Peter Berresford Ellis looks at the role significance of the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain (1919-1924), established in London during the Irish War of Independence
THE CONNOLLY Association is the oldest political Irish movement in Great Britain. Formed at a meeting in Doughty Street, off Gray's Inn Road, London, in July, 1938, it was initially called the Connolly Club. In January, 1939, its monthly newspaper Irish Freedom was launched. Irish Freedom was renamed the Irish Democrat in 1945 and, until, April, 1994, the newspaper was produced monthly. It then became a twice-monthly journal. And, of course, Doughty Street is close to where the CA's headquarters has remained all these years.
The aims of the movement were to work for the independence of the Irish nation and, using the socialist teachings of James Connolly, to provide a social and cultural centre to promote those works with public meetings, discussions, lectures and to form links with oppressed peoples throughout the world.
Among those attending that first meeting were several former members of the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain.
It could be said that some continuity of ideas passed from the ISDL to the CA, especially the attempt to educate the people of Great Britain as to the political realities in Ireland and using the large Irish immigrant base here to influence the politicians in London with their own attitudes.
There have, of course, been several open Irish political organisations in Britain. In 1873, Isaac Butt, of the Irish Party, formed the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain to harness the support of the Irish people for Home Rule, which was supported by the Scots and Welsh also seeking self-government. The Irish National League, formed by Parnell in 1882, had branches here but quickly declined and by 1900 it was replaced by the United Irish League, which also lost membership when Redmond called on the Irish Volunteers to aid Britain in the war effort.
When Ireland declared UDI in January, 1919, after the overwhelming mandate given to Sinn Féin in the general election of October, 1918, there were many Irish people who found themselves questioning what their role should be.
The London government refused to acknowledge the Dáil as the de facto and de jure government brought into existence by the democratic decision of the Irish people. Of course, they never had recgonised the democratic will in Ireland, not since the majority of the people had been allowed to express an opinion at the ballot box. From 1870-1918 those demanding self-determination had held four-fifths of all Irish parliamentary seats and been taken no account of. So London would not even negotiate with the newly formed government in Dublin. Some 34 elected MPs, who would sit in Dáil Éireann, the new parliament in Dublin, had already been arrested. Finally, on September 10, 1919, London declared the Dáil "a dangerous association" and declared it outlawed.
By this time, of course, British troops were flooding the country, alienating the civilian population further. Some 43,000 troops had arrived by the end of the year. Arthur Griffith, in July, 1920, gave an official figure calculating that during the year from the establishment of the Dáil, British forces had made 38,720 armed raids on private houses, arrested 4,982 people, and been responsible for 77 murders, including those of women and children, and 1,604 armed assaults. Troops had been responsible for 102 indiscriminate shootings and burning in towns and villages and some 22 newspapers, daring to report the Dáil meetings in a favourable light, had been suppressed.
The Irish government was then forced "underground" but was still operating and the Irish Volunteers, now the Army of the Irish Republic, were engaged in bitter guerrilla warfare.
What were the Irish in Britain to do? The Dáil, as any normal government, had appointed ministers plenipotentiary to various countries. Where, as in Britain, these were not acknowledged, a spokesman for the Irish government was appointed. Many historians, in a slipshod manner, have merely said they were spokesmen for Sinn Féin. While it was true that the government then consisted of that party, the Dáil was set up as an all-encompassing parliament of the nation and the spokesman had to represent the government and not the party.
There is a fine distinction here. For example, is the current British ambassador to the US a spokesman for the Labour Party or for the British government?
The Dáil had appointed as its spokesman in London Art O'Brien. He had been born in London in 1872 and attended St Charles College, which still exists as a Catholic sixth form college in Notting Hill. He became a civil engineer. He was also president of the Gaelic League in London from 1914-1935 and president of the Sinn Féin Council of Great Britain during 1916-1923.
Officials Dáil papers showed that Art O'Brien, who as represented of a democratically elected government, made no attempt to hide his role, was under constant harassment from the Metropolitan Police and its Special Branch. Raids on his offices were frequent, office managers were arrested and in two cases they were deported back to Dublin to be dealt with by the 'Castle' authorities. At one stage, the Dáil approved sending his office £4,000 to help re-equip it after destruction and loss of documents in a police raid.
Soon after the establishment of the Dáil, however, O'Brien realised that there was a need for an Irish movement in Britain which would not be linked to any one political party, would encompass the spectrum of politics on the basis of the recognition of the Irish government and the need to support it in the War of Independence that was now inflicted on it by London's policy.
In London at this time, helping out in his office, was Seán McGrath. He had been born in Ballymahon, Co. Longford, in 1882. He had immigrated to England and by 1908 was a clerk in the British Rail Company of London. He was a Gaelic League member who had become a friend of Michael Collins during his period working in London, and also joined as a member of the London Corps of the Irish Volunteers, With several members of the Corps he went to Dublin in 1916 and fought in the GPO. Interned in Frongach he was released with the others but then imprisoned without charge from March, 1918, until January, 1919.
O'Brien and McGrath discussed the idea of forming, for the first time ever, a movement that was not allied to any political parties. It was to be formed to support for the Irish state and its government. Its membership would be confined to those of Irish birth or descent resident in Britain.
In March, 1919, the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain came into being. Its Constitution and Rules were published by the Woodgrange Press, 1920, who also published at the same time a report of the First Annual Delegate Conference Agenda.
Art O'Brien was elected vice-president at the first meeting in London, while Seán McGrath was appointed general-secretary. The position of president went to Councillor P.J. Kelly of Liverpool.
In spite of O'Brien and McGrath's central roles in the new movement, the League was neither a subordinate organisation of the Dáil nor an adjunct of Sinn Féin. In fact, at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis in April, 1919, it was reported that its movement in England had 74 functioning branches in Great Britain.
The Irish Self Determination League of Great Britain reached its maximum membership by 1921, which was 38,726.
While its office in London was the focus of police raids and general harassment, the ISDL functioned with frequent public meetings.
A major coup was its meeting at London's Albert Hall demanding that London recognition the Irish government and the release of all political prisoners. This was held on 11 February 1920. Ten thousand people attended and, to the astonishment of the audience, the acting head of the Irish government, vice-president Arthur Griffith, appeared with Eoin MacNeill TD. In such a crowd, the Special Branch were unable to effect arrests and both men returned safely to Ireland.
During November and December, 1920, it was the ISDP who helped to organise the tour of Cardinal Daniel Mannix (1863-1864) the Archbishop of Melbourne, originally from Charleville, Co. Cork. In July, 1920, he had received the Freedom of the City of New York. He was outspoken about the atrocities of British forces in Ireland. He left New York in the SS Baltic but Royal Navy destroyers intercepted this ship on the high seas and he was arrested, taken off the ship and conveyed to Penzance in an attempt to prevent him addressing any meetings in Ireland.
British authorities prevented the Archbishop from speaking at meetings in Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, but thanks to ISDL planning he succeeded in addressing huge torchlight gatherings in other locations.
The ISDL were not only publishing its own pamphlets and leaflets trying to educate people on what was happening in Ireland but setting up or supporting Irish language, history and literature classes and encouraging people to support the GAA and other Irish organisations. They also raised and sent money to Dublin.
In March, 1921, the London District Committee of the ISDL launched a monthly journal called Irish Exile. This soon became the official journal of the League, being published on the Friday before the first Sunday of each month. It had a circulation of 10,000 copies
In November, 1920, Seán McGrath declared that the ISDL was regarded as "the outstanding public organisation which speaks and acts with the authority of the Irish men and women resident in these countries" (England, Scotland and Wales).
But against this activity, raids, arrests and deportations continued although the British authorities never declared the League an illegal organisation.
General Secretary Seán McGrath was arrested and deported to Ireland in February, 1921. In May, other officers of the ISDP were arrested including the acting secretary and the treasurer.
The ISDL President, Councillor PJ Kelly, was arrested on 25 June 1921, during the lunch-break of the League's annual conference. Finally, Art O'Brien was himself arrested and deported.
If it was an attempt to close the League by getting rid of the prominent personalities it was a futile act.
The League hired solicitors to start proceedings against the London government arguing the illegality of deporting. O'Brien, for example, had been born in London. By this time, of course, the Treaty negotiations were taking place and, in spite of the continuing harassment O'Brien was elected President of the League.
As the Treaty became the cause of Ireland descending into civil war, the arguments over the ISDL deportations continued.
Finally, the House of Lords, decided that the deportations were, indeed, illegal. Then men returned to London in triumph. But the London government was not really to give up in spite of the fact that the Irish Free State had now been established and recognised by them on 6 December 1922. They immediately arrested both O'Brien and McGrath and charged them with conspiracy. The two men were sentenced to a two-year jail term each. During the short-lived period of Britain's first Labour government, on 23 July 1924, the men were released after serving a year each in prison.
The League did not last much longer and it appears there were acrimonious arguments among members as to the costs of the legal defence of O'Brien and McGrath born by the ISDL.
Seán McGrath died in 1954. O'Brien became managing editor of The Music Trades Review in London, running the magazine from 1924 until 1935. In 1935 De Valéra appointed him Irish minister plenipotentiary (ambassador) to France and Belgium. He retired in October, 1939, and settled in Ireland, where he died in 1949.
The Self Determination League of Great Britain remains an almost forgotten movement. Even when it was active, its role was entirely misunderstood by many members of the First Dáil. Seán MacEntee had suggested to Desmond FitzGerald, director of propaganda, that he should "utilise the Self-Determination League for conducting propaganda in England" while Joseph MacDonagh criticised the ISDL for "negligible" results in the propaganda field.
There has, hitherto, been a lack of research on the activities of the ISDL. Indeed, at this time, this writer has been unable to track down neither the details of the life of councillor PJ Kelly of Liverpool, its first president nor of the later career of Seán McGrath. In histories of the Irish in Britain, such as Kevin O'Connor's rather poor contribution published in 1972, there is no mention of the movement but then O'Connor had the Connolly Association producing Irish Freedom in 1935 (sic)!
The story of the ISDL is an essential history waiting to be produced.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Petyer Berresford Ellis