The formation of the Irish White Cross


In the early months of 1920, prominent Americans came together to bring international attention to Ireland’s campaign for independence. Their belief in the rights of small nations and their desire for peace in the years following World War I led many non-ethnic Irish to support the cause of Irish self-determination. What started as a series of protests turned into an investigation, an investigation in Ireland and ultimately led to the raising of $ 5 million in aid distributed in Ireland by the Irish White Cross.

Reports with statistics and first-hand testimony were used by journalists to highlight the Irish case and what have been described as “conditions”. Work began in the early months of 1920 and gained momentum as the situation in Ireland deteriorated. The year would become known as “the year of terror” as new recruits were enlisted in the police force and an army of volunteers engaged in guerrilla warfare.

The mastermind behind the establishment of the American Committee on Conditions in Ireland was Dr William J. Maloney, a Scotsman, who in 1920 was professor of nervous diseases at Fordam University in New York. He describes himself as “person on the move” but according to Kelly Anne Reynolds, who researched this enigmatic figure, he was “one of the most complex figures in the Irish Revolution”. Recipient of a British Army Military Cross, he joined Oswald Garrison Villard, editor-in-chief of New York-based The Nation newspaper in calling for a committee of 100 “fair citizens” to champion the cause of Ireland.

The aim was to put “the Irish case before the court of the civilized world”.

Senators, church leaders, business leaders, academics, writers, lawyers and union officials, numbering 150 from 36 states in the United States, responded. The Nation owner and Oswald’s mother, Helen Frances Garrison Villard, who had been a member of the National Women’s Convention for Equal Voting and Founder of the Women’s Peace Society, joined the committee.

Several of the women members were leaders of the National Women’s Party who that year successfully campaigned for the 19th Amendment, “that the right to vote could no longer be denied to citizens of the United States on the basis of the sex”. They have now turned to defend Ireland. They included Elizabeth Sheldon Rogers, Abby Scott Baker who was the party’s political and press chair, Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Women’s Journal, Zona Gale, novelist, journalist and playwright who would win the first Pulitzer Prize for theater, and author Mary Austin, who has written a host of popular books, including A Woman of Genius. Anne Martin, a former university professor and the party’s first national president, was the first woman to run for the US Senate. She was also one of the few members of the committee to be Irish American.

Others who joined the cause were Kenyton Hayden Rector, Ohio’s first female architect, Harriott Staton Blatch, founder of the Autonomous Women’s Equality League which had introduced monster suffrage parades to the United States, and Lucy Branham, a legal activist in addition to joining the Irish cause, he was executive secretary of the American Society for Cultural Relations with Russia.

The committee also included Labor activists Emma Steghagen of the Women’s Trade Union League and Rose Schneidermann, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Anna Garlin Spencer, the first woman ordained minister in Rhode Island, president of the National Council of Women, founding member of the Women’s Peace Party and first president of the National Council of the International Women’s League of Peace and Freedom joined as did academic Bertha H Mailly.

The committee elected five members to become commissioners, whose “national distinction and integrity was unquestionable”. Jane Addams was elected among these five people. The “Non-political, non-sectarian and only humanitarian” commission of inquiry was held in Washington. British government supporters and officials in Ireland declined to attend. Efforts to remedy this have failed. This was noted as a flaw in the investigation.

Hearings began in mid-November 1920. Many witnesses were prevented from traveling, could not obtain passports, or felt unable to attend as a result of intimidation. The British branch of the International Women’s League sent representatives; they had carried out their own investigation in Ireland. Fifteen Americans who had visited Ireland testified, including Ruth Russell, author of What’s the Matter with Ireland, she infiltrated to live in a Dublin apartment building and gave a full account of the poverty she witnessed .

The most prominent witness was Muriel MacSwiney. The death of her husband, Terence, the mayor of Cork, while on hunger strike in prison in England had made international news. The young mother, widowed a few weeks earlier, was accompanied by her sister-in-law, Mary. The MacSwineys gave a powerful testimony. Mary told the inquest: “Men can go on, women can take the pain, but it is for the children that I am pleading.”

That month, the United States Rescue Committee in Ireland was formed. Addams and Elisabeth Marbury were the only women in the executive. Marbury, a modern American theater pioneer and veteran literary agent, was a valued member as she could access anyone in the entertainment industry. Concerts have become a key way to raise funds.

In February 1921, members of the Committee on Conditions in Ireland (all of whom were Quakers) visited Ireland under the leadership of Clemens J France, a Labor lawyer from Seattle, “to determine the extent to which the American Relief Committee newly formed in Ireland to be called for help ”. During 49 days of investigation, they visited 600 locations in 95 towns and villages to see property damaged or destroyed during the previous year. Maud Gonne MacBride and veteran suffrage activist Charlotte Despard accompanied them to some places.

The delegation heard first-hand testimony. Its subsequent reports estimated that 3,000 families became homeless and that there were 100,000 victims, most of whom were non-combatants. One of the biggest acts of destruction took place in Cork in December 1920 when 45 businesses were burnt down in the commercial heart of the city. The city engineer estimated that 4,000 people – men, women and children – were affected.

France remained in Ireland when the delegation returned to the United States. He continued to receive correspondence from those seeking help (now in the collection of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Rothe House).

In March 1921, as reported by the Commission on Conditions in Ireland, the American Commission for Relief in Ireland launched its appeal on St. Patrick’s Day. US President Warren Harding wrote: “The American people will never be deaf to the cry for help on behalf of the suffering humanity.”

Fundraising campaigns have started in 48 states. The Friends of Irish Freedom provided assistance, as did other Irish-American groups such as the American Association of the Irish Republic.

In Dublin, the Irish White Cross Society was founded in February 1921. It distributed funds raised in the United States and elsewhere. Its board of directors included representatives of many religious organizations. The Catholic Church predominated; its parish system was used to distribute funds.

The only female trustee was a Bostonian. Mary Alden Osgood moved to London when she married Erskine Childers. Best known for her role in the Howth Plot, she worked during World War I for the welfare of Belgian refugees. In 1919, the Childers family moved to Ireland.

The executive committee included Nannie O’Rahilly, another American. As Miss Nancy Brown, of 5th Avenue, New York, she met and married Michael O’Rahilly who was killed in the uprising of 1916. Several committee members were widowed as a result of the uprising, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Áine Ceannt, Kathleen Clarke and Maud Gonne MacBride. O’Rahilly was actively involved in the school meals for children which the Irish White Cross now funded, and in the Dublin labor rooms where women were employed making clothes for women and children. A special committee has been set up to deal with orphans.

In 1926, Jane Addams was at the Dublin Manor at the Fifth Congress of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, which had 150 delegates from 20 countries. This was the first international conference held in the Irish Free State. Addams was the inspiration for founding the organization in The Hague in 1915, bringing together delegates from “neutral and warring nations in search of peace.”

Two years after Addams’ visit, in 1928, the Irish White Cross was dissolved. Few Irish then or today are aware of the role it played in the welfare, education, employment and health of so many men, Irish women and children.

Historian Margaret Ward, in Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s Her Memoirs and Political Writings, describes how Sheehy Skeffington was a woman with an international vocation invited to be a delegate to the First Congress of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, but s’ is refused a passport to attend. In her papers at the National Library, there is a photograph of the National Women’s Party. In her speech in Dublin in 1926, Addams referred to Sheehy Skeffington’s late husband, Francis, when she quoted his words: “I want to see the age-old struggle against injustice take on new forms, adapted to a new age.

These words aptly describe the work of Americans, Irish Americans and others who “used new forms” to help the Irish with humanitarian aid distributed by the Irish White Cross; their ways of engaging the media, the international social network and the use of individual human interest stories are all forms of activism that we are aware of these days. It should also be noted that those who orchestrated these events have remained in the shadows. Finding those people who wanted to go unnoticed makes the job of historians so difficult as it takes skill and patience to piece together the fragments in order to make a story.

This focus on the decade of centenarians has been to encourage the dissemination of new scholarships and the opening of new collections (especially virtually) and this has provided us with a more complex narrative, all the richer in narrative.

This article is based on research collected for Toward America, a short film made as part of the Women’s Strand Centennial Decade that tells the story of the role of key women in the formation of the Irish White Cross as well as those that have been at the heart of organizations such as the American Committee on Conditions in Ireland and the American Rescue Committee in Ireland without which the formation of the Irish White Cross would not have been possible.

Sinéad McCoole is an Irish historian, author and curator


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