Journeys to a truce - 1921: Donal Óg visits Washington D.C.
Following the Burning of Cork and the ramping up of the rounding up of IRA men by crown forces, all active members had to be careful. Lord Mayor of Cork, Donal Óg O’Callaghan had to be extra careful.
From late August 1920, Donal had empowered Cork Brigade IRA member Seamus Fitzgerald in the collection of statistics dealing with raids, imprisonments and atrocities by crown forces.
Seamus in his Bureau of Military History witness statement (WS1737) oversaw Dáil Éireann publicity for Cork city and county and acted in conjunction with the Cork Brigade intelligence on a full-time basis on this work.
He took up duties in a room on the other side of the corridor to the lord mayor's room where a small contingent of supporting IRA staff were already in place.
Seamus’ duties meant that he collected sworn depositions covering every important phase of enemy activity and prepare them for publication. He studied carefully the Blue Books and other books of Britain and the other war countries covering the First World War One period. Hence his reports and statements became formal and official in their look.
In early January 1921, much of Seamus’s research was taken by Donal Óg O’Callaghan to America, where he placed it before the American Commission of Conditions in Ireland and where it was subsequently published in the report of that body.
A great and insightful biography has been recently been published by Cork City Council and written by Dr Aodh Quinlivan who has not only shines a light on a forgotten lord mayor such as Donal Óg but also how Cork’s War of Independence story was brought onto the international political stage.
One of Aodh’s excellent research chapters focuses on the aftermath of the Burning of Cork. Donal received deaths threats for being a prominent political member involved in the IRA and as a result was a fugitive moving from house to house.
Donal departed Cork as a stowaway on the steamship West Cannon, a cargo ship, with Terence MacSwiney’s brother, Peter. For several days on board, they both hid.
When discovered, both were put to work on board the ship. On reaching New York, Irish American figures and societies fought successfully against their deportation claiming they were political refugees.
The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland was the brainchild of the editorial team at New York’s Nation newspaper. The Commission was established in September 1920 and set up very quickly to collect information for the American public about the conditions in Ireland, which as the Commission noted “increasingly menace the friendly relations that have existed between Great Britain and the United States”.
The Nation newspaper was and still is a current affairs publication. In 1920, the newspaper’s owner was Oswald Garrison Villard who was journalist, a civil rights activist, and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
Villard was also founder of the American Anti-Imperialist League, favouring independence for territories taken in the Spanish-American War. He was a strong advocate of small nations (such as Ireland) and their civil liberties under the rule of law with a focus on economic freedom.
In order to secure an impartial and distinguished body for the American Commission’s investigation, every United States senator, every state governor, every member of the higher clergy of the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish churches, and the leading educators, journalists, editors, mayors, and publicists of the country were extended an invitation to become members of this committee. Over 150 individuals accepted representing a broad diversity of ethnic groups and political and religious beliefs, and from 36 states of the USA.
The Commission immediately got into communication with the British Embassy in Washington and with Eamon de Valera in Ireland. They also cabled to Ireland’s cities and towns to secure witnesses who might appear before the Commission and give testimony.
De Valera had been in New York in January 1920 and made a huge impression on not only Irish American journalists but also those who had an interest in civil rights such as The Nation newspaper. There was also ongoing fundraising across the USA for the establishment of Dáil Éireann.
The report of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland can be viewed online – an epic 1,130 pages – containing the witness statements from six hearing sessions and up to 14 days of interviews from 18 November 1920 to 21 January 1921.
Participants were mainly Irish citizens with some British and American citizens with a direct link to the War of Independence also giving testimony. The opening session of the Commission came three weeks after the hunger-strike death of Cork’s Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney. Terence had generated significant international headlines and motivated the Commission to move at pace collecting its witness statements.
Terence’s widow Muriel and his sister Mary testified to the Commission at the second hearing on 8 and 9 December 1920. They were shortly followed after by the testimonies at the fourth hearing by Tomás MacCurtain’s sisters in law, Suzanna Walsh and Anna Walsh on 22 and 23 December 1920.
At the fifth hearing, Lord Mayor O’Callaghan gave testimony. He spoke for 11 hours across Thursday 13 January and Friday 14 January 1921 at the Hotel LaFayette, Washington D.C.
In a wide ranging and much detailed testimony, Donal drew on the research of his team back in Cork. He proceeded systematically through a multitude of topics from harassment of his public duties, being on the run, to raids and destruction of property, to the murder of Tomás MacCurtain, the Republican courts, suppression of the press, attacks on women, to the Burning of Cork, to reading the witness statements from residents of Cork.
Such was Donal’s detailed description, for weeks after he was wanted for a multitude of speaking engagements with sympathisers of the Irish cause for freedom. Donal spent the next eight months in America.
The Commission’s report ultimately got stuck in the American political quagmire in the spring and early summer of 1921 by which time talks of a truce between British and Irish sides War of Independence had already begun.
Check out Aodh Quinlivan’s new book, ‘Forgotten Lord Mayor, Donal Óg O’Callaghan, 1920-1924’, published by Cork City Council, when Cork bookshops re-open.