Feature Articles

Irish Race Congress only highlighted our deep divisions

9 Feb 2022
June 1922: Irish nationalist Countess Constance Georgine Markiewicz (1868 - 1927) during the 1922 Irish elections. (Photo by Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

With the signing of the Treaty, the World Congress of the Irish Race - designed to be an extravagant showcase of the solidarity and common purpose of the Irish race in the face of British aggression - was attended by pro- and anti-Treaty representatives and ended as a diplomatic embarrassment, Helene O’Keeffe

In mid-January 1922, as Ireland continued to debate the merits and disappointments of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, preparations were afoot in the Hotel Continental in Paris to receive almost 100 international delegates to the World Congress of the Irish Race.

This elaborate gathering, intended to forge durable links between Ireland and her diaspora, was first proposed by the Irish Republican Association of South Africa in February 1921. At the height of the War of Independence, the concept was entirely in line with Sinn Féin’s policy of seeking international recognition for the Republic and mobilising Irish emigrant communities abroad. In November 1921, Dáil Eireann’s envoy to France, Sean T. O’Kelly, was writing enthusiastically to Arthur Griffith about his ‘great hopes for the Congress,’ which would welcome delegates from more than fifteen countries and yield moral and material support for the pursuit of Irish independence. He later noted the dedication of New York’s, Thomas Hughes Kelly, Honorary Secretary of the Congress and the ‘untiring energies’ its organising secretary Katherine Hughes of Canada who devoted months of work to ‘carrying through plans laid down by the Executive at home’. Dáil Eireann’s Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Robert Brennan and Art O’Brien of the Irish Self Determination League of Great Britain were also heavily involved in the planning stages, and, as O’Brien’s secretary, Elizabeth Brennan, recalled, ‘in correspondence with practically every Irish organisation throughout the whole world’. Set up open on 21 January, the third anniversary of the declaration of Independence by Dáil Eireann, the Congress was designed to be an extravagant showcase of the solidarity and common purpose of the Irish Race in the face of British aggression.

By January 1922, however, the political situation in Ireland was entirely different. The Anglo-Irish Treaty had ended the war with Britain, and Sinn Féin was freshly split along pro and anti-Treaty lines. With arrangements for the Irish Race Congress so advanced, the new political circumstances called for reconsideration rather than cancellation of the week-long programme. Instead of a defiant declaration of unified Irish resistance, it would be an opportunity to discuss the promotion of Irish culture and industry, and coordinate diasporic support for the new Irish State. Arthur Griffith and his cabinet were hopeful, reported the Evening Telegraph on 18 January, that ‘the Treaty controversy would not any way damage the unity and usefulness of the historic gathering’, which ‘should be above all politics’. An unrealistic expectation, as it turned out.

The Irish Delegation 

Anxious to avoid the optics of a partisan delegation from Ireland, the Dáil Ministry proposed sending both pro and anti-Treaty representatives. Eoin MacNeill, Michael Hayes, Laurence O’Neill, Diarmuid Coffey and Douglas Hyde were nominated by the Cabinet, and de Valera chose Countess Markievicz, Mary MacSwiney, Donal O’Callaghan and Harry Boland to accompany him to Paris. But, as historian David Fitzpatrick observed: ‘Far from securing unity, this equitable division merely had the effect of transplanting the split from Dublin to Paris.’ Dissension in the ranks was clear from the outset, with little communication between the two sections, separate travel arrangements and an insistence on the division of expenses.

Eoin MacNeill’s preliminary report on the Congress was a catalogue of perceived slights. The pro-Treaty delegates did not receive the expected formal welcome by Sean T. O’Kelly and, to make matters worse, he was seen leaving the hotel with Harry Boland shortly after they arrived. The next insult was dealt at the inaugural banquet on Saturday evening, when O’Kelly invited de Valera to make a toast. The erstwhile ‘President of the Irish Republic’, delivered a rousing ‘party’ speech, while not one of MacNeill’s group was invited to speak. They complained bitterly to cabinet that the Irish envoy in Paris was, ‘for the duration of the congress’, operating ‘in close conjunction with the opponents of the Government.’ Conference organiser, Robert Brennan, had resigned his post in the Dáil foreign ministry when pro-Treatyite, Desmond Fitzgerald, was sent to Paris in his stead. He made the trip anyway, and arrived to find a ‘hot-bed of intrigue’, with ‘each side canvassing the delegates for support of their respective stands on the Treaty’.

The Best of Irish Culture

The political manoeuvring took place against the backdrop of an impressive cultural and literary programme. There were concerts of Irish music at the Hotel Continental, and productions of Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’ and Lady Gregory’s, ‘The Rising of the Moon’ in the palatial Salle Hoche. The month-long exhibition of Irish Art at Galerie Barbazanges included cavasses by John Lavery, Jack B. Yeats, Sean Keating and Paul Henry. Writing ten years later, O’Kelly declared that the Congress ‘showed the world, and showed France in particular, the great dormant artistic abilities of our people, and opened to them an intellectual and cultural vista that was before unknown to most of them.’ Delegates were offered an Irish-themed tour of the city on Sunday, and on Monday they heard what the Irish Independent called a ‘truly beautiful address on Irish literature’ by W.B. Yeats. Harry Boland was so impressed by line from Yeats’ paper, that he noted it in his diary: ‘Men may vote for falsehood but they truly die for truth’.

In the week when global newspapers were dominated by the death of Pope Benedict XV, some made room for comment on the attendance of Duke of Tetuan from Madrid who had been invited to preside at the ‘historic proceedings’ in Paris. A lineal descendant of The O’Donnell, one of the seventeenth-century Wild Geese, he was deemed a suitable figure head for the gathering of the scattered children of the Gael. Many of the anti-Treatyites, however, were less than impressed by the distinguished guest, who spoke little English and, in Brennan’s opinion, was ‘frankly puzzled at the whole proceedings’. Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne MacBride disapproved of the almost monarchical status bestowed upon the Duke, who, in Gonne’s opinion, knew nothing of Ireland except its horses.

Formal conference proceedings commenced on Monday and the daily sessions included papers and discussion on Irish language, literature, culture and economics. Even the more ‘uncontentious topics’ were influenced by the strong cross currents and of pro and anti-Treaty sentiment. The pro-Treaty delegates reported the ‘constant campaign of partisan manoeuvring’ by de Valera and his ‘adherents’ and ‘misrepresentation of every kind and at every point.’ Robert Brennan, on the other hand, insisted that MacNeill ‘injected an atmosphere and distrust into almost every phase of the discussion’. Some overseas representatives found the introduction of party politics distasteful with one Australian delegate exclaiming on Friday that ‘it would take five years to get the taste of this congress out of their mouths’.    

The most heated discussions were about the establishment of a new world organisation of the Irish race. In committee and private session, delegates clashed over the wording of its constitution. Ultimately, it was agreed that the objective of the organisation, to be named Fine Ghaedheal (family of the Gael), was ‘to assist the people of Ireland to achieve their national ideals, political, cultural and economic, to secure for Ireland her rightful place amongst the nations of the world, to foster amongst the Irish everywhere a knowledge of the Irish language, history, literature and general culture and to promote the trade, industry and commerce of Ireland.’ A Central Executive Council would be set up, with a central secretariat in Dublin.

During the final session on Saturday 28 January, de Valera was unanimously elected President of Fine Ghaedheal on the basis that it would never be used for party politics. The belated arrival of new ‘partisan’ delegates, appointed, as MacNeill bitterly pointed out, ‘by telegram and favouring de Valera’, facilitated the appointment of a governing body dominated by anti-Treatyites. So laudable a concept, Fine Gaedheal was stillborn and ineffective due to the unwillingness of the Provisional Government to support what was ostensibly a republican organisation, particularly after the appointment of convinced anti-Treatyite Robert Brennan as its permanent secretary. Many of the overseas delegates were equally disappointed by the ‘flagrant breach’ of de Valera’s commitment to ‘absolute political neutrality’ and in a letter to the anti-Treaty leader on 31 January 1922, representatives from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and ‘the Argentine’, and pledged to neither communicate with nor make payments towards the cost of the Secretariate. ‘What might have become a great movement’, Brennan lamented, was ‘wrecked on the rocks of party bias’.

The Congress had supported plans for an Irish Race Olympic, the ‘Tailteann Games’, at Croke Park in August 1922, but they were scuppered by civil war, and the next Irish Race Congress, fixed for 1925 in Dublin, never materialised. And so the name ‘Fine Gaedheal’, repurposed by supporters of the Treaty in 1933, was only real legacy of the Irish Race Congress of 1922. The redundant extravaganza, intended to demonstrate Irish unanimity, was little more than a diplomatic embarrassment, reflecting the deepening divisions in Irish politics and the gathering clouds of civil war.

  – This article by Helene O'Keeffe, UCC School of History, was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'The Road to Civil War', published 31 January 2022 – 

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University College Cork, Cork,