Analysis: 'diplomats naturally focus on how issues in the countries to which they were posted impact on the country that they represent'

By John GibneyRoyal Irish Academy

In June 1962 the Irish ambassador in Washington DC, Thomas J. Kiernan, browsed the most recent edition of the Nation of Islam's monthly magazine Muhammad Speaks. He was surprised to see that "the attitude to what might be called Irish-Catholic" summed up in the cartoon from the June issue, with the (‘anti-negro police’) law cartooned as a big gun inscribed ‘Hail Mary – In God We Trust’, while the bull-dog in charge, marked U.S.A., had a shamrock.

The image in question referenced a police raid on a mosque in Los Angeles in which one member of the Nation of Islam was shot dead and six others wounded during a confrontation with over 70 members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The clear implication of the cartoon was that US police forces were heavily Irish and institutionally racist; and that these went hand in hand.

A copy of a cartoon in the Nation of Islam's magazine, Muhammad Speaks, sent to Dublin by the Irish ambassador to the US in June 1962. Photo: National Archives of Ireland

Diplomats naturally focused on how issues in the countries to which they were posted impacted on the country that they represented. In the early 1960s, with a president of Irish origin in the White House, it was inevitable that Irish attention focused on how Irish-America stood within the hierarchies of the United States. But on occasion, this may have obscured how it stood in relation to other strands of American life.

Irish relations with the United States loom large in the twelfth volume of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, in which Kiernan’s report is reproduced. The documents in the series reflect international history through the perspectives of Irish diplomats, and the tumult of the 1960s often resonated within them.

In September 1963, for instance, Taoiseach Seán Lemass prepared to visit the US (reciprocating JFK’s visit to Ireland), and was advised by Seán Ó h’Éideáin of the Department of External Affairs on what to say (and not to say) when giving a speech there. Such a speech should emphasise the rapid modernisation of Ireland, with an eye to attracting US investment and tourism, and existing links between Ireland and the US could be leveraged to this end.

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From RTÉ Archives, Michael Ryan reports for RTÉ News on the visit of then Mayor Of Chicago Richard Daley (son of Richard J. Daley) to his ancestral home in Dungarvan, Co Waterford

Ó h’Éideáin mentioned Chicago’s traditional Democrat-leaning Irish-American political establishment, especially under Mayor Richard J. Daley, but also noted that "many of the well-to-do middle-class Irish, in defending their traditional way of life and property values in the heretofore solid white Irish parishes on the southside of Chicago work themselves into an anti-Negro and segregationist position and are far less liberal than Mayor Daley in this respect (who incidentally gets a solid Negro vote). While there are several Irish Americans who give good leadership in advocating justice for the Negro, nevertheless race relations are on the whole a sensitive and a divisive topic among the Irish of Chicago".

While it is striking that Kiernan the ambassador was apparently surprised that some African Americans held a negative view of the Irish and the police forces in which they were seen to be well-represented, race relations in the US in the civil rights era were not, strictly speaking, the primary concern of Irish diplomats. They were there to represent the interests of the Irish state and devoted a good deal of attention to how Irish-America might have a bearing on those interests.

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Cecil Woodham Smith: The British Historian Who Rewrote Irish Famine History radio documentary

When Gearóid Ó Cléirigh of the Irish consulate in Boston reported on the reception of Cecil Woodham-Smyth's famous account of the Great Famine of the 1840s, The Great Hunger (1962), among the city’s Irish population, he first delineated how differing waves of emigration had shaped the Irish community in the city. He argued that even after the famine "within the Irish group new arrivals often suffered some discrimination…This has of course an economic cause in that they tended to undersell the labour market". Furthermore, he observed that "a similar pattern of course is shown in Irish reaction towards later groups, such as the Italians, Jews and, nowadays, the Negroes".

One might say that what Ó Cléirigh was concerned with here was how Irish-America spoke to itself, rather than to other groups in the US. He noted that "as regards the famine-derived Irish, those who are particularly conscious of their background may be expected to find in the book ‘The Great Hunger’ some justification for their group attitudes".

Irish diplomats in the US in the 1960s were witnesses to great upheaval, but their focus was on issues of concern to Ireland. These included economic imperatives mentioned above, sympathies for the IRA within Irish-American heartlands after the end of the Border campaign, IRA fundraising (which greatly exercised Charles Haughey as Minister for Justice in early 1962), or even the smuggling of weapons.

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From RTÉ Archives, Andrew Sheppard looks at the Kennedy era for RTÉ News on the 25th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas

The Irish-American community was a constituency in American life that could be expected to have an influence within Ireland, while at the same time it could be, to some degree, open to Irish influence. The Department of External Affairs kept a close eye on its political fortunes, especially after the accession of Kennedy to the presidency. After JFK's death, the political career of his brother Robert F. Kennedy came to be of interest.

How Irish diplomats interpreted the contours of American politics is summed up in the conclusion to Kiernan’s assessment of Lyndon B. Johnson, penned in December 1963, just after he had succeeded JFK. Kiernan’s comprehensive report on the new president offered a panorama of the American political landscape and the challenges that Johnson would be faced with. But he concluded that "President Johnson’s attitude to Ireland and the Irish will be warm and friendly, certainly in 1964, but of course without depth of feeling". For Ireland’s ambassador to the US, this was ultimately the crux of the matter.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. XII, 1961-1965, is published by the Royal Irish Academy.

Dr John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ