F. M Carroll in his important book “America and the Making of an Independent Ireland” examines the influence and role played by Irish America in the attempts to free Ireland from British rule in the early part of the twentieth century.
In December 1918, Sinn Féin had reached the apex of its political popularity during the General Election of that year, winning 73 seats in Ireland. The out working of this vote was the Declaration of Independence and the convening of the First All – Ireland Dáil and the formation of a revolutionary Government which was eventually and inevitably driven underground by coercive British measures.
In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson was faced with a highly organised and effective political lobby groups in the guise of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Friends of Irish Freedom and Clan na Gael. Carroll points out that a senior figure in Clan na Gael, Daniel F. Cohalan held great sway within the Democratic Party. Cohalan had been a successful New York lawyer and had been a Supreme Court Judge. He was a hugely influential figure in Irish American and political circles.
On April 4th 1917, the United States (despite Wilson’s pre-World War One pledge to keep America out of the European conflagration), entered the war on behalf of the Allies. The American involvement was sold on lofty ideals of the right of small nations to defend themselves, and pursue freedom and democracy. However, by early 1919 and the convening of the Paris Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric would be put to the test by the plight of Ireland and its right to national self-determination. However, the failure of the United States to support Ireland’s democratic right to assert its sovereign independence certainly made the attainment of Irish freedom a more arduous task.
The Irish freedom struggle naturally attracted the sympathy and support of the Irish – American community. Politically, financially and strategically, Irish lobby groups were at their most cohesive during the period 1919-1921, and displayed a level of unity and organisation which became the envy of other hyphenated national groupings in America. The influence and political clout which Irish-America possessed was enormous, and its reach was felt in highest offices: financial, military, political and cultural.
In military matters, the Irish were heavily represented at leadership level within the armed forces, a feature stemming from the American Civil War. The reality of this situation, aligned with an active and effective Irish political lobby meant that the Irish were potentially a fifth column within the United States army, and the manner in which they would react to wholesale slaughter unleashed in Ireland was untested.
Woodrow Wilson through his discussions with British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Auckland Geddes, was made aware of a possible pending escalation of the war in Ireland. It was against this backdrop that FM Carroll points to Wilson’s embargo on the participation of US naval and military personnel in the Saint Patrick’s Day parades in March 1921. In undertaking such a course of action Wilson was arguably showing great foresight. Wilson had enough trouble dealing with the political weight of Irish-America without having face down military figures on the issue of Ireland.
The American President paid a heavy price for his failure to support Ireland, as politically Irish American groups organised opposition to participation in the League of Nations. They succeeded in having the motion to join voted down in Congress. The Irish argument against joining the League was that membership in this body would legitimise the right of conquest of some existing Imperial powers (with Ireland presently contesting its subjugation). Irish–American lobby groups laid the blame for the plight of Ireland at the door of England, and they argued that the situation was compounded by Wilson’s failure to support Ireland’s right to national self- determination.
Wilson only lasted one term in office, and the Irish American lobby was instrumental in his political demise. 1921 was the high point of Irish-American political influence on the issue of Irish unity, the resulting split from the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 fragmented, confused and disillusioned the organisations previously spear heading the efforts to secure a free and independent 32 County Republic.
WORDS : Brian Madigan, WIT