Analysis: the World Congress of the Irish Race was the first deployment of public and cultural diplomacy by the young Irish Free State

By Billy Shortall, University of Notre Dame

Just two weeks after the Dáil ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty and before Civil War became a reality, the Irish State participated in an international conference in Paris. The World Congress of the Irish Race, or Aonach na nGaedeal, was opened in the opulent Hotel Continental by the Irish envoy, Sean T. O'Kelly, on January 21st 1922.

The week-long Congress brought Irish diaspora delegates and an international audience together to discuss Irish affairs and establish a central organisation to co-ordinate worldwide diaspora support for the Irish State. In effect, the nascent State was attempting to build an empire of its diaspora colonies. The opening date was specifically chosen to commemorate the third anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Dáil.

A great day for the parish: Éamon de Valera leads the way in Paris. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

But the primary purpose of the Congress was to persuade the international community to support the Irish Free State's ideals for national sovereignty. Through showcasing Irish culture and values, it was an early deployment of public and cultural diplomacy or 'soft power'. At this stage, no other country had recognised the Irish Free State. There were many issues to be resolved with the British and there was still a political aspiration of an all-island Ireland.

With independence, however imperfect, achieved, a new State had to be built. The Paris Congress was the first event in which the State showcased its sovereignty, national identity and the pillars on which it would be built. About 250 people, including 100 official delegates representing national organisations, attended from various parts of the world. Many prominent Irish politicians were in attendance, including future Irish presidents Douglas Hyde, Sean T. O’Kelly and Éamon De Valera.

Paris was chosen as the venue because the Dáil wanted to position Ireland in the international arena, bypass Britain and place it at the heart of Europe. Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Gavan Duffy, had written to de Valera on January 12th to explain that the Congress was 'mainly a cultural’ event and that the Irish political delegation would ‘represent fairly the two parties in An Dáil’.

Some of the attendees at the 1921 World Congress of the Irish Race. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

In practice, there was an anti-Treaty delegation led by de Valera and a pro-Treaty delegation led by Eoin Mac Néill. A centralised diaspora organisation called Fine Ghaedheal was established at the Congress and de Valera was elected its president. However, the organisation was short lived and failed to get subsequent Dáil support.

On the first Sunday of the Congress, some of the delegates toured Paris in three cars, each bearing the Irish tricolour flag. The tour had all the symbolism of an official State event. The French diplomatic archives records that the tour visited places described in the agenda as ‘of Irish interest’ including La Bastille, the scene of the popular uprising which resonated with the theme of the Race Congress. A number of religious sites were visited, symbolic of the Catholic religion that both Ireland and France shared. The Panthéon and nearby Irish College were also visited.

Cover of the programme for the first concert at the World Congress of the Irish Race, January 1922

Central to the Congress was the State's presentation of the grand narrative of Irish cultural history with concerts of Irish music, performances of Irish theatre and a month long exhibition of Irish art. Two evenings of Irish music, on the theme of Irish struggles for independence and played on a range of traditional instruments, were staged in the Salle de Fetes at the Hotel Continental.

One significant contemporary piece played both nights was Irish-American composer Swan Hennessy's String quartets, dedicated to the memory of Terence McSwiney. The late Lord Mayor of Cork, who was godfather to Hennessy's son, had died on hunger strike the previous year in Brixton Prison in protest at charges brought by the British authorities. His death brought the Irish political struggle to a worldwide audience. (McSwiney was godfather to his son) McSwiney's sister Mary attended the Congress.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Axel Klein profiles the composer Swan Hennessy

There was also an evening of Irish theatre staged for the attendees in the palatial Salle Hoche. Two plays by iconic Irish playwrights were performed, namely The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory and The Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge.

The exhibition of Irish art ran for a month at another important venue, Galerie Barbazanges. With 300 works on display, many of which are now in public collections, it cost the financially perilous State almost half the total event expenditure. The organisers sought to achieve a ‘propaganda value’ from the show, which included John Lavery's portraits of the Irish Treaty signatories (now in Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery), statesmen who would govern the new State, and his history paintings of McSwiney’s funeral and his Blessing of the [Irish] Flag, both now in Cork's Crawford Gallery .

Sarah Purser's Le Petit Déjeuner (now at the National Gallery of Ireland) made a direct connection between Ireland and France. Jack B. Yeats' Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory (NGI) is a small history painting that records a flower seller leaving flowers at the spot where English soldiers shot four unarmed Dubliners dead in 1914. The image may be read as Mother Eireann mourning her dead with the boy looking forward expectantly. It is understandable why Yeats decided to first exhibit this work, completed in 1915, seven years later in this Paris exhibition. The destiny of Ireland, however imperfect, was beginning to unfold from its recent trouble and that message was conveyed in this urban scene.

Jack B. Yeats' Bachelor's Walk, In Memory. Image: National Gallery of Ireland

The French government purchased one of Paul Henry's now trademark, then radical, Irish landscapes for its national collection. A painting of a uniquely Irish scene entering an important French collection authenticated Irish art, and its recognition helped to achieve the ‘propaganda value’ so keenly sought by the organisers.

This exhibition was a bold statement in the art capital of the world by a new State on the range, scale and quality of contemporary visual art and art industries in Ireland; they presented a public display of artistic independence to support their claims of political independence.

In addition, a series of 10 lectures were delivered by ‘eminent experts’. The subjects chosen identified the pillars on which the new State would be built. W. B. Yeats spoke on literature, while his brother Jack gave his only ever public lecture on Irish art. Evelyn Gleeson spoke on art industries, Arthur Darley spoke on music and other topics included agriculture, economics, religion, history, the Gaelic League and sport.

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From Centre Culturel Irlandais, Billy Shortall's Liam Swords Foundation Lecture on the World Congress for the Irish Race in Paris

The quality and scale of the venues used by the Irish Race Congress made a visible statement of aspirational prosperity, pride and ambition. It projected the confidence of the new State as an independent nation on a world stage - and setting an independent Ireland in the heart of Europe. The lyricism of the Celtic and Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century was carried into the first year of state building by the Free State.

However, after the vitriol and destruction of the internecine Civil War, the nation moved out of the mists of the Celtic Twilight and into the discordant reality of a fractured people in a partitioned country. The pillars for state building, and its associated ideologies, would shift.

Dr Billy Shortall is a Visiting Fellow at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame and at Trinity Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC) at the School of Histories and Humanities at TCD.

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