The Crack-Up: Ireland's Quest for Self-Determination, with Christopher L. Pastore

Jan 30, 2019

In the third podcast in The Crack-Up series, which looks at how 1919 shaped the modern world, Ted Widmer discusses the story of the Irish Declaration of Independence with fellow historian Christopher Pastore. Although the declaration was signed in 1919, Ireland's quest for self-determination would last for decades. How did America influence these developments? What did the Irish leaders think about nationalism so soon after World War I?

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, our occasional podcast series about the events of the year 1919, and we are very lucky today to have Chris Pastore with us. He is a professor at the University of Albany, part of the State University of New York, and he's enjoying a year-long fellowship in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland at Trinity College.

Chris, can you tell us more about your fellowship?

CHRIS PASTORE: Yes. I'm at Trinity College doing a fellowship called the [Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Fellowship]. It's co-funded by the Marie Curie fund, which is funded by the European Commission, and the Trinity College Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute, which is its own institute based at Trinity College.

I'm working on a number of different projects, ranging over a big time period, but I'm working on a book. Some of it has to do with Irish history, some of it has to do with Atlantic history more broadly. I'm here for 12 months. I got here last August, and I'll be here through August 2019.

TED WIDMER: For the purpose of our audience, you're a very welcome guest indeed because you wrote a fantastic piece on Irish history, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Irish Declaration of Independence, and the piece ran in The New York Times. Can you tell us a little bit about the actual event that you wrote about?

CHRIS PASTORE: On January 21, 2019, I was writing about January 21, 1919. That was the day of the first Dáil Éireann assembly. On January 21, 1919, the first Dáil, 27 elected members convened of the Sinn Féin party. They announced four different documents: one was a Declaration of Independence; one was a "Message to the Free Nations of the World" or to the League of Nations; then what they called their "Democratic Programme"; then they also announced a provisional constitution.

This day was really charged with energy because it was part of this spirit of "anything is possible" in 1919. The ink is still drying from the armistice ending World War I. It's at that point where Ireland is seeking its independence from Britain. These 27 members get together, and they say: "We are independent. We're declaring independence on this day." So it was a big day.

TED WIDMER: To what extent was this a calculated decision, and how much of it was just kind of spontaneous, people from the many different Irish parties getting together and realizing they had a chance to move their agenda forward if they actually wrote out some of these kinds of documents?

CHRIS PASTORE: It very much was a calculated decision. In the election of December 1918, the Sinn Féin party had pretty much swept; 73 of 105 seats had gone to members of the Sinn Féin party, although only 27 members made it to the first Dáil because most of the rest were in jail. It was a calculated decision because they knew this was the moment to act. With the League of Nations meeting, they knew that this was the time to shine, and they knew that they could get their voice heard and that they could become an actor on the world stage.

One of the buzzwords coming out of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points was this idea of self-determination.

TED WIDMER: That's right.

CHRIS PASTORE: And in that spirit of self-determination, the Irish people knew that they could assert themselves on the world stage.

This is on the 21st. The people within the Sinn Féin Party and even behind the scenes were working to make this happen.

For instance, Arthur Griffith—he was a writer, he was a newspaperman, he was the founding father of the Sinn Féin party—was in prison. Just a couple of days later, January 23, 1919, he wrote a letter from Gloucester Prison. In that, he was adamant that Ireland needed to make inroads at the Versailles Peace Conference. He wanted men from Ireland and from America to attend and to support the Irish cause. He wrote in that letter that he wanted to secure the sympathy of countries, particularly, he said, "small" American states like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, because he wanted them to again sympathize with Ireland in their quest for self-determination.

He was very calculating in the way he wanted to go about that. For instance, in his letter he said: "We need to target Liberia, we need to target Haiti. We need to let them know that we're one of the only European nations not to support the slave trade."

TED WIDMER: Fascinating.

CHRIS PASTORE: He named specific Irishmen around Europe that he knew could follow through and talk up the Irish cause to various European states.


CHRIS PASTORE: And he was very keen on winning over Woodrow Wilson. He thought that Woodrow Wilson would stand up for Ireland.

In Wilson's internal letters he was sympathetic to the Irish cause, but politically he was wary of alienating Britain, and so in the end he would not support Irish independence. But Arthur Griffith wanted to win over Wilson because he knew that Wilson was their best hope, and so one of the things he actually wrote in that letter was, "We need to mobilize the poets"—the Irish poets, right?

TED WIDMER: Wonderful.

CHRIS PASTORE: This is a great literary nation, Ireland. "We need to mobilize the poets, and through their verse they will win him over and remind him," he wrote, "that he has the opportunity and the duty of giving the world what he said, true peace and freedom."

TED WIDMER: It's great you mention the poets because in many ways this was an act of literary imagination, projecting the idea of an independent Ireland before it really existed, and yet one that was rooted in America's own history. We had a Declaration of Independence, of course, but most European countries do not have one, so it was really a stroke of marketing genius on the part of the Irish to say, "Here's our Declaration of Independence also."

CHRIS PASTORE: Yes, absolutely, because they knew that appealing to America would only help their cause.


CHRIS PASTORE: So, with a declaration of independence that echoed in many ways the American Declaration of Independence in its wording and in its structure they knew that they could galvanize support from Irish American citizens.

In the process, they very much looked to America to raise money. They were raising millions of dollars through various Irish organizations based in New York and throughout America. Also, Éamon de Valera, the first Irish president, went to America to win over Congress. So in many ways they were looking to America for that financial support.

Now, others—although these organizations were saying, "Our money is being used specifically for humanitarian aid"—were arming the Irish as well in America. So at various times there were guns being shipped directly in to Irish fighters. At one point in Hoboken, New Jersey, the police seized a ship that had 500 machine guns loaded onto it that was bound for Ireland. So, in some cases Americans were supporting the cause through arms as well.

TED WIDMER: How inconvenient is this Irish declaration for Wilson in January of 1919? He has put forward these very lofty goals for the world, including self-determination, as you said, and he has talked a lot about democracy. But is this an early sign that 1919 is going to be a pretty hard year? Because if everyone on earth wants self-determination, that's going to cause a lot of headaches for the established sovereign states that are already in shattered condition after World War I.

CHRIS PASTORE: Absolutely. This is the fine line that Woodrow Wilson is trying to tread. He's speaking about self-determination in this high-minded language, but at the same time, when push comes to shove, he's also trying to maintain alliances with Britain, with France, places that have these enormous empires. The implications of self-determination are raising hackles across Europe as well.

Even beyond Europe, you have people like Kemal Atatürk, who is all about self-determination, a global self-determination. He's really espousing this idea of international cooperation, but in his effort to create what he called a "Turkey of the Turks," he's not giving the Kurds the state that they want. It's back and forth; there are winners and there are losers in this game. Ireland is sensitive to that, and they're actually doing a pretty good job of trying to walk that political line.

TED WIDMER: I suppose one of the great complexities of Irish independence and self-determination is that a chunk of Irish people in the North—from a different religious tradition, but they are Irish—aren't that excited about independence. They like union with the United Kingdom. So who gets to say—as you put it very well in your piece, "What exactly is the 'self' and who is 'determining' it?"

CHRIS PASTORE: Absolutely. This is something that vexes Irish efforts toward independence, this sense that not everyone is onboard in a unified way. And this is actually a parallel to the Americans' quest for independence. We tend to think of American independence as a unified American people against a British oppressor or something like this. But it's as much a civil war as it is a war against an outside force.

So this is a similar thing that's happening in Ireland, where you've got the Southern part of Ireland, largely Catholic, seeking independence, but you've got a Protestant North that's two-thirds Protestant and that is closely aligned with Britain and does not want independence in the same way. There's a tension there.

Ultimately, this quest for independence ends up sliding into civil war. The split between the North and the South is something that again complicates the quest for self-determination, going all the way into the 21st century.

TED WIDMER: That's right.

On the day of the declaration, what is the immediate effect? Are there people around the world cheering on the Irish? Does it release a lot of frustration from the English, who are negotiating at Versailles? How does the declaration play out?

CHRIS PASTORE: In 1919 with the declaration of independence there is a strong celebration of finally declaring independence and bringing something that had been worked for ever since the Easter Rising of 1916. Three years later there's the declaration of Irish independence, and there's this belief that the sacrifice for those who died in the Easter Rising of 1916 that something is finally coming to fruition.

It's around 1919 that a group called the Irish Volunteers joined with a couple of other Irish militant groups to form the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In 1920 there is the Government of Ireland Act that partitions Ireland between the North and the South. This gives both the North and the South what's called "home rule," which allows them a certain degree of autonomy.

The North agreed to this. They thought, Okay, we have more autonomy, and we're still within the United Kingdom. However, the South did not. They wanted a united Ireland, and they wanted a fully independent Ireland. Fighting ensues. In 1921 this fighting between Britain and Ireland is continuing until with the help of the United States a truce is called. And they create in 1921 something called the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This creates something called the Irish Provisional Government. It's functioning as an independent state.

There are two key characters playing a role in this, Éamon de Valera, the president, and another named Michael Collins. De Valera does not agree to this treaty and resigns as president. Collins does agree to it. With that, the IRA splits into two factions. There's a pro-Treaty faction, and that pro-Treaty faction forms the national army, and then there's an anti-Treaty faction, the IRA.

With those two factions by the summer of 1922 they slide into civil war, and they're fighting. On August 22, 1922, Collins dies. He is ambushed in County Cork. A battle ensues for anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour, and Collins ends up dying in this ambush.

But the provisional government ultimately forms something called the Irish Free State. This is getting kind of complicated here. De Valera is in prison. There are about 11,000 IRA members in prison. By 1924 they're released, and de Valera is one of the last to be released. But this Irish Free State makes some important gains. They join the League of Nations in 1923. In 1925 they again affirm partition. In 1931 they earn independent status as a British Dominion.

In 1932 de Valera starts a new party called Fianna Fáil. The Fianna Fáil Party takes control. They introduce a new constitution. In 1937 they establish Éire or Ireland.

In 1938 Britain and Ireland sign a trade agreement. By 1939 they finally come to an agreement, although there's bombing going on up until World War II, and then it's after World War II that Ireland in 1949 becomes fully independent.

TED WIDMER: That's true self-determination, finally 30 years later, in 1949.

CHRIS PASTORE: Yes, in 1949, so it's 30 years later Ireland is finally independent but still not unified. They are still vexed by this tension between North and South. That's still part of the story.

TED WIDMER: If I were to ask one last question, how would you evaluate the deeds and the documents of January 21, 1919, in this very long history—it's a 700-year history in a way for the Irish to claim back self-determination by their own definition—how important were those four documents that came out that day?

CHRIS PASTORE: They vary in importance. I think this Message to the Free Nations of the World—the League of Nations—was kind of a forceful message, saying, "We're here, and we want to be part of this world order."

The Democratic Programme was much less a program, less a systematic policy document or something like this. It was more of a grand vision for the future.

But the Declaration of Independence was important, because again it's evoking America's moral authority; it's tapping American money—

TED WIDMER: Which helps.

CHRIS PASTORE: —and also the motivation of Irish American citizens.


CHRIS PASTORE: So that Declaration of Independence is very important, right?

If we think of 1919 as well as bringing about a new era of international relations, a new rationalized, legal regime for the world, then something like a declaration of independence is speaking to that.

TED WIDMER: That's right.

CHRIS PASTORE: It's speaking to this new order, this new legal order for making global decisions. One of the lasting goals of 1919 is to create a lasting peace, a lasting peace around the world. So these documents are in many ways speaking to that.

TED WIDMER: That's right. And the ideas of people living in the correct borders with their own sovereign governments will be more likely to be peaceful in the long run than an unhappy people, and I think the Irish are trying to say that.

CHRIS PASTORE: Yes, absolutely. But at the same time, they worded these documents very carefully. They were intended to—people within their own borders, that would maintain peace, but also being willing to look beyond, looking for international alliances, looking for opportunities for international cooperation.

This is what Ireland was doing. This is what other people were doing. Even Atatürk, who made some missteps, was saying, "We don't want a 'selfish' form of self-determination, we want something that is cooperative."

TED WIDMER: That's very helpful, Chris, because there is so much über-nationalism in the air right now, and this is certainly nationalism, but it's within a set of boundaries of what nationalism should be.

CHRIS PASTORE: Absolutely. In its documents, Ireland was very specific about its role in being what it called a "gateway" to the Atlantic, that it was this bridge that was connecting Europe and America. It was a place that capitalized on its island-ness.

Woodrow Wilson as one of his Fourteen Points said that we need absolute freedom of the seas. This is something that will create a lasting peace. And Ireland drew upon that, saying that it naturally looked to the ocean, like self-determination was predicated on its island-ness as it functioned as this gateway to the Atlantic, as this connecting point.

Even if you look at 1919, it was in March 1919 that the first telephonic trans-Atlantic broadcast via Marconi wireless was sent from County Kerry to Newfoundland. It was in June 1919 that the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight went from Newfoundland to Galway. This is happening in 1919, so Ireland is very much this bridge of the Atlantic and this jumping-off point, not only for material communication but for diplomacy as well.

TED WIDMER: I suppose since we're on the phone between Ireland and the United States we're once again reliving something that happened in 1919.

CHRIS PASTORE: Absolutely, although the troubles we had trying to connect, it seems like not much has improved.

TED WIDMER: Well, Chris, you've really helped us understand some tough history, a lot of things happening inside Dublin and inside Ireland and inside Europe all at the same time. Your article really explained clearly to an American audience but I hope also to your colleagues in Dublin a very interesting transitional period in Ireland, so thank you so much for taking a few minutes with us today and going back into your piece.

CHRIS PASTORE: Thanks for having me.

TED WIDMER: Talk to you soon, Chris.

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