Ireland’s Wars: De Valera In America

As already discussed, the international dimension was vital to the Irish War of Independence. The political heads of the Republic were smart enough to know that a complete military victory over Britain was unlikely to occur, and even if it somehow did, it was unlikely to be lasting. If Ireland was to win its freedom and then hold it, the weight of international opinion would have to be brought to bear on London. The efforts to orchestrate this during the Paris Peace Conference had been a failure, owing to the stonefacedness of the American and French delegations, but the Dail and its governing committee were not prepared to stop at that. This entry does not discuss military matters directly, but it is important to give some consideration to this, the most well-known and publicised effort to court that sphere of international opinion all the same, as it was arguably as or more important than any ambush or barracks burning in bringing the conflict to its eventual conclusion.

When it became clear that there would be little to no headway made in Paris, Eamon de Valera, only back in Ireland a short time since his jailbreak from Lincoln, made arrangements to depart and go on a lengthy tour of America. It was, then and now, a controversial move in the eyes of some, who felt de Valera would have been better off, and more useful, being the political leader he was supposed to be in Ireland. De Valera plainly disagreed, thinking that his ability to wow international opinion would be the greatest service he could give, and that others could carry the can at home in terms of political leadership. Critics would say it was his arrogance coming through, and that the tour would be a grandstanding affair mostly for his benefit. There were also emotional reasons for de Valera wishing to go to America: his mother, whom he had not seen in over ten years, was living there, in Rochester, New York.

Other notables from the Dail and GHQ had already been in America for a while acting as envoys, among them Harry Boland, Liam Mellows and Patrick MacCartan, but they would all be superseded when de Valera arrived. He departed Ireland in early June 1919, disguised as a sailor on-board a coal steamer, the S.S. Lapland. He endured a miserable voyage, suffering terribly from sea-sickness and the attentions of vermin. He arrived in New York on the 12th of June, and spent several days with his mother, before being obligated to turn to the official tasks that lay before him.

The stated goals of the tour was primarily threefold: to seek official recognition of the Irish Republic from the American government, still led by Woodrow Wilson; to undertake efforts to obtain financial assistance for the Republic through loans, bonds and contributions; and to make the case for Irish independence to the American public. The tour would last nearly 18 months, and achieve, it is fair to say, only mixed success in terms of pursuing those three goals.

The first was essentially a non-starter before de Valera even arrived in the United States. Wilson’s opinions on the cause of Irish independence had been made very plain by his behavior towards representatives of that cause in Paris, and de Valera’s presence in America was never likely to change that. No meeting between the two was to take place, as Wilson continued to maintain that the Irish issue was an internal matter for Britain, and not something that the United States should get actively involved in.

De Valera’s efforts to pursue the other two objectives were complicated by the situation in America regards the cause of Irish nationalism. Various groups had always existed to advocate for Irish independence and self-government, and those groups were always in danger of internal factionilisation and schism between moderates and radicals. Moreover, many of them had existed for a long amount of time, and their leadership were used to being in positions of authority when it came to Irish independence and the movement to seek it. And then suddenly, a man claiming to directly represent that movement arrived in the country. Indeed, he was referred to as “President of the Irish Republic” soon after he came to America, an inaccurate title – he was really “President of Dail Eireann” – that stuck, which didn’t bother de Valera all that much. The potential for trouble was large.

When de Valera was first introduced to the American press a few days after his arrival, having set-up shop in the eye-raising surrounds of the extremely expensive Waldorf hotel in New York – the expense for it, and for the accouterments de Valera was given, were excused on the grounds of needing to impress – he was introduced by Justice Daniel F Cohalan, and accompanied by John Devoy. Cohalan was the head of the “Friends of Irish Freedom” while Devoy was the longstanding figurehead of Clan na Gael, a Fenian of the old school, who had spent time in prison around 1867, had directed operations against Britain and been an adviser to Ireland’s home rulers of yesteryear. Despite his age – 77 – and his nearly complete deafness, he remained a monumental figure of the movement. The two men were the undoubted leading lights of Irish nationalism in America – the “FOIF” and Clan na Gael went hand in hand with each other – and while relations between them and de Valera seemed to have started off well according to some accounts, they soon turned rancorous.

There were many issues separating de Valera from his America counterparts. Aside from the issue of authority and deference, Devoy and Cohalan felt their higher aim should be the sundering of Britain from America, and to that end were focusing much of their efforts at that time on opposing Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, with a bitter political battle ongoing over whether the United States should even be a part of such an entity (in the end, it wouldn’t). De Valera was less concerned with such things. But, in the end, the primary issue came down to money.

Boland, in the brief time that he had in America when he was left to his own devices, had gotten commitments that a quarter of FOIF funds would be sent to Ireland, but de Valera had larger ambitions. He wanted to float a loan to raise millions, which Devoy and Cohalan thought both unwise legally and probably impossible. But de Valera and his entourage were convinced it could be done, and even more so after he addressed huge crowds during public events in Boston and Chicago, just the most notable stops on a the first of a few cross-country tours where de Valera became essentially a minor celebrity of the period. He addressed crowds in public streets, students in universities, Native American on their reservations, Indian nationalists in private dinners, nearly always to rapturous applause. His message was always the same: recognition for Ireland to be sought from America, in line with Wilson’s pleas for self-determination, and for his supporters to help the nascent Republic financially.

After getting the advice of a New York based lawyer named Franklin D. Roosevelt, de Valera launched the bond drive, careful to arrange the wording just so it could be legally claimed the money was not being used to ferment rebellion in the the territory of an American ally. Devoy and Cohalan began to be more open in their criticism of de Valera and his activities, having come to dislike the man on a more personal level. The American Legion, not at all a supporter of Irish freedom, disrupted some of de Valera’s speaking events, and de Valera himself varied in mood from effervescent with happiness at the attention he was getting, to downcast and fearful over the slow pace of the bond issue.

Things got more fraught in February of 1920, when an interview de Valera made for the Westminster Gazette focused on comments the President made regards ways an independent Ireland could be guaranteed from a security perspective. Elements of the interview were perceived as insinuating that something other than complete independence for Ireland could be acceptable: the comments, though very debatable, were seized upon by Devoy, Cohalan and other opponents of de Valera as evidence that the President could not be trusted.

The FOIF and the Clan continued to clash with de Valera, but the Dail and the IRB backed him up. Meetings that featured Devoy, Cohalan and de Valera were stormy affairs that became full of claim and counter-claim. Outright hostilities took over the American mission as 1920 went on, and de Valera attempted to influence the Republican and Democrat conventions meeting to select candidates for the coming Presidential election, spending large amounts of money to set up camps in the Convention cities and arrange torchlight parades. De Valera hoped to get recognition of an Irish Republic into the manifesto’s of either party: Cohalan felt he was acting as an interfering outsider, and proposed less radical platforms. In the end, the fighting between the two men destroyed the chances of both, and neither party choose to endorse Irish nationhood.

The bond drive continued the whole time, and eventually raised somewhere in the region of five million dollars, though only a portion of that ever made it back to Ireland (the legal wrangling over the money would continue well into the next decade). The raising of such finds enraged Devoy and Cohalan, who continued to increase their criticism of de Valera, to the extent that the President walked out of FOIF meetings. Late in 1920, de Valera had enough, and founded his own organisation, the “American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic” which soon swelled in size, further aiding the bond drive.

By December, de Valera decided his time in America was finished: he was homesick and wanted to be closer to what was occurring in Ireland, which at the time included rumours of secret peace talks. De Valera arrived back in Ireland by the end of 1920, again courtesy of a seasickness filled trip on a steamer, this time the SS Celtic. There were worries the British would intercept him to prevent his arrival; as it turned out, they were actually happy to see him back, for reasons that would soon become clear.

De Valera’s mission certainly raised money, and it certainly raised the profile of the Dail and the IRA’s fight at home. But it failed to achieve any kind of official recognition for the Republic, and it could be argued, and was at the time, that de Valera’s actions ended up being more of a personal publicity exercise than anything else. The rift between Irish and American based nationalist organisations became wider than ever during his time on the other side of the Atlantic, and he often displayed a poor understanding of American culture and politics. Worse, in some ways the months of de Valera’s absence allowed a greater amount of power and influence to coalesce around men like Michael Collins at home, who was often critical of what de Valera was doing in America, which may well have contributed to the coming divide between the two men.

Events in Ireland had continued apace while de Valera was gone, with the war becoming bloodier and bloodier. We must now go back to February 1920. While de Valera was engaged in his verbal conflict in the States, the real conflict was still being fought.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: De Valera In America

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