The Irish Race Congress 21-28 January 1922

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), News, Volume 9

The idea of holding a world congress of the ‘Irish race’ originated with the Irish Republican Association of South Africa in February 1921. Preliminary work was undertaken by Art O’Brien of the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain, and Robert Brennan, under-secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Second Dáil cabinet. It was decided to open the congress in Paris on 21 January 1922, the third anniversary of the establishment of the Irish Republic by Dáil Éireann. The original inspiration for the congress was mainly political. The South Africans who conceived the idea had as one of their principal aims the international recognition of the Irish Republic and the withdraw! of British troops from Ireland. The political agenda for the congress was supplemented by a cultural and economic one, and as preparations were completed in December 1921, a great and proud demonstration of the unity and versatility of the Irish at home and abroad seemed in prospect.
This happy picture was tragically altered when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London on 6 December 1921, and approved by the Dáil on 7 January 1922. The Sinn Féin movement was irrevocably split into two factions, one supporting the Treaty and the other opposing. Despite all this, the contending parties agreed that the Race Congress must go ahead in Paris on the appointed date. Ten delegates were chosen to represent Ireland. The composition of the delegation, which included Éamonn de Valera, Eoin Mac Neill and Douglas Hyde, did not reflect the strength of the opposing wings of Sinn Féin. Six of the delegates were committed Republicans while only three could be regarded as supporters of the Treaty. The split in Sinn Féin was reflected in the travel arrangements of the delegates: the two opposing groups made their way to and from Paris separately.
The congress was an impressive affair. Substantial delegations were present from all parts of the world where Irish people or people of Irish descent were found. All the continents were represented. A big delegation arrived from Argentina, others from Brazil, Chile and Mexico. There was even a delegation from Java. The largest group came from England, while all available Irish envoys abroad joined the other delegates present for the major social event of the congress, an inaugural banquet given by Sean T. O’Kelly, the Irish envoy to France. The cultural aspects of the congress featured some memorable lectures given by W.B. Yeats on Anglo-Irish literature, and Jack B. Yeats on Irish art and Irish language and literature. A concert of Irish music was given as was a poetry recitation. The O’Donnell, Duke of Tetuan, a Spanish delegate was elected Honorary President.
What was intended to be a demonstration of the common purposes of the Irish race tragically reflected the disharmony among Irish people on the Treaty issue. A divisive note was sounded from the start when, at the inaugural banquet, de Valera proposed a toast to the Republic. This deeply offended some of the Irish and foreign delegates who regarded de Valera’s gesture as giving the congress a Republican colouring. Professor Michael Hayes, one of the Irish pro-Treaty delegates, was angry that neither he nor Eoin Mac Neill was asked to speak at the dinner. He accused de Valera of trying to capture the congress for the Republican point of view. Most of the sessions were dominated by conflict between delegates who found the Treaty acceptable and those who did not.
It soon emerged that a strong-minded majority of the active delegates were decisively against the Treaty. It also emerged that these delegates were determined to use the congress in any way they could to express the Republican point of view. They succeeded in having a resolution passed which reflected unfavourably on the Treaty, and which aspired to an independent Irish Republic.
One major decision was to establish ‘Fine Ghaedheal’, an organisation to represent Irish people throughout the world. De Valera understood the importance for himself and his cause of controlling Fine Ghaedheal, and using it as a vehicle for Republican propaganda. He skilfully engineered his own election as chairman of the new organisation. He and his friends saw to it that a committee favourable to the Republican point of view was elected. Although he accepted the chairmanship as a non-partisan figure, he did all he could to make Fine Ghaedheal an adjunct of his own political movement. Eoin Mac Neill was later to declare that de Valera had destroyed the potential of Fine Ghedheal as a vehicle for expressing the unity of the Irish world-wide by making it a purely Republican body. Mac Neill’s argument was reinforced when, after the congress had ended, de Valera imposed Robert Brennan, his close friend and ally, as permanent secretary of the congress.
In the light of these developments, the new Provisional Government showed little enthusiasm for nurturing Fine Ghaedheal. When de Valera asked the Dáil to provide funds for the organisation, the government understandably put obstacles in his way. As political divisions deepened, Fine Ghaedheal became little more than a purely Republican party organisation and its limited activities had to be funded from Republican resources. With the financial decline of Sinn Féin in the mid-nineteen twenties, Fine Ghaedheal faded into obscurity. Thus the only legacy of the Irish Race Congress did not endure.

Paul Murray is a Government of Ireland Scholar at NUI, Galway.


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