I finished my coverage of Ireland in the First World War a while ago, with a look at what the “named” Irish units were doing on the day of the armistice, 11th November 1918. The fighting of the First World War ended that day, but the conflict was not really ended. It would not be until final treaties were signed that this could be said to be the case. Here, the story of the Great War and the story of the Irish revolutionary period intersect for a time.
The peace conference that was convened in Paris in January 1919 was designed as a new Council of Vienna, a meeting of the world’s leaders to determine a lasting order. It was to be dominated by the victorious Entente, most notably the “Big Four” of Britain, France, the United States and Italy. Numerous big picture issues were to be discussed and debated in Paris, including de-militarisation of Germany, the break-up of old empires, the doling out colonial “mandates” and various claims for self-determination.
It was on the last score that the Paris Peace Conference interested Sinn Fein and the First Dail. US President Woodrow Wilson had made a point of emphasising the importance of self-determination during his leadership of the US in World War One, and many nationalist groups across the world, from Warsaw to Seoul, latched onto this as an opportunity. The chances that Irish self-determination or independence would be put up for discussion were essentially non-existent, not with David Lloyd George helping to dictate the agenda. But, if nothing else, the conference was an opportunity for the Irish to score a decent propaganda victory, and highlight their own struggles, by embarrassing the British on the biggest diplomatic stage.
The First Dail had a Department of Foreign Affairs, given to Count Plunkett, though Arthur Griffith did most of the actual work. The Department’s job was to establish diplomatic ties for the Irish Republic, and to trumpet the cause of Irish Independence far and wide as possible. The first men officially chosen for the task, essentially becoming the Irish Republic’s first accredited diplomats, were Sean T. O’Kelly and George Gavin Duffy.
We have mentioned O’Kelly before, first as Padraig Pearse’s aide-de-camp in the GPO, and latest as one of the main orchestraters of the First Dail’s meeting. A Dubliner, he had worked closely with Griffith and Sinn Fein as far back as 1901, but had become increasingly radicalised: going forward he would be one of de Valera’s key men, and would be consistently employed on foreign missions. Duffy was an English-born son of an Irish knight, who grow up to be a solicitor with strong Irish ties and nationalist leanings: he was Roger Casement’s defender during the trial that resulted in his execution. The Casement trial only pushed Duffy further into the arms of radical Irish nationalism, and he, like O’Kelly, was elected as a Sinn Fein MP in December 1918.
Others would join the Paris delegation in time, perhaps most notably Robert Erskine Childers, a Boer War and First World War veteran, famous for his authorship of 1903’s The Riddle Of The Sands, who slowly converted from a British imperialist, to Home Rule supporter to Irish republican. His boat, the Asgard, had been used in the Howth gun-running and now, despite his English birth and aristocratic pedigree, he was becoming ever more prominent in the movement.
Travelling to Paris shortly after the First Dail’s first meeting, O’Kelly and Duffy set themselves up in the Grand Hotel and began enlisting the help of sympathetic locals and emigrants, most notably a Michael MacWhite, a Cork-born veteran of the French Foreign Legion. There, they attempted to insert Ireland into the conference. It was an uphill battle from the start. The Irish needed the support of one of the “Big Four”. That would not be Britain, and neither France or Italy were thought of yet. Instead, the focus was very much on Woodrow Wilson.
There were some grounds for optimism in this approach, owing to the President’s stated commitment to international justice and the principal of self-determination. But Wilson himself ignored an offer to visit Dublin on his way to Paris, and then ignored O’Kelly’s letters on the topics of Irish independence. The fact that the Irish revolutionary state was tied, in many eyes, to Imperial Germany didn’t help either, and in some ways the Dail’s Declaration of Independence was also an impediment, as it framed the debate as approving an act that could only be deemed hostile to one of the “Big Four”, instead of investigating a claim to self-determination.
What Wilson couldn’t ignore was a deputation from his own country. The “Friends Of Irish Freedom”, an Irish-American group that was sort of an offshoot of Clan na Gael, had been formed some time earlier to lobby American politics for Irish independence, to the point that they had managed to get a sitting of the House of Representatives to pass a motion calling for Irish independence to be a topic in Paris, a motion Wilson ignored. They now financed a delegation that travelled to Dublin to take in a sitting of the Dail, and held two meetings with Wilson.
The President, mindful of the power of the Irish-American vote at home, gave them a hearing, but proved unreceptive to their message; by all accounts the meeting was one of angry tempers from both sides. Wilson instead seemed happy with Lloyd George’s stated commitment to Home Rule, and refused to pressure the rest of the “Big Four” to allow Ireland a hearing. The most he was willing to concede was that the Irish issue could become a topic of debate for his League of Nations. The next year, Wilson would be denied a chance by his party to run for a third term. Irish-American opinion was far from the only factor, but it was a factor. The Irish issue would never be brought up in the League of Nations.
With the United States not an option, O’Kelly turned instead to France. The French had often been an ally, to varying degree’s, of Irish nationalism and republicanism over the last few centuries, but the political climate in 1919 was not the same as it had been in 1798. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was far more concerned with maintaining and expanding France’s colonial holdings than starting a dispute with her key ally Great Britain. While the French leader was somewhat open to a commission of inquiry into the matter, O’Kelly’s arguments, sent via correspondence to Clemenceau directly, went nowhere.
There were divisions back home as to how things should proceed in Paris, once it became clear that Ireland would not get a grandstand moment. De Valera was of the mind that the two envoys should remain where they were, to maintain noise about the cause from one of the key diplomatic centres of the globe, though he also felt they would be better served creating contacts with other “oppressed” nations, and there certainly were contacts with groups from South Africa and Egypt on that score. De Valera himself declined a suggestion that he should travel to Paris, fearing that it would too great a national embarrasment for him to be ignored by the conference. Others, like Michael Collins, thought the Paris mission a waste of time and resources that could be better used to put pressure on London directly.
In the end, Ireland was at an unworkable disadvantage in that it was seeking independence from a nation that had won the First World war, and were thus unlikely to be receptive to calls for the Irish to be given a chance to air their case. Over time, the diplomatic strategy of Sinn Fein would change, with a renewed focus on lobbying the Irish-American community for support and funds, and making deals with unlikely states, most notably the nascent Soviet Union. “Consular agents”, essentially propaganda officers, would travel to all corners of the globe to spread the message of the movement, and do all that they could to bring international opinion to bear on the British.
As for the peace conference, it would rumble on until June of 1919, ending with the establishment of a “League of Nations”, the doling out of various colonial mandates and with a succession of treaties signed with the various losing powers of the First World War. The most important of these was the Treaty of Versailles with the new German government: ever since its signing, there was been debate over its perceived leniency or harshness. Germany admitted “war guilt”, lost some territory, de-militarised and was ordered to pay a gigantic amount of reparations to the victorious allies. However, the core of the country remained intact, it avoided military occupation on the scale seen twenty six years later and its economy was given the scope to recover.
Regardless, resentment in Germany over the terms and the revanchism of France would contribute to growing political and militant unrest within the new “Wiemar Republic”. At some point in the future we will reach that terrible crescendo that came from that unrest, and discuss Irish involvement in it.
For now though, we will return to Ireland, where the War of Independence was still in its nascent stages. In the south-west, one of the most unique events of the period, where one of Ireland’s largest urban centres became self-governing for a time in the aftermath of a killing, is what we will cover next.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.