Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Tim Pat Coogan on De Valera in America (1919-1920)

Tim Pat Coogan is one of the most respected authors on modern Irish history, which includes comprehensive and detailed biographies of De Valera and Michael Collins. In his 1994 study, The IRA - a History, Tim Pat Coogan provides an   enlightening account of de Valera’s stay in America between June 1919 and December 1920, which was much more than merely being on the run from the Brits following his jailbreak. In this excerpt Coogan, not known for being de Valera’s number one fan, more than hints at the long-man’s controversial, even divisive role amongst the American-Irish community as president-in-exile—his ideological differences and fall-out with Devoy and Cohalan and the questionable use of huge amounts of money raised in the States for the cause of Irish freedom. Firstly though, Coogan provides a useful background to the development of American-Irish politics, the importance of the Roman Catholic church to Irish Americans and the influence of Irish issues on the US ultimately withdrawing its interest in joining the League of Nations at the end of WW1: 
St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York—1910s

'     Even today it is conceivable that a modern I.R.A. party might receive similar assistance from New York, but it was not at all to be wondered at in the 1916- 22 period. Current American statistics of the Irish population in America estimate that there are more than forty million people born in Ireland, or of Irish descent living there. The generation which lived around the same time of the Anglo-Irish war had comparatively recent memories of crowding into ghettos; persecutions by nativist groups such as the Know Nothings; of grinding poverty and hostility from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who denied them employment; of discrimination in boarding houses, and sometimes in jobs, with signs saying ‘No Irish or coloured need apply’; and of anguished parting from the country they loved followed by a smelly, dangerous and often deadly voyage to the States in conditions which have branded the phrase ‘coffin ships’ into Irish folklore. Probably as many Irish died aboard these badly ventilated, over-crowded ships and were buried at sea as were claimed by every revolution from the time of Wolfe Tone to the signing of the treaty with England in 1921.

The Irish relied heavily on the consolation of religion, and took with them their own brand of ultramontane Jansenistic Roman Catholicism. To many a hungry immigrant Irishman or woman the Church was the only lifebuoy in a sea of hostility. This today in America, while some Irish are organised in the service of the Democratic Party, almost all Irish are organised in the service of the American Catholic Church. An annual display such as the St Patrick’s Day Parade down Fifth Avenue is not organised by Irishmen to draw attention to Ireland, or to gain scholarships or industries for their native land, but as a predominantly Catholic festival which is organised under the direction of the archdiocese of New York by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York—1910s
Before 1922 the British were still in Ireland and it was relatively easy to canalize both religious fervour and patriotic anti-British nationalism into organisations of some power and significance. The combination of these emotions is caught exactly in an appeal which Joseph McGarrity issued in   Philadelphia on June 4, 1914. Two days earlier the Clann na Gael executive had met in New York and set up a committee, headed by McGarrity, to attempt to organise and equip a volunteer force for Ireland. In his appeal McGarrity implored nationalist-minded Irishmen to attend a meeting at 726 Spruce Street, on June 7: ‘In the name of God, in the name of Tone’s bleeding throat, in the name of Emmet’s severed head, in the name of Fr. Murphy of ’98, and in the countless dead, who died for Ireland, we ask you to be there.’
Joseph McGarrity
These emotions may seem quaint today but they helped to create the 1916 Rising and change the course of Irish history. And earlier, John Redmond, with his constitutional United Irish League of America, founded in 1901, used these emotions to get contributions which paid for the Irish Parliamentary Party’s expenses in the elections of 1906 and 1910 and, until salaries were introduced for M.P.s. a large part of the ordinary living expenses of the Irish M.P.s.
In America, as in Ireland, the constitutional movement for Irish independence had to contend with the influence of the revolutionary movement of the I.R.B.’s American offshoot, Clann na Gael. It was the Clann which in 1907 sent Thomas Clarke back from New York to help revivify the I.R.B. in Ireland. Through men like John Devoy and Joseph McGarrity, Clann money and policies passed into Ireland and, in 1916, helped to destroy the influence of Redmond in America as in Ireland. McGarrity also played an influential part in saving de Valera’s life after the 1916 Rising. After de Valera’s baptismal certificate was procured from St Agnes Church, New York, thus demonstrating his American birth, McGarrity got a lawyer friend, Francis Doyle, a prominent Irish-American, to use it to bring pressure to bear on President Wilson (through Joseph Tunulty) who in turn contacted the American ambassador in London who successfully entreated with the British cabinet not to execute de Valera.

The Irish in America, like the Irish at home, were a fractious lot and there was an obvious conflict of interest between the United Ireland League – the constitutionalists – and the Clann na Gael , the revolutionaries. John Devoy founded a paper, the Gaelic American, in 1903 to combat the influence of Patrick Ford’s Irish World which supported Redmond and parliamentarianism. The principal leaders of the Clann at this time were John Devoy, the old Fenian, Judge Daniel Cohalan, a Democratic politician of standing, and Joseph McGarrity. The Clann operated on a principle which was outlined by Cohalan that ‘Ireland’s true interest will be best served by a steady, resolute and progressive policy of organisation among our own people the world over and the cultivation of alliances with English enemies.’ 

The success of Clann propaganda may be gauged from the comment of the Irish-American Chicago Citizen of July, 1908 – ‘There is not an Irishman in America today, in whose veins good red blood is flowing, who would not rejoice to hear that a German army was marching in triumph across England from Yarmouth to Milford Haven.’  The 1916 Rising put the final seal on the decline of the United Ireland League which had been speedily going downhill since Redmond had pledged support to Britain in 1914.

The German ambassador to America, von Bernstorff, co-operated with the Clann through John Devoy in assisting Sir Roger Casement in his attempt to organise an Irish brigade from captured prisoners of war. Through Devoy again, Germany supplied arms for use in the Rising, but due to muddling over dates they did not arrive in time, and were scuttled off Cobh.

President Woodrow Wilson

Following the Rising, the Clann rode high in Irish-American affairs and attempted to force President Wilson to include Irish independence in the post-war peace settlement, for Wilson had made the point that the war was being fought for the freedom of small nations. Wilson, however, though not antipathetic towards the Irish as such, was bitterly at odds with Cohalan and also hesitated to offend Britain, needing England’s support in launching the League of Nations. He held out against the Irish claim despite strong Irish-American pressure, but on March 4, 1919, the House of Representatives in response to this influence voted 216 to 45 that the peace conference should  favourably consider Ireland’s claim to self-determination, and on June 6 the Senate voted 60 to 1 in favour of de Valera, Griffith and Count Plunkett being allowed to appear before the conference.

The Clann na Gael leaders, through the ‘Friends of Irish Freedom’, founded in 1916, had set up an Irish victory fund which by the end of 1920 had collected almost $900,000. Only $115,000 found its way to Ireland, but $750,000 was spent in attacking the League of Nations – ‘Britain’s League’. Cohalan and Devoy joined forces with prominent domestic opponents of the League, such as Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, and they organised huge protest meetings against Wilson during his speaking tour in September, 1919, taking full-page advertisements in the newspapers along his route.

This was the position when de Valera arrived in the States in June, 1919. He stayed first at McGarrity’s home in Philadelphia, and formed a strong personal friendship with him. Indeed the Irish Republic, produced in New York by a group of McGarrity associates, in September, 1940 was correct in stating that it was McGarrity who persuaded de Valera to use the title ‘President of the Irish Republic’ instead of ‘Priomh Aire’, thus committing de Valera irrevocably to that title. Clann propagandists also allege that the title was one of the reasons why he split with Cohalan and Devoy. They, as I.R.B. supporters, recognised Collins, the head of the I.R.B., as automatically ‘President of the Republic’.

But there were more cogent reasons for this disagreement. Devoy, an old man, was very much under the  influence of the dynamic Cohalan, who, while passionately devoted to the cause of Irish Freedom, felt that it was subordinate to the interests of America. Cohalan felt there inevitably could be a war between America and England, whose sponsorship of the League of Nations he saw as part of a plot to overthrow America. De Valera felt he was entitled to control the Irish in America and set out to destroy Cohalan’s leadership. He was ultimately successful, but the damaging split which ensued greatly weakened the ‘clout’ of the Irish-Americans.
Daniel Cohalan

In January 1920, an Irish bond drive was launched, with Irish bond certificates sold on a guarantee of exchange for Irish Republican bonds after the Irish Republic was recognised. It is estimated that $5.5 million were subscribed. De Valera prevented approximately half of this money from going to Ireland. It lay for years in American banks. Part of it was ultimately returned to the original subscribers, but de Valera also succeeded in getting control of sufficient funds from the bond drive to enable him to set up the Irish Press newspaper group in Dublin which became a de Valera family enterprise. By November, 1920, de Valera was able to set up his own Irish-American Association, popularly known as ‘Growl’ because of the sound of the acronym A.A.R.I. – for American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. This organisation soon became dominant in Irish-American affairs. Out of it arose a self-appointed commission, the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, which reported the sufferings imposed on the Irish by the British (for the purposes of the report these sufferings, though basically genuine enough, were somewhat overdrawn) and an American Committee for Relief in Ireland was formed. This collected an additional £5 million to alleviate conditions in Ireland.

De Valera, however, also aroused considerable controversy in Irish-American circles by attacking Cohalan and the Gaelic American and by appearing at the Republican Party’s national convention against the wishes of Cohalan who also led a delegation there. The two groups made a bad impression with their quarrelling. Most of all he offended by an interview published in the Westminster Gazette on February 6, 1920, (after his return) in which he proposed a solution for the Irish question similar to the association between Cuba and America.

De Valera (third from left on front row) in California, 1920

Yet by the time de Valera slipped back to Ireland for Christmas of 1920 he had so mobilised American public opinion on the side of the Irish struggle that it became clear to the British that American funds and public opinion could continue to support the Irish for an indefinite period. There was also a very  considerable body of sympathy for the Irish cause in England itself, and both facts weighed heavily with the British cabinet when it called for a truce and    entered the negotiations which culminated in the signing of the treaty and the British departure from the South of Ireland.

In America the withdrawal of the British was hailed as a great Irish victory. The subtleties of Home Rule, self-determination, dominion status, partition, government by devolution and all the rest of it largely escaped the vast bulk of those who supported the Irish independence movement. From 1921 it is true to say that the Americans as a nation switched off the Irish problem. She had got her independence, the British were gone. What more remained to be done?          

The IRA - a History Pages 74-77 / Tim Pat Coogan / Roberts Rinehart Publishers 1994

The Sinn Feinn delegation, Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Eamon de Valera,
Count Plunkett and Lord Mayor Lawrence O'Neill leaving to meet
British PM, Lloyd George in July 1921 to negotiate the truce which
ended the War of Independence 

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