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The Green Flag In America
For more than a century, Irish-Americans were whipsawed between love for their tormented native land and loyalty to the United States. But no more .
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
Waiting in the wings were the violent men, led again by the durable founder of the Clan-na-Gael, John Devoy. In 1900 he had resurfaced with a new partner, a New York politician of considerable skill, Judge Daniel Cohalan. The new Clan made contact with the moribund Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Ireland, but neither could do much in the face of John Redmond’s reborn home-rule government. At the height of Redmond’s success, before the war, an Irish leader of the IRB admitted that their total membership would have had trouble filling a concert hall.
Lack of a majority did not trouble either the Clan or the IRB. Like all revolutionary conspirators, they lived on their mystic faith in a dramatic awakening of the people. Stirred to new life by the Clan, in 1914 the IRB sent the poet Patrick Pearse to America to confer with Devoy and other “greyhaired Fenians.” Pearse was astonished by their uncompromising militancy, and unshaken faith in Ireland’s republican destiny. “There were no such men in Ireland,” he said.
It would be hard to imagine a time of England’s trouble more propitious for Ireland’s opportunity than 1914. Britain’s small professional army was being slaughtered in the mud of France. Ironically, at the moment when Ireland’s Revolutionists were again turning to their American cousins for help, imperial England did the same thing. A propaganda war of awesome proportions erupted between the Anglophiles and the Irish-Americans.
The Irish already had expended considerable energy trying to prevent an American-British rapprochement . They had forced Grover Cleveland to demand the recall of a British ambassador when he stupidly remarked that Cleveland’s election meant good news for British interests in America. They had blocked an attempt to pass an arbitration treaty with England in 1897 and 1905, causing Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay, to exclaim: “The Irish are thirsting for my gore.” In 1907 the Ancient Order of Hibernians signed an agreement with the National German-American Alliance to oppose American entanglements with any foreign power.
This Hibernian-German entente was the prelude for a wide-ranging alliance between Irish nationalists and German-American groups after World War I began. In 1915 a bill banning arms shipments to belligerents, backed by various German-Irish front groups, came within fourteen votes of passing in the Senate. The Wilson government replied with a ferocious attack on “hyphenism” and hyphenated Americans. In a speech to Congress, Wilson accused them of pouring “the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” Seized German documents revealing Berlin’s financial backing of many front groups were leaked to pro-administration papers. These attacks, coupled with German outrages on the high seas and an enormously skillful British propaganda campaign, enabled Wilson to lead the United States into the war on the side of the Allies without any significant backlash from the Irish. Anxious to prove their challenged loyalty to the United States, they supported the war effort almost to a man.
But Wilson created a legacy of antagonism that was to haunt him and his party. This resentment was fanned into furious flame by the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland, and the heavy-handed British reprisals that sent Patrick Pearse and other leaders to the firing squads. The Irish-Americans seized on the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination and put the President’s feet to the fire. A Clan-na-Gael front, “The Friends of Irish Freedom,” sponsored an “Irish Race Convention” in Philadelphia on February 22,1919. With a unanimity unmatched for decades, squadrons of professional politicians, as well as thirty bishops and three archbishops (including Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, dean of the American hierarchy) joined five thousand delegates in demanding Irish independence. An Irish Victory Fund was launched to finance an “educational” campaign and soon received pledges of over a million dollars.
Wilson stubbornly refused to deal with the Irish. Having smashed them once with his assault on hyphenism, he badly underestimated their postwar determination. At the Versailles peace conference, the President’s intransigence deepened. He declined to receive a delegation from the Irish Race Convention that arrived in Paris on April 11,1919. Nor would he apply any pressure on the British to permit a delegation from the provisional republican government, formed in Ireland under the leadership of Easter Rebellion hero Eamon de Valera, to visit Versailles. Wilson also ignored pro-Irish resolutions which the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed with huge majorities.
At Versailles, Wilson claimed that he was unable to bring up the Irish question without forfeiting British support for the League of Nations. He also contended that Ireland would be able to press its case for self-determination before the League, once it became a reality. But the President did nothing to prevent Great Britain, France, and Italy from eliminating all references to self-determination from the League covenant. Small wonder that Wilson returned home to find Irish-Americans, the shock troops of his party, abusing him from hundreds of political platforms.