The history of modern Ireland might be very different if it was not for the funding, moral and physical support and propaganda generated by Irish-American organisations such as Clan na Gael and the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF).

Led by veteran Fenian John Devoy, Clan na Gael was the American wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood - the secret oath-bound organisation that masterminded the 1916 Rising. The FOIF was the broad-based popular front of Clan na Gael and the principal Irish-American support organisation for the Irish revolution until late 1920.

Kildare-born John Devoy, veteran Fenian and leader of Clan na Gael, which founded the FOIF

Kildare-born John Devoy had been in America for almost fifty years when he became editor of the Gaelic American in 1903. The newspaper was the Clan's first attempt to appeal to Irish-American opinion in a way that an underground secret society could not.

Its readership was drawn from the almost five million Americans who were, according to the census of 1900, either Irish-born or had Irish parents – 'a larger number of Irish than lived on the island of Ireland itself.’

By 1916, it was clear that only a large public organisation could adequately represent and rally the support of mainstream Irish America – newly unified in more militant mood after Home Rule Party leader John Redmond declared support for the British war effort in 1914.

At the first Irish Race Convention on 4 March 1916, Clan na Gael launched the Friends of Irish Freedom ‘to encourage and assist any movement that will tend to bring about the national independence of Ireland’.

Fifteen of the seventeen members of the Executive were Clan members, among them New York State Supreme Court Judge Daniel Cohalan, who would dominate the organisation’s strategy as its unofficial leader.

Daniel Florence Cohalan was a New York State Supreme Court judge from 1911 to 1924. He was the unofficial leader of the FOIF.

As historian Michael Doorley points out, the emergence of the FOIF had as much to do with protecting the interests of the Irish in America as it had with helping the cause in Ireland. From its foundation, the Friends campaigned to preserve American neutrality and counter what they saw as British attempts to entangle the United States in a European war.

The organisation was muted however, after America entered the war on the allied side and anti-British sentiment might be interpreted as disloyalty to the United States.

'Ireland's suffering and England's sins'

With this in mind, they staged a third Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia in February 1919. Five thousand delegates representing all eighty-eight branches were present.

As historian Michael Hopkinson put it in The Irish War of Independence:

Crammed into the music auditorium, they listened to two days of oratory on Ireland's sufferings, England’s sins and the hopes that Wilson had aroused.

The Irish Victory Fund, first proposed by the FOIF in January, was endorsed at the convention. Its objective was to raise $1 million to fight anti-Irish propaganda and to fund FOIF work in America. The convention also nominated three representatives to go to Paris to pressure the British government into allowing representatives from the Irish Dáil to attend the Peace Conference.

A 1919 poster reminded FOIF members of the contribution made by the US army's Irish-American 69th regiment to World War I. 

Seizing on President Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a new post-war international order in 1918, the FOIF leaders launched a campaign to have Ireland’s case for ‘self-determination’ presented at the Paris Peace Conference.

The outward display of unity concealed growing discord within the FOIF leadership. In a letter to the Irish Times in 1964, Sean Nunan, clerk of the Dáil and personal secretary to de Valera during his US tour, explained:

[Tensions] resulted from the conflicting views held by Mr Joseph McGarrity and his friends in Philadelphia on the one hand, and those of Judge Cohalan, John Devoy and their friends in New York on the other …

McGarrity and his friends holding that the monies of the Irish Victory Fund initiated at the [Irish Race] Convention should be sent to Ireland to aid directly the struggle there. And the other side holding that the monies be used in America for propaganda purposes. 

For Cohalan, the defence of Irish-American interests was fully compatible with helping Ireland. A fierce isolationist, he feared that membership of the League of Nations would compromise America’s independent foreign policy.

The Judge argued that the Victory Fund should be used primarily in the United Stated to assist in the election of people who were opposed to the League and sympathetic to the Irish republic. 

The De Valera effect

The Philadelphia Convention marked the beginning of a resurgence in FOIF membership, which had dwindled during the war years. The organisation listed only 2,891 members in 1917, the majority of whom were based in New York.

De Valera in the United States. It was said that he "burst onto the American scene like a thunderclap"

In February 1919 regular membership stood at 6,069 and by June, when de Valera ‘burst on to the America scene like a thunderclap’, its numbers has risen to 70,000.

Membership soared as news of ‘atrocities’ in Ireland reached America, and by the summer of 1920 the organisation numbered 100,000 regular members and 175,000 associate members affiliated to other Irish-American organisations.

The proliferation of FOIF branches and its fundraising successes are evidence of the emotional attachment of ordinary Irish-Americans to Ireland. Their influence and resources provided invaluable to de Valera’s mission to the United States between June 1919 and December 1920. 

This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo, and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉÉ