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Revolutionary diplomats: The Dáil Éireann foreign service, 1919-1922
Seán T. O'Kelly, Mary Kate O'Kelly (née Ryan), and Harry Boland at Kingsbridge Station en route to Paris Photo: National Library of Ireland

Revolutionary diplomats: The Dáil Éireann foreign service, 1919-1922

By John Gibney

On 22 February 1919, Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh wrote a letter to French premier Georges Clemenceau from the Grand Hotel in Paris. Ó Ceallaigh was from Dublin and had fought in the Easter Rising of April 1916, being imprisoned by the British in the aftermath before resuming his involvement in the increasingly popular independence movement. His presence in Paris three years later was in a very different role. Now he was a de facto diplomat, and with the title ‘Delegate of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic’, was one of the first members of what would become the Irish diplomatic service. His letter to Clemenceau sought, as he put it, ‘international recognition of the independence of Ireland’ from the international peace conference convened in the French capital in the aftermath of the First World War.

Ireland thus had the unusual distinction of having had a foreign policy and a diplomatic service before there was an internationally recognised independent Irish state. The origins of the modern Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade lie in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established by the first Dáil of January 1919. An awareness of foreign relations, international affairs and the global balance of power had long been integral to Ireland’s struggle for independence. As early as the Easter Rising, republicans had anticipated Ireland making a claim for the recognition of its independence at a post-war peace conference. Irish republicans had long sought to exploit international tensions to put pressure on the British – England’s difficulty was, as the saying went, to be Ireland’s opportunity – while Irish communities overseas, most especially in the United States, could offer material support to Irish nationalists of all types, who were acutely aware of Ireland’s position in the wider world, and especially the British Empire.

A letter from Séan T. O'Kelly to Art O'Brien sent while on his trip to Paris in July 1919. (Image: National Library of Ireland, MS 8426/40)

The overall strategy of Dáil Éireann was to construct an alternative government in Ireland, one that would hopefully undermine the British administration whilst also proving to the world that it also commanded the legitimate support of the Irish people. In January 1919 it had created four ‘departments’ to give credibility to this claim; the Department of Foreign Affairs was one of them. Count George Plunkett, the former director of the National Museum of Ireland, whose son Joseph was one of the executed leaders of the Easter Rising, was appointed as Minister for Foreign Affairs, but the bulk of the administrative work in Ireland was done by more 1916 veterans: the Cork-born clerk of the Dáil, Diarmaid O'Hegarty, and, from 1921, the Wexford journalist Robert Brennan. The activities of the Dáil and its assertion of Irish independence were a propaganda exercise as well as a practical measure, and one that had to be communicated to as wide an audience as possible. What better venue to do this than Paris, filled as it was with diplomats and journalists, to communicate the Irish message to the leaders of the post-war world?

The two principals who made up what was, to all intents and purposes, Ireland’s first diplomatic mission, were Ó Ceallaigh and the English-born solicitor and Dublin TD George Gavan Duffy, whose legal background and fluency in French and Italian qualified him for the role. The idea of sending emissaries to Paris was inspired by the wartime rhetoric of self-determination, as articulated by US President Woodrow Wilson in his famous ‘Fourteen Points’. If the war had indeed been fought for the rights of small nations, surely Ireland was one of those nations? The Irish were by no means alone in directing their attention to Paris, as many other nationalities did the same as the European empires began to fragment and collapse in the wake of the war (Irish activists abroad often came into contact with their counterparts from countries such as Egypt and India). The Dáil’s embryonic Department of Foreign Affairs worked closely with its Department of Propaganda, which over the coming years assiduously distributed multilingual propaganda recounting British atrocities and repression during the War of Independence.

There were, however, some figures in the independence movement who were sceptical of these activities. Michael Collins was wary lest the focus on Paris cause the movement to forget that London was the key to its objective of Irish independence. And this was the greatest obstacle faced by the embryonic Irish diplomatic service: the other countries seeking independence after the war were often seeking it from the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, which had all been defeated, or the Russian empire, which had collapsed into revolution. Ireland, on the other hand, was seeking independence from one of the victor powers, and due to the alignment of Irish republicans with Germany in the early years of the war, sympathy for the Irish cause was in short supply amongst the victorious allies in Paris in 1919. Conscious of the need to preserve their empire in a world of rising demands for self-determination and independence, Britain, along with the United States, ensured that Irish demands for independence would not receive a sympathetic hearing.

If direct approaches to the world’s leaders did not work, there was another possibility: the mobilisation of public support in favour of Irish independence, especially in the large Irish communities of the United States. The Friends of Irish Freedom was founded in the US in early 1916 as a public alternative to the secret and conspiratorial Irish-American group Clan na Gael, to lobby for popular and ultimately Congressional support for Irish independence and to counter British influence in the United States prior to its entry into the war in 1917. It also helped to pay for Éamon de Valera (who as one the most senior survivors of the Easter Rising had become president of the Dáil and thus the public leader of the separatist movement) to embark on an 18-month coast-to-coast fund-raising and publicity tour of the United States in 1919-20. The tour was marred by squabbling between the major Irish American organisations, though Harry Boland (another veteran of 1916) continued to represent the republic in the United States after de Valera returned to Ireland in December 1920. Irish-American emissaries also lobbied unsuccessfully for Ireland’s independence at the Paris peace conference.

With the approach to the peace conference failing, the Dáil and its emerging foreign service began to focus their limited resources on maintaining an international high profile to ensure that overseas attention remained fixed on the situation in Ireland. A global web of envoys and agitators was drawn together in 1919-20, from Eamon Bulfin in Argentina and Frank Egan in Chile, to Donal Hales in Genoa and Leopold Kearney in Paris. These ‘consuls’ were paid a small stipend, and the Dáil did what it could with limited resources, which even extended to maintaining representatives in Scandinavia (Gearóid O’Loughlin in Denmark and Seán Dunne in Norway) whose main purpose was to ensure that British repression in Ireland remained in the news. In Britain itself, groups such as the Irish Self Determination League, led by Art O’Brien, sought to keep the Irish question firmly in the public eye, particularly amongst the large Irish diaspora in London and many of Britain’s larger cities. Germany was not a priority for Sinn Féin, for understandable reasons, nor were the new states emerging in eastern Europe from the chaos of the war and its aftermath.

(Images: National Library of Ireland, MS15439 3/19/1 and MS15439 5/14)

In time, Ó Ceallaigh decamped from Paris to Rome, where the sizeable Irish clerical community offered a degree of support and considerable energy went into successfully ensuring that the Vatican did not yield to British demands that it condemn Sinn Féin and the IRA. There was even an attempt to reach out to the Bolshevik government via the Tyrone-born doctor Patrick McCartan, who spent an unsuccessful six-month sojourn in Russia from December 1920 to July 1921. A bizarre offshoot of this was that the Dáil advanced the Bolshevik Government a loan of $20,000 in exchange for international recognition of Ireland’s independence, and received a selection of the so-called Russian ‘crown jewels’ as collateral (these jewels, later found to be mere costume jewellery, were stored in Harry Boland’s family home in Dublin until after the Second World War, when the Soviets repaid the loan).

Throughout 1921 Robert Brennan sought to streamline and professionalize the often-haphazard and informal arrangements of the Dáil’s diplomatic service, implementing new procedures and especially improving the communications between the Dáil in Dublin and its emissaries. The distribution of propaganda was a vital part of their role, with the Irish Bulletin, issued from Dublin, being a key source of information. This newsletter contained extensive accounts of British atrocities and heavy-handedness in Ireland, which were intended to foster international sympathy for the Irish cause. As a result of Dáil Éireann’s propaganda drive, as communicated by its emissaries around the world, international pressure, particularly from the United States, did play a role in the truce that ended the War of Independence in July 1921.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 established the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British empire. The reality of the new constitutional status of the Irish Free State split the independence movement, and also its diplomatic service. The Provisional Government led by Michael Collins was established on 14 January 1922 to facilitate the transfer of power. It had no international status, however, and until the formal establishment of the Free State on 6 December 1922 Irish diplomats could not be accredited to foreign countries, sign treaties or join international organisations. As a result, the Dáil Éireann administration and the Provisional Government worked side by side where foreign relations were concerned. Robert Brennan opposed the Treaty and resigned in January 1922, to be succeeded by Joseph P. Walshe, a former Jesuit seminarian and a Francophile lawyer and linguist who had served with the Irish delegation in Paris. Beginning under the Free State’s new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gavan Duffy, Walshe essentially built a new Irish foreign service from the disarray of the Treaty split and remained in charge of the department from 1922 until becoming Ireland’s first ambassador to the Vatican in 1946. Walshe pulled together remaining pro-Treaty diplomats such as Michael MacWhite, Charles Bewley, John Chartres and Sean Murphy and added to them a publicity staff, including Rosita Austin, Sean Lester and Francis Cremins, to form the core of his small department, with temporary diplomats recruited for specific tasks as they arose. Many of these were at the beginning of what would prove to be lengthy diplomatic careers.

This first generation of post-independence Irish diplomats who coalesced around Gavan Duffy and Walshe had drifted into the service by accident or by virtue of their linguistic or legal skills. In the Dáil foreign service from 1919-21, when linguistic skills were especially necessary, many women – such as Máire O’Brien in Spain, and Mairéad Gavan Duffy and Cáit O’Ceallaigh in Paris - had become diplomats. In the post-1922 foreign service legal qualifications were more highly prized then language skills and so, with few exceptions, the Free State diplomatic service, like the legal profession from which it largely drew, became an almost completely male preserve. The preference for legal training was in accord with the requirements of international law and the establishing of legal precedent within the Commonwealth (and later the League of Nations). But the preference for men was also in accord with Walshe’s personal wishes; put bluntly, he preferred to hire men. The bar on married women in the civil service further ensured that women were, for the most part, edged out of the Irish diplomatic service until after the Second World War.
The outbreak of civil war in June 1922 meant that Gavan Duffy also had to deal with an international dimension to the conflict, by countering anti-Treaty propaganda in Europe and America (often carried out by veterans of the pre-truce service) and trying to regain influence over the fractious Irish-American community. Gavan Duffy resigned in July 1922, in protest at the approach of the Free State government to the prosecution of the Civil war, and was succeeded in September by Desmond FitzGerald, who became the Irish Free State’s first Minister for External Affairs in December 1922. FitzGerald, Walshe and a small group of diplomats moved quickly to create a foreign policy for the Free State. International support for the anti-Treaty side dwindled as the Free State government consolidated its domestic and international position under W.T. Cosgrave, particularly after the civil war ended in April 1923. The British had very consciously sought to limit the degree to which the Free State could operate a fully autonomous foreign policy, but the Dublin government began to assert its formal international sovereignty in two ways.

One was through membership of the League of Nations, which had previously attracted the interest of the pre-Truce Dáil and which the Irish Free State joined on 10 September 1923. Cosgrave himself led the first delegation to the League’s seat at Geneva and Michael MacWhite (a former member of the French Foreign Legion who had been part of Ó Ceallaigh’s team in Paris) took up the post of Ireland’s permanent delegate to the League. League membership allowed Irish diplomats to engage with the representatives of over fifty states in an international forum through one diplomatic mission in Geneva. For a small state with limited resources such international organisations offered value for money from a small diplomatic service. Ireland would otherwise have had no relations with many states with which it had much in common.

The second way in which the Free State sought to assert itself involved a more direct confrontation with the British. From early 1922 the Cork-born academic and economist Timothy A. Smiddy had represented the Irish Free State in Washington, initially with the task of countering anti-Free State propaganda. Following discussions between London and Washington, Smiddy was eventually accredited as Minister Plenipotentiary in July 1924. This was a major symbolic milestone, as the Irish Free State became the first dominion to appoint a diplomatic representative independent of Britain; a small but profoundly important assertion of Irish sovereignty that had major implications for how the dominions would assert their own sovereignty and independence from Britain. Smiddy became Ireland’s first internationally recognised diplomat; a status that had eluded his many and varied predecessors.

John Gibney is DFAT 100 Project co-ordinator with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign policy project

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