Lakeside to Stateside: the Westmeath people pushing Ireland’s case in America 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, the battle for recognition of an independent Irish republic in the United States reached its peak. Paul Hughes looks at some of the Westmeath natives who helped to shape American opinion on the Irish question, across political, clerical and trade union spheres


After the establishment of the First Dáil in January 1919, the next port of call for those working in the interests of Irish independence was the formation of a working shadow government to supplant the British administration, and to court international recognition.

One result of this was the creation of the Department of Foreign Affairs, under the aegis of which operated a number of Dáil missions in key locations around the world. Of all of these missions, the United States – which its large Irish diaspora and its emergence as a major world power in the aftermath of World War I – was of paramount importance.

For years, the Irish-American republican organisation Clan na Gael – the sister society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood – had worked at various levels to promote the cause of Irish separatism in America, building up a network of influential and, importantly, wealthy contacts. By 1916, this left the Clan in a position to act as the primary financiers of a rebellion in Ireland, culminating in the ensuing Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence.

Despite being a substantial presence in the US and running a very active overt organisation, the Friends of Irish Freedom, the Clan failed to make the necessary impact to convince President Woodrow Wilson to back the establishment of an independent Irish republic. Wilson was bound to a partnership with the British in the post-war peace talks, and when he came up for re-election in November 1920, Clan na Gael opted to support his Republican opponent, Warren G. Harding.

The paths taken by Clan na Gael after 1919 became more complicated from June of that year when the president of both Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann, Éamon de Valera, decided to embark on a tour of the United States to drum up support for the Irish republican cause. The tour, which lasted until December 1920, was a financial success, raising $5m intended for the Dáil and the IRA, and another $500,000 to oppose Wilson in the presidential election. It also generated ample publicity for the movement; on one evening in 1919, for example, de Valera spoke to over 50,000 at Boston’s Fenway Park.

In some respects though, the tour was a failure. Clan na Gael, a much older organisation than Sinn Féin, resented the prospect of its American activities being subjugated by the fledgling Dáil. In particular, this led to animosities between the heads of the Clan, New York Supreme Court judge Daniel Cohalan and the old Fenian John Devoy, and de Valera. After June 1920, matters came to a head, and both Clan na Gael and the Friends of Irish Freedom split into pro- and anti-de Valera factions. De Valera then supported Philadephia-based Irish republican Joseph McGarrity as the head of a reorganised Clan, and founded a new lobbying organisation called the American Association for the Recognition of an Irish Republic (AARIR).

As the War of Independence at home began to intensify after March 1920, with the arrival of the Black and Tans followed by greater numbers of IRA attacks against Crown personnel and property, the position of America – in terms of funds and public support – became even more crucial. And so, the number of Irish representatives active in the United States increased, joining with long-established Irishmen and women already Stateside, including influential clergymen.

This article looks at a number of Westmeath natives who were active in the United States 100 years ago as the battle for recognition of Irish independence reached its climax.

Two relatively young Westmeath men occupied powerful positions in the American Catholic Church during the Irish Revolution.

A tale of two archbishops

From left: Archbishop Michael J. Curley, and Archbishop John J. Glennon were both ardent supporters of the Irish independence movement.

Bishop Michael J. Curley, a native of Athlone, became the youngest member of the American Catholic hierarchy when he was appointed bishop of the diocese of St Augustine, in Florida, in April 1914. One of 11 children of Michael and Maria Curley, he was educated at Marist College and subsequently at Mungret College, Limerick, before he made his way to America at the encouragement of the sitting bishop of St Augustine, John Moore, who was a native of Delvin.

Curley, a vehement opponent of the Ku Klux Klan who fought against legislation preventing white women from teaching black children, was also a prominent supporter of Irish home rule. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he backed the war effort robustly, establishing a Catholic War Council in his diocese and speaking at Liberty Bond rallies. After the conflict, he celebrated a large memorial Mass in Battery Park, New York, for fallen Allied soldiers.

His prior support for constitutionalism, home rule and the war didn’t stop him from becoming an ardent supporter of the Irish republican cause after Sinn Féin swept the boards in the 1918. He spoke in support of the Irish republican cause at the Duval Theatre in Jacksonville on April 14, 1920, during de Valera’s tour of the southern states.

Curley was appointed Archbishop of Baltimore-Washington diocese the following year, at which time de Valera wrote to him stating: “It is a source of pride to us all that a son of Eire should be chosen for the primatial See of Baltimore.” Curley replied congratulating “the brave citizens of the Irish Republic who have won the admiration of the world by their splendid fight for freedom”.

Elsewhere in the US, another Westmeath man, Kinnegad native John J. Glennon, had ascended to the position of Archbishop of the Diocese of St Louis (Missouri) in 1903, at the tender age of 40. A son of Matthew and Catherine Glennon, Kinnegad, Glennon studied at St Finian’s College, Mullingar and then All Hallows College in Dublin before going to America.

Appointed vicar general of the diocese of St Louis at the age of just 30, he was installed as Bishop of Kansas City four years later, becoming one of the youngest bishops in the world. By the time de Valera arrived in the United States, therefore, Glennon was one of the most influential Catholic clerics in the country.

Glennon was a long opponent of British rule in Ireland. He supported the rebellion of 1916, and on February 19, 1920, he spoke at a Mass for the head of the American Catholic Church, James Cardinal Gibbons, making a plea for US recognition of Irish independence.

In September 1920, at the height of de Valera’s tour and the US presidential election campaign, Archbishop Glennon made a public call for presidential candidates to resist exploring an alliance with Britain, saying it would endorse the British government’s use of “the last measure of tyranny in her methods of dealing with the Irish civilian population”.

Éamon de Valera’s papers in UCD suggest that at one stage in late 1920, Glennon was sounded out as a possible intermediary to heal the rift between de Valera and his Clan na Gael opponents.

Glennon was later elevated to the rank of cardinal in 1945, at the age of 83. Six years earlier, he had returned to his native Westmeath to preach the sermon at the solemn consecration of the newly-built Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar.

The union boss from Westmeath

John Fitzpatrick was long established in the political life of Chicago when the Irish Revolution was under way. For a long time his cause had been that of the labouring classes of his adopted city and beyond.

Fitzpatrick, the youngest of five brothers, was born in Athlone on April 21, 1872, a son of retired British Army sergeant John Fitzpatrick and his wife Adelaide (a native of Suffolk, England). When his mother died, the father remarried a Catholic woman and staunch nationalist.

Athlone native and Chicago labour leader John Fitzpatrick, seen here with legendary Irish-American social campaigner Mother Jones, tried to mobilise American labour behind the Irish independence movement.

Fitzpatrick’s father died when John Jnr was 11, after which he was briefly raised by his stepmother before his uncle, Patrick, took him to America. Not long after his arrival Stateside, the uncle died, leaving Fitzpatrick to make his own way in the world.

He went to work in the Chicago Union Stock Yards, learning a trade as a blacksmith and horseshoer on the killing floor. By this route, he became involved in trade unionism, as a member of Local No. 4 of the Chicago Journeymen Horse Shoers Union, a membership he retained until his death in 1946.

In 1902, he started to work for the Chicago Federation of Labor as a full-time union organiser, serving a term as president for a year before becoming its full-time ‘boss’ in 1906, a post he held until his death. He was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Chicago in 1919.

Fitzpatrick’s Irish ancestry, the advent of the first Dáil and Éamon de Valera’s subsequent arrival in the United States, prompted him to make an effort

to incorporate recognition of the Irish independence cause into the American labour movement.

“Fitzpatrick never forgot his brief childhood in Ireland, nor his stepmother’s resentment of British rule,” wrote the late Professor L. A. O’Donnell in his 1997 book, Irish voice and organized labor in America: a biographical study. “He made at least one trip back to County Westmeath to visit relatives and returned with two nephews, one of whom obtained employment with the [radio] station WCFL.”

Fitzpatrick had joined the Friends of Irish Freedom in 1916. After the split with Devoy and Cohalan, de Valera asked him personally to join the new AARIR organisation, as ‘Dev’ began to explore support for Irish independence outside the normal Fenian networks.

In 1920, at the American Federation of Labor conference in Montreal, O’Donnell writes, a resolution was passed calling for the establishment of a Labor Bureau for Irish Independence, working alongside the newly-convened American Commission on Irish Independence. Fitzpatrick was appointed as the Labor Bureau’s chair, which operated out of Chicago.

Through his organ New Majority, the Chicago Federation of Labor newspaper, Fitzpatrick gave the Labor Bureau and the Irish cause extensive publicity. He was called on by de Valera to speak at several meetings, and one of the Bureau’s busiest avenues of activism was a push to boycott British goods in America.

Fitzpatrick’s friendship with Irish labour leader Jim Larkin – who had been in the US for a number of years – and others on the radical left eventually cooled de Valera’s enthusiasm for him. But through his work with the Labor Bureau and the goods boycott in 1920-21, Fitzpatrick had come in contact and established a lasting friendship with two fellow Westmeath natives who had arrived in the US in the summer of 1920.

Laurence and Alice Ginnell

Delvin native and former Irish Party MP Laurence Ginnell, and his wife Alice (a native of Kilbride, Gaybrook) carried out work on behalf of Dáil Éireann in America from 1920-21.

Delvin native Laurence Ginnell’s career as a House of Commons rebel had long earned him the admiration of Irish republicans before his defection to Sinn Féin in 1917, but by 1920 he was largely spun out. After a year and a half in British jails, his health was broken, and although he was officially the First Dáil’s director of propaganda, the Dáil could not countenance a beloved old warrior at death’s door risking another potentially fatal stint in prison.

So, Arthur Griffith – nominally in charge during de Valera’s American tour – sent him to the United States, where the Dáil had planned to appoint four regional consuls to support the HQ in New York. Officially, Ginnell still occupied the propaganda brief, so perhaps it was felt that his role could be best put to use in the US.

Ginnell, joined by his wife Alice (née King) – a member of Cumann na mBan, a former journalist and a native of Kilbride, Mullingar – arrived in the US in late July 1920. Already well known to the American press, who had watched his exertions in Westminster for years, he was described by some newspapers as “De Valera’s co-adjutor”. The Boston Globe, perhaps mindful of Ginnell’s strong association with the land question, incorrectly labelled him as “minister for agriculture in the Irish republican government”.

His actual role, however, was to act as a Dáil consul in Chicago, and to advance support for republican fundraising and propaganda in the American midwest – the wide, pastoral expanse known to Americans as “the nation’s breadbasket”.

After embarking on a speaking tour, Ginnell settled in Chicago in October 1920 and began to work closely with fellow Westmeathman, John Fitzpatrick, to maximise American working class support for the Irish cause through the Labor Bureau for Irish Independence. In those months, Ginnell liaised with a number of prominent Chicagoans, and others from further afield, to set up a regional consultative council to achieve these aims.

Ginnell was Stateside for the split with Devoy and Cohalan and had to manage the impact of this fall-out on a regional level. He also sat in on a meeting with US Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby, about the prospect of securing a memorial for those who had died in the struggle for Irish independence, and testified before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (Washington, DC) in December 1920. Meanwhile, Alice worked closely with members of the Irish Women’s Purchasing League to advance the boycott of British goods in the US.

Ginnell’s multi-faceted activities meant that he never got to give Fitzpatrick adequate support to push the Labor Bureau to its maximum. When he returned from a speaking tour of southern states in early the spring of 1921, he found that the bureau had been neglected; James O’Mara, the Dáil agent and Limerick businessman, had arrived in Chicago to manage fundraising activities, and evidently had not the same regard for the input of organised labour.

The last straw for Ginnell’s mission in America came when a fundraising drive he personally established in Chicago threatened to interfere with those being conducted by the AARIR in Illinois. This led to tensions between O’Mara and the stubborn and often captious Ginnell. The Chicago drive was later wound up by the Dáil, and the monies set aside by Michael Collins as special fund from which relatives of those who died in the revolution could draw financial support.

To keep the peace, de Valera (now back in Ireland) and his representative in the US, Harry Boland, reassigned Laurence and Alice to Argentina. They would return to the States during the Irish Civil War, when Ginnell, on the anti-Treaty side, represented de Valera in Washington, before his death there in April 1923.

Kitty O’Doherty

Tyrrellspass native Kitty O’Doherty (née Gibbons) was active in promoting the cause of Irish independence in Philadelphia.

Over 1,200km to the east of Chicago, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a former Loreto College, Navan classmate of Alice Ginnell’s, Tyrrellspass native Katherine (‘Kitty’) O’Doherty (née Gibbons), was active in the cause of Irish independence.

O’Doherty was a daughter of Edward Gibbons, a King’s County (Offaly) native and former sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who had served in Tyrrellspass (just five miles from Alice King’s abode in Kilbride) before settling in Collinstown. Her sister Maria, went on to become a Loreto nun known as Mother Columba, and penned the republican hymn ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week?’ in the wake of the 1916 Rising.

In 1911 Kitty, then teaching in Dublin, married Derry native Seamus O’Doherty, a travelling representative of the Gill publishing house by day, and by night, a leading member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. After the 1916 Rising, Seamus was effectively in charge of the IRB’s Supreme Council amid efforts to rebuild after a wave of arrests and executions.

In January 1920, Seamus was active in the Irish cause in Philadelphia, and was joined by his wife and children, who arrived in New York Harbour the following August. Michael Kevin O’Doherty, son of Kitty and Seamus, recalled his family being guests of honour at a party thrown by the Irish Club in Philadelphia.

Later that year, Seamus assumed managerial and editorial control of the Irish Press, the newspaper owned by Joseph McGarrity. In November and December, as ambush atrocities reached a peak in Ireland, Kitty wrote numerous articles explaining the Irish situation to American readers, and spoke to several Irish-American women’s groups to organise medical goods, food and clothing for civilians in distressed areas of Ireland. By December 22, some 1,700 tons of supplies had left for Ireland via the steamship Honolulu.

Her son Michael, in his memoir My parents and other rebels, recalled that Kitty, in early 1921, had the opportunity to discuss the situation in Ireland with the Irish-American Archbishop of Philadelphia, Dennis J. Dougherty, who had just been made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XV. She was keen to enlist his public support for the Irish cause. After hearing her state her case, Dougherty replied dismissively: “Now, my child… would it not be better if you as an educated lady were to take up a teaching career in this city. You might settle down here. You might meet a suitable Irish-American life partner and set up another Catholic home.” Indignantly, O’Doherty replied: “I have no wish to mislead Your Eminence, but I have no desire to settle in this country. I am married and living here with my husband and six children. Your advice therefore scarcely applies to me.”

The cardinal, red-faced, was then asked how he might best apply himself in helping people in the homeland of his grandparents.

Michael O’Doherty also recalled how his Collinstown-born mother was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, and when she addressed a meeting at the historic site of Valley Forge she told a group of Indian nationalists: “Your cause is identical with mine.” She also led a group of women in a protest during a visit of the British ambassador, Sir Auckland Geddes, to Philadelphia, carrying banners reading ‘Geddes Go Home’ outside his hotel room, risking arrest and deportation.

The O’Dohertys remained in America throughout 1921 and into the civil war period, when they supported de Valera on the anti-Treaty side.

Notably, Kitty acted as a transatlantic courier for the republican forces during the conflict. In July 1922, she smuggled some £50,000 in funds from Joseph McGarrity into Ireland for the anti-Treaty IRA, while using a visit to her elderly parents in Collinstown as a cover story.