Veteran New York-based exile John Devoy may have described Eamon de Valera as the “most malignant man in all Irish history,” but such bitterness wasn’t just a product of personality clashes and organizational turf wars, according to “Irish-American Diaspora Nationalism: The Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916-1935.”
The book’s Dublin-based author Michael Doorley said in an interview: “To some extent, the Friends were shaped by the changing nature of the Irish-American community.
“They were becoming more upwardly mobile. But they still felt a certain amount of discrimination, and there was still a Wasp dominance, as they saw it, in America,” he said.
“Their publications tried to glorify the Irish role in the American Revolution and the Irish contribution to America’s wars,” added Doorley, a County Offaly native who studied for several years in the United States. “They wanted to enhance the position of the Irish in the States.”
The Co. Kildare-born Devoy — described by his biographer, Echo columnist Terry Golway, as the “last active Fenian” — and New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel Cohalan were the key figures in the Friends of Irish Freedom, which was formed by the secretive Clan na Gael soon after the Easter Rising. It quickly became a mass organization with 100,000 members and an even larger number of associate members.
Its success was part of a process that mirrored the rise of Sinn Fein and the eclipse of the old Irish Parliamentary Party back in Ireland. Devoy and Cohalan, the American-born son of a Fenian, were devoted to the “movement” whose new hegemony was the culmination of a life’s dream for both. They organized propaganda and fundraising for the cause, as well as speaking tours for notable figures like Nora Connolly, daughter of the executed James Connolly, Liam Mellowes and of course de Valera, who escaped prison in England in early 1919 and spent the next 18 months in America.
Top of the Friends agenda, though, was preventing America signing on to the League of Nations. “They felt it was a British attempt to ensnare the U.S. into an alliance system,” Doorley said. And they saw that as counterproductive to the Irish cause.
“But that meant that a lot of the funds that they collected were actually devoted to fighting the League of Nations,” he said. “There were other factors too, but obviously de Valera and other Sinn Fein representatives in the U.S. were not happy with this.”
A group around de Valera, like Joe McGarrity in Philadelphia and Harry Boland, moved against Devoy, telling the 78-year-old he was “written out” of the movement, just when the War of Independence was reaching a crucial moment in late 1920. The Clan and Friends leaderships backed Devoy, and de Valera formed the rival American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic.
When the 1921 Treaty was signed, much of Irish America backed it, including Devoy and Cohalan, despite their previously hard-line stance. As Golway has argued in “Rebel,” the old Fenian greatly admired Michael Collins, his junior by 48 years, and shared his hardheadedness.
Doorley agrees, but believes there was another reason for American pragmatism: it was much less influenced by the “almost spiritual” and “romantic” cultural nationalism that shaped Sinn Fein in the early years on the 20th century. Many anti-Treatyites in America, he said, were political refugees from Ireland.
He mentioned also a phenomenon that Thomas Fleming refers to in his 2005 family memoir “Mysteries of My Father”: the subsequent disillusionment and disgust Irish Americans felt about the 1922-23 Civil War.
This was true even of supporters of de Valera, said Doorley, citing one example: “Peter Golden went to Ireland to try to arrange a meeting between [General Richard] Mulcahy, and de Valera. And was bitterly disappointed that they couldn’t see eye to eye.”
On the earlier 1919-20 split in Irish America, Doorley said he doesn’t take sides, but instead tries to explain the forces and the social milieus that shaped them.
Michael Doorley will speak at the American Irish Historical Society, 991 Fifth Ave., NYC, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 6:30 p.m. For details call: 212-288-2263 ext. 31.