Felix M. Larkin
When President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint meeting of the Dáil and Seanad during his state visit to Ireland in 1963, he said: “No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States.” Likewise, the 1916 rebels acknowledged the support of Ireland’s “exiled children in America” in their iconic Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
America and the 1916 Rising is the theme of this new book by Professor Robert Schmuhl, of the University of Notre Dame, and he incorporates the phrase “exiled children” into its title. His thesis is that “the roots of the Rising grew in US soil and that the American reaction proved critical to determining its consequences”.
He contextualises his thesis by pointing out that, circa 1916, “an estimated one-fifth of the total American population of nearly 92 million possessed Irish heritage to one degree or another”.
If, however, the American people believed in the cause of Irish freedom, this belief was not shared, as Schmuhl shows, by their president, Woodrow Wilson. Despite his professed sympathies “with men struggling for freedom”, Wilson kept his distance from 1916 and subsequent developments in Ireland – and refused to support the Irish demand, made on behalf of the First Dáil, for a hearing at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
Schmuhl identifies two factors behind Wilson’s attitude. The first was his Ulster Presbyterian antecedents, which made him wary of Irish Catholics. The second was his conviction that Gladstonian Home Rule within the United Kingdom was the answer to the Irish question. Gladstone was Wilson’s great hero and exemplar, and Schmuhl quotes one of Wilson’s friends as saying: “Wilson is another Gladstone, and he feels it.”
Schmuhl clearly despises Wilson’s hypocrisy on Ireland, but is this entirely fair? Realpolitik made it impossible for Wilson to intervene in the internal affairs of an ally (and Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom).
It was, and remained until Clinton’s presidency, an ironclad rule of American diplomacy not to intervene in the internal affairs of Britain and Ireland. Wilson could not be expected to break that rule in favour of Irish rebels who had claimed America’s adversaries in the First World War as “gallant allies”.
Wilson is one of four individuals that Schmuhl uses as lenses through which to view America’s role in Irish affairs in 1916 and afterwards. The others are John Devoy, Éamon de Valera and Joyce Kilmer.
Devoy, an old Fenian exiled to America in 1871, helped to plan and fund the Rising. Schmuhl depicts him as a single-minded autocrat, with whom many – including de Valera, also somewhat dictatorial – found it difficult to work. He always had to be in control.
De Valera, born in New York, emerged from the ashes of the Rising as Ireland’s foremost 20th-Century political leader. Schmuhl disposes of the myth that his American birth saved him from execution in 1916. Dev was just lucky to have been court-martialled late, after the adverse effect of the executions began to be recognised by the authorities. However, the wily de Valera was not averse to playing the ‘American card’ to impress gullible Americans – as when he told Kennedy during the latter’s 1963 visit to Ireland that “because of his American citizenship, the British had been reluctant to kill him”.
Kilmer – the least well-known of Schmuhl’s quartet – was an American poet and journalist who, despite having no Irish blood, was seduced by the romance of what he called “a poetic revolution – indeed, a poets’ revolution”.
His sympathetic feature articles in the New York Times Magazine complemented very full coverage of the Rising in the news columns of that and other US newspapers. Schmuhl tells us that the Rising was reported on the front page of the Times, for example, for a remarkable 14 straight days. Thus was American opinion on the Rising shaped.
When America declared war on Germany in 1917, Kilmer enlisted in the military – because, according to Robert Holliday, his literary executor, “he believed in the nobility of war”.
In this, he mirrored the sentiments of the 1916 rebels.
Killed in action
He had by then so completely identified with Ireland that he opted to join the 165th Infantry Regiment which had earlier been known as the ‘Fighting Sixty-Ninth’ and was composed largely of Irish-Americans. He was killed in action in France on July 30, 1918.
His story is the most extraordinary, and therefore the most intriguing, of those told in this important and engaging book.