Why Irish revolutionaries had to go global
By Brian Hanley
Addressing the House of Commons in December 1921, Winston Churchill wondered where, what he called the ‘mysterious power’ of Ireland, came from. After all, he opined, it was a ‘small, poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power.’ How then was it ‘that she sways our councils, shakes our parties, and infects us with great bitterness … How is it she has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire in order to debate her domestic affairs?’ By this point, Irish republicans were negotiating face to face with a London government that had, not long before, called them a ‘murder gang.’ Though the IRA’s war from January 1919 had been crucial in making the British government take republican demands seriously, it was nowhere near achieving a military victory. Indeed regular British losses (approximately 260 dead) were a fraction of what their army had been losing on a daily basis only three years before. Though the IRA had brought its war to Britain itself, the estimated damage in human cost (11 dead) and financial cost (around £675,000) were again hardly enough to bring the Empire to its knees. Even with the undoubted commitment and dynamism of the IRA at local level, it remained chronically under-armed and short of modern equipment. Its own estimates suggested that it possessed just over 3,000 rifles, 5,000 handguns and around 60 machine guns in October 1921. In contrast, the British had modern equipment for every one of their 50,000 soldiers and 17,000 paramilitary policemen, as well as armour, aircraft and naval forces if required. Yet, as Churchill complained, Ireland had forced itself into the centre of British affairs.
This was because Irish revolutionaries understood that they were operating on the world stage. Their efforts coincided with several new factors in international affairs; the era of ‘self-determination’ as promoted by President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolution and the emergence of a new consciousness among colonial peoples. As the Volunteer journal An t-Óglac asserted in October 1918: ‘the rise of democracy and republicanism on both sides seems to be the determining factor that is forcing the belligerents on both sides to peace; and the ruler most definitely committed to the principles of democracy and self-determination seems destined to have the greatest voice in a peace settlement. A good omen for Irish Republicans.’ In the same period Eoin MacNeill noted that ‘self determination is now the Watchword in World Politics … the world war was the death agony of an old world and the birth-agony of a new world.’ Sinn Féin welcomed the rise of republicanism in Europe, Fr Michael O’Flanagan telling one Mayo audience that ‘Poland and Finland and the Ukraine were today free from the subjugation of the Russian yolk … in Austria the Bohemians and the Czechs were also free, and there was no hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic.’ In this context, it was difficult to claim that the demand for an Irish republic was illogical.
But the reach of Irish republicanism went much further than identification with the new European republics. British commentators genuinely feared the impact that trouble in Ireland would have on the Empire, because as the Conservative writer Richard Dawson suggested: ‘in India, in Egypt, in South Africa, wherever England has a vulnerable spot or disaffected subjects, these are the places and the people for which Sinn Féin has the most special regard and to which it is most profuse in its promises of help.’ Indeed the Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai promised the Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia in March 1919 that ‘by 1925 there would be far more Sinn Feiners in India than in Ireland.’ Irish activists in the United States asserted that as ‘India is the pivot of the British Empire … that pivot must be broken by the combined efforts of India, Ireland, Egypt, Persia, Russia and China.’ As An t-Óglac informed IRA volunteers in late 1920, ‘[the] Irish War of Independence is not the only war England is engaged in. She is fighting over half Asia against Arabs, Turks, Persians and Russians and must provide men, stores and money for those operations. The plain fact is that England now has her hands full … We here in Ireland cannot guarantee that the English will be beaten by the Turks or Arabs, but we can guarantee that they will take no troops to Asia because they were safe from us.’ Both sides then, were aware that Irish independence could be an existential danger to the Empire itself. Irish activists were also able to take their message to America with its powerful diaspora population.
Significantly, when Irish republicans campaigned in the United States, their struggle drew support, not just from Irish-Americans, but a whole range of ethnic and racial groups. The martyrdom of Terence MacSwiney, during October 1920, made a major impact, one Irish diplomat, Joseph Connolly, suggesting that ‘nothing in modern times so completely stirred the whole American imagination as his hunger strike & death.’ The New York-based Irish World reported that one ‘colored man’ asserted that MacSwiney’s ‘life and death are a stimulus to the cause of liberty and justice throughout the whole world regardless of color, race or creed. Afro-Americans acclaim him among the immortals and pray for the Republic of Ireland.’ When 100,000 rallied in New York to honour MacSwiney, the Irish World reported how ‘the vast crowd forgot differences of creed and politics. A Jew presided over it- Judge Otto A. Rosalsky. Protestant ministers and Hebrew rabbis, as well as Catholic priests and Monsignori, addressed it … German-Americans, Japanese and East Indians by hundreds were there.’ This sympathy extended to the Dáil Bond in early 1920, with ‘men and women of every race and creed in the Bronx’ contributing to the fund, among them ‘two Chinamen and one negro and a large number of Jews.’ American Jews were prominent in Irish solidarity efforts; Zionists too identified with Irish self-determination. Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf told the Irish Race Convention that there had never been a time in the ‘history of both the Irish and the Jew… when they have been nearer the realisation of their dreams than now. Ireland will be free, and will be ruled by the Irish even as Palestine will be free and ruled by the Jewish people.’
Black nationalists were equally as enthusiastic. Cyril Briggs, the leader of the African Blood Brotherhood, stated that ‘the Irish fight for liberty is the Greatest Epic of Modern History. It is a struggle that should have the sympathy and active support of every lover of liberty of every member of an oppressed group.’ Marcus Garvey, the most important black nationalist of the era, was instrumental in helping organise support among African American longshoremen for a boycott of British shipping during MacSwiney’s hunger strike. Pickets on New York’s waterfront carried signs stating ‘Brothers if you scab Ireland, You scab the Negro Race!’ and ‘Ireland’s Fight is the Negro’s Fight. Up Liberty! Down Slavery!’ Irish American activist Frank P. Walsh asserted in New York that ‘the freedom of Ireland means the downfall of imperialism all over the world’ to an audience, ‘composed largely of laboring men and women … Italians, Irish, Jews, Americans and a sprinkling of Hindus.’ They cheered when Walsh invoked the spirit of ‘Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator of millions of black men’ and compared him to James Connolly. Indeed de Valera himself could tell a Native American gathering that ‘I want to show you that though I am white I am not of the English race. We, like you, are a people who have suffered and I feel for you with a sympathy that comes only from one who can understand as we Irishmen can … As a boy I read and understood of your slavery and longed to become one of you … I call upon you, the truest of all Americans to help us win our struggle for freedom.’ The Irish struggle then, could inspire many different constituencies in the United States. But if this was an era of self-determination, it was also one of growing racial turmoil and ethnic division.
Irish revolutionaries also utilised other, less attractive, themes on occasion. Harry Boland, Mary MacSwiney and de Valera himself, would all complain to American audiences that the Irish were the ‘last remaining white nation’ in slavery. When touring the American South de Valera was advised to stress the Irish contribution to the Confederacy and tellingly noted Ireland’s ‘whiteness’ on his visit to Birmingham, Alabama. In Europe Irish republicans were also politically promiscuous, interacting with Italian Fascists and German nationalists as well as Russian Bolsheviks. They were aware that they needed to tread a fine line in Spain, balancing enthusiasm for their cause among Catalan and Basque nationalists with the affection for Ireland shown by the Spanish aristocracy. Seán T. O’Kelly informed Pope Benedict XV that ‘more than ninety per cent of our Parliament and its electors are Catholics … as practicing Catholics we have never allowed our national movement for independence to be contaminated by anti-religious or other dangerous movements condemned by the Church.’ O’Kelly blamed ‘the Protestant press of England’ for misleading European opinion about the Irish struggle. The devotion of Irish Catholics was a useful trope in Spain, Italy and South America. However in North America explicit appeals to Catholicism were usually eschewed, with the inter-denominational nature of Irish republicanism emphasised instead. Other prejudices could be appealed to, especially in private. Several Irish republicans, like sometime Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Noble (Count) Plunkett, held anti-Semitic views. While accepting that ‘in Dublin the Jews are friendly, indeed sympathetic with us’ Plunkett warned de Valera that ‘we should be slow to throw open our doors’ to a race that, he claimed, ‘“exploited” so many Christian peoples.’ Sinn Féin’s George Gavan Duffy told Vatican representatives that it was the ‘Jews and Masons’ who had influenced the press against Ireland while Berlin-based activist Nancy de Paor would claim that the ‘Jews in Germany always supported Britain.’ Pragmatism and the ideological flexibility of Irish republicans meant that they could, depending on their audience, tell people what they wanted to hear.
It was precisely this ideological flexibility which gave the Irish an advantage in their ability to appeal to different audiences. Their ‘whiteness’ was also an advantage the Irish held over other colonial peoples. As the British Peace with Ireland Council complained in 1920, their government had ‘deliberately set out to terrorise … a white people of three and a half millions with a distinct infusion of British blood in their veins.’ The British simply could not behave in Ireland as they might have done in the Middle East or Africa.
Harry Boland had understood during 1920 that ‘left to ourselves in Ireland we cannot hope to win the final victory.’ Within the confines of the United Kingdom, the Irish were outnumbered and out-gunned; once the struggle went global the balance of forces shifted. Not only was there a large diaspora population that could be appealed to, but there was also a diverse and sometimes contradictory set of international constituencies that the Irish could seek aid from. These factors are crucial in understanding why Britain was forced to seek a settlement with Irish republicans in 1921.
Dr. Brian Hanley is an AHRC Research Fellow in Irish History at the University of Edinburgh, working on the story of Ireland’s global revolution, 1916-23.