‘In spite of all impediments’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Volume 7

Addressing the Dáil on 27 October 1919, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Count George Plunkett, reported ‘a steady progress’ in the development of Ireland’s foreign relations ‘in spite of all impediments’. These impediments were many and they hampered all Dáil Éireann agents abroad. On his first visit to the United States as the President of Dáil Éireann, Éamon de Valera was smuggled on board a liner at Liverpool and spent the passage as a stowaway suffering from seasickness in the lamplighter’s cabin. Such were the conditions facing the statesmen and diplomats of the first Dáil who went abroad to seek international recognition for the Irish Republic.

Ireland’s unluckiest diplomat

At least when de Valera arrived in New York he was able to disembark, unlike the unfortunate Osmond Grattan Esmonde, a roving Sinn Féin diplomat, who, on arrival in Sydney, Australia, found himself unable to land due to a dockers’ strike. His vessel was promptly towed out into the middle of Sydney harbour where he and his fellow passengers remained stranded for two months until the strike ended.
Esmonde must have been one of Ireland’s unluckiest diplomats. When he arrived in New Zealand in March 1921 he was again prevented from landing, this time due to his Sinn Féin connections. He had to be smuggled ashore by sympathetic members of the local police force. Some time later he was deported from the Fiji Islands and on arrival in Canada he was promptly jailed for sedition because of his Sinn Féin associations. After conducting his own trial he was declared innocent by the judge but found guilty by the jury and was told to leave the country. But the unfortunate Esmonde could not leave Canada without one further mishap. The Secret Service agent detailed to keep track of him committed suicide in Regina, Alberta on 28 June 1921. Sailing from New York back to Ireland in early July, Esmonde reported to Dublin that so far on this leg of his journey, he had ‘no difficulties whatsoever’.
Esmonde’s experiences, and those of his contemporaries, are reproduced in volume one of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series (DIFP) which covers the years 1919 to 1922 and has recently been published by the Royal Irish Academy. The volume is the first in a series covering the major events in Ireland’s foreign relations since 1919 from first hand accounts and contemporary documents. It is an essential primary source for those interested in the history of twentieth-century Ireland. The project is a joint venture between the Royal Irish Academy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and is based at the National Archives in Dublin. This article uses the material contained in DIFP volume one to look at the experiences of the first generation of Irish diplomats as they sought international recognition for the Irish Republic and all quotes are from documents contained in the volume.

Mission to Moscow

Diplomacy is normally associated with the cloak and dagger pursuits of a John le Carré novel or the interminable negotiating sessions that led to the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland. Irish diplomacy in the early 1920s was no different. In 1920 Patrick McCartan was sent, with the sanction of Éamon de Valera, on a secret mission to Russia to obtain recognition for the Irish Republic and to develop Irish-Russian trade. Instead he found himself caught amidst the chaos of the emerging Soviet state. On one occasion, calling to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, McCartan was informed that his contact, Mr Nuratova, was ‘in a sanatorium for a rest’ and so McCartan decided to wait a week or so for his return. Some time later, McCartan found out that ‘the sanatorium in which Nuratova was happened to be the prison’. McCartan slowly realised what the Soviet system was about, one despatch began with the chilling statement that ‘nobody in Russia pretends to think that such a thing as liberty exists there’. McCartan’s mission failed because neither recognition nor trade concessions were obtained but the two detailed reports on conditions in Russia that McCartan submitted on his return to Dublin remain as a vivid account of conditions in Soviet Russia.

Treaty negotiations

When it comes to serious negotiations, the six months from the truce in the Anglo-Irish War to the signing of the Treaty on 6 December 1922 provide the most important documents for volume one of the DIFP series. The chapter on the Treaty is the first account of the complete negotiations (including the months running up to the truce) using solely Irish documentary sources. Starting with the abortive peace mission of Archbishop Patrick Clune in December 1920 and concluding with the acceptance of the Treaty by Dáil Éireann on 7 January 1922, the volume shows the development of the Irish negotiating position in London through memoranda containing the demands of the Irish delegates and through the personal and confidential correspondence between the delegates and the remaining members of the Dáil Cabinet in Dublin. Much of this material has never been published before and never as a series. Previously, researchers relied on Frank Pakenham’s Peace by Ordeal, first published in 1935. Now they can work with the actual documents set in chronological order and see just how the Irish fared in London from day to day as the negotiations progressed. The weariness of the final negotiating sessions is vividly captured as Collins and Griffith tried to get last minute revisions made to the draft treaty and Robert Barton’s notes record how after it was finally signed the delegates shook hands and the conference ended at 2.20am on 6 December 1921.
It would not have done justice simply to reproduce all the documents pertinent to the negotiations as typescript. In a number of cases the atmosphere of the period is captured by reproducing facsimiles of documents. A document annotated by Collins is the most interesting. Dated just after 1am on 2 December 1921, it shows the pressure of the negotiations in their final phase on the Irish delegates. Reproducing the documents in facsimile allows the reader to see how Collins’s mind was working, through his annotations, as he read the document. Using a thick blue pencil Collins crossed out the clauses to which he objected or noted where redrafts were necessary. Seventy-seven years later the imprint of the pencil on the following page can still be seen on the original. Whilst reading the document, Collins noted in detail his preferred phrasing of sections of the draft treaty, one example of his attention to detail is the change of the title British Empire to British Commonwealth of Nations and a large blue question mark querying the inclusion of ‘Northern Ireland’ as a term in the Treaty. Collins may well have realised that if he and his fellow delegates signed the Treaty and it contained this term they were recognising partition.
One side to the Treaty negotiations that has not been reproduced in DIFP but which is worth mentioning is the social side, the drinks receptions and the dinner parties. This is not to suggest that the delegates lived extravagantly, but they did get the furniture and provisions for Hans Place and Cadogan Gardens from the best shops in Knightsbridge and Sloane Square. The receipts of the delegation remain in a little consulted collection in the National Archives in Dublin. They might not be of much research value, but some interesting documents can be found. One is a receipt from Harrods (right) showing in detail the purchases for a delegation party. The receipt is not included in DIFP volume one, but it gives a very different picture of the Treaty negotiations to the late night conferences at 10 Downing Street. The Irish delegation was slow to pay its bills and Harrods had to send a reminder to the delegation’s accountant in January 1922 to ensure that the bill was paid. It is safe to conclude that he and his colleagues had other things on his mind by then.

Dining for Ireland?

The party atmosphere of November 1921 in London was replicated on very few occasions in the young Irish diplomatic service. Indeed, the notion of ‘dining for Ireland’, a popular term amongst Irish diplomats in the 1990s, would not have entered the minds of the first generation of Irish diplomats. In seeking recognition for the Irish Republic they were faced with a hard and generally unrewarding task. Ireland’s first diplomatic mission was set up at the Grand Hotel in Paris where Sean T Ó Ceallaigh and George Gavan Duffy tried from early 1919 to get the Irish case heard before the Paris peace conference. Both men soon realised that their attempt to get recognition had failed and began to cultivate the French press which had become pro-British and very anti-Irish since 1916. Their mission was expensive and frustrating as the cost of living and working in Paris mounted and the press turned a deaf ear to the Irish. Ó Ceallaigh, exasperated, wrote to Cathal Brugha looking for

a few thousand pounds—don’t be too greatly shocked by the light way I speak of it for the purpose of smoothing a passage to the presence of great men here and of securing the ear of the press. You can get nothing whatsoever done otherwise.

That was in March 1919. By September the strain was so much that Ó Ceallaigh and Gavan Duffy were no longer on speaking terms. Ó Ceallaigh sent a peace message to Gavan Duffy, the terms of which explain the ill-will between the two men:

reflection made me wonder if I take you too literally when you declare so frequently that our work here just now is not serious, that we can do little more than mark time till we are recalled, that we are wasting money…it always makes me ratty to be teased about doing things in which I see no importance but in excuse I must plead that I sincerely thought you also saw no importance in these things judging by your own words.’

The two men made up their differences, but the poor relationship between them remained and it was not until Ó Ceallaigh went to Rome in the summer of 1920 to recuperate from a protracted illness that matters improved at the Irish office in Paris.

Dev in America

It was a different story in America where de Valera began a coast to coast speaking tour to raise funds for the Irish Republic and where he came face to face with the self-seeking of the Irish-American political community who sought to silence him. He wrote to Griffith of how he had ‘got the reputation here of being a very stubborn man’, but that of his two companions, Harry Boland was ‘liked by everybody’ and Sean Nunan was ‘a legion’. Nunan, writing to his close friend Michael Collins, felt that de Valera was ‘beating them [the Irish-Americans] and in spite of a lot of jealousy will come out on top’. De Valera saw the fundamental difference between himself and the Irish Americans as being that ‘they, being Americans first would sacrifice Irish interests if need be to American interests—we, Irish first would do the reverse’. At times this difference would lead to confrontations; one anti-de Valera group

sent to Harry [Boland] to tell him that he would not be living up to the principles of Wolfe Tone if he did not leave me [de Valera] immediately and I suppose denounce me for “lowering the flag”. Well his messenger was near to finding himself thro’ a window of the Waldorf [Hotel].

The significance of this, de Valera felt, was that they were ‘prepared to do the damage to the cause which such action would have done for the sake of a purely personal triumph’. It was a rude awakening for the Sinn Féin representatives sent to America, with Nunan writing to Collins ‘God knows you hardly know who to trust out here. Everybody seems to be out for some game of his own.’
Back in Europe, Michael MacWhite, a native of County Cork and a former French foreign legionnaire, proved to be one of the most adaptive of Ireland’s first generation of diplomats. Wearing the uniform of a legionnaire sporting his military decorations and married to a Danish model and painter he cut a dashing figure in post-war Paris where he was a member of Ó Ceallaigh’s team. On one occasion, uninvited though in full legionnaire’s uniform, he joined an Armistice Day parade in the French capital. Because of his military background he was permitted to remain in the parade and to lay a wreath in honour of the dead on behalf of the government of Ireland. It was a valuable propaganda victory for the internationally unrecognised first Dáil, and it was the type of action at which MacWhite excelled.

European reaction to the Civil War

Posted to Geneva in 1921, MacWhite later became Ireland’s first Permanent Representative at the League of Nations from 1923 to 1929, thereafter serving in Washington to 1938. During the Civil War he sent monthly reports back to Dublin on how the European press and public opinion viewed the conflict in Ireland. In one report he commented that ‘in the whole of the European press there is no good word in favour of the Irregulars…the Provisional Government is, if anything, blamed for dealing too leniently with its adversaries’. The destruction of the Four Courts and other buildings in Dublin occasioned by the defiance by the anti-Treaty IRA of the newly-established Free State received similar comments, with MacWhite reporting how the anti-Treaty forces were being ‘compared to the French Communists who in 1871 attempted to destroy the Louvre and other public buildings’. It is important to point out that this was before the policy of executions was adopted by the Provisional Government. Continental opinion was less supportive of the executions and there was some wavering in support for the government of the Irish Free State, but no European paper changed sides to support the anti-Treaty cause.
Volume one of the DIFP series ends in December 1922 as the Irish Free State came into being in the middle of the Civil War. The volume shows the rich nature of archival sources that now exist for Irish diplomatic history in the 1920s and only hint at the vast possibilities for future research into Irish foreign policy. In subsequent volumes of the series it is hoped to open up to a wider audience the redefinition of Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s, Irish neutrality during the Second World War and Ireland’s foreign policy at the United Nations and in Europe during the Cold War.

McGilligan’s diplomatic shuffle

The series shows how Irish diplomats safeguarded Ireland’s national interests in a volatile international order. But equally, the editors of the series want to show that it was not all legalistic negotiations over trade matters or arguments over the revision of the 1921 Treaty. In a small diplomatic service, like that of Ireland, personalities and idiosyncrasies mattered and it is these that the DIFP series also seeks to capture. A story about Patrick McGilligan, Minister for External Affairs from 1927 to 1932 is a good example. A poor speaker of French, at one international gathering McGilligan made sure to check his place at the formal dinner in advance. On finding that he was seated between two fluent French speakers who knew no English he carefully swapped his place setting with one from another table to ensure that he sat between two English-speaking delegates. It is yet another illustration of how, in spite of all impediments, McGilligan and the Irish diplomatic service sought to safeguard the international position of the Irish Free State in the 1920s and beyond. The DIFP series will make the record of their work available to all those who are interested in the international relations, history and politics of twentieth-century Ireland.

Michael Kennedy is the Executive Editor of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

Further reading:

R. Fanning, M. Kennedy, D. Keogh, E. O’Halpin (eds.), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, volume one 1919 -1922 (Dublin 1998).

M. Kennedy, ‘“Diplomats cannot be politicians”: the professionalisation of the Irish foreign service, 1919-1922’, in Irish Studies in International Affairs, volume 8 (1997).

D. Keogh, Ireland and Europe 1919-1989 (Cork 1989).


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