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Home at War, 1920: Diaspora Witness Statements to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland

By Mark Holan

Half of the 18 American witnesses who testified a century ago about their experiences in Ireland during the War of Independence were natives of the country who returned home in 1920.[1] Their first-person accounts of the period’s violence and unrest, totalling more than 160 pages of verbatim transcript, illustrate both Irish nationalist and American identities.

Pro-Irish interests in the United States established the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland to generate publicity and political support for the fledgling state. It was not an official body of American government, though the eight-member panel included two U.S. senators. The Commission interviewed 18 Irish citizens and two British nationals, in addition to the American witness, from November 1920 to January 1921, primarily at a Washington, DC hotel. Some of the Irish diaspora witnesses said commission officials invited them to testify; it’s unclear how the others were selected.

As David Fitzpatrick has recently explored, Irish diaspora applications for U.S. passports peaked in 1920 as passenger shipping resumed full operations after the Great War. Restrictions on foreign travel, in place since 1915, were relaxed so that it was no longer necessary to cite dire emergencies to secure the document.[2] Simultaneously, Irish emigration topped 30,000 in 1920 for the first time since 1915, with nearly 80 percent headed westbound to America.[3]

In keeping with the main motivations of pre-war Irish diaspora travelers, most of the nine witnesses told the commission they returned to Ireland to visit family. Then they got caught in the crossfire of war.

Father Michael M. English testified he arrived in America in 1907, age 13, and was naturalized in 1919. The Catholic priest said he traveled from his Montana parish to Templebraden, Co. Limerick, in May 1920, to see his parents. During his stay, British troops searched the house and arrested a younger brother found with an Irish Volunteers membership card.[4]

Nellie Craven was listed as an American witness despite being recorded as an alien in the January 1920 U.S. Census. Nellie, a 34 year old household servant in DC had emigrated in 1908. She said her July 1920 return to Headford, Co. Galway, was prompted by a brother’s letter: “My mother was not well, and he wanted me to go over and see her,” she testified. During her visit, her brother was found “crawling along the road” after being brutalized by the Black and Tans.[5]

Lafayette Hotel, [16th and I St., N.W., Washington, D.C.] where most witnesses testified.
npcc 32479

Pittsburgh innkeeper Patrick J. Guilfoil, 40, native of Scarriff, Co. Clare, emigrated in 1900 and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at Detroit in 1906. His March 1920 passport application, which included his wife and their two young sons, said their travel was “For a visit,” but the first two words were lined out and the noun “relatives” added for precision.[6] Guilfoil testified that his family stayed May through October 1920 with his sister-in-law in Feake, Co. Clare. On Oct. 7, two Royal Irish Constabulary officers were ambushed and killed by IRA snipers outside the local post office, followed that night by reprisals on the village 50 miles north of Limerick city.

“The police and military come down the street banging and shooting and throwing hand grenades in all directions,” Guilfoil testified. “I do not need to tell you how nervous those children were. They were shaking so that I got to shaking myself.”

Several witnesses contextualized their experiences as Americans in Ireland in ways that amplified the hearings’ anti-British tilt. Guilfoil said a military officer recorded his name and number of his U.S. passport with the menacing threat “he was going to put me on the black list.” Father English said an officer told him, “Your American citizenship does not count here.”

Mrs. Michael Mohan of Long Island, New York, said that during a visit to her parents in Queenstown, Co. Cork, Irish Volunteers alerted the neighborhood that police and military were approaching to raid their homes. “And being an American citizen, I put out the American flag for protection,” she testified. When the troops could not reach the flag to tear it down, “they smashed in the two big plate-glass windows of my father’s house.”[7] An Associated Press report of the flag story was sensationalized in numerous American newspapers. Many included Mohan’s quotation of the U.S. Consul at Cork that the British military “hated Americans as much as the Irish hated the English.” The story was not included in the commission’s report.[8]

John Charles Clarke, 37, a 1903 emigrant naturalized in 1909, told the commission he traveled to Ireland in September 1920, after his wife died, because he wanted their 7-year-old son to meet “my people, who reside in Queenstown,” including his aunt, Mrs. Mohan’s mother.[9] Daniel J. Broderick, 24, traveled from Chicago to see his parents in Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick. The 1913 emigrant said he was naturalized in 1917 while serving in the U.S. Army.[10]

New York resident Peter J. MacSwiney, naturalized in 1916, returned to Cork city in November 1920 for the funeral of his brother, the hunger strike martyr Terence MacSwiney.[11] His brief testimony was overshadowed by his sister and sister-in-law, who traveled from Ireland to appear before the Commission.

Tipperary-born Catholic priest Rev. James H. Cotter and Kilkenny native Francis Hackett also pursued journalistic investigations during their 1920 visits.[12] Father Cotter, an Ironton, Ohio, staff writer for The Columbiad, organ of the Knights of Columbus, said it was his first return to Ireland since his 1897 emigration, age 15, because he “was anxious to see for myself the conditions there.” Hackett, a 1900 emigrant, had reported from Ireland in 1913 and returned in 1920 to write articles for the New York World.

Agnes B. King, American-born daughter of Cork city emigrants, testified that she passed on the opportunity to travel on to France. “I changed my mind after being in Ireland two or three weeks, because the situation was so engrossing,” she said.[13]

Historian Francis M. Carroll has noted the diaspora witness accounts of “dangerous and unpleasant encounters with British authorities … gave credibility to the work of the commission.” Though largely one-sided, the testimony “remains one of the most important and most moving accounts of the suffering caused by the war in Ireland.”[14]

The nine diaspora statements are an underexplored record from a unique cohort, Irish natives who traveled home during one of the most searing years in the island’s history since the Great Famine. Their statements are like a trove of letters left yellowing in an attic trunk, now digitized and searchable, the foundation for additional research.

Washington, D.C. journalist Mark Holan writes about Irish history and contemporary issues at, and other websites and print publications. He has presented original research at the American Journalism Historians Association, the Irish Railroad Workers Museum, Baltimore, and the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland. He is also editorial director for a U.S. industry association.

Features image: Mrs. Muriel & Miss Mary McSwiney [i.e. MacSwiney]  npcc 03131

[1] Designation of American, Irish, and British citizenship of hearing witnesses in Evidence on Conditions in Ireland, The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, Official Report, May 1921, pp xii-xiv.

[2] David Fitzpatrick. The Americanisation of Ireland: Migration and Settlement 1841-1925 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019) pp 161, 176 (“Number of U.S. passport applications by birthplace, 1914-25, Table 8.10), and 193.

[3] Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, 1948-1954 reports, (Dublin, 1954). “Number of overseas emigrants from Ireland (32 counties), classified by destination, 1825-1925, Table 26, p.316

[4] Evidence, Nov. 18, 1920, testimony of Michael English, pp. 53-69.

[5] Evidence, Dec. 16, 1920, testimony of Nellie Craven, pp. 506-516. 1920 U.S. Census Place: Washington, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: T625_206; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 67

[6] Evidence, Dec. 10, 1920, testimony of P.J. Guilfoil, pp. 366-376. Baptismal Record: Irish Civil Records Group ID 8827969, via; 1918 U.S. Military Draft Card, Pennsylvania; Registration County: Allegheny; Roll: 1909277; Draft Board: 18; 1920 U.S. Census Place, Pittsburgh Ward 22, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: T625_1524; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 673; 1920 U.S. Passport Application, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 1092; Volume #: Roll 1092 – Certificates: 179750-180125, 05 Mar 1920-05 Mar 1920; October 1920 Celtic manifest, Passenger ID 100290040963, Frame 503, Line 1. Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.; 1946 Pennsylvania Death Certificate, Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1967; Certificate Number Range: 090601-093150.

[7] Evidence, Dec. 23, 1920, testimony of Mrs. Michael Mohan, pp. 684-698.

[8] Digital search of The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland: Interim Report, March 8, 1921.

[9] Evidence, Dec. 23, 1920, testimony of John Charles Clarke, pp. 699-717.

[10] Evidence, Dec. 22, 1920, testimony of Daniel J. Brokerick, pp. 664-683

[11] Evidence, Jan. 14, 1921, pp. 889-892.

[12] Evidence, Nov. 18, 1920, testimony of Rev. James H. Cotter, pp. 75-91; and Nov. 19, 1920, testimony of Francis Hackett, pp. 137-174.

[13] Evidence, Nov. 19, 1920, testimony of Agnes B. King, pp. 120-137.

[14] Carroll, Francis M., “ ‘All Standards of Human Conduct’ : The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, 1920-1921.”  in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XVI, No. 4 (Winter, 1981), pp. 59-74.


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