From its foundation just a few weeks before the 1916 Rising to its decline after November 1920, the Friends of Irish Freedom rallied the support of Irish Americans to the cause of Irish independence.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, the FOIF organised large protest meetings in response to the execution of the rebel leaders and petitioned Congress on behalf of Irish prisoners. The Friends also organised receptions and speaking tours by 'emissaries' from Ireland, including Liam Mellows, leader of the 1916 Rising in Galway, and Nora Connolly, daughter of executed leader James Connolly.

A poster for a Friends of Irish Freedom event at Steiner Street San Francisco in 1917

In terms of material support, the Irish-American organisation raised $100,000 for the ‘relief of suffering in Ireland.’ On 8 July, two representatives travelled to Ireland to distribute the funds and, to the discomfort of the British authorities, reported back to the American press on the ‘desperate conditions’ in Ireland. 

De Valera’s hugely ambitious American tour which began in June 1919 was entirely funded by the FOIF. Approximately $27,000 of the Victory Fund was provided for his expenses. Cork-born veteran of the 1916 Rising and FOIF secretary Diarmuid Lynch described the organisation’s commitment to de Valera’s mission:

Additional FOIF organisers were appointed; the office space and staff of National Headquarters [in New York] were doubled … Ten thousand dollars had been furnished to defray President de Valera’s initial trip to the Coast. Later over $16,700 was given towards financing his principal tour of the country.

The itinerary of which was arranged by [de Valera’s] representative consulting with Diarmuid Lynch who provided the names and addresses of men in each of the cities to be visited, who could be relied upon to play a leading part in organising the necessary meetings.’ 

De Valera explains it all

At his first press conference in America at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on 23 June, de Valera explained that purpose of his trip to America was twofold: to seek American recognition for Ireland as a nation, and to gather much-needed funds for the Dáil in Ireland.

The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where De Valera held his first American press conference

He planned to raise an external loan to support the republican counter-state. Apart from the question of money, the floating of a bond would help the simultaneous propaganda campaign in favour of the recognition of the republic. 

Despite initial opposition to a fundraising campaign which it did not control, the FOIF provided finance and infrastructure to support the bond certificate drive in America. De Valera's then-secretary Sean Nunan explained:

After some legal difficulties relating to the issuing of Bonds which, seemingly, contravened the provisions the ‘Blue Sky’ law, it was decided to issue bond certificates which would be redeemable for gold bonds of the Irish Republic six months after the freeing of the territory of the Republic from British control.

An organisation, under the title, ‘the American Commission for Irish Independence’, was established under the chairmanship of Mr. Frank P. Walsh [to manage the bond certificate drive] … This organisation was financed initially by a loan of $100,000 from the Friends of Irish Freedom's Victory Fund. 

Raising funds for Irish freedom 

The FOIF was active in the preparations for the launch of the bond drive. A dedicated headquarters was established on Fifth Avenue, New York in September 1919 and James O’Mara, an astute businessman and Sinn Fein TD for Kilkenny South, was smuggled over from Ireland as financial director.

Under his instructions, offices were established in all major cities and he supervised the training of staff and the production of literature. Diarmuid Lynch handed over the names and addresses of all 70,000 FOIF members to help the bond campaign.

O'Mara and Walsh stipulated that a Bond Committee should be established in every city de Valera visited to direct support and advertise for subscriptions. Writing in the Capuchin Annual in 1970, Sean Nunan recalled:

‘With the exception of about a dozen paid organisers, all of these people were voluntary workers, drawn mainly from Friends of Irish Freedom and Clan-na-Gael clubs. All did a wonderfully fine job.’

 By mid-December 1919 an elaborate and sophisticated operational network had been created and, after a delay of five months, the sale of bond certificates was finally launched in January 1920. 

Dev on tour

In both financial and propaganda terms, de Valera’s extensive tour of the US was highly successful. Everything he did was news, everywhere he went was an event. Writing to Griffith in mid-July, Harry Boland announced that

‘The President has been received with wonderful enthusiasm. Proclamations are pouring in from all the cities and towns in the country craving a visit.’

Criss-crossing the country between June 1919 until December 1920, the Sinn Fein leader addressed a series of mass rallies, met with public officials, and was received as a visiting dignitary at multiple state legislatures.

He filled major venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York) Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, but also visited less obvious Irish communities of the period, such as Scranton, Savannah, New Orleans, Kansas City, Montana, and San Francisco.

De Valera caused a sensation on his American tour

With the help of the FOIF publicity machine, he garnered reams of newspaper coverage, made at least three nationally-broadcast radio addresses, and helped to raise over $5 million (approximately $55 million today) worth of bond-certificates to finance the work of the Dáil.

As the War of Independence escalated in Ireland, the Irish-American publicity campaign intensified. The FOIF-controlled Irish National Bureau based in Washington circulated a weekly newsletter on Irish affairs to journalists, embassies, politicians and other prominent individuals in American society.

'President De Valera's Tour Will Live In History!'

In October 1919 the newsletter declared, ‘President De Valera’s Tour Will Live in History! Additional materials were also circulated, including 150,000 copies of a 64-page pamphlet entitled ‘English Atrocities in Ireland’. 

Despite this outward show of co-operation, personality clashes and tensions over tactics marred the relationship between the FOIF and Sinn Féin in America. De Valera explained the problems in a letter to Arthur Griffith in February 1920: 

‘The trouble is purely one of personalities … Our first clash came about the bonds. [Cohalan] pooh-poohed idea of bonds in any shape … He wanted the money collected thro' the FOIF organisation which was quite inadequate to such a task.’

De Valera and Cohalan also clashed over the question of the League of Nations. While de Valera did not support the League in its proposed form, he supported its underlying principles. In press interviews spoke of the value of a real League of Nations in which an independent Ireland could play a part.

This meeting may have been held in Dublin possibly May 1919.From left (standing) William T Cosgrave, Eamon de Valera and Governor Dunne of Philadelphia. From left (seated) Michael J Ryan, Frank P Walsh and unknown. Michael J Ryan a member of the Friends of Irish Freedom in New York. Frank Walsh would later become American chairman of the Irish Press fund raising committee. © RTÉ Photographic Archive

Asserting himself as the leader of the Irish Republic and acting without consultation with the established Irish American leadership, de Valera challenged the authority of Cohalan and Devoy. The seventy-seven-year-old Clan leader expressed his irritation in a letter to Harry Boland on 6 September 1919: 

Every man who comes here from Ireland not alone misunderstands America but is filled with preconceived notions that are wholly without foundation, as well as belief that he knows American better than those who have spent most of their lives in the country or were born in it.  

The Cuban comment crisis

The internal dispute turned public in February 1920 when de Valera was interviewed by the New York correspondent for the Westminster Gazette. In an article that was published on both sides of the Atlantic, he suggested that he was open to the possibility that Britain might adopt the same policy towards Ireland as the United States did towards Cuba at the time, asserting that Ireland would remain neutral in the case of disputes between Britain and other foreign powers. 

The Devoy-Cohalan faction was enraged and seized on the interview to suggest that de Valera was compromising the republican ideal, with the Gaelic American charging him with ‘hauling down the flag of the Irish republic’.

The dimensions of this public squabble provoked one bemused British Foreign Office clerk to comment that ‘Altogether the United States Irish have got two wars on hand - against England and among themselves.' 

The trial of De Valera

At a mass meeting of FOIF members in New York in March 1920 dubbed the ‘trial of de Valera’, Devoy and Cohalan demanded that the president should return to Ireland. With the support of Joe McGarrity, de Valera faced down his critics and declared his intention to remain in America.

An uneasy peace was brokered in New York but articles criticising the FOIF began to appear with increasing frequency in both American and Irish newspapers, while the pages of Devoy's Gaelic American became a forum for attacks on de Valera's leadership.

The internal bickering was put into perspective, however, by reports of increasing violence from Ireland, not least the fatal shooting of Cork’s Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain on 20 March 1920. 

Tomás MacCurtain's body lying in state in City Hall, Cork. © RTÉ Photographic Archive

Cohalan's Fury

The public dispute between the FOIF and de Valera came to a head in a new row over tactics at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June 1920. Drawing on his influential political contacts, Cohalan persuaded the Republican Party to include Irish self-determination in their election platform.

Cohalan was furious when De Valera sent his own delegation to the Republican National Convention 

However, much to Cohalan’s fury, de Valera led a separate delegation to the Convention and insisted on a resolution calling for recognition of the Irish Republic. In Sean Nunan’s words:

 ‘The result was that two resolutions were submitted to the Platform Committee, which indicated dissension in the Irish ranks and gave the Committee the excuse to include neither in the final platform’.

The Irish question would not be a significant factor in the ensuing presidential election and relations between the FOIF and de Valera reached a new low.

The final break

In November of 1920, de Valera made the final break with the FOIF and set up a new organisation, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. At this point, he knew that it was time to return to Ireland. He was facing criticism for his extended stay in the US, and the arrest of Arthur Griffith in November made his presence in Dublin seem more urgent.

Arthur Griffith and De Valera. Griffith's arrest in November 1920 made De Valera's return to Dublin more urgent

On 11 December 1920 he was smuggled aboard the S.S. Celtic in New York harbour for the nine-day journey home. He had failed to obtain the recognition of the United States Government for the Republic. 

But the rebel president’s cross-continental tour and associated press coverage caused significant anxiety to the British government and raised international awareness and over $5 million for the Irish cause.

The public dispute between the FOIF and the Sinn Féin representatives damaged the effectiveness and credibility of the Irish-American organisation. While the executive largely remained loyal to Cohalan, many rank-and-file members did not renew their subscriptions.

By mid-1921 membership had fallen to 20,000 and was further reduced after the outbreak of Civil War in 1922. By 1928 the FOIF had virtually ceased to exist as a viable Irish-American organisation.

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 RTÉ