Finding a path to freedom

Finding a path to freedom Sir Edward Carson
100 years on…
Ireland played a role in the US failure to ratify the Versailles Treaty, writes Gabriel Doherty

 

The exigencies of producing a weekly newspaper three days after Christmas, when combined with an uncongenial election schedule, meant that The Irish Catholic of Saturday December 28, 1918 lacked a vital ingredient: analysis of the results of the recent election general election.

Despite two weeks having passed since domestic voters had cast their ballots, the need to combine these with the votes cast by soldiers overseas delayed the announcement of the results until the same day as the paper was published.

It is no surprise, therefore, that there was something of a transitional feel to its observations.

A political tsunami had clearly swept over the country, but with the flood waters still receding, no accurate measure of the damage to the party political landscape could yet be obtained. It remained to be seen whether the structures of the home rule cause championed by the paper had been merely weakened but left standing, or (as the editor clearly feared) entirely swept away.

Ominous

With the ‘national question’ momentarily in suspended animation, much attention was directed towards matters beyond Ireland’s shores. One article, entitled ‘Bolshevik anarchy’, sounded a particularly ominous tone, for it suggested that, notwithstanding the fact that the ‘Great War’ was over, it was “by no means certain that the world … [was] on the eve of a general peace”.

The position in Russia gave rise to feelings of alarm, most especially the depredations indelibly associated with the Bolshevik menace.

For this was deemed no “mere Russian affair”, as the ideological project underlying the revolution in that country cherished “ambitions to carry its creed of murder, destruction and spoliation over the whole world”. It is not clear whether the paper welcomed or feared the prospect of a large-scale allied attack on Russia in the spring, but in any case it predicted “further bloodshed on a great scale”.

The threat of a westward onslaught by the Bolsheviks represented a peculiarly malign form of internationalism, but a much more welcome incarnation came in the form of the Peace Conference then assembling in Versailles.

This gathering had been a constant theme in the paper’s coverage of developments ever since the Armistice, and in this edition it virtually eclipsed all other matters of current concern.

There were two aspects of the conference that had been recurring items of interest in recent editions of the paper, and both again received substantial airings. The first was whether the Holy See would be invited to attend; the second, whether President Wilson would push for the Irish question to be included on its agenda.

Bishop Hallinan of Limerick conjoined the two in a letter read at a meeting (one of many held nationwide) organised to support the issuing of an invitation to Wilson to visit Ireland en route to France. In his view, the Pope and the President were “running on the same lines”, seeking the triumph of “international justice and unity” over “secret, diplomatic, intriguing political chicanery and [the] unblushing hypocrisy of many rulers and statesmen”.

If Bishop Hallinan sincerely believed that the ‘Roman Question’ would one of the tasks of ‘reparation and readjustment’ that would form the basis of the conference’s agenda, he was soon disabused of the idea.

He was closer to the mark when suggesting Wilson would need all the help he could get in getting backing for his radical principles, and that the Papacy’s support would be an asset in this. Alas this was not to be – and it might reasonably be observed that Wilson, in condoning the exclusion of Benedict XV from Versailles, was in part the architect of his own subsequent and spectacular downfall.

Ireland’s future, however, was among the top priorities for America’s Irish and as an example of the domestic lobbying to which Wilson was being subjected. The Irish Catholic reproduced large portions of a recent letter to him from Fr Thomas Shahan, Rector of the Catholic University of America.

Describing the President as “the spokesman and interpreter of the lovers of liberty in every land” the Rector suggested Wilson’s priority at the conference should be to give “practical application to the principles of justice and fair dealing” – and in no case was this more necessary than Ireland.

Theme

Developing a theme that was becoming an increasing feature both of American discourse and the editorial line of The Irish Catholic, he indicated that Ireland was not just a litmus test of the validity of the concept of self-determination (“not a mere phrase”) in international affairs.

As Fr Shahan put it, many Americans “hold that the right of Ireland to ‘self-determination’ is immeasurably stronger than that of any nation for which you have become the advocate”.

Raising the stakes, he claimed that Wilson’s wish “to secure a world-wide and lasting peace” at Versailles would be nullified if the Irish people were to be denied a “free and fair plebiscite” to choose the form of government under which they wished to live.

To the extent to which the Treaty of Versailles was never subsequently ratified by the US Congress, many of whose members were especially angered at the exclusion of Ireland from its provisions, it was a claim that was not nearly so outlandish as it may seemed at the time.

It was, however, not just in America that the Irish question was engaging the minds of those who were soon to get down to business at Versailles, for the same was true of France.

To this day one of the most informative non-English language perspectives on the developments in Ireland ahead of the War of Independence is a 1917 book, subsequently updated in 1921, by Louis Tréguiz, the pseudonym of Yann Morvran Goblet.

The first edition of L’Irlande dans la Crise Universelle (‘Ireland and the world crisis’) is a detailed study of the Irish experience of the First World War, with a very perceptive introductory chapter on the evolution of the home rule cause from the late 19th Century through to August 1914. The Irish Catholic endorsed both the author’s general thesis, that the Irish Question was genuinely an international one, and his identification of Edward Carson as the individual who bore the greatest responsibility for reviving “the idea of physical force and involved the shedding of so much blood”.

Endorsing Tréguiz’s observations regarding “the stupidities and malignities committed by the War Office mandarins by which Irish sympathy was estranged and the recruiting campaign suffered injury” the paper expressed confidence that through such works the French nation would be able to form a positive judgement Ireland’s right to self-government.

The author’s preferred settlement of the Irish question was ‘Dominion status’, albeit without partition, but this option was not on the table at this time – some might argue it never was – and even if it had been there were few takers. Neither he nor The Irish Catholic, it seems, fully comprehended the scale of the transformation that had occurred in Ireland during and partly because of the war.

It would take the ann-ouncement of the election results, at that moment being declared across the island, for that change to become apparent.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.

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