Irish Race Conventions

The Irish Race Conventions were a disconnected series of conventions held in Europe and America between 1881 and 1994. None was concerned in defining the Irish as an ethnic race, but they were arranged to discuss some pressing or emerging political issues at the time concerning Irish nationalism. As such they are a notable barometer of the progress of Irish independence. The main participants and financial supporters of the conventions were usually Irish-Americans.

Places and dates

The conventions' agendas

Chicago 1881

In 1880 Charles Stewart Parnell had visited Chicago and the American branch of the Irish National Land League was established there. The first convention was held on 30 November - 2 December 1881, following a Clan na Gael convention in August. It covered the recent emerging links between the more violent groups, such as the Fenians, the Land League and the growing Irish Home Rule movement that was led by Parnell.[1]

Dublin 1896

By 1896 two Home Rule Bills had been defeated in the London parliament, and the Home Rule movement had split over its support for Parnell. A Conservative and Liberal Unionist coalition was in power, both being firmly opposed to Home Rule. The main purpose of the Convention was to try to re-unite the Redmond and Dillon factions that had divided the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1890.

Archbishop Walsh of Toronto had said: "Let a great National Convention be held in Dublin, composed of chosen representatives of the clergy and people of Ireland and of an advisory representation of the Irish race abroad." John Dillon on behalf of the INF replied: "That this party approves of the suggestion made by the Archbishop of Toronto in favour of a "National Convention representative of the Irish race throughout the world."[2]

Pope Leo XIII sent a blessing in Latin: "SANCTISSIMUS, BONUM SPIRITUALE ET TEMPORALE HIBERNORUM EXOPTANS, FINEM DISSENSIONUM PRECATUR"[3] The convention thanked him profusely: "The Irish Race Convention begs to express its profound gratitude to the Holy Father (i.e., the Pope) for his most kind and salutary message, which all the delegates receive as a signal favour, and as the happiest augury of peace."

A number of practical resolutions followed, primarily on the progress of land ownership reform. Eventually the Irish Parliamentary Party did reunite in 1900, chaired by Redmond, and achieved the enactment of the Home Rule Act 1914, but this was suspended for the duration of the First World War.

New York City 1916

The 1916 convention, comprising 2,300 delegates at the Hotel Astor, was held six weeks before the Easter Rising, and considered the division between the home Rule parties and the more militant nationalists. The Rising would be supported by Clan na Gael, but other members remained hopeful that the 1914 Home Rule Act, which had been passed but suspended during World War I, might work.[4]

A majority at the convention supported the American policy of neutrality during the war, and were opposed to any alliance with Britain. Woodrow Wilson won the United States presidential election, 1916 with help from Irish-Americans and his campaign slogan: "He kept us out of War".

An important result was the formation of the "Friends of Irish Freedom" that worked as a co-ordinating body to support: ".. the independence of Ireland, the industrial development of Ireland, the use and sale of Irish products, and to revive Irish culture."

New York City 1918

Held on 18–19 May, and organised by the Friends for Irish Freedom, this convention looked forward to the end of the world war, in which America was now an ally of Britain.[5] The convention therefore had the difficult task of steering between its support for militant groups such as Sinn Féin, which was opposed to British rule in Ireland, and proclaiming the loyalty of Irish-Americans to the USA. America had enacted conscription in 1917, but the Irish Conscription Crisis of 1918 had recently arisen, unifying most nationalist parties in Ireland.

In America the Hindu German Conspiracy Trial had just ended, revealing the link between Clan na Gael and the defendants. Public relations and selecting the convention chairman were therefore unusually important. This also caused an immediate division between John Devoy, who proposed the moderate Father Hurton, being mindful of the "hostile press", and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Jim Larkin who proposed the more combative John Forrest Kelly.[6] The convention ended with an address by Judge Goff to President Wilson which was considered to be mild and conciliatory: to take such measures as are best calculated to bring about the independence of Ireland.

Philadelphia 1919

This convention was held on 22–23 February, with 5,000 delegates, and discussed the success of Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, the declaration in January of the Irish Republic in Dublin, and the hope that America would support Irish participation at the forthcoming Paris peace conference. The principle of self-determination at article 5 in Wilson's Fourteen Points was expected to apply to Ireland. Much mention was made of the bravery of the "Fighting 69th" in the war. The hero of the hour was the American-born Irish republican leader Éamon de Valera.

In the event, Irish participation at Paris was excluded, Woodrow Wilson refused his support, and in retaliation Irish pressure groups refused to vote as usual for the Democratic Party in the United States presidential election, 1920, partially causing Harding's victory.

A fund-raising drive by the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) to sell bonds issued by the Irish Republic eventually raised over $5m., but disputes arose over the management of the money. The FOIF was led by John Devoy and Judge Cohalan (a judge of the New York Supreme Court), and believed that a sophisticated and conciliatory approach would ensure the best diplomatic support for Ireland at the Paris conference. De Valera and other Irish delegates expected the FOIF to demand and secure immediate recognition by the USA of the Irish Republic. A division on policy arose, Sinn Féin tried unsuccessfully to reform the FOIF and severed mutual links in October 1920.

In turn, the FOIF President Bishop Gallagher called de Valera a "foreign potentate", and Bishop Turner referred to him as the "Pancho Villa of Ireland".[7] Membership of the FOIF soon declined from over 100,000 to less than 20,000.

Buenos Aires 1921

In 1921 Laurence Ginnell was sent to organise a smaller Convention in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The effect was to link up with the expatriate Irish there, and to demonstrate the world-wide scope of the nationalist movement.[8]

Paris 1922

In January 1922 the convention had to consider the Anglo-Irish Treaty that had just been ratified and which divided nationalist opinion. It was held in Paris to emphasise Ireland's emerging status as an independent state to the rest of Europe. The proposed Irish Free State was to be created in December 1922.[9][10]

The Irish delegation was supposed to represent "the Irish people", but this comprised senior members of Sinn Féin who were for and against the treaty. Debate on the treaty turned on the definition of whether or not the treaty embodied Ireland's "full" right to independence. Those against the treaty said not; those in favour said it was a significant step towards full independence.[11]

The body organising the convention was named "Fine Ghaedhail", (Transl: The children of the Gaels) which was to be made permanent and to be funded by the formative Irish government. The Chair, Rev. Dr. O'Reilly was perplexed: " first he had not been able to understand how the word 'full' could be political, but he had now been enlightened by the speeches of Mr. de Valera's supporters." Father Shanley said that Americans would still continue to help Ireland, and would send arms as before. The outcome was a rare moral victory for de Valera's anti-treaty followers; the seven-man executive committee had four of his nominees, while the pro-treaty side only had one of its candidates elected, Eoin MacNeill.[12]

MacNeill deplored that: ".. the undertaking obtained from Mr. de Valera that party politics should not be introduced into the Congress, and that its funds and machinery would not be applied to party purposes has already been violated in one important particular, and that the undertaking in which Mr. de Valera and his nominees went to Paris as part of the official Irish Delegation was violated by them."[13]

New York City 1947

By this stage the Irish Free State was effectively a republic, and had remained neutral in World War 2. The main issue in 1947 was to end the partition of Ireland.[14][15]

America was supporting Britain through the Marshall Aid plan, and the solution was to make this aid conditional upon the end of partition. Congressman John E. Fogarty was the main mover, but in the event the condition was defeated in Congress by 206 votes to 139, with 83 abstaining. A factor that swung some votes against his motion was that Ireland had remained neutral during the world war.

New York City 1994

This convention was organised for June at the Jacob Javits Convention Center by Dennis Prebenson, with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin as its guest speaker. The "Troubles" that had developed since 1970 in Northern Ireland had not achieved Irish reunification. While trenchant and hoping for further Irish-American support, the convention helped prepare the ground for the August 1994 ceasefire, an essential step in the Northern Ireland peace process that led on to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.


  1. 1881 timeline
  2. 1896 Convention booklet
  4. Online notes on the 1916 Convention
  5. "1918 notes accessed Dec 2009". doi:10.1353/jwh.1999.0010. Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  6. New York Times article on pdf; link from here
  7. "FOIF article online; accessed December 2009". Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  9. Keogh, Dermot. 'The treaty split and the Paris Irish Race Convention, 1922'. Études irlandaises, 12 (1987), 165-170. ISSN 0183-973X.
  10. "June 1922 Dail debate on funding for Fine Ghaedhail; accessed Dec 2009". Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  11. "Diarmuid Coffey's notes". Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  12. Prof Dermot Keogh, The Treaty Split and the Paris-Irish Race Convention, Études Irlandaises, No.12, December 1987, pp.165-170.
  13. Preliminary report by Eoin MacNeill on the Irish Race Conference, 3 February 1922
  14. "Notes on the 1947 convention". Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  15. "The Dennis Clark archive online" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-04-04.
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