While the leaders of the Allied Powers discussed the ramifications of the end of 'The Great War', the American Commission on Irish Independence were observing a fascinating episode in Irish history outside the Mansion House on Dublin's Dawson Street.
The history of Ireland’s relationship with the United States is littered with examples of individuals making the Trans-Atlantic journey to America as emissaries on behalf of Irish nationalism and republicanism. Far less frequently, however, are tales of those who made the opposing journey for the same cause. Not surprisingly, the venture to Ireland made by a select delegation, termed the American Commission on Irish Independence, in May 1919 would not pass without incident, but rather, catch headlines in newspapers across the United States and be the cause of tension between the British and American governments, both of which were fully immersed in the peace conference of the century.
The story of how Frank P. Walsh, Edward F. Dunne, and Michael J. Ryan found themselves in Ireland as guests of the Irish republic can be traced back to the Irish Race Convention, held in Philadelphia in February 1919. Events in Ireland and Europe were high on the agenda for this year’s convention following Sinn Féin’s sweeping success in the 1918 election, and the subsequent formation of the first Dáil Éireann, as well as the November 1918 armistice, which effectively ended the fighting of the Great War and lay the foundations for the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. The Commission was elected primarily with the objective of obtaining the secure transit of Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, and George Noble Plunkett to Paris to present the case of Irish independence in front of the world’s leaders. In addition, it was tasked with lobbying the American and British delegations for recognition of the Irish Republic.
Lobbying for Ireland
Following their arrival in Paris on 11 April, the three-member committee were met by Seán T. Ó’Ceallaigh and George Gavan Duffy, the Dáil Éireann envoys to the Paris Peace Conference. Immediately, they set out in pursuing a variety of different individuals associated with both the Wilson and Lloyd George delegations in an attempt to gain a meeting with either leader. Their efforts culminated in a meeting with President Wilson on 17 April, in which he promised that while he could not approach Lloyd George in an official manner he would make an effort to highlight the issue of the Irish question, and its consequences for Anglo-American relations, to the British Prime Minister at a later date. This represented a promising start to the American Commission’s mission. This was further enhanced when Wilson’s foreign affairs adviser, Edward House, informed the committee that while Lloyd George would under no circumstance grant them the opportunity to present their case to the entire peace conference, he would likely allow the Sinn Féin delegates to travel to Paris for private talks.
However, despite their promising start, the hope of securing safe passage for the Sinn Féin envoy seemed increasingly unlikely for the American Commission. Having twice had meetings with Lloyd George postponed due to his rigorous conference commitments the idea was presented to Walsh, chairman of the Commission, that perhaps they could travel to Ireland in order to witness first-hand the current conditions there. The Commission willingly obliged to this suggestion and subsequently arrived in Dublin on 3 May 1919. Upon arrival, they were met by President de Valera and driven to the Mansion House to be officially received by Dublin’s lord mayor. They announced the purpose of their trip was to discuss the issue of how to gain international recognition for the Irish republic with the Sinn Féin government and that they had received the support of both Wilson and Lloyd George, a significant point which would later be the source of friction between the American and British delegations in Paris.
Having spent their first week travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, visiting Belfast, Limerick, and Cork in the process, the American deputation were invited to speak during the Third Session of Dáil Éireann on Friday 9 May. By this time, their visit was creating a stir amongst British government officials who began to question the manner of their actions during the tour. The Commission’s readiness to speak publicly and openly about Irish independence somehow came as a surprise to Lloyd George who claimed to have been given a guarantee that the men were responsible citizens and their presence in Ireland would not add fuel to the republican fervour which was rumbling throughout the country at that time. The blame surrounding who actually allowed the Americans to travel to Ireland was shifted between the British and Americans with neither side willing to assume responsibility.
"Machine Guns and Bombing plane menace Parliament"
The intense atmosphere which was building between the British and Americans in Paris was soon reflected on the streets of Dublin. Following the morning session in the Dáil, in which Walsh, Dunne, and Ryan each took turns addressing the Irish members of parliament, the Irish-Americans were then due to return to the Mansion House that evening for a reception held in their honour. However, in the time between the morning session and the evening reception, a large military presence had begun to form on Dawson Street. Word began to filter through that the British government intended on shutting down the reception. The surrounding area had been barricaded by machine guns and armoured cars. In spite of the formidable military presence which was building, upon making a return to Dawson Street that evening at roughly 7:30pm, the three limousine entourage, which included the American Commission, President de Valera, Countess Markievicz, and William T. Cosgrave, were met by up to 40,000 members of the public who had congregated in a show of support for the American Commission.
A brief stand-off ensued between the Irish republican contingent, with their Irish-American counterparts, and the police and army who were under strict orders not to allow anyone entry into the Mansion House. All the while, the surrounding crowds gave a rousing rendition of the Soldier’s Song, which only grew stronger as an unprovoked shot was fired by a British soldier above the crowd. As Frank Walsh and President de Valera attempted to negotiate the current situation with the colonel in charge, the republican anthem continued to echo from each end of the street until the police chief finally requested that de Valera attempt to quieten the crowd and maintain a level of control over it. Within fifteen minutes of de Valera rising to beg the crowd for a level of calm, the military presence began to disperse through the opposite end of Dawson Street to the many jeers and cries of the public.
It later transpired that the police and army had been searching for three fugitives, amongst whom was Michael Collins. In typical fashion, the reception went ahead following the military’s departure from Dawson Street and within a half hour of their departure, Collins appeared fully clad in his Irish Volunteer uniform. Upon returning to Paris the following week, the American Commission on Irish Independence had greatly damaged any possibility of achieving their mission following the manner of their tour of Ireland. The British delegation severed all form of communication with the Commission and despite gaining another meeting with President Wilson, the outcome was bitterly disappointing for the trio of Walsh, Dunne, and Ryan and they returned to America having failed in each of their objectives. Despite this, the Irish-Americans could take some comfort in the reaction of the Irish republicans who lauded their efforts and were commending the great level of publicity the Commission created throughout Europe and the United States during their mission to Paris and Ireland.
- Written by Conor Harte
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· Whelan, Bernadette. United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From Empire to Independence, 1913-29. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2006.