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January 1919: the Irish Republic, the League of Nations and a new world order

A century ago, on January 25, 1919, delegates to the Paris Peace Conference formally agreed on the establishment of a League of Nations, US President Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to create a new international order following the World War I.

Four days earlier, on January 21, Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s national parliament, had met for the first time. Its assembly in Dublin’s Mansion House was politically set to “Paris time”. Proclaiming an Irish Republic, the revolutionary parliament issued a Declaration of Independence from British rule in French, Irish, and English. It also sent A Message to the Free Nations of the World, and delegates to the Paris peace conference. It read:

Ireland today reasserts her historic nationhood confidently before the new world emerging from the War.

Neither the Irish Republic, nor its representatives would be admitted at Versailles. But international recognition of the Irish Republic, under the principles of the “new world order” established in Paris – self-determination, liberal democracy and internationalist development – would become a key battle ground in the Irish war of independence. A century on, it remains a key battle ground of historical debate – where, in this “new world order”, was the Irish Republic won and lost?

Sinn Féin in Paris

Paris, in January 1919, was the capital of the world – Irish republicans, accordingly, made it theirs. Establishing a “consulate” of the Irish Republic in a suite of the city’s five-star Le Grand Hotel, Seán T O’Kelly (Dáil Éireann envoy to Paris) invited French journalists, parliamentarians, and writers to publicise the Irish cause – “Je suis plus Sinn Feiner que vous,” (“I am more of a Sinn Feiner than you”) proclaimed French novelist Pierre Benoît.

Joining O’Kelly in Paris that spring, meanwhile, fellow Sinn Féin TD (“deputy of the Dáil”) George Gavan Duffy asserted that: “Ireland had every reason to expect rapidly to become recognised as the First of the Small Nations.”

Seán T O’ Kelly outside the bureau of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. National Museum of Ireland

The case for the Irish Republic was made, in part, to the “big four” at Versailles (Britain, France, Italy and the US). Between February and June, the Irish mission appealed to Woodrow Wilson and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau on behalf of “le parliament Sinn Féin” and the “Irish Republican Congress”. Diplomatic overtures, however, met with no reply. In 1919, the “Irish Republic” was on the wrong side of the peace.

Its wartime appeal to “gallant allies in Europe”, French revanchists asserted, had been to the defeated Germany, rather than the Allied powers. Wilson’s wartime idealism, meanwhile, had been moderated by bipartisan diplomacy – returning the question of Irish self-determination to British “home rule”.

The “Irish Republic” was the abstract manifestation of First World War “self-determination”. The Paris Peace Conference resigned Irish nationalism to the realpolitik of peace in Europe.

A hyphenated politics

Standing before a private Irish-American delegation in Paris, Wilson himself recognised that “self-determination” and “Ireland” would prove to be “the great metaphysical tragedy” of the day. This prophecy would follow him back to the seat of Western liberal democracy – Washington DC. The Irish diaspora offered the strongest global strategy for recognition of the Irish Republic, most notably in the US. The Irish-American caucus was an unyielding presence in the Democratic Party, and had the attention of – and influence in – the Republican-led Senate. Elsewhere, the New York-based Friends of Irish Freedom and Chicago-based American Association for Recognition of the Irish Republic could claim almost one million members, combined, by 1921.

American president Woodrow Wilson. Wikimedia Commons

The “Irish Republic” won votes in the US – and on March 4, 1919, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution urging American delegates to secure Irish freedom at Versailles. Three months later, the Senate passed a resolution for the admission of delegates to Versailles from the “Irish Republic”.

Later in June, meanwhile, the American-born president of the Irish Republic, Éamon de Valera, arrived in the US to mobilise mass American-Irish support for the cause. His “presidential campaign”, from New York to San Francisco, underlined the currency of the Irish question in Democratic circles and undermined Wilson’s liberal democratic credentials.

Irish-American representations to the Senate, further, contributed to the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles – and the League of Nations – in the US congress in November 1919. Wilson would write bitterly of these Irish-American political campaigns:

Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he’s ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.

The Irish Republic succeeded in the United States, in the forms of representative democracy, political activism, and legislative governance. It was recognised as a significant American issue, of hyphenated politics.

A league of nations

Revolutionaries from the Irish Republic, and beyond, further conceived of Ireland and the world. Writing to the League of Nations in February 1920, the Italian-born Fiume-based soldier, poet, and revolutionary, Gabriele D’Annunzio declared:

the High Command of Fiume having determined that … the British Empire by imposing on Ireland, Egypt and India the most cruel and iniquitous yoke has rendered itself more unworthy of the esteem and confidence of civilised nations than any other state accused of militaristic crimes, now associates itself with the analogous declaration of the Irish Republic.

D’Annunzio’s letter to the League of Nations was significant of the early interwar zeitgeist: internationalism.

The Irish Republic, between 1919 and 1923, formed part of an anti-colonial front, developed beyond the institutional fora of the League of Nations. JBM Hertzog, Saad Zaghloul, and Ho Chi Minh, the future leaders of South Africa, Egypt, and Vietnam, advocated in support of the Irish Republic. Egyptian nationalists indeed conferred with the Irish republican leadership on negotiations in London, days before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921.

By the terms of that agreement, Ireland would be recognised as the “Irish Free State” in 1922 – its admission into the League of Nations in September 1923, months after a bloody civil war, would mark a Pyrrhic victory for the defeated Irish Republic.

CA Bayly – the doyen of global history – once famously observed: “All local, national, or regional histories, must, in important ways, be global histories.” The Irish Republic was, in important ways, a question central to the emergence, and divergence, of the “new world order” between 1919 and 1923. A century later, its global history remains to be written.

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