June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
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 .
The Honorable Hugh L. Carey, Democratic governor of the state of New York, made a speech in Dublin on April 22, 1977. After declaring himself unalterably part of “that segment of the human family called Irish,” Carey denounced extremists on both sides of Northern Ireland’s guerrilla war as practitioners of the “politics of death.”
The next day, in a newspaper interview, Governor Carey made his neutrality even more specific. He condemned the Irish Republican Army terrorists and said that they did not deserve “a nickel’s worth of support in the United States.”
Earlier in this century, had a Democratic politician made such a statement, he simultaneously would have announced his resignation from the party and his departure from the country. Huge rallies would have been organized to denounce him. He would have been called a “yellow dog” and a “contemptible cur”—two of the more printable epithets used to describe James Michael Curley of Boston when he said that he favored an English victory in World War I.
Instead, Governor Carey was congratulated by Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Speaking at a dinner in New York on May 18,1977, Kennedy praised Carey’s courage and urged a compromise peace in Northern Ireland. The senator from Massachusetts then paid elaborate tribute to Ireland’s Protestant heritage, citing the eleven Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Jimmy Carter who were descended from Ulster stock. Piling the heretofore unimaginable on the unprecedented, on June 8, 1977, Kennedy and Carey joined Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neil to tell Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that they backed the Carter administration’s hands-off policy in Ulster.
The four most powerful Irish-American politicians in the United States were telling the government to do nothing for bleeding Ireland. It was enough to set coffins spinning in cemeteries from Boston to San Francisco. The Irish-Americans were at last publicly abandoning their century-long effort to use their political power to alter Ireland’s destiny. Gone are the days when Edward Hannegan of Indiana rose in the U.S. Senate to roar “Delenda est Britannia” (“Britain must be destroyed”) and Irish-American voters were advised to choose presidential candidates on the basis of which man hated England most bitterly. No more is seen the likes of Congressman John Finerty of Chicago, whose absorption in Ireland’s cause was all-consuming. Someone once asked him if anything of note had happened recently in Congress. “No,” Finerty said, with obvious disgust. “Nothing but American business.”
The Irish were never more than one-twelfth of the total number of Americans, a percentage which immigration from other countries reduced to 4 per cent by 1920. But they made up in political expertise what they lacked in numbers. In 1880 they elected their first mayor of New York, and in 1884 Hugh O’Brian took charge of Boston’s City Hall. By the end of the 1880’s, the Irish controlled the government of sixty-eight Massachusetts cities and towns. They managed this feat by joining the Democratic party en masse and turning it into a vehicle to satisfy a hunger for power that only the hitherto powerless could appreciate.
When it came to turning this political power to Ireland’s benefit, the Irish had another advantage: rage. Even before the holocaust of 1847, the famine that killed a million and a half people out of eight million, almost a million Irish Catholics had come to America with bitter memories of being second-class citizens in a land dominated by a comparative handful of Protestants backed by British bayonets. Forbidden to vote or hold office, harassed and evicted by landlords who charged exorbitant rents, these refugees had large scores to settle. Henry Grattan, the son of the eighteenth-century Irish patriot, told of a conversation with some Kildare men about to emigrate. “We are going to another country to get that subsistence which we could not get in our own,” they told him. “Our graves may be in a foreign land but our children may yet return to Ireland; and when they do we hope it will be with rifles on their shoulders.”
In spite of these ferocious sentiments, Irish-Americans’ first great effort on behalf of their homeland was in the name of a peaceful solution. They rallied behind the nonviolent tactics of Daniel O’Connell, the “Liberator.” With his Catholic Association, which gathered funds from the pennies of the peasants, O’Connell organized enormous mass meetings that frightened the British into yielding the Emancipation Act of 1829, permitting Catholics to sit in Parliament and to hold other offices. O’Connell’s next target was the Act of Union, which the British had passed in 1801 to punish the Irish for the rebellion of 1798. It abolished the Irish parliament, theoretically making the two islands one nation.
The Irish parliament had been subordinate by law to the British parliament, but in practice the British had let the Protestant Irish run Ireland’s internal affairs. O’Connell was a realist. He understood England’s dread of an independent, potentially hostile Ireland on her Atlantic flank. Accepting geography as fate, O’Connell only sought to enable the Irish to participate in the empire with dignity. Home rule, with an Irish parliament and something like dominion status for Ireland, would achieve this reasonable goal.
O’Connell’s movement was backed by thousands of Irish-American dollars collected from Repeal Associations in almost every state. Prominent politicians like the future President, Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, former President Martin Van Buren, and Governor William H. Seward of New York spoke out on behalf of repeal. Horace Greeley placed himself and the New York Tribune behind it. Robert Tyler, President John Tyler’s son, became the Repeal Movement’s national leader. “All I know is that I love Irishmen and hate tyranny in every form,” he said.
Some of these men were sincere, but others were simply pandering to the already substantial Irish vote. The emotional Celts found irresistible, for instance, such bunkum as Alabama Democrat Felix Grundy McConnell’s 1846 House resolution, calling on the United States to annex Ireland.
The Irish-American agitation for Ireland collided with a growing hostility to the Irish in the United States, which soon coalesced around the Know-Nothing movement. During an 1841 visit to London, publisher George Putnam told the English that the repeal movement violated the “recognized policy and practice of the American people which from Washington to the present time has been opposed to all interference with the affairs of foreign states.” He added that repeal sentiment was confined to natives of Ireland who were not worthy of being American citizens. Numerous newspapers expressed similar sentiments.
But it was not the hostility of the Wasps that wrecked the repeal movement. Early in 1842 Daniel O’Connell sent an “Address to the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America.” Its central message was summed up in the words: “Join with the abolitionists everywhere! They are the only consistent advocates of Liberty.” Irish-Americans were appalled. Enrolled almost to a man in the Democratic party, they detested abolitionism. They had barely swallowed this apple of discord when O’Connell announced that home rule would make the Irish so loyal to England, they would fight her enemies anywhere, including the Americans in disputed Oregon.
The two statements virtually annihilated the repeal movement in America. The reaction crystallized two basic traits of Irish-American nationalism that were to change very little for the next century. Again and again, the Irish-Americans would find themselves whipsawed between love for their tormented native land and loyalty to the United States, the nation that had given them dignity, power, and freedom. A related theme was inexorable divergence between the Irish who stayed in Ireland and the American Irish. Ulster-born Archbishop John Hughes of New York, the leading American prelate, replied to O’Connell’s praise of abolition, “I am no friend to slavery, but I am still less friendly to any attempt of foreign origin to abolish it.”
O’Connell died in 1847, the same year the famine reached its height. It was now the turn of more violent men. The Young Ireland movement rose to challenge British power with guns and pikes. Its leaders were city and town liberals, including some Protestants as well as Catholics, who tried to make nationalism transcend sectarian hatreds. But they were long on rhetoric and short on organization, and had few contacts among the Catholic peasants who were their potential troops.
Knowing few if any of these facts, Irish-Americans saw Ireland on the brink of glorious revolution. Dropping all pretensions to nonviolence, the Repeal Confederation held a huge meeting in Washington, D.C., chaired by George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson of the Father of his Country. Among those seated on the platform was Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana thundered a prophecy: “Before the sun shall again have reached this point in his yearly revolution, he will, as he brightens with his radiance the rich verdure of [Ireland’s] soil, look down upon a still more glorious spectacle—her own Green flag floating free on every hill and rampart.” In New York, at another huge public meeting, a five-man directory was set up to raise funds in America and Canada to buy weapons for Ireland. On August 14, 1848, the New York directory staged a vast rally at Vauxhall Garden, the climax of which was the appearance of Archbishop Hughes, who contributed five hundred dollars to the war chest.
The news that shortly arrived from Ireland was anything but glorious. The British had smashed Young Ireland with ruthless efficiency, dispersing its shadow army in a single skirmish in a cabbage patch near the village of Ballingarry. Bitter humiliation was the diet of the American Irish for the next several months, while their nativist foes hooted and sneered. Archbishop Hughes and other members of the Catholic hierarchy vowed never again to trust revolutionary rhetoric.
With few exceptions the American Catholic clergy now became inveterate foes of a violent solution to Ireland’s sorrows. The arrival of Young Ireland leaders, some of them exiled by the British, others escapees from British prisons and penal colonies, only deepened the split. When the Young Irelanders tried to apply their abstract liberal principles to the complexity of Irish-America, they got involved in spectacular quarrels with bishops and politicians.
John Mitchel, perhaps the most intellectually gifted of the Young Irelanders, started a newspaper in which he urged the American Irish to back revolution everywhere, including the Italian fight to oust the Pope from the papal states. Archbishop Hughes, a ferocious controversialist, unlimbered his heaviest rhetorical artillery, and Mitchel’s paper collapsed overnight. The revolutionaries also were dismayed by the Irish style in Democratic party politics, with its “go along to get along” philosophy and its casual attitude toward corruption. Occasionally one of the rebels tried to run for office on a rival ticket. He invariably was trounced. Realism was not the revolutionaries’ strong suit: one chose to run for the New York State Senate against William Marcy (“Boss”) Tweed, then near the height of his power.
Yet neither political defeat nor clerical scourgings disqualified a revolutionary as a spokesman for Ireland’s woes. Under the pressures of necessity, most Irish-Americans evolved a triple-decker mentality to handle their situation. The clergy were heeded on matters sacred, the Democratic party on matters secular, and the revolutionaries on matters Irish. When any of these parties attempted to invade another’s bailiwick, he usually was ignored.
The harsh sentences handed out to the Young Ireland leaders and their heroic speeches in the dock, coupled with the horrors of the famine, intensified many Irish-Americans’ hatred of England. They envisioned a war between England and America that would enable Ireland to act on the dictum of the 1798 revolutionary, Wolfe Tone, “England’s time of trouble is Ireland’s opportunity.” The Irish-American press and politicians repeatedly called for war in the antebellum disputes with England over Texas and Oregon. When the Prince of Wales visited New York in 1860, Michael Corcoran, the colonel of the 69th Regiment, refused to parade for him and was court-martialed.
Quite aside from Anglophobia, another reason for the endurance of nationalist fervor was the humiliation many Irish experienced in America. Young Patrick Ford, destined to be the most influential Irish journalist of the nineteenth century, trudged the streets of Boston in the 1850’s and often saw notices that read: “ NO IRISH NEED APPLY .” Ford concluded that even in America he was a victim of the “poverty and enslavement” that gripped Ireland and “it was necessary for everyone of Irish blood to do all in his power to change that state of things.” The belief that the Irish would never win respect in America until the stain of degradation was erased in Ireland soon became one of the fixed ideas of IrishAmerican nationalism.
How to achieve an independent Ireland was a topic that absorbed Irish-Americans for the next eighty years. Hearts and heads were broken over it. The fundamental division was still between the spiritual heirs of Daniel O’Connell and the revolutionary descendants of Young Ireland of 1848—between believers in the ballot and worshipers of the bullet. Partly because of the Irish temperament, partly because of British intransigence, the violent men prevailed at first.
In Ireland their movement was called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB). In America it was the Fenian Brotherhood, so called because its leader was a Gaelic scholar, John O’Mahony, who loved the sagas of the legendary Irish warriors, the Fenians; and eventually the name was applied to the movement in both countries. The Fenians’ goal was armed revolution and the creation of an Irish Republic. At first they were a secret society, with an oath of loyalty, “circles” led by a “centre,” and each circle divided into cells led by captains. Almost immediately the Fenians were attacked by Catholic priests and bishops, who were hostile to all secret societies. The American Fenians gave ground before this ecclesiastical criticism, and became far from secret. They held public meetings advertising their goals, and transformed themselves into an imitation American government, with a president, senate, and house of delegates.
The Fenians soon went even further in this imitation, and split into two quarreling parties. One, the “men of action,” wanted to use the thousands of Irish veterans from both sides of the Civil War to invade Canada and hold the dominion hostage for the freedom of Ireland. But the original Fenian founders wanted to keep the movement focused on a carefully plotted, well-supported revolution in Ireland, using local troops with Irish-American Civil War veterans as officers.
The result was a series of disasters. The British had honeycombed the Fenian organization with informers, and knew exactly where and when they planned to strike. The U.S. government also knew, but made very little effort to restrain the Fenians. Secretary of State William Seward wanted to teach Perfidious Albion a lesson about neutrality, and incidentally to persuade Parliament to ante up millions for damages inflicted on American shipping during the Civil War by the British-built raider Alabama . In 1865 Seward let the Fenians buy guns and ammunition from American arsenals, drill publicly, and recruit men in the heart of cities like New York and Chicago. For several months, the green Fenian flag, with its harp and sunburst, flew over Tammany Hall, headquarters of New York’s Democratic party and a major recruiting center. Another flag flew over the nearby Moffat House, off Union Square, where the Fenian president and cabinet met, issued orders to the generals of their army, and sent representatives to Washington to confer with the Russian ambassador and other powers hostile to Britain.
Fenianism was no joke as long as the American government tacitly supported it. The “men of action” put seven thousand soldiers on the Canadian border in 1866. But when their invasion looked as if it might succeed—the Fenians routed the Canadians in their opening skirmish—the U.S. government closed the border, seized the Fenians’ weapons, and arrested their generals. Another attempted invasion in 1870 was dealt with even more summarily.
In Ireland, the Fenians had concentrated on recruiting Irishmen in British regiments, hoping to cripple the enemy army from within. But the British had the advantage of informers here, too, and transferred the regiments out of Ireland, then struck hard, arresting scores of Fenian leaders. A few Fenian companies rose in defiance in March of 1867 and were quickly smashed by the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Out of the ashes of Fenianism arose a tougher, more secretive Irish-American movement, the Clan-na-Gael. It was dominated by two men, both of whom were to haunt Irish-American nationalism for decades, John Devoy and Alexander Sullivan. A stocky, argumentative, scowling exFenian, Devoy was suspicious of everyone not fanatically committed to the triumph of the republican cause in Ireland. Sullivan was a far more subtle, self-interested man, one of the few who bridged the gap between the revolutionary nationalists and the professional politicians.
In 1877 the Clan worked out a murky alliance with the remnants of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Ireland. Over the objections of the IRB, whose leader, John O’Leary, maintained that there were some things a man must not do for his country, the impatient Irish-Americans launched a dynamite campaign which spread death and destruction in London, the enemy’s capital. Between 1882 and 1885, explosions wrecked trains and maimed passengers on subways, and damaged Victoria Railway Station, Scotland Yard, the Tower of London, and the House of Commons.
Virtually all the “dynamitards” were Irish-Americans. How serious they were can be glimpsed from the story of Dr. Thomas Gallaher, described as a “mild-mannered” Brooklyn physician, who set up a nitroglycerin factory in Birmingham, England. When British police, aided by spies and informers, raided the premises, they found enough nitroglycerin, according to one account, to level the entire city of London. Gallaher and three accomplices were sentenced to life imprisonment. This was also the fate of seven other dynamitards; eight more received stiff prison terms. Three, including a Fenian hero, William Mackey Lomasney, were blown to bits when their bomb went off prematurely under London Bridge.
From almost every point of view, the dynamite campaign was a disaster. It was denounced as immoral by the clergy and repudiated by conservative Irish-Americans, who saw it as a blow to their struggle for respectability. It even alienated American politicians who normally took a pro-Irish stance. The explosion in the House of Commons inspired the U.S. Senate to condemn dynamite by a vote of sixty-one to one.
Alexander Sullivan was the man behind the bombs. Born in Canada, where his County Cork father was serving as a sergeant in the British army, he began his career as an Irish nationalist and Republican politician in Detroit. But he soon made Chicago his base of operations, establishing himself as a power in city politics and the Clan-na-Gael.
In 1881 Sullivan took the Clan leadership away from Devoy, who began a vitriolic feud with him. Under Sullivan a three-man executive committee known as the “Triangle” ran the dynamite campaign. The violence gave the Clan a reputation not unlike that the Mafia has today. It was romanticized out of all proportion to its strength, which never exceeded ten thousand members. The discovery that Sullivan had overruled the IRB in Ireland to start the dynamiting multiplied his enemies, who accused him of mulcting $40,000 of the $235,000 that the Clan raised between 1881 and 1884. When an especially vocal critic, Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, was murdered in 1884, the victim’s funeral attracted twelve thousand mourners, and the trial that followed made headlines across the country. A Sullivan henchman on the Chicago police force and two other men were sentenced to life imprisonment. After that blast of bad publicity the Clan seemed finished, an assumption that would prove premature.
While the violent Irish-Americans were acting out their hunger for revenge, the majority of the immigrants and their children clung to Daniel O’Connell’s faith in a peaceful solution to Ireland’s agony. This creed revived in the 1870’s when a far different man, Charles Stewart Parnell, took charge of the Irish Parliamentary party and taught it how to obstruct the machinery of the House of Commons until “the Irish Question” became the dominant issue of English politics. The aloof Protestant landlord from County Wicklow had a British-hating American mother. Parnell had visited America in 1871 and experienced the sting of nativist prejudice, which probably was a factor in creating his conviction that Ireland had to achieve dignity as a nation.
Parnell’s operation was run on American money. Without it, he could never have maintained his bloc of eighty-five Irish M.P.s in expensive London, for the House of Commons paid no salary to its members. Before Parnell created his American alliance, only rich Protestant landlords could afford to sit in Parliament. In 1880 Parnell toured America, speaking to huge crowds. He also addressed a joint session of Congress and was received at the White House almost like a visiting head of state. He conferred with Devoy and worked out an understanding that enabled the Clan chieftain to support him as part of a “New Departure” that attempted to fuse all the disparate factions of Irish-America into an anti-British juggernaut.
Much of the fuel for the engine came from the radical ferment produced by the American depression of 1873. Economic warfare, with strong socialist overtones, inspired the Land League, which sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support tenants who refused to pay exorbitant rents or fought evictions. “The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland,” was its cry, tirelessly embellished by Patrick Ford’s paper, the Irish World . When Parnell accepted the leadership of the Irish branch of the Land League, he became the uncrowned king of Ireland. But in 1890, with a suddenness that left Ireland and Irish-America gasping, the king came tumbling down, wrecked by the revelation of his long affair with the wife of a fifth-rate Irish politician.
Numbed by the double blow of Parnell’s fall and the scandal of Cronin’s murder, the Irish-American wing of the nationalist movement virtually collapsed. But in Ireland, home rule refused to die. In 1900 it arose from Parnell’s grave in the person of a weaker, more pliable man, John Redmond. Like Parnell, he depended totally on American money, supplied to him by a new organization, the United Irish League (UIL). In Ireland, Redmond preached patience and trust in a liberal England, which already had instituted substantial reforms in Irish land tenure and poor relief. “I deny I am a separatist,” he said. But in America Redmond had to appeal to the hatred of Great Britain bubbling in every Celtic breast. At a UIL convention in Buffalo in 1910 he said home rule was only valuable as a step toward “the great goal of national independence.”
Unfortunately for Redmond and Ireland, there was a fourth party in this game of political roulette—the Protestant Irish of Ulster. They were seldom heard from in America, except for attempts to disassociate themselves from the Catholic immigrants of the famine years. The Ulstermen created an entity called “Scotch-Irish”—that is, descendants of immigrant Scots—which often was denounced as an impossible mongrel by Irish nationalists. But in the United Kingdom, the men of Ulster were a powerful bloc in the Conservative party, which considered the 1801 Act of Union the linchpin of the empire. The Ulstermen listened to John Redmond talking out of both sides of his mouth and did not like what they heard.
In 1912, just as home rule seemed certain of passage in Parliament, the Ulster Protestants, with the connivance of the Conservative party, issued a thunderous no, and organized a volunteer army to prove they meant it. They boldly imported tens of thousands of rifles to arm their adherents and fomented a near mutiny in the British army in Ireland that paralyzed the Liberal government. Then the First World War exploded.
John Redmond and the Home Rule party, already shaken to its core by British inaction in the face of Ulster’s belligerence, agreed to the suspension of home rule for the duration and urged Irishmen to join the British army and fight against Germany. At first Redmond was able to hold the allegiance of 90 per cent of his followers in Ireland, but he almost instantly lost his Irish-American backers. Within a year the United Irish League and the Irish Home Rule party were both bankrupt.
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.
Working closely with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and the Republican opposition, the Friends of Irish Freedom organized a massive assault on the League and the treaty. When Judge Daniel Cohalan testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the League, he submitted a list of supporting Irish groups that consumed one and a quarter pages of small type in the Congressional Record . The FOIF distributed well over a million pieces of anti-League propaganda. When Wilson made his last-ditch speaking tour to rescue the League, the Irish ran huge advertisements in each city he visited, attacking the President and refuting his arguments and they flooded the Senate with telegrams in the days before the final, fatal vote, on March 19, 1919.
In June of 1919, onto this turbulent stage strode Ireland’s new leader, Eamon de Valera. The tall, austere ex-professor of mathematics had been born in New York, but he had been taken back to Ireland as a child, and was utterly unacquainted with American politics. His Irish viewpoint soon collided with the Irish-American views of Devoy, Cohalan, and the other leaders of the Friends of Irish Freedom.
De Valera wanted money to support his parlous provisional government, which was fighting a guerrilla war against the English. Devoy and Cohalan wanted to use the FOIF treasury to continue the battle against the treaty and the League in the 1920 presidential elections. They hoped to bargain one or both politicial parties into promises of substantial aid to Ireland. But they were at least as passionately determined to defeat the League, because they saw it as a British imperialist plot to tempt the United States to abandon its hallowed isolationism.
Thinking and talking as a European, de Valera was inclined to favor the League, and as an heir of Daniel O’Connell’s geographic realism, he said he would be willing to temper Irish independence by permitting Britain to exercise a sort of Monroe Doctrine over Ireland’s foreign policy. Both positions outraged Devoy and Cohalan, who expected the Irish president to share their passion for absolute republican independence and their hatred of British influence everywhere in the world, especially in the United States. Devoy published an angry attack on de Valera in his newspaper, the Gaelic-American , and Cohalan accused him of interfering in purely American affairs. A bitter confrontation ensued at a meeting in the Park Avenue Hotel on March 19,1920. Only the presence of a bishop persuaded Cohalan and de Valera to shake hands and receive a blessing on a very shaky truce.
Early in June, de Valera, Cohalan, and Devoy went to the Republican Convention in Chicago. The Irish-Americans expected that their fight against the peace treaty would be repaid by a plank in the party platform supporting Irish independence. The Republicans were ready to take that stand in general terms. But de Valera, aware that the British were watching and listening, insisted on an explicit endorsement of an Irish Republic. De Valera feared that anything else would be read by the British as a willingness to accept the discredited home-rule solution. The Republicans demurred and the Irish got nothing.
To the mounting rage of Devoy and Cohalan, de Valera went to the Democratic Convention and repeated this performance, with the same result. In retrospect it is clear that the Irish president never should have gone near either convention, and should have let the Irish-Americans handle the business of obtaining endorsements. But by this time, acrimony had so poisoned relationships that de Valera was incapable of taking Irish-American advice on anything. Thus the nation—and the British—got the impression that both political parties had repudiated Ireland’s cause, at the moment when she most needed American help.
Breaking completely with Devoy, Cohalan, and their circle, de Valera set up a rival organization, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, to raise money for his provisional government. Within a year the AARIR had a half-million members and the Friends of Irish Freedom had collapsed. It was potent proof, previously demonstrated by Parnell and Redmond, that the man who spoke for Ireland was the voice to which Irish-Americans responded. With the legal advice of a young Democratic politician named Franklin D. Roosevelt, the sale of de Valera-promoted bonds raised $5,500,000. Another enterprise run by de Valera supporters, the American Committee for Relief in Ireland, raised an additional $5,000,000, and Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes pressured the British into allowing the money to be given to the Irish White Cross, who turned over most of it to de Valera’s guerrilla army.
Even a guerrilla war devoured money at a fearful rate, however, and by mid-1921 the Irish were running low on cash and matériel. In the words of the U.S. consul in Dublin, “the movement is kept alive by reports of the great progress the cause of Irish freedom is making in the United States.” This was ironic. The gesture by the Secretary of State was the only evidence of any support from the Republican administration in Washington. De Valera knew the real situation in America; the Irish could expect nothing but mild sympathy from the government. When the British offered a cease-fire and negotiations in July of 1921, de Valera accepted.
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.”
For most of its first three decades of independence, the Republic of Ireland remained part of the British system. Almost half her exports came from Britain, and two-thirds of her exports went there. One historian described her as a “small nominally independent satellite with Great Britain as its major planet.” The situation has changed since Ireland entered the Common Market in 1973. In 1977 alone, one billion dollars in foreign investments, half from America, poured into the country, giving the once stagnant economy a 5.5 per cent growth rate, the highest in Europe. On January 1, 1979, Ireland entered the European Monetary System, which meant its currency was no longer pegged at parity to the British pound, a highly symbolic relationship that had persisted for 152 years, since the days of Daniel O’Connell. Not even de Valera had dared to change it.
A 10 per cent unemployment rate and the highest birth rate in Europe imperil this economic independence. At least as dangerous is the IRA’s war in Ulster. This last despairing gesture of the violent men ignores the bitter fact that the cost of supporting Ulster’s unemployed would bankrupt the Republic. Nor are they impressed by the IRA’s failure to muster more than 3 per cent of the vote, south or north. They live on the memory of what the 1916 Easter martyrs supposedly achieved with their blood sacrifices, forgetting that without Irish-America’s openhanded support the famous rising would have ended as disastrously as previous Irish attempts at revolt.
It is probably for the best that Irish-Americans are no longer passionately involved with Ireland. They spent enough years trying to resolve the contradictions between supporting a foreign country and their own country, trying to live in two diverging worlds. There is no need for them to apologize. The green flag’s career in America is a great human drama, the story of a defeated people who found new strength and pride in a free society and gave generously of themselves to restore some measure of that strength and pride to the land of their fathers.