were the deliberate and malicious cause of it. … I stand for peace, peace with honor, and though my life may now be in danger I will never be a traitor to the flag of my country. God save Ireland.”

Father O’Reilly and Father Hayes were each soon relocated from the Feakle parish.24

PJ Guilfoil:

The Guilfoil family traveled from the Clare countryside to Cork city, about 100 miles south, where they waited a week for the ship back to America. PJ and his young sons witnessed another scene of revolutionary Ireland, which concluded his commission testimony at the Lafayette Hotel, a few blocks from the U.S. capitol.  

Guilfoil testified at the Lafayette Hotel in Washington D.C. shown here between 1910 and 1926. Library of Congress.

The father and his two boys, ages eight and six, watched the funeral procession of Irish Republican Army volunteer Michael Fitzgerald, who died a few days earlier on hunger strike in jail. As the line of mourners passed the Windsor Hotel, troops plucked the mourning wreaths and Irish tricolor flags from the hearse with their bayonet tips and flicked them to the curb, Guilfoil testified.

“Anything more horrible I never want to see than an armored military body following a coffin,” Guilfoil said. “They followed that coffin with rifles and machine guns all the way out to the cemetery. … I took the boys and got away from there, for I thought there might be trouble.”

Guilfoil’s testimony was exactly what the pro-Ireland commission had sought to publicize in its effort to turn U.S. opinion against Britain. The blue-ribbon panel of two U.S. senators and six other military, religious, and civic leaders held six public hearings from November 1920 through January 1921. It was not an official U.S. government enterprise. Years later, Irish politician Patrick McCartan wrote of the hearings that “only the rustle of the reporters writing broke the silence in which America strained to hear the story of British savagery withstood and defeated by the indomitable courage of the citizens of the Irish Republic.”25

Guilfoil, 1920

Guilfoil—5-foot, 8-inches, with a ruddy complexion and blue eyes under receding brown hair—seemed like an enthusiastic witness.26 “Yes, O, yes,” he answered when asked whether most Irish civilians supported the IRA. He displayed a bullet he said had pierced the cottage before his family fled from the fire. He shuffled a sheaf of “literature” and newspaper clippings about events in Ireland.

These papers may have included Father O’Reilly’s letter to the Freeman’s Journal, published in the nationally-circulated paper five days before Guilfoil sailed back to America, or the Gaelic American’s two-part reporting of it a few weeks after he returned to Pittsburgh. Father O’Reilly’s letter said he “remained alone practically all the time” outside the post office with the bodies of the two policemen. Guilfoil testified he spent over two hours with the priest at the scene. Father O’Reilly might have wanted to protect the American visitor, emphasize his own ordeal, or both. Guilfoil might have inflated his experience based on such published accounts, but it is also possible that he offered the truest version of the events. 

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 11, 1920.

How Guilfoil came to be called before the hearing was not explained during his testimony, in the commission’s report, or newspaper coverage. Alexander P. Moore, editor of the Pittsburgh Leader, was a member of the nationwide steering committee that organized and funded the commission, but his paper did not report on Guilfoil’s testimony. The city’s other dailies headlined the appearance: “Pittsburgh Witness In Irish Probe P.J. Guilfoil Tells of Raid by Military on County Clare Town’ and “Local Man Tells of Burning of Town in County Clare.”27 Guilfoil’s testimony was noted in other U.S. newspaper coverage, but it was overshadowed by the same-day appearances of three former RIC men who quit the force in protest of British “misrule” in Ireland, and the sister of an Irish republican politician who had died on hunger strike.

Guilfoil died in 1946 at age 66.28 The obituaries do not mention his 1920 commission testimony, or suggest that he ever returned to Ireland.

Catching up with modern Ireland: September

The extraordinary year 2020 is three quarters done. On the island of Ireland two big questions hang over the remaining quarter: can the COVID-19 pandemic be managed and contained without too large an increase of infections and deaths; and can Britain and the E.U. agree a final Brexit trade deal? The monthy roundup picks from there:

  • The Republic of Ireland postponed the scheduled April 2021 Census until April 2022 because of the pandemic and to ensure the decenial count “achieves the highest possible response rate, across all facets of Irish society,” Central Statistics Office Director General Pádraig Dalton said.
  • The pandemic has relieved Dublin’s housing crunch that in recent years sent rents skyrocketing and left many people struggling to afford, or find, a place to live, The New York Times reported. How so? Denied tourists and business visitors, short-term Airbnb rentals have been returned to the market.
  • U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney said the American government is “confident the EU and UK will be able to work this [trade deal] out in a way that’s acceptable to everybody.”
  • Ireland’s 3 billion euro ($3.5 billion) plan to connect rural areas to high-speed broadband is proceeding quicker than expected, according to David McCourt, chairman of National Broadband Ireland (NBI), the vehicle created by U.S. media and telecoms investment firm Granahan McCourt. He told CNBC that despite some hurdles in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, the project could be completed in about seven years, under the originally slated 10 years. See my earlier post: Ireland’s broadband push recalls rural electrification effort.
  • As more of the world’s leading tech companies expand their operations in Ireland, the county is being forced to choose between its climate ambitions and investment from these giant firms, OilPrice.com reported. Massive data centers are great for the nation’s finances, but wearing on its energy infrastructure and increasing its carbon footprint.
  • Wild salmon returns have improved, likely due to an easier run for the fish into Ireland’s rivers during the COVID-19 lockdown, SeafoodSource says. But The Guardian carried a troubling report about how urban wastewater and nutrient runoff are polluting Ireland’s waterways.
  • Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden referenced his “Irish Catholic” roots during the Sept. 29 debate with President Donald Trump. The Irish Times described the televised confrontation as “shouting, interruptions and often incoherent cross talk.”

History News:

  • Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut received a $10,000 grant coronavirus relief grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities. It will be used to defray financial losses incurred during the museum’s extended closure during the pandemic.
  • The 100-mile (165K) National Famine Way hike/bike/history trail from Strokestown, Co Roscommon, to Dublin, opened after a decade of development. It follows the route of 1,490 tenants evicted from the Strokestown estate of Major Denis Mahon in 1847 and forced to walk to the “coffin ships” that would take them from Ireland to America and Canada.
  • The Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland has decided to bring charges against no more than one of 15 soldiers involved in the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights demonstrations in Derry, the BBC reports. Thirteen were killed and 15 wounded when troops opened fire on demonstrators.

The old man and the clock:

  • This photo of an old man enjoying his pint in a Galway pub captured international media attention. He apparantely didn’t have a watch or smart phone to avoid overstaying the 90-minute limit imposed by Ireland’s COVID-19 restrictions, so he brought a bedside alarm clock. 

John Joe Quinn at McGinn’s Hop House in Galway city. Photo, Fergus McGinn.

John Feerick on ‘Irish roots and American promise’

The dust jacket and marketing materials for John D. Feerick’s memoir, That Further Shore [Fordham University Press], say the author’s life “has all the elements of a modern Horatio Alger story: the poor boy who achieves success by dint of his hard work.” It’s also an Irish-American success story: the son of 1920s Co. Mayo immigrants who became the first in his family to attend college and law school.

Feerick was inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to service in the 1960s. He helped frame the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in part because of Kennedy’s assassination. He became dean of Fordham University Law and president of the New York City Bar Association.

In 1995, Feerick joined the American delegation for Bill Clinton’s historic visit to Northern Ireland, which set the stage for the Good Friday Agreement. He was a founder of Fordham Law’s Belfast/Dublin Program, now in its 20th year.

John D. Feerick on Zoom, Sept. 23.

Ireland was always very present,” in songs, stories, and pictures on the wall of the small South Bronx apartment where he grew up, Feerick said during a Sept. 23 digital “fireside chat” hosted by Brehon Law Society. Like most Irish immigrants, his parents “never saw their parents again; they never saw their siblings again. They didn’t have any money to go back.”

Feerick has made numerous trips to both sides of the Irish border, including genealogical reasearch for his memoir, a labor of love some 18 years in the making. He enthused about meeting distant relations and finding records with small but dear details of information. He acknowledged the opportunites lost to question key people while they were alive: he doesn’t know for sure how his parents met in America.

“It means everything to me,” Feerick said of his Irish heritage. “It’s part of my roots.”

He has hesitated, however, to place his name on Ireland’s Foreign Birth Register, which confers citizenship and elegibilty for an Irish passport, as so many of us have done.

“I’ve wrestled with it, but haven’t done it,” he said. “I consider myself an American Irishman.”

Feerick was diplomatic in answering a question about the impact of Brexit on the Irish border, subject of my last post:

“I can’t imagine that responsible leadership would remove the open border between the north and south,” he said. “That was so integral to the Agreement.”

Feerick also briefly discussed his work with two recently deceased figures, one from each side of the Atlantic:

  • Irish nationalist politician John Hume of Derry, who died Aug. 3: They were introduced during a 1994 luncheon at Fordham. “I really didn’t appreciate how important he was,” Feerick said. “He said, ‘Great lunch, but I want more from you. Come to Northern Ireland.’ ” During the Clinton visit the following year, they laid the groundwork for the Fordham-Ulster Conflict Resolution Program, then the summer law program.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18: They met in New York City law school circles. Feerick testified on Ginsburg’s behalf at her 1993 U.S. Senate confirmation hearing. “She was a person of fantastic commitment, especially on the issue of descrimiation against women,” he said. She became the outstanding lawyer in America in terms of gender descrimination.”

More of Feerick’s reflections about his life and writing his memoir are found in his Aug. 9 post for History News Network.

Brexit and the Irish-American vote

In 1920, many Irish-American voters were focused on their homeland’s struggle for independence from Britain. It was hardly the biggest issue of the campaign, dominated by domestic economic and social concerns in America’s first post-World War I election. U.S. Sen. Warren Harding, an Ohio Republican, defeated the state’s Democratic Gov. James M. Cox.

In 2020, Irish-American voters with relations, friends, or business interests on either side of the Irish border are watching Britain’s departure from the European Union, the so-called Brexit. British officials recently suggested they might break an earlier trade deal regarding the Irish border. As National Review explains:

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with a member of the EU — the Irish Republic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the decades-long civil conflict in the province between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists (That’s NR’s word, I’d say nationalists.), established an open border on the island of Ireland so that people and goods could travel seamlessly between North and South. This was a rather easy measure to implement because both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were in the EU at the time, and so they were bound by the same customs and market regulations.

The sticking point in the exit negotiations between the British and EU delegations was how to maintain an open border in Ireland once the UK had left the EU regulatory framework. Differing regulations and standards between the two countries could, without any physical border infrastructure, lead to rampant smuggling and undermine the internal integrity of the EU market. But all sides balked at the idea of putting up a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic given the violent history and still-volatile politics surrounding the constitutional question.

Now, as The Washington Post reported, “relations between Europe and Britain have grown shouty.” American politicians want to be heard, too.

The border on Killeen School Road County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Oliver Dixon

“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. Former Vice President Joe Biden, this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, issued  a similar Sept. 16 tweet:  “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland weighed in a few days later:

“Everyone assures me that no one is interested in seeing a hard border between the republic and Northern Ireland,” Mick Mulvaney said in an interview with the Financial Times. “We appreciate that, we respect that and we agree with that. The one thing I keep trying to assure is on the front of everybody’s mind is avoiding a border by accident. The Trump administration, state department and the U.S Congress would all be aligned in the desire to see the Good Friday agreement preserved to see the lack of a border maintained.”

Still, Brexit is hardly the top of mind issue for Irish-American voters, or any segment of the American electorate. With early voting underway in several states, the 2020 campaign is a referendum on Trump’s overall behavior, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, and now a fierce fight over filling, or waiting to fill, a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

Which helps illustrate another point:

“The Irish vote has become not, unfortunately, the lockup of the Democratic Party,” Brian O’Dwyer, vice president of the Irish American Democrats, told The New York Times in May. “But it is one of the few swing votes, along with the Catholic vote, left in the United States, and you can see various patterns back and forth where the Irish in particular have gone one way or another.”

Or as a columnist Tom Deignan wrote in August in Irish America magazine, “2020 may finally be the year we recognize the many shades of green out there amidst the red and blue of politically-polarized America.”

Also see:

U.S. & Irish news coverage of the ‘Templemore miracles’

Stories of the supernatural interrupted the usual war news from Ireland and headlined newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic in late summer 1920. A teenage boy reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary; he said a spiritual font gurgled from the interior dirt floor of his rural home; statues and other religious images appeared to weep and bleed; and thousands of the sick and lame who traveled to touch these items claimed miraculous cures. The events were so astonishing that the Irish Republican Army and British police and military combatants briefly entered an informal truce.

The episode began with the Aug. 16, 1920, IRA murder of a Royal Irish Constabulary officer at Templemore, County Tipperary, about 90 miles southwest of Dublin and 50 miles east of Limerick cities. RIC and soldiers from a nearby barracks quickly responded with their own violence in the town. That’s when teen James Walsh started sharing his visions of the Virgin, which he said began weeks earlier, and relocated his fluid-oozing religious items from Curraheen townland to the Templemore front yard of newsagent Thomas Dwan.

Suddenly, “weird manifestations of healings” replaced the Irish revolution’s tit-for-tat, as the Associated Press reported in the first dispatch published in U.S. newspapers.1 Templemore was temporarily spared further violence.

The makeshift altar of religious items in the Templemore yard of Thomas Dwan.

A “special cable” published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported:

DUBLIN, Aug. 28–In South Ireland, where the country is terrorized by racing lorries bristling with English bayonets, the state of mind of the whole population is so nearly hysterical it has paid more than the usual attention to the supposed miraculous bleeding of the religious images in a house near Templemore, and the simple people are traveling miles to see it. … Priests retain their reserve and stories of miraculous cures are dying out. The Dublin newspapers have ignored the story as well.2

In fact, there was plenty of news coverage, in Dublin and elsewhere. The “miraculous happenings at Templemore were first published in the evening papers of Saturday the 21st August,” Rev. P. Collier wrote in the opening sentence of his first-person account, published in Ireland and America.3

Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal of Aug. 23 headlined “Templemore Sensation.” The front page of the next day’s Evening Herald reported:

The rush of pilgrims to Templemore, Co. Tipperary, continues. To-day large crowds arrived by train from North and South. From an early hour this morning the traffic was almost continuous through the town of carts and motor cars bringing people from different parts of the country. Very many of these arrivals were invalids. Without any way prejudicing the authenticity or otherwise of the extraordinary events the general public (says the ‘Irish Independent’) would be well advised to observe due caution and patience until more complete investigations have taken place and an authoritative ecclesiastical pronouncement has been made. … 4

A correspondent for the Skibbereen Eagle of County Cork cited the (Dublin) Evening Mail and (London) Daily Express in a more skeptical dispatch:5

I came to see a miracle and I saw one. It was not a miracle of bleeding statues, but of limitless, almost pathetic belief. … The local priests are not enthusiastic. Their attitude is one of reserve. They refuse to discuss the matter with Press representatives, and appear to think every man must decide for himself.

1920 Ireland

Remember that Ireland in 1920 was “terrorized” not only by the year-old violence between the IRA and Britain authorities, but also the accumulated death, injury, and other horrors of the just-ended Great War. Some people  still became “hysterical” at the sight of a motor vehicle or an airplane. Electric lighting would not arrive in the countryside for decades. A potent mix of Catholic beliefs and folklore illuminated the popular imagination.

Secular and sectarian press coverage of Templemore continued through September 1920. The Catholic Standard and Times of Philadelphia and other diocesan newspapers published stories from the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) News Service, forerunner of today’s Catholic News Service. The Philadelphia paper published this story6 on its front page three weeks after the dateline:

DUBLIN, Aug. 27–Whatever view the Church may take of the so-called miraculous happenings at Templemore and Curraheen, after all the evidence with respect to them has been obtained and weighed, there is no doubt that these happenings have resulted in an exalted piety and an intensified fervor in the town and country. The mysterious, and as generally believed, supernatural events are regarded as an omen of great suffering combined with divine protection for Ireland in the immediate future. …

Image published in the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune on Oct. 3, 1920. Thomas Dwan’s surname is misspelled as Divan, the ‘w’ split into an ‘i’ and ‘v’.

The Irish-American press minimized the story, mostly likely to avoid embarrassing efforts to win U.S. political recognition of the fledgling Irish republic, or inflaming Catholic-Protestant divisions. The New York-based Gaelic American buried a few lines on an inside page roundup of Irish news.7 The Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, republished a New York Times account based on the testimony of a South Dakota priest, identified in the photo caption above.8 The Irish Press, Philadelphia, and the News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, Washington, D.C., skipped the story. Other Irish-American papers were not immediately available for review.

Lourdes & Knock

Rev. Collier, in his first-person account “in a spirit of devotional inquiry,” reported that Templemore had been a “quiet town” until the mysterious events “brought it into startling prominence as the newest holy well or Lourdes.” Templemore, he wrote, was “strangely similar” to the 1858 apparition of the Virgin Mary to a French peasant girl, a comparison made in other reports from Ireland. What Collier’s piece and most other accounts did not mention, however, is the Marian apparition at Knock, County Mayo, about 100 miles northwest of Templemore. There, 41 years earlier almost to the day, the Virgin Mary and other religious figures were said to have appeared to 15 witnesses.

The Offaly Independent offered a thoughtful exception in a mid-September 1920 column, which framed all three events in a tone neither dismissive nor credulous:

Templemore continues to be the mecca for invalids from every part of Ireland, and will in all probability continue to be while the fine weather lasts. … There are fresh stories of fresh cures brought back every day, with the result that invalids continue to flock to it. There are many people, both lay and clerical, very skeptical. They do not believe in the thing at all and insist in asserting that it is all humbug. … There are numerous stories going the rounds in regard to the extraordinary happenings at Templemore. The stories lose nothing in the process of narration; to a great extent they are rather over-developed and enhanced and sensationalized by a little addition. … The same is true of the manifestations at Lourdes [and] the same is true of the apparition at Knock, Co. Mayo, in 1879. In time the atmosphere of skepticism which hovered around Lourdes began to melt away and … became an accredited fact. … The story of the apparition at Knock failed to obtain the same recognition, but still the people finally believed, and cures were effected.9   

Today, Lourdes and Knock remain Catholic Church-recognized Marian pilgrimage sites, drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (See my 2017 post, What you need to know about Knock’s vision visitors.) Templemore’s brush with the supernatural is conspicuously absent from the history section of the town’s website.

This image from Templemore appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Sept. 12, 1920. Boy at right of women holding statue appears to be the same as top photo.

Violence Returns

The IRA eventually became suspicious that Walsh faked the “miracles”, or worse that he was a spy for the British, and the young man was exiled to Australia. Some pilgrims had probably been healed by faith, but the cure-seeking crowds ceased as violence returned to Templemore. The New York Tribune reported the “utter savagery” of a Black and Tan attack on the “scene of the recent bleeding statue miracles.”10

For more details about these events, see John Reynolds’ stories in History Ireland and  The Irish Times. He is the author of The Templemore Miracles, Jimmy Walsh, Ceasefires and Moving Statues.

Read more about “American Reporting of Irish Independence” in my ongoing series.

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.

Catching up with modern Ireland: August

This month’s round up leads with two deaths, one on each side of the Atlantic, both connected to Northern Ireland: 1998 Nobel Prize-winning Irish politician John Hume, 83, of Derry, who helped forge the Good Friday Agreement; and journalist and author Pete Hamill, 85, the Brooklyn-born son of Belfast Catholic immigrants.

Hume

“Hume combined moral clarity against violence and strategic vision for what peace might entail with a politician’s embrace of life’s complexities, the need to compromise and to take risks, to find where power lies and to exploit it,” Tom McTague wrote in The Atlantic. “Hume was supremely successful in this effort, whether you agree with the ends he pursued or the tactics he deployed to achieve them; he was not a saint, but a man who made judgments that are not beyond reproach. He abhorred violence, but brought Sinn Fein’s leaders (who did not) to the top table of Northern Irish politics. In seeking out giants, we are too quick to seek out perfection, when no such thing exists. Hume’s legacy lies in the compromises he championed and the complexities he recognized.

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Hamill

“Hamill was among the last symbols of a bygone era, when idiosyncratic newspaper columnists like Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York were celebrities in the cities they covered,” Harrison Smith wrote in the Washington Post. “He was in the vanguard of the New Journalism movement, when writers such as Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Breslin applied the traditional tools of literary fiction to works of reporting, often while writing about ordinary people who usually never made headlines.”

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Also in August:

  • The Irish Examiner was first to report that more than 80 people attended an Irish golf society event in Clifden, County Galway, breaching COVID-19 restrictions in spirit, if not in fact. Three Irish politicians have resigned their posts. The scandal is emblematic of larger problems in the three-party coalition cobbled together four months after Irish elections, the Examiner’s Gerald Howlin wrote under the headline, “Golfgate shows the government has the wrong clubs in the bag“.
  • In the Republic of Ireland, 1,777 people died of coronavirus as of Aug. 30, and 142 new cases at month’s end caused health officials to warn of a second national lock down, The Irish Times reported. At least 871 people have died from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland through Aug. 21.
  • The North’s top tourist attraction reopened Aug. 1 with safety measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic. “But it could be months, possibly years, before Titanic Belfast is anywhere near back to delivering the sort of economic statistics which has earned it international plaudits,” The Irish News reported.
  • Next to the museum, Harland & Wolff has benefited from ferry and cruise ship firms using the famous shipyard’s dry docks to carry out maintenance during the pandemic shutdown. The firm is still fighting for its long-term financial survival.
  • One more from the North: “No United Ireland. Not Now. Not Ever,” says Briefings For Britain, which insists “the impact of Brexit on Irish unity remains unclear.” … U.K. and E.U. negotiators are still trying to reach a trade agreement before the Dec. 31 end of the Brexit transition period.  
  • Fitch Ratings affirmed an A+ Stable Outlook for the Republic, factoring the uncertainties of the pandemic, Brexit, and the coalition government.
  • The Republic’s population is on the threshold of 5 million, reaching an estimated 4.98 million as of April, according to the Central Statistics Office. Total population on the island of Ireland, including the North, reached 5.1 million in 2016, exceeding the 1851 post-Famine census total for the first time.

A road on Inisheer, August 2019.

Select press coverage of summer 1920 Belfast riots

On July 21, 1920, unionist mobs in Belfast, many affiliated with Protestant Orange Order lodges, forced thousands of mostly Catholic, nationalist workers from their jobs, including the Harland and Wolff shipyards. Days of sectarian street fighting followed, leaving more than a dozen dead and hundreds injured. A second round of riots began Aug. 22 in what became a two-year stretch of unrest in the northern manufacturing hub. The events were simultaneously related to, but separate from, the revolution against British rule occurring on the rest of Ireland.

Belfast became a regular dateline in U.S. mainstream newspapers and Irish-American press coverage of the turmoil on the island. Wire services provided mostly straight accounts, such as this from the Associated Press: “Serious rioting broke out in Belfast tonight, during which there was considerable shooting and some incendariarism.”1

Big city dailies also sent their own correspondents, often more opinionated, and syndicated the reporting beyond their own pages. For example, The Gaelic American, a pro-independence weekly in New York City, republished a favorable dispatch from the American correspondent Arno Dosch-Fleurot shortly after his work appeared in The New York World:

The rioting began with the expulsion from Harland and Wolff Shipyards of all the Catholic workmen by the champions of ‘civil and religious liberty,’ and the British Government did nothing whatever to prevent it, or to punish the rioters after their bloody work was done. This is how ‘justice’ is administered in Ireland by the British Government. Practically all the magistrates are Orangemen and they do not even make a pretense of being impartial. The rioters are ‘loyalists’ and therefore protected and encourage; all Catholic workmen are classified as ‘disloyal’ and therefore it is all right to break their heads or to kill them if the Orange mob is in the mood for murder, and the work is done to the cry of ‘To hell with the pope’ and ‘Down with the Papishes.’ Yet these Orange fanatics have nothing to gain by their insane work. They are nearly all members of the same labor unions as the men they attack and when strikes come Protestants and Catholics act together against the same Plutocrats who are the oppressors of both.[“Belfast Orange Riots Fostered By England”, The Gaelic American, July 31, 1920.[/note]

By 1920, photography increasingly supplemented news coverage of events such as the Belfast riots. This is a cropped portion of a New York Times photo page; which contained two additional images of Belfast, and three unrelated photos.

U.S. papers also included reporting from the Irish and British press, and the perceived or actual bias of the cited newspapers could be used to either bolster or dismiss reporting of the events. For example, The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to the separatist parliament in Dublin, readily cited coverage from a half dozen English newspapers as proof the “Belfast Riots Were Instigated by British.2 The London Daily Telegraph, Morning Post, Times of London, Daily News, and Manchester Guardian all “admitted … the Belfast riots were organized at a meeting of Unionists and were begun by the Orange workers at the shipyards.”

In particular, the Press and the Washington, D.C.-based News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom3 quoted from July 23, 1920, coverage in the Westminster Gazette: “It is common knowledge in Belfast, and has frequently been admitted by individual Unionists, that plans were matured at least two months ago to drive all [nationalist] Home Rule workers in the shipyard out of their employment.”

The weekly Kentucky Irish American, without naming any publications, complained that accounts in many daily paper created “the impression that Sinn Féin is to blame” for the riots, but also noted “significant little paragraphs betray the real cause of the disorders” as Orangemen and the British government. “The Catholics of Belfast are simply defending themselves.”4 Likewise, the Gaelic American cited reporting from the Irish News, a nationalist paper in Belfast, about Catholics being “driven from their homes, the premises were taken possession of by Protestant families.”5

“As the conflict progressed, this meant that reporting of various incidents could be quite unbalanced,” Kieran Glennon, who wrote a centenary overview of the Belfast riots for The Irish Story, said in an email exchange. “Some of this imbalance may simply have reflected a degree of physical danger for reporters from one side’s papers trying to report on things that happened on the other side’s “turf.” As a crude example, if the Special Constabulary shot up a nationalist area, the Irish News would interview residents of the area, while the unionist papers might have to settle for simply carrying statements issued by the [police authorities, rather than going into the neighborhoods].

Photo in the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), Aug. 13, 1920.

In Butte, Montana, a heavily Irish mining town 2,300 miles west of New York, the Daily Bulletin published an account from Belfast by the newly established Federated Press, a left-leaning, pro-labor wire service.6 It began:

Workers here are gradually realizing that the riots at shipyards on July 21, when the Protestants drove the Catholics from their jobs, were engendered by the employers for the purpose of keeping labor divided. Seventeen dead must be charged against those who reap the profits at the expense of the plain people.

The story concluded:

The Belfast newspapers, both Catholic and Protestant, have followed their usual tactics of publishing editorials which are counsels of perfection, and in the next column painting their opponents in a manner to further incite the mob.

***

See my “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series for more centenary coverage. See Glennon’s book, From Pogrom To Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA.