Irish Americans are used to hearing certain stories from our elders about the diaspora and the glorious cause of the Republic. Back in the day, we’re told, the barrels in the back of every pub from Boston to the Bronx to Buffalo to Butte, Montana overflowed with rifles and pistols and munitions of all calibres to be stamped and mailed to patriot cousins in Belfast and Limerick. Every Irish American bricklayer, patrolman, coal miner, domestic servant, prostitute, and politician was Thomas Jefferson in Paris: absent from the Revolution, yes, but loyally doing his duty across the Atlantic.
You can’t help but love the way an old-timer in a white aran sweater and houndstooth flat cap tells it. You want to believe in the solidarity of the diaspora. But if what he says is true, the Irish would not have just won their independence; we’d control India, Australia, and, God forbid, Canada.
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Instead, what we got was the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, signed 100 years ago this week. The treaty promised Ireland self-government under British dominion, as well as an exit plan for the Ulsterman in the counties to the north. With peace restored after centuries of violence, the Irish, naturally, decided to have another war. The victorious rebels now found themselves fighting the IRA and Éamon de Valera, who rejected the treaty as being too favourable to the British.
The provisional government, led by Michael Collins and the subsequent Irish Free State, turned their attention to an important front in the civil war: the United States. The Government lacked diplomatic recognition under the terms of the treaty, but its mission was not to wrangle support in Washington, DC; it was to convince the Irish Americans who had financed and armed Irish revolutionary forces to rally behind the treaty.
Two years earlier, the American-born de Valera had arrived in the United States as a stowaway on the SS Lapland, having just escaped from prison in England. Once ashore, the self-proclaimed president of the Irish Republic raised the equivalent of $70 million for the revolution in a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour, which drew disapproval from American elites. The grandees of Washington may have thought it uncouth to welcome a phantom dignitary from a non-existent country, but local and state politicians knew they would be whipped from office if they ignored the visit.
Babe Ruth’s Boston Red Sox drew 15,000 fans to its 1918 World Series victory, the club’s last championship for nearly a century. Nine months later, 50,000 people packed the same stadium to witness de Valera speak, flanked on the podium by former Mayor James Michael Curley and every member of the city’s Democratic machine. The rapture from the crowd prompted invitations from the governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as well as city leaders in Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Ultimately, De Valera’s year-long jaunt across the United States helped the Irish win their independence — and once the civil war started, leaders of the provisional government feared his contacts could be mobilised against the treaty. What they did not appreciate was how polarising a figure de Valera had become among the Irish diaspora.
Irish American leaders bristled at de Valera’s imperial attitude; he was happy to cash the checks and happier still to dismiss his financial backers when they opined on how to spend the money. The Gaelic American, the mouthpiece for the republican movement in the United States, opposed the treaty right up until the moment de Valera agreed with it. “This half-breed Spanish-American Jew intends if he can to turn Ireland into a miniature Mexico where defeated candidates for office refused to abide by the decision of the majority rendered at the election and seek to overthrow the will of the people by force,” the paper said in an editorial.
While some Irish American activists continued to oppose the treaty, Free State officials determined the silent majority of the Irish in America were satisfied to hear that their countrymen had received a reprieve from British oppression. The details of whatever government emerged were of little concern. “The most effective propaganda is frequent dignified statements from the government of the Irish Free State showing that it is functioning successfully and is determined to do so,” diplomat Timothy Smiddy wrote in a memo back home.
Smiddy shifted the focus of the pro-treaty forces from winning the hearts and minds of Irish American activists to publicly re-enforcing the legitimacy of the new government. He set about attempting to undo the very work in America that had helped the Irish win independence, pressing US officials who had once turned a blind eye to gun-running to crack down on it. He prevailed upon activists to ignore the pleas of IRA widows when the hat made its way around the pub. He succeeded on all fronts, but nothing helped his cause more than the American Irish’s unity in their own domestic political machines where ethnic solidarity trumped ideological difference.
As for De Valera, he was soon chastened by the civil war that followed the Anglo-Irish treaty. He appeared to have learned a few important lessons from the machine politicians that kissed his ring back in 1919. James Michael Curley, like the Irish rebel leader, did two prison stints for fraud. This did not stop the Boston Irish from sending him to Congress, the governor’s mansion, and on four occasions to the Mayor’s Office. When he was barred from attending the 1932 Democratic convention with the Massachusetts state delegation, he arrived in Chicago alone. The party clerk must have been puzzled during roll call when the Puerto Rican delegation sent forth its new ‘representative’: Alcalde Jaime Miguel Culeo. The people of Boston could forgive any crime or public embarrassment, so long as Curley delivered on the patronage projects that won him the nickname the “Mayor of the Poor”.
By 1926, de Valera cut ties with Sinn Féin and established Fianna Fáil, pledging to take his seat in the Dáil and achieve republican government from within the Irish Free State. In 1932, Fianna Fáil dominated the elections on a populist platform dedicated to public works projects and social security. He delivered on the social safety net, which kept Fianna Fáil in charge long enough to gut the constitution of any trace of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. By July 1937, just two months after someone dynamited George II’s imperial monument in St. Stephen’s Green, the Irish had a new constitution. That “half-breed Spanish Jew” had made good on delivering an authentic and unique Irish Catholic vision for what a Republic could be.
The Sons of Gael who threw their fivers into the hat and their .38s into the barrel throughout the Troubles believed their contributions would deliver de Valera’s romantic vision to their compatriots to the north. Today, you’ll find their American grandchildren on barstools listening in awe to the Old Timer in the Aran Sweater and singing along to “A Nation Once Again”, as indifferent to the particulars on the ground in the old country as their great grandfathers were at the time of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
These youths have embraced smoking and the Clancy Brothers and unapologetic popery to stick it to the secular, technocratic, iconoclastic, opioid-addicted world the dominant protestant class left the United States. Éire is a counter-culture preserved in amber, an escape hatch from a modernity that has left them feeling just as alien as their great grandparents must have felt at Ellis Island.
They have no idea the freedom fighters of the IRA are mere heroin dealers now. That the Emerald Isle has become Europe’s answer to the Cayman Islands, rather than that beacon standing athwart brute materialism. Ireland, freed from the oppression of the Black and Tans, voluntarily followed London’s lead into financialisation and speculation.
It is a nation of bankers and those on the dole, waking up to the realisation that Silicon Valley’s dream of universal basic income exists so the jobless masses can have just enough money in their pockets to pay the billionaire overlord class. The robots aren’t advanced enough to take all the jobs just yet, so they make do with Polish labourers — the only people in Ireland who still go to Mass in the modernist concrete churches.
To look at Ireland from abroad is to understand the world of John Swanwick Drennan, the least appreciated of the great Irish poets:
A golden casket I designed
To hold a braid of hair
My Love was false and now I find
A coil of serpents there
The Irish resent the pedestal erected by the diaspora. They desire the same freedom to squander the national inheritance as the rest of the West. Occasionally, Irish Americans — or at least a sliver of its activist class — take notice of the retreat from what made Ireland unique only to be dismissed as Cromwellian interlopers.
When Ireland’s technocratic banker class moved to strike the constitutional protection of the unborn, Americans rallied to its defence (the pro-life movement being one of the last vestiges of Irish Catholic machine politics). Irish authorities, hungry as they are for US investment when it comes to corporate tax dodges, suddenly developed an allergy to American dollars. Just as the Irish Free State appealed to higher authorities in DC to stifle the flow of guns, the ruling class turned to Dublin corporate resident Mark Zuckerberg to successfully disarm the opposition.
One hundred years on, de Valera is as welcome in Ireland today as Curley was at the 1932 Democratic convention.