There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
With preparations for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement now underway, and especially with the historic visit of President Joe Biden to Ireland fast approaching, I find myself thinking again about the crucial importance of Irish America throughout our recent history. This is true not only with regards to current events, but also to the earlier part of the 20th Century whose decisions and conflicts so profoundly shaped the challenges we still face, as we work to maintain peace, stability and democracy across our island.
From the mid 19thCentury the Irish Independence movement was always closely connected with the huge Irish American population dispersed across many parts of the USA during and after the Famine, and those struggling for Independence benefitted from Irish America’s long standing and vital support for positive change in the country which so many Americans still called home. This dynamic was as true in the volatile situation of early 1922, of which I have written in my recent book, Fierce Tears, Frail Deeds, as it is now.
Current events are prompting me once again to reflect on the interactions between the Pro and anti-Treaty forces in Ireland on the one hand and Irish Americans on the other, in the late pre Civil War months. These dynamics are especially vivid for me given my family’s direct involvement in the politics of this period. My grandfather, Tullamore man Sean MacCaoilte (John Forrestal), played a key role in what occurred, as one of three Delegates sent to tour America by Michael Collins in early 1922. For me, it felt very appropriate when the recent offalyhistoryblog (17th March 2023) opened up a new and welcome discussion of Sean’s lifelong commitment to the Nationalist movement both in Tullamore where he was born and lived for the first part of his life, as well as in Dublin where he subsequently became a leading member of Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League. This long history of reliable ad effective commitment was the basis on which Collins chose Sean to be one of his Delegates to the USA.
Significantly, 17th March was the date in 1922 on which the Delegation of which he was part, arrived in New York to begin their two month tour.
But the story had begun a few weeks earlier, in February 1922, after the Dáil vote and the establishment of the Provisional government. The leading Irish American Fenian, John Devoy, head of the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF), one of the two major Irish American organisations at that time, had contacted fellow IRB member Michael Collins as new Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Provisional Government. Devoy’s correspondence with Michael Collins (which is held in the Collins papers in the NLI) had expressed alarm at the impact on Irish America of emerging press reports on events in Ireland. These reports were describing a rapidly worsening spilt in the Irish movement for Independence due to the profound disagreements regarding the Treaty. They were warning that there was a danger of Civil War erupting in Ireland through the split in the once unified Sinn Fein movement. In this context Devoy urged Collins to organise a Delegation to come to the USA as a matter of urgency and to undertake a speaking tour across the USA in order to explain to Irish America what was happening and why the majority in Sinn Fein in the Dáil had voted to accept the Treaty.
Collins took swift action to respond to Devoy’s urges. His recently released appointments diary for 1922 records his work to select appropriate candidates for the Delegation. Sean’s very similar appointments diary, similarly records the contacts in early March, during which Collins asked Sean to become a member of the three man Delegation and to get ready to leave immediately in order to travel to New York. Despite work and family issues which made the proposed departure for several months a difficult undertaking, Sean felt that he must answer the call and go. He was supported in that decision by his wife, my grandmother, Brighid NicCaoilte (nee Finlay). Once the decision was made Sean and Brighid duly finalised all the necessary arrangements at work, in their small new publishing business and at home with their growing family. As soon as he could Sean left Dublin for London. After a few days there getting his paperwork in order and linking up with other Sinn Fein figures who were based in London, Sean set sail from Southampton to New York along with his fellow Delegates Piaras Beaslai T.D. of Kerry and James O’Meara of Limerick. The ship docked in New York on the 17th March 1922.
To the consternation of Sean and the other members of the Provisional Government Delegation and to the astonishment of Irish Americans, that sailing of the Aquitania carried not one but two Delegations of Irish Republicans, the second comprising Austin Stack and JJ O’Reilly, both of them TDs and leading members of the anti -Treaty opposition within Sinn Fein. This public display of profound division within the ranks of those who had struggled together for Irish freedom for so long, shocked those who came to welcome the ship into port. This drama at first dominated American press coverage of the arrival and impeded efforts to keep the focus on the purpose of the Delegation sent by the Provisional government.
Sean and his colleagues quickly issued a statement explaining their status and mission, emphasising that their instructions from Collins and his government were: firstly to acknowledge and to thank Irish America for its crucial support in the long struggle for Irish freedom; secondly to explain the reasoning and intention behind the decision taken by the Dáil majority to accept and work within the terms of the Treaty, subject to the outcome of the planned election in the Summer and last, but by no means least, to explain the Provisional government’s intentions regarding the repayment of the American bonds (worth in the region of $5 million) which had been so crucial to developing the ‘State within a State’ during the preceding years after the creation of the Dáil. However, this statement of intent was somewhat overshadowed at the start of the Mission by press reports of what was termed Irish faction fighting and division.
A future blog will reflect on some key events of the American tour from March to May, beginning with its first major public meeting held in Faneuil Hall, Boston in early April. It will also note some contacts by Sean with Irish Americans from Co. Offaly during his visits to major cities such as Boston and Washington along with New York. Interestingly the list of cities visited by the Delegation also included Scranton, later to be the home of President Biden.
Dr Anne Good
29 March 2023