Ireland 1921: how republicans used their whiteness to win freedom | Ireland

In February 1921, newspapers in London started to publish tales about how navy lorries in Ireland had been carrying prisoners as hostages within the hope of deterring assaults by the IRA, the guerrilla military combating British rule since 1919. Inside a yr, negotiations would lead to Irish independence and the marketing campaign could be hailed as the primary profitable revolt towards the British empire. However within the spring of 1921 the battle appeared to be intensifying. Martial legislation had been imposed throughout the southern half of Ireland; if troops or police had been shot, homes within the neighborhood of the assault had been demolished in reprisal.

Dublin had develop into as harmful because the provinces: military lorries had been ambushed with bombs and revolvers; crowds scattered when Black and Tans – demobilised troopers recruited to the Irish police pressure who had gained a repute for brutality – opened hearth indiscriminately in metropolis centre streets.

The Each day Information, a persistent critic of the conduct of the battle, condemned the coverage of “Oriental repression” in Ireland.

Within the Home of Commons, Capt William Wedgwood Benn launched a movement declaring that the federal government’s marketing campaign to defeat the Irish independence motion had failed. Newspapers world wide had been full of reports from Ireland, he identified, during which the British had been portrayed because the merciless persecutors of a folks deserving of freedom.


As Benn spoke within the Commons, the distinguished liberal journalist JL Hammond and his spouse, Barbara, had been travelling round Ireland to see for themselves. Barbara Hammond discovered circumstances “merely appalling” whereas her husband was horrified that the angle of the British authorities was to govern Ireland as if it had been “Sierra Leone or Fiji”. One of the best description he had heard of his personal authorities’s coverage was from a French journalist, who instructed him that Britain was “making an attempt to subdue a folks as clever as any in Europe, by the implies that European governments use for the correction of Berbers”.

The comparisons between Ireland and different colonial possessions weren’t fanciful. To many British politicians, the state of affairs in Ireland was on a par with the postwar nationalist revolts they confronted in Egypt and India. Irish revolutionary leaders themselves supported self-determination as a common precept. However the unstated assumption of the French journalist who impressed Hammond was essential: the Irish merited higher therapy than the Berbers combating French and Spanish colonialists in North Africa as a result of they had been white.

Though the Irish revolutionaries labored to forge hyperlinks with anti-colonial actions the world over, they had been more and more conscious that proclaiming their whiteness was a intelligent card to play. The Irish consultant on the peace convention in Versailles in 1919, Seán T O’Kelly, had been bitterly upset at his failure to safe a gathering with President Woodrow Wilson. “It appears,” he instructed an American journalist, “that the blacks and yellows, all colors and races, could also be heard earlier than the convention besides the Irish.”

Eamon de Valera, centre, at a rally in New York.
Eamon de Valera, centre, at a rally in New York. {Photograph}: Keystone-France/Getty Photos

By Could 1919, Erskine Childers, the previous English officer and bestselling spy novelist, who had develop into Sinn Féin’s chief propagandist, was amplifying O’Kelly’s theme. In Paris, Childers identified in a letter to the Occasions, Britain had set about fixing new frontiers of countries the prime minister, David Lloyd George, had scarcely heard of, whereas failing to cope with Ireland. Was Ireland, Childers requested, to be “the final unliberated white neighborhood on the face of the globe?”

And a yr later O’Kelly was nonetheless emphasising the purpose in a letter searching for an viewers with Pope Benedict XV: Sinn Féin’s purpose was “to acquire that independence which each different white race on the earth has already received”.

The Irish republican chief Éamon de Valera had additionally taken this theme to the US on a fundraising tour from June 1919 to December 1920. De Valera travelled round America throughout an upsurge in racial violence in response to new challenges to segregation within the south and the start of the nice black migration northwards.

Amid a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, a brand new technology of radical black leaders celebrated the navy achievements of black troopers on European battlefields. The expertise of combating in Europe, black sociologist WEB Du Bois wrote, had revolutionised their attitudes to confronting discrimination within the US. “A brand new, radical Negro spirit has been born in France, which go away us older radicals far behind. Hundreds of younger black males have supplied their lives for the Lilies of France and so they return prepared to supply them once more for the Solar-flowers of Afro-America.” The Harlem activist Hubert Harrison agreed that there was a rising consciousness that “Negroes [were] awake” all over the place.

Black veterans had been frequently attacked: a number of of the 78 black males lynched within the “pink summer season” of 1919 had been sporting their military uniforms. Race riots erupted in 25 cities and cities, with greater than 100 folks killed. In Washington the streets had been stuffed with troopers. White rioters had been led by marines in uniform; black males had been crushed on the street on their method residence from work and had been took up arms to defend their houses from white mobs.

One other of the brand new black leaders, Marcus Garvey, had explicitly modelled his quest for black “self-determination” on Sinn Féin. In August 1920 he convened the primary Worldwide Conference of the Negro Peoples of the World in Madison Sq. Backyard in New York and skim out a telegram he had despatched to De Valera earlier than 25,000 delegates. “We imagine Ireland needs to be free at the same time as Africa shall be free for the Negroes of the world.”

Black citizens and armed National Guard stand in front of a cafe during race riots in Chicago in the ‘red summer’ of 1919.
A crowd of males and armed Nationwide Guard stand in entrance of a restaurant throughout race riots in Chicago within the ‘pink summer season’ of 1919. {Photograph}: Chicago Historical past Museum/AP

However De Valera made no point out of Ireland’s affinities with anti-colonial actions when he toured the American south in 1920. In Georgia, he shared a stage with veteran Accomplice troopers in their insurgent uniforms; in Birmingham, Alabama, he wooed his viewers by reminding them that Ireland “was the one white nation on earth nonetheless within the bonds of political slavery”.

The violence within the US performed into a well-liked dialogue amongst commentators on each side of the Atlantic about how the world may be on the point of a race battle. The Harvard historian Lothrop Stoddard revealed a bestselling e book, The Rising Tide of Shade Towards White World-Supremacy, which raised the spectre of “a pan-Colored alliance for the common overthrow of the white hegemony at a single stroke, a nightmare of race-war beside which the late wrestle in Europe would appear the veriest baby’s play”. White southerners within the US had been assured that the remainder of the “civilised” world would undertake segregation to handle the race query.

President Wilson had taken his white supremacist attitudes with him to Paris, the place he labored intently with the South African statesman Jan Smuts to devise the mandate system for working colonies below the brand new League of Nations. The large powers would develop into guardians of peoples who, within the view of Smuts, would wish “a lot nursing” earlier than they might be thought-about candidates for independence. Self-determination was now not a common aspiration: as a substitute it was reformulated to accommodate what the historian Adom Getachew has described as a regime of “racialised exclusion”.


Ireland’s consultant O’Kelly had been incorrect: the peace convention didn’t sign an advance in racial equality that deprived Ireland. In March 1921, Du Bois wrote in his journal the Disaster that though he endorsed the League of Nations it was nonetheless managed by “imperial dictators”.

In the identical subject he wrote that black Individuals had been uniquely positioned to perceive the information from Ireland. “The Irish resist… Their resistance is known as crime… in retaliation not solely the ‘responsible’ however the harmless amongst them are murdered and robbed and public property is burned by English guardians of the Peace!”

However Du Bois additionally famous how it will need to have prompted the Irish some dismay to be handled on this method, provided that they usually sided with white supremacists within the US. “All this incorporates no phrase of argument towards the final word freedom of Ireland – which God speedily grant! – nevertheless it does make us keep in mind how on this world it’s the Oppressed who’ve regularly been used to cow and kill the Oppressed within the curiosity of the Common Oppressor.”

Maurice Walsh is the creator of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-1923 (Faber & Faber). He teaches historical past at Goldsmiths, College of London.

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