Ireland’s Envoys in South Africa, 1921.

This week, Dr Ciarán Reilly explores the transnational role of South Africa in the Irish Revolution, bringing together the Irish diaspora and South African politicians. 

In 1921, Colonel Maurice Moore (1854-1939) became the first Irish envoy to South Africa. Moore’s visit to South Africa marked the zenith of the short-lived Irish Republican Association of South Africa (IRASA). The IRASA, with 13 branches scattered throughout the country, played a crucial role in pushing the ‘Irish question’ into mainstream South African politics. At the same time Dáil Éireann sent Patrick Little (1884-1963). This visit, alongside Moore, offers a fascinating insight into Irish-South African relations and, by extension, the international dimension of the Irish War of Independence. In centres such as Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban Little found sizeable Irish communities, but they were also found elsewhere: from Brakpan to Bloemfontein, and from Craddock to Oudtshorn. As Little would later remark, even in some places where ‘only a few Irishmen were in a village, they would be men of such energy that they would be bossing the whole place’.

Irish nationalists had long seen the opportunity to cultivate support (and finance) in South Africa. In 1887, for example, John G. Swift McNeill, Nationalist MP for South Donegal undertook a successful tour of South Africa harnessing Irish sentiment. The arrival in 1889 of two Irish MPs, Sir Thomas Esmonde (1862-1935) and John Deasy (1856-1896), was greeted with fanfare in Cape Town. This support was again reflected in 1894 when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), John Redmond (1856-1918) was feted when he visited the city. As late as 1917 Redmond could count on South African support, when the Benoni Irish Association forwarded £70, the proceeds of the annual ball, to the Irish Parliamentary Party. During the Irish War of Independence Irish nationalists once more reached out to South Africa and its small, but significant, Irish population.

Moore was well versed on the political situation in South Africa and his mission was seen by Dáil Éireann as being twofold. On the one hand, he was to seek a meeting with the South African Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts and encourage him to raise the ‘Irish question’ at the Imperial Conference in London in June 1921. On the other hand he was instructed to meet with Smuts’ political opponents, and urge them for support thus forcing the prime minister to act. In tandem, P. J. Little, the editor of the New Ireland newspaper, was sent to South Africa to raise support amongst the Irish diaspora and fundraise for the provisional government. By doing so Little would also push Irish affairs into mainstream South African politics. This was a clever plan and Little’s whirlwind tour of South Africa, speaking at more than thirty-six locations in less than six weeks, was a noted success.

Making initial contact with Benjamin Farrington, a lecturer in Greek at the University of Cape Town and editor of the IRASA’s periodical, The Republic, Little wasted no time in organising a lecture tour across the vast South African terrain. Little estimated that the total membership of the association was about 1,000 people many of whom were wealthy businessmen, farmers and entrepreneurs and who saw the opportunity of expanding their trading markets to the Irish worldwide. Indeed, the IRASA openly proclaimed that:

It is not the Ireland of four millions that we are thinking of now, nor even merely the potential Ireland of ten or fifteen millions. We are thinking also of the Greater Ireland, the Magna Hibernia across the seas, the millions of Irish people throughout the world.

The association’s periodical, The Republic, was key to the propaganda war, particularly in opposition to the Cape Times, South Africa’s widest selling newspaper which was firmly pro-British. By April 1921 The Republic had a circulation of about 2,300 copies per week, but was banned because of its overtly anti-British stance. Indeed, the first edition of The Republic coincided with the visit of his Royal Highness, Prince Arthur of Connaught, Governor General and High Commissioner for South Africa, in 1920 to which the IRASA noted that they had ‘no welcome for one who comes dressed in the Imperial name and authority’. Fortuitously for the periodical, the first edition also coincided with death on hunger strike of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, thereby swelling its sales and increasing its membership.

Throughout South Africa Little met with a receptive ear. At Durban where T. F. Tyndall and J. J. Moran provided the welcome, the branch was described as ‘vigorous and earnest’.In Johannesburg, under the guide of George Mulligan, a Protestant barrister from Belfast, the hall was lined with hurley carriers. At Kimberly a prominent Irishman named Collins was the chief organiser; at Pietermaritzburg, a Professor Lyons, was amongst the organisers, while in Oudtshorn, a peach farmer named McAllister was described as a ‘strong supporter’. The Pretoria branch was organised by Eamon Burgess, brother of Cathal Brugha (1874-1922), then a member of Dáil Éireann, while not surprisingly, a number of Catholic priests also played a prominent role in the association and in providing the Irish envoy a welcome. These included Fr Curtis in East London and Fr Thomas Cullinane in Craddock. Little was also invited to a number of convents and schools run by Irish nuns and priests including the Nazareth, Dominican, Mercy and Charity convents and the Marist and Christian Brother schools.

However, the broad religious spectrum of the IRASA meant that Little could count on support from Protestants, particularly those from Ulster. At Krugersdorp, for example, Mr Findlay, who, in a careful and eloquent speech, appealed to ex-Serviceman and Ulster Protestants like himself to join in ‘this great struggle for the freedom of a small nation’. Little’s Catholicism did not deter or stunt his mission in anyway, many meetings were held in Protestant owned premises. These included at W.C. Brown’s, the self-titled ‘Monaghan Presbyterian’ who called for unity between Irishmen in South Africa. Such sentiments were reiterated by Rev. McGahey, a Wesleyan clergymen at Colesberg who was described as ‘one of the most devoted of Ireland’s son’. Unsurprisingly, the largest branch and meetings were centred on Cape Town, attracting Irish men and women from across the Western Cape. Much of the work here was undertaken by Scott Hayward, described as being the ‘driving force and the organising ability which have made the progress of this branch so remarkable’. In Cape Town the promotion of educational programmes, where people could learn the Irish language, music and customs, was the overriding objective of the group.

As he moved throughout the country Little’s lectures generated considerable interest outside the Irish population. In the university town of Stellenbosch Little was given a great welcome and all the student body quit their classes, reflecting the fact that they were largely Afrikaner nationalist in character. Nearing the end of his tour, at Malmesbury, Smuts’ hometown, Little used the forthcoming Imperial Conference as the pretext to draw the South African premier. He denounced Smuts’ proposal that partition was a viable solution for Ireland. On this occasion, Little was lucky to escape from the hostile crowd. Overall Little’s mission was met with receptive and welcoming ears in South Africa and his presence was said to have ‘decidedly advanced’ the ‘Irish question’ in the country. The Republic claimed that ‘no Irish envoy could have accomplished what Little has been able to achieve in a few weeks’.

As Little generated interest in Irish affairs, Colonel Moore made contact with Smuts and pressed upon him the idea of raising the Irish question at the Imperial Conference to which he agreed. Accompanied to London by the county Meath born, Sir Thomas Smartt, then Minister for Agriculture in the South African government, Smuts would play an important role in the conference proceedings, while also making time to visit Ireland and open up the communication lines between the British government and Dáil Eireann.

Taking a personal involvement in King George V’s speech at the opening of the new Northern parliament in Belfast on 22 June 1921, Smuts persuaded the monarch to offer a hand of reconciliation in his speech. In early July, and with the full backing of the King, Smuts took a break from the Imperial Conference travelling to Dublin incognito. Here a hastily arranged meeting was held with Eamon de Valera and other members of the Dáil. About the meeting Smuts wrote:

We argued most fiercely all the morning, all afternoon until late in the night and the men I found most difficult to convince was de Valera and Childers.

Within days of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921, Lloyd George sent a telegram to Smuts thanking him for the part he had played in the negotiations. Likewise, Colonel Moore openly conceded that the Irish people owed Smuts a debt of gratitude. Looking back on his involvement, Smuts was happy thatDominion status had been implemented in Ireland and that essentially, the ‘Irish question’ was settled. His interjection, although fleeting, was an important contribution, a fact acknowledged by William T. Cosgrove (1860-1965), President of the Irish Free State, at the Imperial Conference in 1923 when he said that Smuts ‘gave ready and most valuable assistance to bring about the position which leads to our presence here to-day’. This involvement was certainly influenced by the diplomatic missions of Moore and Little. Touring South Africa and agitating that the ‘Irish question’ was raised in forums outside that of the Irish diaspora, Little in particular was successful in forcing the hand of the South African premier who, as the leading international statesmen of his day, was determined not to allow the issue to dominate internal politics in South Africa.


Dr Ciarán Reilly is an historian of nineteenth & twentieth century Irish history based at Maynooth University. For a detailed account see Ciarán Reilly, ‘The Magna Hibernia: Irish envoys in South Africa, 1921’ in Journal of South African History (2015). Ciarán tweets using @ciaranjreilly.

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