Revolutionary Irish-America

friend or foe?:

woodrow wilson & the Irish Question

Woodrow Wilson poses with his wife and three daughters in 19XX (Library of Congress)

Woodrow Wilson poses with his wife and three daughters in 19XX (Library of Congress)

1920 proved to be a pivotal year, from a variety of aspects, in the life of Woodrow Wilson. Domestically, he was embroiled in a struggle to maintain his presidency and continue leading the United States of America for a third successive term. Personally, having suffered from a series of infrequent strokes since 1896, Wilson faced the most testing period of his life, following his severest stroke in October 1919, having returned to Washington from the Paris Peace Conference. This proved to be his most debilitating episode and while ultimately it may have affected his ability to further succeed in 1920, it did not deter his vigour and determination. And finally, from an international standpoint, amid plans to create a League of Nations, he was under increasing pressure from a variety of ethnic groups to act on legacy issues, mostly relating to imperialism, following the end of the Great War. Amongst these groups was the Irish-American lobby, whose relationship with Wilson became increasingly fractious as events throughout 1920 transpired. The leaders of Irish-America proved to be a thorn in the President’s side throughout much of the Paris Peace Conference and the subsequent campaign to create a League of Nations and ever since it has been felt that the 28th President of the United States did not possess much love nor admiration for the people with whom he shared ancestral links. Indeed, throughout much of his presidency Woodrow Wilson faced a litany of issues which brought him in close contact with the issue of Irish freedom. However, Wilson had not always shared a difficult relationship with the Irish-American community throughout the United States, but rather quite the opposite, in that, during the early years of his political career he had sought and gained the support of this large community at pivotal junctures.   

Irish Heritage and Personal Politics

There were no shortage of connections that Woodrow Wilson shared with Ireland. Indeed, his links to the island were so deep that they were traceable through his ancestry, with two paternal grandparents hailing from Strabane, County Tyrone. In addition to this, his interest in Irish politics was borne of his admiration and keen following of British Prime Minister William Gladstone and, in particular, the notion of home rule which was first purported by Gladstone. This idea, and other major issues within Irish politics in general, offered Wilson a prime case study through which he could identify and examine many of his own evolving ideas on matters such as anti-imperialism, sovereignty, and human rights. Such was his interest in the affairs of the land of his ancestors that his first public reference to Ireland, in 1910, suggested the possibility of self-governance. Similarly, like many other Democrat politicians throughout the United States, Wilson identified the influence in which the Irish-American community could hold and the benefits of securing the “Green vote” were obvious to him.  , This was perhaps most evident at an address in Chicago, during his successful presidential campaign in 1912, when he was keen to highlight his ethnic ties to Ireland to the electorate by stating how the ‘interesting and troublesome’ mixture of Irish and Scottish in his blood which ‘at any rate, makes me love a good scrap.’ While undoubtedly stereotypical, this statement provided an indication of how Wilson sought to appeal to the Irish-American electorate in order to secure their support.

Impact of 1916 on wilson & ireland

Woodrow Wilson depicted in a cartoon called the 'Slaughter of High-Culture'..german butcher. (LOC)

Woodrow Wilson depicted in a cartoon called the 'Slaughter of High-Culture'..german butcher. (LOC)

Just as 1920 transpired to be a pivotal period for Wilson and his relationship with Irish-America, the election year of 1916 and events leading up to this would have a lasting impact on this also. Indeed, the Easter Rising proved to have a rippling effect across the Atlantic, with major implications for both the Irish-American community and the United States’ State Department. For Wilson, it presented a number of difficulties for him at the early stage of a year in which he would have hoped to focus upon being re-elected as president for a second term. Perhaps the most looming issue, following the events in Ireland during Easter 1916, was whether or not the involvement of Irish-Americans had violated American neutrality in the Great War. State Department officials had been aware of US based funding for gun running missions through consular sources based throughout Ireland. However, on the lead up to the Rising, members of the United States Secret Service would stumble across first-hand evidence of Irish and German collusion, which had taken place in New York. Following a raid on the offices of German attaché, Wolf von Igel, agents discovered documents pertaining to a large gun running mission to Ireland. The parties involved included German officials, rebel leaders in Dublin, and also individuals linked to Clan na Gael in America. This discovery presented a genuine threat to American neutrality in the war and as a result the Wilson administration acted swiftly and separated the issue into two, stating that while funds may have been raised within the United States, the plotting of the event had occurred in Ireland and Germany. However, in order to prevent any further potential damage to American interests, the full details of this discovery by Secret Service agents would remain undisclosed until autumn 1917, many months after US entry into the war.

As Wilson and his administration attempted to maintain control over the issue of neutrality on one hand; on the other, they needed to carefully monitor the reinvigorated nationalist fervour which threatened to engulf the Irish-American community across the country. While the mainstream media outlets depicted the efforts made by rebels in Dublin as foolish and misguided, the subsequent executions of rebel leaders, much like in Ireland, provoked a strong reaction. The New York World, considered to be relatively anglophile in their coverage, launched a scathing attack on the British claiming “sixteen men have been killed in cold blood”, while the Washington Post argued that the executions had shocked the civilised world. As public opinion shifted in America in favour of the Irish rebels, the Friends of Irish Freedom, having been formed in March 1916 as an organisation whose approach sought to appeal to the widespread Irish-American community as opposed to the more secretive and exclusive Clan na Gael, now emerged as the leading organisation representing Irish-America. Wilson now had to contend with the reality of moderate and radical Irish-Americans becoming increasingly aligned as news continued to filter through of British reprisals. In addition, the arrival of exiles from the aftermath of the Easter Rising did much to increase and encourage radicalism in Irish-Americans throughout the country.

While the period of time which followed the executions undoubtedly encapsulated the extent that events in Ireland impacted Irish-American nationalism, it was also around this time that a wave of ‘Americanisation’ began to sweep across the nation. Driven by Wilson and his close secretary, Joseph Tumulty, at the Democratic convention of 1916, this newly revived sense of ‘Americanism’ provided a platform from which Wilson could diffuse the power and influence of, what he termed, the ‘hyphenate’ groups in American society. As such, he condemned any alliance between an individual or group and foreign powers that were deemed detrimental to American welfare and safety. Wilson’s focus on ethnic groups did not cease from this point, but rather, remained a focal point from which his presidential campaign took great emphasis. In the opening speech of his election campaign in September 1916, having stressed the importance of neutrality, he narrowed in on the loyalties of American citizens of all ethnicities declaring: “I am the candidate of a party, but I am above all things an American citizen. I neither seek the favour nor fear the displeasure of that small alien element amongst us which puts loyalty to any foreign power before loyalty to the U.S.” This was undoubtedly a pivotal moment in Wilson’s presidency. By questioning the loyalties of ethnic groups, he risked losing a large portion of the electorate which had helped him win in 1912. However, all that transpired was abandonment from radical Irish-America, which ultimately did not affect the outcome of Wilson’s campaign as he defeated the Republican nominee, Charles Evan Hughes, by 277 electoral votes to 254. While moderate Irish-America and Irish-American Democrats were certainly horrified by British policy in Ireland, Wilson’s domestic policies, which included Child Labour law, the Adamson Eight Hour Law, and the continuation of neutrality, held greater influence over their vote than his stance on Ireland.




Ironically, having ran his campaign on the slogan ‘he kept us out of war’, Wilson led the United States into war in April 1917, just over a month after his second inauguration. Interestingly though, he was quick to identify the impact that a solution to the Irish question may have on Anglo-American relations. Just days after entering the war, Wilson instructed Ambassador Page, in London, to convey to Prime Minister Lloyd George that the only major obstacle preventing a wholesome relationship between America and Britain was the British “failure to find a satisfactory method of self-government for Ireland.” In addition, he noted the potential this could have in boosting the morale of the large Irish-American community, many of whom currently find themselves sympathising with Germany. Significantly, however, Wilson ensured Page approached the topic in the most unofficial manner. Despite these sentiments, no action was taken by either side and to further compound matters for Irish-American nationalists, all anti-British activity could now be treated as sedition. A secret intelligence campaign launched throughout America, as the Wilson administration sought to discredit groups and label them anti-American, saw as many as 47 Irish-Americans being detained and charged with violation of the Espionage Act during this period. Ultimately, the intelligence campaign proved successful for Wilson in deterring public gatherings and fund-raising. Similarly, the release of the von Igel documents in September 1917 made Irish-American groups unpopular amongst the general public and sympathy for the Irish cause declined dramatically. The Friends of Irish Freedom cancelled the Irish Race Convention for 1917 resulting in Cohalan and Devoy being heavily criticised by radical Irish-Americans for their loyalty to the United States. Major activity from Irish-America declined to a near halt between April 1917 and December 1918, until the prospect of a conference of the world’s leaders and the breaking up of defeated empires sparked fresh hope into the minds of Irish nationalists everywhere.

The front cover of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's 1919 book; 'Impressions of Sinn Fein in America', featuring a quote from Woodrow Wilson. (

The front cover of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's 1919 book; 'Impressions of Sinn Fein in America', featuring a quote from Woodrow Wilson. (

“No question has more dynamite in it now than the Irish question”

The events leading up to and following the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 would leave an indelible mark on Wilson’s relationship with the Irish-American community. Flickers of hope and optimism emerged from many, within Ireland and Irish-America, who sensed that the post-war conference would provide an opportunity to present the case of Irish sovereignty in front of the world’s leaders. However, what would occur in the process and aftermath of the conference proved to be the ultimate breaking point of a relationship which had been gradually deteriorating since the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Those who wished to see Wilson apply pressure on the British regarding the Irish question harkened back to his famous ‘Fourteen Points’ speech given to Congress on 8 January 1918. The foundations of this seminal moment in Wilson’s presidency are rooted within a series of studies, instigated by Wilson following US entry into the war, which set out to analyse as many possible economic, social, and political matters which would likely arise in the event of a post-war settlement. Within the speech, he proposed the notion of self-determination for national minorities and allowing the freest opportunity for autonomous development. However, John Devoy remained sceptical as to the application of Wilson’s peace terms, stating that they merely applied to a portion of the world. He signed off his article in Gaelic American on 12 January 1918 by questioning, “Why must German imperialism be curbed and English imperialism aided and abetted?” Also, somewhat significantly, it appears that the Secretary of State in Wilson’s Administration, Robert Lansing, echoed Devoy’s sentiments in a diary entry while in Paris. Lansing questioned the effect Wilson’s words would have on a variety of subjugated races, including the Irish, declaring “the phrase is simply loaded with dynamite”.

Despite this scepticism, the following two years witnessed a dramatic increase in petitioning from Irish-American groups who saw an opportunity to capitalise on Wilson’s use of the term self-determination in the quest for Ireland’s own self-determination. Such was the extent of this that eleven months later the leaders of Irish-America launched a ‘Self-Determination of Ireland Week’ which included a number of mass meetings held in cities across the country. The largest meeting saw up to 25,000 people pack out Madison Square Garden in New York City where Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston gave a rousing speech entitled “Ireland: one and indivisible” in which he urged Wilson to press for self-determination for Ireland at the Paris Peace Conference. Perhaps fearing a backlash from Irish-America and their support for the Democratic Party, Wilson wrote to O’Connell a personal and confidential letter proclaiming his delight at being aligned with him on the issue of Ireland.

Wilson departed America for the Paris Peace Conference with the comfort of having a temporary truce with Irish-American nationalists. By the end of 1918, even John Devoy, who had been the upmost sceptic and critic of Wilson, now recognised the magnitude and importance of his next task and praised his bravery and commented that “no people on earth will wish him success with greater fervour than the Irish.” For a period, the sense of optimism appeared to be unwavering, yet Wilson remained cautious. Correspondence between himself and Tumulty throughout January 1919 indicate how eager he was for Tumulty to maintain control over a resolution, proposed by Congressman Thomas Gallagher, to send an American Commission to Paris to present the case for Irish independence and self-determination. He feared the impact this may have on his relations with the British, with whom he now had daily dealings. The proposals for the Gallagher Resolution revealed some startling revelations for Wilson, the most prominent of which was how the Republicans were now gaining strength by playing politics with the Irish question. Amid the mounting pressure created by Congressman Gallagher and general opposition to the League of Nations, Wilson returned to America to face these challenges personally. In spite of his efforts, the Gallagher Resolution was passed by 216 votes to 45, indicating that many Democratic politicians were beginning to display greater loyalty to their Irish-American constituents than to their president. While on his short return, Tumulty urged Wilson to meet with a Friends of Irish Freedom delegation. He stressed to the president the public’s interest in settling the Irish question and insisted how each refusal to meet served to strengthen their resolve. As a result, Wilson obliged to meet with the delegation, however, upon arrival on the night of the meeting he refused wholeheartedly to allow Cohalan to be present, labelling him a traitor. The details of the meeting were made public a few days later by Judge Goff, who described the president reacting abruptly to the request for Irish self-determination stating there was an agreement there would be no questions asked of him. When pressed on the matter of self-determination for small nations, Wilson replied, “the nationalities of which you speak have dropped into our lap as it were because of the results of the war.”


The chances of Wilson presenting an argument in favour of Irish independence or self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference were beginning to look less and less likely. Having sent George Creel, investigative journalist and former director of the Committee on Public Information, to compile a report on the political situation in Ireland, Wilson must have been somewhat hopeful of findings which would ease his decision. Upon returning, Creel reported that, while the Sinn Féiners were a lot easier to deal with than their Irish-American counterparts, he saw no benefits to endorsing their objectives. He asserted that by doing so would cause minority groups throughout the world to insist on similar demands that the Paris conference did not have the ability to provide.  This proved to echo Wilson’s own sentiments that the outcome of the war had a total effect on which minorities the Allies could serve best. Nevertheless, the American Commission on Irish Independence embarked on their journey to Paris in order to further lobby the British and American delegations on Ireland’s behalf. Having been unable to succeed in their objective of securing safe passage of a Sinn Féin envoy to Paris, the Commission were given the opportunity to travel to meet the Irish leaders and tour the major cities and town in Ireland. However, the manner of their visit only served to create further controversy and diminish any hope of achieving their objective. Upon return to Paris, whatever cordial relationships they had built up with the British and American delegations were now squandered with Wilson labelling their antics in Ireland as “miserable mischief-making.”

The Commission’s final meeting with Wilson on 11 June perhaps revealed the most of him and his feelings on the situation in Ireland. Such was the extent of this ‘frank and open’ meeting that Edward Dunne, member of the American Commission, was left in tears with Frank Walsh, chairman of the delegation, being deeply affected by Wilson’s assertions. Within the meeting, Wilson claimed that, while he sympathised greatly with the Irish cause, he could not risk hindering diplomatic relations with the British during the most crucial period of the peace conference. He valued British support, at this moment, higher than the possibility of losing Irish-American support, in the future. In addition to this, and somewhat poignantly, Wilson came close to admitting how he may not have fully understood the implications of self-determination. This marked a pivotal moment for Wilson and his relationship with Irish-America and effectively ended his close encounters with Irish-Americans who sought intervention from him on the Irish question. Throughout 1919 and early 1920, the issue of Irish nationalism had found itself deeply entwined within American domestic and foreign politics. Thankfully for Wilson, as 1920 unfolded, Irish-America was engulfed in an internal dispute, at its highest level, which impacted its ability to effectively coordinate successful anti-British activity on a large scale. Nonetheless, agitation and activism at a smaller level continued unabated and served as a frequent reminder to the State Department and American public that, while many issues had been resolved after the Great War, the issue of war in Ireland and Irish independence remained unanswered. While Irish-America had problems of its own, the activism which was sustained by many radical independent groups throughout 1920 proved to be a problematic backdrop against Wilson’s hopes at gaining a third successive presidency.


Ultimately, despite Wilson’s seemingly good intentions for the sovereignty of small nations, it could be argued that the political landscape, following the outcome of the First World War, left him in a problematic position to attempt to negotiate with the British for any form of self-governance for Ireland. That said, there is also evidence to suggest that his patience with the Irish-American community had grown thin as their relationship continued to deteriorate following incident after incident. It remains unclear, to an extent, what Woodrow Wilson’s true personal feelings were towards Ireland the question of Irish independence or self-governance. What is indisputable, however, is the level at which he understood the political ramifications of his actions and as a result of he ultimately took an extremely pragmatic approach in all his dealings with Irish-America, always ensuring what he believed was the best outcome for America and American interests.

- Written by Conor Harte



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