New York’s Tom Abernethy (pictured) – a member of the 1916 Societies and long-time advocate of the Éire Nua policy for a free and federal Ireland – reflects on the contribution of US social justice campaigner Norman Thomas to the cause of Irish Freedom.
Many who have contributed to the cause of Irish Freedom here in America have, of course, been Irish-born or Irish American. Without such people as Tyrone-born, Philadelphia-based Joe McGarrity, for example, the Easter Rising would not have been possible. American support for Ireland did not end with the Rising, but providing support for Ireland became a riskier proposition after America entered the First World War on the side of Britain.
Still, there were people in America prepared to step forward even then and to speak out against British rule in Ireland. This included some with no direct Irish connection but who saw, in Ireland’s cause, a reflection of their own beliefs in justice and freedom. One such person who spoke out on behalf of Ireland when it took some courage to do so was Norman Thomas.
‘Jails are waiting for them’ warned a New York Times editorial, published with unintended irony on July 4th 1917. This was the warning to anyone, including those in Irish America, who might even think of exercising their Constitutional rights to speak out against the war or against the American alliance with Britain. The period after America’s entry into the First World War on the side of Britain was certainly a hostile one for those opposed to the alliance or to British imperialism in general.
Britain had much support among the wealthy, powerful and influential in America. One of the leading proponents of America’s entry into the war on the side of Britain was former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt looked to imperial Britain as a model for America to follow. He supported imperial intervention by the US in the Philippines, regardless of the horrible atrocities, including torture, that were inflicted on the native population during that conflict, just as he turned a blind eye to British misdeeds in South Africa during the Boer War.
As for President Woodrow Wilson, he shared Roosevelt’s antipathy to what were derided as ‘hyphenated Americans’ which included, of course, Irish Americans. Wilson’s antipathy to Irish America has been well established. After the Easter Rising, for example, he was unwilling to take any steps in response to requests made here in America to try to save the life of condemned Irish Patriot Roger Casement before his execution by the British. Even more consequently, Wilson refused to take up the cause of Irish self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
Once he decided to bring the US into the war on the side of Britain, Wilson vowed to apply the ‘steady hand of firm repression’ to any alleged disloyalty during the war. Repression did indeed follow, and the targets were often anyone who spoke out against government polices during a time of war. This repression was primarily directed at German Americans, anti-war activists and other political dissidents, but the threat against Irish America was always there.
In January 1918, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, republican and women’s rights advocate and widow of Francis Hannah Skeffington (a pacifist who had been murdered by a British army officer during the course of the Easter Rising), was in the United States attempting to gain support for the republican cause. She delivered a petition from Cumann na mBan to President Wilson which had not been passed by the US Censor.
Shortly thereafter, both the Irish World and the Gaelic Americans, two American journals that published the petition, were denied mailing rights. McGarrity’s Irish Press was also banned from the mail at this time. Repression, of course, was also ongoing in Ireland itself at this time, as witnessed by the so called ‘German Plot’ which the British authorities used as a pretext to intern up to 150 Sinn Féin leaders in May 1918.
Many of the repressive measures brought in after America’s entry into the war, moreover, remained in place even after the war’s end in November 1918, including the infamous Espionage Act of 1917, which has been misused at times to target those who have revealed government misdeeds.
It took some courage, therefore, to speak out in times such as these. Norman Thomas, however, was one of those who refused to be quelled. The son of a Presbyterian Minister from Marion, Ohio, Thomas went to Princeton and became a Presbyterian Minister himself and was well on his way to securing a safe entry into some wealthy New York congregation.
Instead, however, he turned his focus onto social concerns and began ministering to poor, largely immigrant communities in Hell’s Kitchen and East Harlem. Many of these immigrants spoke little or no English and were held in contempt by many in their time.
When war came in 1917, he was shunned by many of his fellow Princeton Alumni and many in the church because of his strong and vocal anti-war stand. His brother Evan Thomas became a conscientious objector and went on hunger strike at Fort Riley. Norman Thomas was also informed of conscientious objector cases involving leaders in the Irish movement in America. Thomas, in fact, was one of the first to organize to defend against the attacks on civil liberties that occurred in the wake of America’s entry into the First World War. Thomas also became directly involved in the Irish cause.
In the wake of the watershed election of December 1918 that resulted in overwhelming electoral victory for proponents of Irish Independence, Thomas was one of the speakers at a public meeting held at the Central Opera House in New York City in early January 1919. The meeting was organized by the Irish Progressive League, an anti-imperialist grouping founded in 1917 that was open to all men and women who supported the principle of total independence for Ireland.
Nora Connolly, daughter of the executed signatory of the 1916 Proclamation James Connolly, was very involved in the League. Its National Secretary was Macroon born Peter Golden, another dedicated champion of Irish Freedom and anti-imperialism whose contribution to the cause, like Thomas’, is unfortunately underappreciated. Golden went on to become a leading member of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) which stood by the Republic during the Irish Civil War while other sections of Irish America, lead by John Devoy and Judge Cohalan, supported the Treaty and the Free State.
Another who travelled in the circles of the Irish Progressive League, along with Thomas and Golden, was Liam Mellows. Mellows escaped to America after leading the Volunteers in action in Galway during Easter Week. Mellows was arrested in New York in the fall of 1917 for carrying false papers, detained in the Tombs jail in New York City and was not released until the Fall of 1918.
In addition to their involvement with the Irish Progressive League, Mellows, Golden and Thomas were all also involved in the Indian movement for self-determination in America. An Indian organization, Friends of Indian Freedom, had even been formed on the model of Friends of Irish Freedom.
Mellows had been elected by the Irish people in the December 1918 election, thereby becoming a member of the First Dáil while still in America and he was finally able to return to Ireland in the fall of 1920 to rejoin the struggle for Independence there.
In the Fall of 1920, Thomas joined the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, which held hearings and issued a report on the situation in Ireland. One of the findings of the Commission was that:
In spite of the British ‘terror’ the majority of the Irish people having sanctioned by ballot the Irish Republic, give their allegiance to it; pay taxes to it; and respect the decisions of its courts and of its civil officials.’
As for the attempt to separate part of the Province of Ulster from the rest of Ireland under a religious pretext, the American Commission had this to say:
Outside of a part of Ulster, Catholics and Protestants live in peace and harmony and their political opinions are not primarily a matter of religion. Even in Ulster religious bigotry is not by any means wholly spontaneous, but is artificially stirred up by those whose economic and political interests are served by dividing the people.
Thomas in fact became secretary of ‘Protestant Friends of Ireland’, a group created to counter a delegation of Unionists from Ulster who were touring America to disseminate pro-British propaganda. Thomas’ work with the Protestant Friends, as well as his work with the Irish Progressive League and the Friends of Indian Freedom, was very much in the spirit of liberty, fraternity and equality that animated the founders of the Irish Republican movement, the United Irishmen, and was a refutation to those who were attempting to turn Ireland’s struggle for independence into a sectarian battle.
Thomas’ writings on Ireland illuminate his consistent and principled stands on human rights and dignity and individual liberty, and are well worth reading today. Here, for example, is a quote from Thomas’ journal The World Tomorrow:
Just now many of the most vociferously pro-British among us (or rather pro-British Government – the two are not necessarily the same) are imperialistically minded at home. As a rule they say nothing about the fulfillment of our promises of independence to the Philippines, nothing of our neglect of the Virgin Islands or our oppressive conduct in Santo Domingo and Haiti. They do not understand what freedom means in West Virginia coal mines or Pennsylvania steel mills. No wonder they do not understand it in Ireland.
Thomas did understand what freedom meant and he went on fighting for it for his entire life. He supported the right of unions to organize, civil rights for African- Americans, civil liberties for all Americans, independence for India, justice for the victims of Stalin’s purges, and the right of repatriation for refugees forced from their homes during conflicts in the Middle East.
Perhaps his most courageous stand was his vocal opposition to the unconstitutional mass internment without trial, or indeed any due process, of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Thomas, indeed, was one of only a handful of national figures to speak out against this disgraceful episode.
Even with the enormous devotion that Thomas applied to these other important causes, he did not entirely forget about Ireland. By 1936 the Fianna Fáil government of De Valera was increasingly trampling on the civil liberties of suspected republicans, and others who spoke out about conditions in the country.
Once in power De Valera had set up the ‘Broy Harriers’ within the Special Branch to go after Blueshirts, but, predictably, they then turned their attention to republicans. In April 1935, armed members of the Special Branch broke into the printer of An Phoblacht, seized hundreds of copies and destroyed the typeset, all without warrant. In June 1936 the Fianna Fáil government banned the annual republican commemoration to the grave of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown, with government troops surrounding the countryside around Bodenstown, turning it into an armed camp.
Fianna Fáil, of course, had strongly criticized these very types of repressive measures when the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedhael party had used them against Fianna Fáil members. This hypocrisy was naturally pointed out by many, including the leader of the Labor Party, Willam Norton. Fianna Fáil tried to justify their repressive measures, as Cumann na nGaedhael had before them, on what would now be called ‘national security’ grounds.
One of the victims of these ‘national security’ measures was a 22 year-old Limerick youth named Sean Glynn, who was arrested while travelling from his home to Bodenstown for the Wolfe Tone commemoration. He was held, without trial, in solitary confinement at Arbour Hill military prison for several months. Denied any outside contact or mental stimulation, he lost his sanity and hung himself in his prison cell.
Maud Gonne McBride wrote to Joe McGarrity in Philadelphia about conditions in Arbour Hill. She told McGaritty that the Fianna Fáil government had proclaimed the commission of inquiry that had been set up by Labor Party leader Norton as an ‘unlawful association’. The death of Glynn was apparently the last straw for Joe McGarrity in terms of his attitude toward De Valera.
But it appears that few in Irish America, besides stalwarts such as McGarrity, were giving much thought to prison conditions for republicans in Ireland by this time. However, as Sean Cronin tells it in the McGarrity Papers, McGarrity wrote to Norman Thomas and Thomas in turn protested to the Free State minister in Washington DC, Michael MacWhite.
De Valera attempted to justify his actions based on the alleged threat that his government faced from militant republicans, but it is doubtful that Thomas would have been convinced by this response. He had heard many justifications for government repression throughout his long public career and always remained rightfully skeptical of those who claimed necessity in violating basic liberties.
For a major twentieth-century American political figure, someone who weighed in on many issues, Thomas was remarkably principled and consistent, something that even his political opponents had to concede. He fought for the underdog, the oppressed and the marginalized, and against fearmongering, bigotry and repression. He was, therefore, regardless of his non-Irish background, a natural champion of the cause of Irish Freedom. He deserves to be better remembered in these times, not least of all by Irish America, for the support he gave to cause of liberty, here in America and in Ireland.
It is heartening that supporters of Irish Freedom here in America did recently pay tribute to one of the key activists of the last several decades, who, sadly, we recently lost. Sandy Boyer, who died this past February, dedicated his life to struggles for freedom and justice. He began in high school in the 1950s, organizing protests in support of civil rights. He became involved in the Irish justice movement in the 1970s and became involved in struggles around interment, the hungerstrikes and miscarriages of justice.
He co-hosted Radio Free Éireann on listener-supported, non-commercial radio station WBAI in New York City, which gives voice to those who have been excluded from commercial media on many issues, including Ireland. The program has been instrumental, for example, in publicizing the activities of the One Ireland One Vote Campaign here in New York. Sandy, in fact, was present at the Campaign’s launch in Manhattan last fall.
Another timely cause that Sandy Boyer was involved in was the campaign to prevent the deportation of Belfast native Malachy McAllister, whose case is sadly once again of immediate concern for Irish activists in America, due to the renewed threat by the US Government to force his immediate deportation. There is no doubt that Sandy would have been at the forefront of this renewed campaign to oppose deportation, using all his vast experience as an activist in various causes.
Sandy Boyer was constantly working on building coalitions and promoting solidarity across ethnic, religious and sectarian lines. He certainly understood what freedom meant in America and he understood what it meant in Ireland. On April 17th, he was honored by the community in New York at a memorial event at Theatre 80 in New York City. Members of the New York 1916 Societies were among the many present to pay tribute.
Men and women such as Norman Thomas, Nora Connolly, Sandy Boyer and others like them certainly set a high standard of dedication and integrity for others to try to follow. Let us remember them all.