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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
On the British side, His Majesty’s government realized that they could win the guerrilla war in Ireland, but they were certain to lose the propaganda war in America. Irish-Americans were bombarding the public with stories of British atrocities, rumors of another famine. The British badly wanted a naval disarmament treaty with America, to avoid a potentially ruinous shipbuilding program. As long as the Irish war raged, such a treaty was out of the question.
But the British negotiated within their own political framework. Deferring to powerful unionist sentiment, they outmaneuvered de Valera by giving Ulster a separate parliament even before they offered to parley. Prime Minister David Lloyd George hammered de Valera’s negotiators with threats, softened them with promises, until they signed a treaty that created an Irish Free State in Southern Ireland with a constitution that required an oath of loyalty to the King, gave the British control of several Irish ports, and bound Ireland to assume a share of the British public debt.
An outraged de Valera repudiated the treaty as the subversion of the Republic. But the signers, who included Michael Collins, the commander of the Irish Republican Army, and Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, the party that had made the Easter hero president, in turn repudiated de Valera as a power-hungry extremist. At the final blowup, de Valera and his followers walked out shouting: “Oath breakers, cowards.”
Collins replied: “Foreigners! Americans!
Adding to the confusion, the chief Irish nationalists in America, John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan, by now confirmed de Valera-haters, abandoned their republican extremism and backed Collins and Griffith. A hefty share of the IRA backed de Valera, and an ugly civil war exploded, leaving Collins and Griffith dead but their faction triumphant.
Irish-Americans were enormously disillusioned. The vast majority of them felt Michael Collins was right when he called the treaty “a fair peace.” As they had demonstrated more than once, most Irish-Americans had always preferred some form of home-rule solution. Only a tiny percentage of violent men were ready to die in the last ditch for a republic. In June of 1922, with defeat confronting it, the de Valera wing of the IRA issued an urgent call to Irish-Americans to save the republic from the Free State. The response was zero. There were no mass meetings, no propaganda, no nationwide organization. For the first time Irish-Americans were forced to confront a hard truth. Ireland was a foreign country with passions and problems incomprehensible to them.
Thereafter, America ceased to have an Irish problem. But Ireland and Great Britain continued to have one in Ulster, where the Protestant majority’s hostility to Catholics was intensified by the creation of the Irish Free State. The situation was not improved by the comeback of Eamon de Valera, who became prime minister in 1932. De Valera came to power as a critic of the treaty and he repealed it step by methodical step, first abandoning the oath of allegiance, then the debt payments, next writing a new constitution, making the Free State a republic in everything but name and finally regaining control of the treaty ports. In 1949 the opposition party, temporarily in power, took the last step, resigning from the British Commonwealth and proclaiming the Republic of Ireland. The British Parliament with its usual stupidity about things Irish, responded by passing a bill guaranteeing the partition of Northern Ireland.
Irish-Americans paid little attention to these maneuvers. In Congress there were periodic resolutions calling for an end to partition, which always passed by large majorities because everyone knew the American government had no intention of acting on them. De Valera’s occasional attempts to rally American support against partition got nowhere. Any hope in this direction vanished when de Valera espoused neutrality in World War II, ignoring numerous pleas and prods from Irish-Americans and the American government. One of the cardinal principles of Irish-American nationalism had been the belief that an independent Ireland would be an asset to the United States. Now, here was the Irish president protesting American and British military and naval bases in Northern Ireland and expressing his sympathy to the German ambassador when Hitler died in his bunker.
Politically, most Irish-Americans stopped thinking about Ireland. As a result, they, like most Americans, were amazed when the IRA began its terrorist bombing campaign in Ulster in 1971. Although the Catholics in Northern Ireland remain victims of the Protestant Ascendency, almost as wretchedly poor and oppressed as the Irish immigrants who poured into America throughout the nineteenth century, the Irish-Americans, now the second most prosperous ethnic group in America, found it increasingly hard to identify with them. IRA front organizations have raised modest sums in this country only by pretending that the money will be used for humanitarian purposes in Ulster.
Ulster is an Irish problem, created not only by the Protestant Ascendency in Northern Ireland but by the Catholic Ascendency in Southern Ireland. In de Valera’s constitution, he acknowledged the “special position” of the Catholic Church. For American consumption, de Valera always described partition as the English occupation of Ulster. His successor as prime minister, Scan Lemass, tacitly admitted this description was fiction when he said in 1964: “We recognize that the government and parliament [of Northern Ireland] exist with the support of the majority in the six-county area.”