The Battle for the Irish Consulate 

By Catherine M. Burns

1441323559.png

As a major world city, New York is quite famously host to cultures and traditions from around the globe. National and ethnic groups bring more than their belongings. The politics of the homeland is not infrequently continued apace in the five boroughs.

So it was that for three days in 1922 supporters of the opposing factions in the Irish Civil War occupied the Irish consulate on the tenth floor of 119 Nassau Street in Manhattan.

8138280_orig.jpg

The mood was tense. On one side were those opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and the resultant Irish Free State, established only a few weeks before. They believed that the Irish Republic —- (founded by a small number of republican activists in 1919, but never widely recognized beyond their circle) -- still existed. Eamon de Valera was their leader.

On the other were representatives of the Irish Free State, the official and officially acknowledged Irish government, represented by Lindsay Crawford, the newly appointed Irish Free State consul.

4582332.jpg

Prone to hyperbole, American newspapers painted a grim picture. The Irish Civil War had crossed the Atlantic. The violence had come to New York.[1] Exaggerations. Yet the war did matter. Republicans believed the consulate held documents that would help them access funds that could be sent to Ireland or used for propaganda in the United States. More than anything, the occupation was about cash.

Approximately $2,500,000, raised for the Irish Republic through an American bond drive, chiefly in 1920, remained in four New York City banks. Both sides wanted those funds. But the way forward was challenging. Supporters of the Treaty needed to be sure that former allies-now–turned-opponents could not claim the monies. Actions taken by the original trustees allowed certain American citizens to act as their substitutes. This might result in supporters of the Irish Republic accessing the accounts. The pro-Treaty camp had to block de Valera and his supporters. To this end, they approached a New York Supreme Court justice and, on August 21, 1922, received an injunction that prevented the republicans from making withdrawals. It was a blow to the republican side, which was in desperate need of funds.[2] They had to respond.

8627784.jpg

Consequently, supporters of the Irish Republic fought the injunction. In September 1922, John F. Finerty, a lawyer and President of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR), began devising a legal strategy to challenge the judge’s decision. Although his thinking was still in its early stages, he argued that the government created by the Treaty had no right to the funds. The Irish Free State was not the successor to the Irish Republic, which not only still existed but was also the entity that had sold the bond-certificates. Finerty developed another approach as well. According to historian Francis M. Carroll, in December 1922 he and his associates began considering how bond-certificate holders, as Americans citizens, could potentially claim the money and keep it out of the hands of the Irish Free State.[3] This required having the bond subscribers’ names. Similar rational colored the consulate occupation, foreshadowing the republicans’ bond litigation strategies.

Other life-and-death issues soon impacted the issue. Consul Joseph Connolly, who began his position before the signing of the Treaty, was in the crosshairs of Irish republican activists. They wanted him to take a public stand when pro-Treaty forces in the Irish Civil War executed republicans. Supporters of Mary MacSwiney, imprisoned by the Free State and on hungerstrike, were especially adamant. Connolly could not win. There was no way for him to change the Irish Free State’s policy and the killings merely spurred diehard republicans in the United States to greater action. He resigned in November 1922.[4]

Within days of the Irish Free State’s execution of four republicans at Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin, Connolly’s replacement, a man named Daniel J. McGrath, received a letter informing him to leave office by December 26 or be shot. Exactly who sent the letter is unknown. Reports claimed it was signed by the “Military Authority, Irish Republican Army.”[5] McGrath stopped appearing for work on December 20.[6]

With McGrath out of the way, republicans interested in the consulate had an opportunity. Robert Briscoe, a Dublin-born man who publicly presented himself as a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and whose Jewish faith and heritage made him unique in Irish nationalist circles, happily set his sights on the consulate. Just after the executions, Laurence Ginnell, representing de Valera and the Irish Republic, instructed Briscoe to enter the Nassau Street offices, where he was to locate a list of bond-certificate holders.

Briscoe called on Michael O’Brien and Paddy Codiert to help, and the three confronted McGrath (recalled as “Hughes” in Briscoe’s memoir) at home with his wife. They demanded the keys, and the consul, terrified, did not argue. Following Codiert and O’Brien into the consulate, Briscoe then telephoned Ginnell, who told him “Now, look around for the list of subscribers to the bond drive.” But even after calling in extras, the men found nothing.[7] The stage was set for occupation.

McGrath reappeared at the consulate the next morning to greet his replacement. Timothy Smiddy, the Irish Free State’s envoy in Washington, had appointed Lindsay Crawford the Acting Consul-General in New York. Yet instead of Crawford, McGrath encountered Ginnell, who claimed to be the consul appointed by the Irish Republic. He had papers to that effect, signed by Eamon de Valera. A short time later, Crawford arrived too, accompanied by Smiddy.[8] So now representatives from two Irish governments were on hand, both claiming legitimacy and possession of the consulate.

With the major players present, representatives from both the Free State and the Republic engaged the press in order to argue why one and not the other had the rights. Ginnell stressed that the Irish Republic had created the office in the first place. Just as important, it had never left republican hands. After all, he believed, the republic was alive and well. Nothing had changed.

The representative of the Irish Free State told a different story, grounded in language and nomenclature. Smiddy reportedly commented to at least one reporter: “The Irish ‘movement’ since 1918 had its slogan ‘Saor Staate’ or Free State, and when the Irish people signed the treaty the new Government adopted that name. All property and other things identified with the movement for independence went thereafter under the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State.” [9]

Smiddy also told the New York Times that the real motivation for the “tresspassers” was the “Irish fund.”[10] By this point, Smiddy had been keeping tabs or spying on Briscoe for about five weeks, and seemingly knew all along that republicans would try to take some action on the consulate.[11]

Ginnell was not alone when he appeared with his letter from de Valera, either. At least four men arrived with him, with others in support. In addition to Briscoe, they included Finerty, the AARIR president and bond litigation lawyer; Major Michael A. Kelly, the New York director of AARIR; and J. J. O’Kelly, a “delegate” of the Irish Republic. Paddy Codiert, a former courier for the Irish Republican envoy in London and Michael O’Brien, who worked in the president’s office at Fordham University, were still on the premises.[12]

O’Brien is particularly interesting because his brother-in-law, Stephen O’Mara, was one of the bond trustees. O’Mara weighed heavily on the minds of backers of the Irish Republic in the United States interested in the bond-certificates. The Irish Free State had recently arrested O’Mara. Thinking that he might be executed, Finerty and two other lawyers asked a New York judge to require the Irish Free State to make sure O’Mara would be able to make a deposition when called to do so. The judge decided that if the Irish Free State took O’Mara’s life the injunction would be dissolved.[13] In this climate, determining whether the names and information of bond-certificate holders were in the consulate was very important to the republicans in New York.

At the same time that Crawford and Ginnell disputed each other’s credentials, or not long after, the occupation began. It is not easy to determine how many took part. Crawford, it seems, was the only Free State representative in the standoff. Briscoe and O’Brien were also there. So was a former boxer from Carlow, Ireland named Mooney; “tough enough to frighten a goat,” to quote Briscoe again from his memoir.[14] At least two women, Muriel MacSwiney and Gertrude Corless, joined them.[15]

As dramatic as all this was, it likely would not have generated nearly the media interest it did had MacSwiney not been present. [16] A political celebrity, the British had arrested her husband, Terrence, during the Irish War for Independence, and he died on hunger strike in 1920, among the most famous martyrs to the republican cause during that period. In December of that year, strikingly beautiful and wearing a black mourning veil, Muriel and her sister-in-law, Mary, arrived in New York to great fanfare en route to testifying before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. The young widow and mother aroused considerable sympathy.[17]

1441324786.png

Finerty was grateful that Americans paid so much attention to female republicans. And he was especially thankful to have Muriel in the United States. In the weeks prior, she had led American women in protest of her hunger-striking sister-in-law’s imprisonment by the Irish Free State. “Previous to Mrs. MacSwiney’s arrival in this country,” Finerty said in a letter written days after the consulate occupation ended, “the press had been absolutely closed to the Republican movement. From the moment of her arrival we have had nothing but the most favorable attitude from the press and have been able to obtain publicity for her which we could not obtain from any one else.”[18] Corless, an American woman with considerable experience in organizing pro-republican, female protesters and showcasing them before journalists, accompanied MacSwiney inside the consulate.[19]

By and large the occupation was peaceful. Both sides immediately issued statements that they intended to stay through the night, despite building rules that required all lights to be out by ten o’clock. A special dispensation from the building manager allowed them to wait until eleven before resorting to candlelight. Briscoe later recalled Crawford as a “really good fellow” and, though probably exaggerating, claimed that he and Crawford “piled some leather cushions on a huge big desk. We lay down on it and slept companionably back to back.”[20]

Whatever the sleeping arrangements, both sides worked to oust the other. Proving who could legitimately possess the consulate took careful consideration. Smiddy rejected suggestions that the matter be settled in court, reasoning that the Irish Free State might be hurt in future bond litigation were a judge’s decision to call into question his explanation of the chain of succession leading to the Free State. At the same time, Ginnell gathered evidence that representatives of the Irish Republic had taken out the lease for the consulate and, therefore, they and their republican heirs had the right to the offices. [21]

Smiddy ultimately gained the upper hand when he paid the rent. The building manager accepted his money and wrote him a receipt on December 30. Lawyers representing the owners of the suite containing the consulate, he claimed, “verbally recognized the Irish Free State as tenants,” too.[22]

On December 30, Smiddy, with his own “secret service agents” and members of the bomb squad entered the consulate and demanded that the republicans vacate (a clear sign the city equated the republicans with warfare). According to the New York Times, Smiddy’s men, not the police, picked up a seated Muriel MacSwiney, chair and all, and tried to carry her out. MacSwiney walked out instead. The building agents then drew up a paper, signed by Lieutenant James J. Gegan of the bomb squad, requiring that no one enter the consulate suite between five o’clock p.m. on December 30, 1922 and nine a.m. on January 2, 1923.[23] Newspapers, using language that implied parallels to the Irish Civil War, called this a “truce” and “armistice.”[24]

The New Year’s holiday passed without incident. When the Republicans returned to 119 Nassau Street on January 2, 1923, war did not break out. Chaos and confusion, however, awaited.

Michael O’Brien, now with his own credentials as consul, arrived at the building and “found quite a number of bond holders there before us but no Free Staters.” The “bond holders” were entirely or mostly female protesters attached to Muriel MacSwiney.[25] We can think of these women as merely de Valera supporters, but the fact that O’Brien classified them as bond-certificate holders indicates that they justified their protest as Americans seeking the return of monies donated to the Irish Republic and which might otherwise go to the Irish Free State.

According to O’Brien, “They [the “bond holders”] came up with the usual body-guard plus Gegan, several detectives and a few policemen about 9:30, and whilst we were kept back by the detectives, entered the offices. Then Gegan hollers that the hallway must be cleared and right away grabs a hold of Mrs. MacSwiney and manhandles her, a couple of others doing the same to me.”

O’Brien insisted to Gegan that the bond-certificate holders were not among those who had been occupying the consulate. They were, instead, “Amer. Citizens there with a grievance….” Gegan consented and allowed those who had claimed the Irish Republic to stand in the hall outside the offices and the others to wait at another end of the corridor.

Within an hour, O’Brien learned that the lawyers representing the building owners would only recognize Crawford and Smiddy. The republicans could remain in the hallway, but they could not enter the consulate offices. They decided to leave, promising to go to court.[26]

The “bond holders” took a different course of action. They marched themselves and their grievances to City Hall, placards in hand. In conversation with Mayor John F. Hylan, the women complained that the police had taken the side of the Irish Free State and physically attacked MacSwiney. Of course, arguably, Lieutenant Gegan and his men, regardless of how they handled MacSwiney or anyone else, were simply defending the property-owners and managers who accepted Smiddy’s rent payment. But the women did not see it this way. A picket named Ellen Lynch reportedly asked Mayor Hylan to decide if the city recognized the Irish Republic or the Irish Free State. Like any other American mayor, Hylan had no authority to determine the legitimacy of a foreign government. He defended the actions of the police and told the women to take up the matter in court.[27]

From that point forward activity at the consulate died down. The building manager threatened to have any republican pickets arrested if they tried to protest within 119 Nassau Street. The Free State dismissed the consulate staff, but detectives in the offices made it impossible for the republicans to return. O’Brien sought opportunities to resume efforts. But a lawyer determined that the republicans had no legal grounds to claim anything within the consulate; “a point,” O’Brien concluded, “which I suppose our friend [Smiddy] knew all the time.”[28]

6898000.jpg

It seems there was never any chance that the republicans would find the lists of bond subscribers. The same attorney informed Finerty and McGrath that only two books containing the names of bond-certificate holders from the Bronx and Manhattan were ever kept at the consulate.[29] Where those and other relevant documents were now, the republicans did not know.

The bond question was not settled until 1931, but the occupation of the Irish consulate offers a glimpse into the importance of New York City to political developments in Ireland. Whether in the form of fundraising or protests, the metropolis was the epicenter of American Irish nationalist activism. By 1922, Irish republicans were a vocal minority within this realm. Nevertheless, Irish politicians and military figures committed to the establishment of an independent Irish state had little choice but to engage them and American law. In the midst of the Irish Civil War, pro- and anti-Treaty factions did not equally benefit from this relationship. Often, whether one side or the other was helped or hindered depended on the decisions of New York’s police officers and judges.


Catherine M. Burns holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work has appeared in New Hibernia Review and The Irish in the Atlantic World (South Carolina, 2010). In 2009, the New York Irish History Roundtable awarded her the John J. O’Connor Graduate Scholarship for her work on the Irish in New York City.


[1] For example see, “Irish Have Moved War Across the Sea,” The Helena Independent (Montana), 28 December 1922; “Irish Troubles Now in America,” The Daily Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS), 29 December 1922.

[2] Francis M. Carroll, American Opinion and the Irish Question, 1910-23 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 185; Frances M. Carroll, Money for Ireland: Finance, Diplomacy, Politics, and the First Dáil Eireann Loans, 1919-1936 (Wesport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 25, 35, 37.

[3] Carroll, Money for Ireland, 38, 49.

[4] Joseph Connolly to [Francis P. Walsh and others], 30 October 1922, New York Public Library, Francis P. Walsh Papers, Box 26, folder “Irish Correspondence, 1922 Sept-Dec”; Joseph Connolly to William T. Cosgrave, 7 December 1922, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP), No. 5, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 30, file 197, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1922/341.htm.

[5] For example, see Boston Globe, 27 December 1922.

[6] Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 14, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 30, file 200, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/350.htm.

[7] Robert Briscoe with Alden Hatch, For the Life of Me (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 194-198. Quotation from Briscoe, 197.

[8] New York Times, 28 December 1922.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 13, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 28, file 185, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/349.htm.

[12] New York Times, 28 December 1922; Briscoe, 196. On J.J. O’Kelly, see Bernadette Whelan, United States Foreign Policy and Ireland: From Empire to Independence, 1913-29 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), 382.

[13]Briscoe, 195; Eamon de Valera to John F. Finerty, 14 December 1922, University of Michigan (UM), John Frederick Finerty Irish Papers (JFFIP), Box 1, folder “Irish Bond Litigation, Correspondence and Documents. 1922 Nov-Dec.;” Carroll, Money for Ireland, 39.

[14] New York Times, 28 December 1922, Briscoe, 198, 200. Quotation from Briscoe, 198.

[15] New York Times, 28 December 1922.

[16] Many American newspapers portrayed Muriel MacSwiney as in charge of the consulate takeover. For examples, see Biddeford Daily Journal (Maine), 28 December 1922, The Bridgeport Telegram (Connecticut), 29 December 1922. A photomontage of MacSwiney, Corless, and Crawford appeared in many newspapers. Examples include Sandusky Register (Ohio), 2 January 1923; Centralia Evening Sentinel (Illinois), 3 January 1923; Capital Times (Madison, WI), 3 January 1923.

[17] On Terence MacSwiney, see R. F. Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), 274-76. On Muriel MacSwiney’s reception: New York American, 3 December 1920; 4 December 1920; New York Tribune, 5 December 1920; The World (New York), 5 December 1920; New York Herald, 6 December 1920.

[18] Washington Post, 15 November 1922; New York American, 16 November 1922; John F. Finerty to Hannah Sheehy Skeffington (copy, unsigned), 5 January 1923, UM, JFFIP, Box 5, folder “Irish General Correspondence 1923 Jan.-May.”

[19] On Corless, see Catherine Megan Burns, “American Identity and the Transatlantic Irish Nationalist Movement, 1912-1925,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2011), 181, 185-87, 196-97, 203, 208, 217, 221-26.

[20] New York Tribune, 28 December 1922; New York Times, 28 December 1922; Briscoe, 198.

[21] Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 14, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 30, file 200, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/350.htm; Laurence Ginnell to Mr. Daniel J. McGrath, 29 December 1922, Daniel J. McGrath to Hon. L. Ginnell, 29 December 1922, UM, JFFIP, Box 7, folder “Misc. Subjects. Irish Consulate, New York City, 1922 Dec.”

[22] Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 14, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 30, file 200, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/350.htm.

[23] New York Times, 31 December 1922; Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 13, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 28, file 185, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/349.htm.

[24] Irish World and American Industrial Liberator (New York), 6 January 1923; New York Times, 3 January 1923.

[25] Michael O’Brien to John F. Finerty, 3 January 1923, UM, JFFIP, Box 5, folder “Irish General Correspondence 1923 Jan.-May;” Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 14, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 30, file 200, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/350.htm. Quotation in O’Brien to Finerty.

[26] Michael O’Brien to John F. Finerty, 3 January 1923, UM, JFFIP, Box 5, folder “Irish General Correspondence 1923 Jan.-May.”

[27] New York Times, 3 January 1923; New York Tribune, 3 January 1923.

[28] Timothy A. Smiddy to Desmond FitzGerald, 6 January 1923, DIFP, No. 14, NAI, DFA, ES, Box 30, file 200, accessed 31 August 2015, http://www.difp.ie/docs/Volume2/1923/350.htm; Michael O’Brien to John F. Finerty, 8 January 1923, UM, JFFIP, Box 5, folder “Irish General Correspondence 1923 Jan.-May.”

[29] David Asch to John F. Finerty, 16 January 1923, UM, JFFIP, Box 4, folder “AARIR 1923 Jan.”