Nationalist Letter to President Wilson

Ronald McNeill

To the President of the United States of America


When, a century and a half ago, the American Colonies dared to assert the ancient principle that the subject should not be taxed without the consent of his representatives, England strove to crush them. To-day England threatens to crush the people of Ireland if they do not accept a tax, not in money but in blood, against the protest of their representatives.

During the American Revolution the champions of your liberties appealed to the Irish Parliament against British aggression, and asked for a sympathetic judgment on their action. What the verdict was, history records.

To-day it is our turn to appeal to the people of America. We seek no more fitting prelude to that appeal than the terms in which your forefathers greeted ours:

"We are desirous of possessing the good opinion of the virtuous and humane. We are peculiarly desirous of furnishing you with the true state of our motives and objects, the better to enable you to judge of our conduct with accuracy, and determine the merits of the controversy with impartiality and precision."

If the Irish race had been conscriptable by England in the war against the United Colonies is it certain that your Republic would to-day flourish in the enjoyment of its noble Constitution?

Since then the Irish Parliament has been destroyed, by methods described by the greatest of British statesmen as those of "blackguardism and baseness." Ireland, deprived of its protection and overborne by more than six to one in the British Lower House, and by more than a hundred to one in the Upper House, is summoned by England to submit to a hitherto-unheard-of decree against her liberties.

In the fourth year of a war ostensibly begun for the defence of small nations, a law conscribing the manhood of Ireland has been passed, in defiance of the wishes of our people. The British Parliament, which enacted it, had long outrun its course, being in the eighth year of an existence constitutionally limited to five. To warrant the coercive statute, no recourse was had to the electorate of Britain, much less to that of Ireland. Yet the measure was forced through within a week, despite the votes of Irish representatives, and under a system of closure never applied to the debates which established conscription for Great Britain on a milder basis.

To repel the calumnies invented to becloud our action, we venture to address the successors of the belligerents who once appealed to Ireland. The feelings which inspire America deeply concern our race; so, in the forefront of our remonstrance, we feel bound to set forth that this Conscription Act involves for Irishmen questions far larger than any affecting mere internal politics. They raise a sovereign principle between a nation that has never abandoned her independent rights, and an adjacent nation that has persistently sought to strangle them.

Were Ireland to surrender that principle, she must submit to a usurped power, condone the fraudulent prostration of her Parliament in 1800, and abandon all claim to distinct nationality. Deep-seated and far-reaching are the problems remorselessly aroused by the unthinking and violent courses taken at Westminster.

Thus the sudden and unlooked-for departure of British politicians from their past military procedure towards this island provokes acutely the fundamental issue of Self-determination. That issue will decide whether our whole economic, social, and political life must lie at the uncontrolled disposition of another race whose title to legislate for us rests on force and fraud alone.

Ireland is a nation more ancient than England, and is one of the oldest in Christendom. Its geographical boundaries are clearly defined. It cherishes its own traditions, history, language, music, and culture. It throbs with a national consciousness sharpened not only by religious persecution, but by the violation of its territorial, juristic, and legislative rights. The authority of which its invaders boasted rests solely on an alleged Papal Bull. The symbols of attempted conquest are roofless castles, ruined abbeys, and confiscated cathedrals.

The title of King of Ireland was first conferred on the English monarch by a statute of the Parliament held in Ireland in 1542, when only four of our counties lay under English sway. That title originated in no English enactment. Neither did the Irish Parliament so originate. Every military aid granted by that Parliament to English kings was purely voluntary. Even when the Penal Code denied representation to the majority of the Irish population, military service was never enforced against them.

For generations England claimed control over both legislative and judicial functions in Ireland, but in 1783 these pretensions were altogether renounced, and the sovereignty of the Irish Legislature was solemnly recognised. A memorable British statute declared it—

"Established and ascertained for ever, and shall at no time hereafter be questioned or questionable."

For this, the spirit evoked by the successful revolt of the United States of America is to be thanked, and Ireland won no mean return for the sympathy invited by your Congress. Yet scarcely had George III signified his Royal Assent to that "scrap of paper," when his Ministers began to debauch the Irish Parliament. No Catholic had, for over a century, been allowed to sit within its walls; and only a handful of the population enjoyed the franchise. In 1800, by shameless bribery, a majority of corrupt Colonists was procured to embrace the London subjugation and vote away the existence of their Legislature for pensions, pelf, and titles.

The authors of the Act of Union, however, sought to soften its shackles by limiting the future jurisdiction of the British Parliament. Imposed on "a reluctant and protesting nation," it was tempered by articles guaranteeing Ireland against the coarser and more obvious forms of injustice. To guard against undue taxation, "exemptions and abatements" were stipulated for; but the "predominant partner" has long since dishonoured that part of the contract, and the weaker side has no power to enforce it. No military burdens were provided for, although Britain framed the terms of the treaty to her own liking. That an obligation to yield enforced service was thereby undertaken has never hitherto been asserted. We therefore cannot neglect to support this protest by citing a main proviso of the Treaty of Union. Before the destruction of the Irish Parliament no standing army or navy was raised, nor was any contribution made, except by way of gift, to the British Army or Navy. No Irish law for the levying of drafts existed; and such a proposal was deemed unconstitutional. Hence the 8th Article of the Treaty provides that—

"All laws in force at the time of the Union shall remain as now by law established, subject only to such alterations and regulations from time to time as circumstances may appear to the Parliament of the United Kingdom to require."

Where there was no law establishing military service for Ireland, what "alteration or regulation" respecting such a law can legally bind? Can an enactment such as Conscription, affecting the legal and moral rights of an entire people, be described as an "alteration" or "regulation" springing from a pre-existing law? Is the Treaty to be construed as Britain pleases, and always to the prejudice of the weaker side?

British military statecraft has hitherto rigidly held by a separate tradition for Ireland. The Territorial military system, created in 1907 for Great Britain, was not set up in Ireland. The Irish Militia was then actually disbanded, and the War Office insisted that no Territorial force to replace it should be embodied. Stranger still, the Volunteer Acts (Naval or Military) from 1804 to 1900 (some twenty in all) were never extended to Ireland. In 1880, when a Conservative House of Commons agreed to tolerate volunteering, the measure was thrown out by the House of Lords on the plea that Irishmen must not be allowed to learn the use of arms.

For, despite the Bill of Rights, the privilege of free citizens to bear arms in self-defence has been refused to us. The Constitution of America affirms that right as appertaining to the common people, but the men of Ireland are forbidden to bear arms in their own defence. Where, then, lies the basis of the claim that they can be forced to take them up for the defence of others?

It will suffice to present such considerations in outline without disinterring the details of the past misgovernment of our country. Mr. Gladstone avowed that these were marked by "every horror and every shame that could disgrace the relations between a strong country and a weak one." After an orgy of Martial Law the Scottish General, Abercromby, Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, wrote: "Every crime, every cruelty that could be committed by Cossacks or Calmucks has been transacted here. . . . The abuses of all kinds I found can scarcely be believed or enumerated." Lord Holland recalls that many people "were sold at so much a head to the Prussians."

We shall, therefore, pass by the story of the destruction of our manufactures, of artificial famines, of the fomentation of uprisings, of a hundred Coercion Acts, culminating in the perpetual "Act of Repression" obtained by forgery, which graced Queen Victoria's Jubilee Year in 1887. In our island the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the repression of free speech, gibbetings, shootings, and bayonetings, are commonplace events. The effects of forced emigration and famine American generosity has softened; and we do not seek a verdict on the general merits of a system which enjoys the commendation of no foreigner except Albert, Prince Consort, who declared that the Irish "were no more worthy of sympathy than the Poles."

It is known to you how our population shrank to its present fallen state. Grants of money for emigration, "especially of families," were provided even by the Land Act of 1881. Previous Poor Law Acts had stimulated this "remedy." So late as 1891 a "Congested District" Board was empowered to "aid emigration," although millions of Irishmen had in the nineteenth century been evicted from their homes or driven abroad.

Seventy years ago our population stood at 8,000,000, and, in the normal ratio of increase, it should to-day amount to 16,000,000. Instead, it has dwindled to 4,500,000; and it is from this residuum that our manhood between the ages of eighteen and fifty-one is to be delivered up in such measure as the strategists of the English War Cabinet may demand.

To-day, as in the days of George Washington, nearly half the American forces have been furnished from the descendants of our banished race. If England could not, during your Revolution, regard that enrolment with satisfaction, might she not set something now to Ireland's credit from the racial composition of your Army or Navy? No other small nation has been so bereft by law of her children, but in vain for Ireland has the bread of exile been thrown upon the waters.

Yet, while Self-determination is refused, we are required by law to bleed to "make the world safe for democracy"—in every country except our own. Surely this cannot be the meaning of America's message to mankind glowing from the pen of her illustrious President?

In the 750 years during which the stranger sway has blighted Ireland her people have never had occasion to welcome an unselfish or generous deed at the hands of their rulers. Every so-called "concession" was but the loosening of a fetter. Every benefit sprang from a manipulation of our own money by a foreign Treasury denying us an honest audit of accounts. None was yielded as an act of grace. All were the offspring of constraint, tumult, or political necessity. Reason and arguments fell on deaf ears. To England the Union has brought enhanced wealth, population, power, and importance; to Ireland increased taxation, stunted industries, swollen emigration, and callous officialism.

Possessing in this land neither moral nor intellectual pre-eminence, nor any prestige derived from past merit or present esteem, the British Executive claims to restrain our liberties, control our fortunes, and exercise over our people the power of life and death. To obstruct the recent Home Rule Bill it allowed its favourites to defy its Parliament without punishment, to import arms from suspect regions with impunity, to threaten "to break every law" to effectuate their designs to infect the Army with mutiny and set up a rival Executive backed by military array to enforce the rule of a caste against the vast majority of the people. The highest offices of State became the guerdon of the organisers of rebellion, boastful of aid from Germany. To-day they are pillars of the Constitution, and the chief instrument of law. The only laurels lacking to the leaders of the Mutineers are those transplanted from the field of battle!

Are we to fight to maintain a system so repugnant, and must Irishmen be content to remain slaves themselves after freedom for distant lands has been purchased by their blood?

Heretofore in every clime, whenever the weak called for a defender, wherever the flag of liberty was unfurled, that blood freely flowed. Profiting by Irish sympathy with righteous causes Britain, at the outbreak of war, attracted to her armies tens of thousands of our youth ere even the Western Hemisphere had awakened to the wail of "small nations."

Irishmen, in their chivalrous eagerness, laid themselves open to the reproach from some of their brethren of forgetting the woes of their own land, which had suffered from its rulers, at one time or another, almost every inhumanity for which Germany is impeached. It was hard to bear the taunt that the army they were joining was that which held Ireland in subjection; but fresh bitterness has been added to such reproaches by what has since taken place.

Nevertheless, in the face of persistent discouragements, Irish chivalry remained ardent and aflame in the first years of the war. Tens of thousands of the children of the Gael have perished in the conflict. Their bones bleach upon the soil of Flanders or moulder beneath the waves of Suvla Bay. The slopes of Gallipoli, the sands of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Judaea afford them sepulture. Mons and Ypres provide their monuments. Wherever the battle-line extends from the English Channel to the Persian Gulf their ghostly voices whisper a response to the roll-call of the guardian-spirits of Liberty. What is their reward?

The spot on earth they loved best, and the land to which they owed their first duty, and which they hoped their sacrifices might help to freedom, lies unredeemed under an age-long thraldom. So, too, would it for ever lie, were every man and every youth within the shores of Ireland to immolate himself in England's service, unless the clamour of a dominant caste be rebuked and stilled.

Yet proof after proof accumulates that British Cabinets continue to be towards our country as conscienceless as ever. They deceive frankly nations throughout the world as to their Irish policy, while withholding from us even the Act of Home Rule which in 1914 was placed on the Statute-book. The recent "Convention," which they composed to initiate reform, was brought to confusion by a letter from the Prime Minister diminishing his original engagements.

Such insincere manoeuvres have left an indelible sense of wrong rankling in the hearts of Ireland.

Capitulations are observed with French Canadians, with the Maltese, with the Hindoos, with the Mohammedan Arabs, or the African Boers; but never has the word of England, in any capital case, been kept towards the "sister" island.

The Parliaments of Australia and of South Africa—both of which (unlike our ancient Legislature) were founded by British enactments—refused to adopt conscription. This was well known when the law against Ireland was resolved on. For opposing the application of that law to Irishmen, and while this appeal to you, sir, was being penned, members of our Conference have been arrested and deported without trial. It was even sought to poison the wells of American sympathy by levelling against them and others an allegation which its authors have failed to submit to the investigation of any tribunal.

To overlay malpractice by imputing to its victims perverse or criminal conduct is the stale but never-failing device of tyranny.

A claim has also been put forward by the British Foreign Office to prevent you, Mr. President, as the head of a great allied Republic, from acquiring first-hand information of the reasons why Ireland has rejected, and will resist, conscription except in so far as the Military Governor of Ireland, Field-Marshal Lord French, may be pleased to allow you to peruse his version of our opinions.

America's present conflict with Germany obstructs no argument that we advance. "Liberty and ordered peace" we, too, strive for; and confidently do we look to you, sir, and to America—whose freedom Irishmen risked something to establish—to lend ear and weight to the prayer that another unprovoked wrong against the defenceless may not stain this sorry century.

We know that America entered the war because her rights as a neutral, in respect of ocean navigation, were interfered with, and only then. Yet America in her strength had a guarantee that in victory she would not be cheated of that for which she joined in the struggle. Ireland, having no such strength, has no such guarantee; and experience has taught us that justice (much less gratitude) is not to be wrung from a hostile Government. What Ireland is to give, a free Ireland must determine.

We are sadly aware, from recent proclamations and deportations, of the efforts of British authorities to inflame prejudice against our country. We therefore crave allowance briefly to notice the insinuation that the Irish coasts, with native connivance, could be made a base for the destruction of American shipping.

An official statement asserts that:

"An important feature in every plan was the establishment of submarine bases in Ireland to menace the shipping of all nations."

On this it is enough to say that every creek, inlet, or estuary that indents our shores, and every harbour, mole, or jetty is watchfully patrolled by British authority. Moreover, Irish vessels, with their cargoes, crews, and passengers, have suffered in this war proportionately to those of Britain.

Another State Paper palliates the deportations by blazoning the descent of a solitary invader upon a remote island on the 12th of April, heralded by mysterious warnings from the Admiralty to the Irish Command. No discussion is permitted of the tryst of this British soldier with the local coast-guards, of his speedy bent towards a police barrack, and his subsequent confidences with the London authorities.

Only one instance exists in history of a project to profane our coasts by making them a base to launch attacks on international shipping. That plot was framed, not by native wickedness, but by an English Viceroy, and the proofs are piled up under his hand in British State Papers.

For huge bribes were proffered by Lord Falkland, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, to both the Royal Secretary and the Prince of Wales, to obtain consent for the use of Irish harbours to convenience Turkish and Algerine pirates in raiding sea-going commerce. The plot is old, but the plea of "increasing his Majesty's revenues" by which it was commended is everlasting. Nor will age lessen its significance for the citizens of that Republic which, amidst the tremors and greed of European diplomacy, extirpated the traffic of Algerine corsairs ninety years ago. British experts cherish Lord Falkland's fame as the sire of their most knightly cavalier, and in their eyes its lustre shines undimmed, though his Excellency, foiled of marine booty, enriched himself by seizing the lands of his untried prisoners in Dublin Castle.

Moving are other retrospects evoked by the present outbreak of malignity against our nation. The slanders of the hour recall those let loose to cloak previous deportations in days of panic less ignoble. Then it was the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, who was dragged to London and arraigned for high treason. Poignant memories quicken at every incident which accompanied his degradation before the Lord Chief Justice of England. A troop of witnesses was suborned to swear that his Grace "endeavoured and compassed the King's death," sought to "levy war in Ireland and introduce a foreign Power," and conspired "to take a view of all the several ports and places in Ireland where it would be convenient to land from France." An open trial, indeed, was not denied him; but with hasty rites he was branded a base and false traitor and doomed to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. That desperate felon, after prolonged investigation by the Holy See, has lately been declared a martyr worthy of universal veneration.

The fathers of the American Revolution were likewise pursued in turn by the venom of Governments. Could they have been snatched from their homes and haled to London, what fate would have befallen them? There your noblest patriots might also have perished amidst scenes of shame, and their effigies would now bedeck a British chamber of horrors. Nor would death itself have shielded their reputations from hatchments of dishonour. For the greatest of Englishmen reviled even the sacred name of Joan of Arc, the stainless Maid of France, to belittle a fallen foe and spice a ribald stage-play.

It is hardly thirty years since every Irish leader was made the victim of a special Statute of Proscription, and was cited to answer vague charges before London judges. During 1888 and 1889 a malignant and unprecedented inquisition was maintained to vilify them, backed by all the resources of British power. No war then raged to breed alarms, yet no weapon that perjury or forgery could fashion was left unemployed to destroy the characters of more than eighty National representatives—some of whom survive to join in this Address. That plot came to an end amidst the confusion of their persecutors, but fresh accusations may be daily contrived and buttressed by the chicanery of State.

In every generation the Irish nation is challenged to plead to a new indictment, and to the present summons answer is made before no narrow forum but to the tribunal of the world. So answering, we commit our cause, as did America, to "the virtuous and humane," and also more humbly to the providence of God.

Well assured are we that you, Mr. President, whose exhortations have inspired the Small Nations of the world with fortitude to defend to the last their liberties against oppressors, will not be found among those who would condemn Ireland for a determination which is irrevocable to continue steadfastly in the course mapped out for her, no matter what the odds, by an unexampled unity of National judgment and National right.

Given at the Mansion House, Dublin, this 11th day of June, 1918.

Laurence O'Neill, Lord Mayor of Dublin, Chairman of a Conference of representative Irishmen whose names stand hereunder.

Joseph Devlin,

John Dillon,

Michael Johnson,

William O'Brien (Lab.),

T. M. Healy,

William O'Brien,

Thomas Kelly,

John MacNeill, Acting in the place of E. De Valera and A. Griffith, deported 18th of May, 1918, to separate prisons in England, without trial or accusation—communication with whom has been cut off.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

Read Ulster's Stand for Union at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats, and a sample PDF can be downloaded. For more information on the book see details ».