This article is published courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy. It originally appeared in Ireland 1922: independence, partition, civil war (Royal Irish Academy, 2022) edited by Darragh Gannon and Fearghal McGarry. Details on the publication can be found here: https://www.ria.ie/ireland-1922-independence-partition-civil-war-0
Photo: Laurence Ginnell, around 1920 (US Library of Congress)
On the morning of Wednesday, 27 December 1922 the former independent nationalist and Sinn Féin MP and TD Laurence Ginnell arrived at the offices of the Irish consulate on the tenth floor of 119 Nassau St in Lower Manhattan, to seize them in the name of the ‘Irish republic’. With Ginnell (who reportedly produced papers signed by Éamon de Valera to back up his claim) were Major Michael A. Kelly and John F. Finerty of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, and Robert Briscoe of the IRA (recently arrived in the US on the run, and who later claimed to have occupied the office the night before). Ginnell’s next stop would, he said, be Washington DC, to ‘depose’ the Irish Free State representative to the US, Professor Timothy A. Smiddy (who was in New York at the time).
This was the scene faced by the newly appointed consul, Lindsay Crawford (a founding member of the Independent Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland) on his first day in the office. Crawford refused to recognise the claim and when Smiddy himself arrived, he was told by Ginnell that the office had been founded, and thus belonged to, the government of the Irish Republic, which, said Ginnell, continued to function. Smiddy replied that the Irish Free State was the successor to the independence movement, and so ‘all property and other things identified with the movement for independence went thereafter under the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State’. This was a crucial point, as in Smiddy’s view ‘the whole matter appears to me as a play in the suit here relating to the Irish fund’.
The first Dáil Éireann had sought international recognition for Irish independence from the Paris peace conference, but when this was not forthcoming it pursued the same end through an international campaign of publicity and propaganda (Ginnell himself had previously represented the Republic in the US and Argentina). The Dáil never obtained the recognition that it sought, but it had one very notable overseas success: the sustained attempt to raise money for the independence movement during the US tour of Éamon de Valera in 1919–20. The first of the Dáil loan drives was launched in New York in January 1920. Eventually, $5,151,800 would be raised across the US in 1920, with 26% of that coming from New York alone. And, as of December 1922, approximately $2,500,000 of the monies raised remained in various US banks.
Smiddy had arrived in the US in March 1922 with a brief to consolidate and unify Irish-American opinion in support of the Irish Free State, but he was also instructed by Michael Collins to secure the remaining funds for the Provisional Government. Anti-Treaty republicans needed money, especially after the outbreak of the civil war, and, unsurprisingly, their opponents were not minded to let them have it. Smiddy, on 21 August 1922, successfully obtained an injunction to prevent any of the monies being withdrawn and their ownership became the subject of legal wrangling, with Finerty (who was later with Ginnell at the consulate) becoming one of the counsel for the anti-Treaty side. In December 1922, however, a more direct approach was taken. According to Briscoe, Smiddy was right: they were seeking the lists of subscribers to the Dáil loan.
Despite the acrimony of civil war divisions, Ginnell and Smiddy apparently debated the ownership of the office in a cordial manner. The tone changed after Muriel MacSwiney (Terence MacSwiney’s widow, who was in the US on a lecture tour) and a number of others arrived at the consulate and made clear their intentions to occupy it. Smiddy pointed out that they were trespassing but both sides agreed that neither would have recourse to force. The building owner agreed to let everyone stay overnight; Briscoe led the republican occupation, and Crawford remained as well.
Photo: Muriel MacSwiney in 1922 (US Library of Congress)
The consulate staff continued to work throughout the occupation, though Crawford was pessimistic about his chances of getting much sleep. According to Briscoe’s colourful, if not entirely reliable, account, both he and Crawford (whom he described as ‘really a good fellow’) slept back to back on a desk. Briscoe also claimed to have obeyed an eviction order from the landlord the next day, but to have broken back in later that night; supplies were supposedly hoisted up on a rope.
On 30 December Smiddy returned to the consulate with a number of private detectives. MacSwiney called the police, but after they arrived Smiddy produced a receipt for the rent on the office (a calculated risk, he admitted, to avoid the greater risk of a legal challenge). This seemed to confirm that the Free State was the rightful occupant and that the republicans were trespassing. Crawford suggested that everyone vacate the office, at least until the following Tuesday, 2 January; the keys could be left with the building administrators. MacSwiney, after initially agreeing, refused to leave, but did so after Smiddy’s men picked up the chair she was sitting on and began to carry it out. Smiddy returned to Washington, lest a similar incident take place there.
The republicans who occupied the New York consulate may simply have been an isolated faction in an already fragmented world. According to Ginnell’s wife Alice, ‘all the Irish people in New York…seem to resent L.G. with the exception of Mrs. MacSwiney and Robert Briscoe’. Smiddy reported that on 2 January ‘fifty irregular invaders’ unsuccessfully tried to gain access before going to the nearby city hall to lobby the mayor, John F. Hylan, who had bought the first Dáil bond certificate in 1919 but was dismissive of this republican claim.
The next day the manager of 119 Nassau St made it clear that any pickets inside the premises would be arrested, and that was the end of the matter. According to Briscoe, prior to the occupation the building was being picketed in protest at the reprisal executions of Richard Barrett, Joseph McKelvey, Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor in Dublin on 8 December 1922. There had also been threats to the consular staff, which, along with the occupation, led Smiddy to bolster security for the nascent Irish diplomatic service in the US. His subsequent suggestions that the republicans who occupied the consulate may have had links to communists and 'the most violent of the Irish Reds in New York' can, perhaps, be taken as simply a sign of the times.
Dr John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.
New York Times (28, 30, 31 Dec. 1922); BMH WS 982 (Alice Ginnell); Robert Briscoe, For the life of me (Boston, 1958); Ronan Fanning, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh, Eunan O’Halpin (eds), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, vol. i, 1919–1922 (Dublin, 1998); vol ii,
1922–1926 (Dublin, 2000); online at www.difp.ie ; Francis M. Carroll, Money for Ireland: finance, diplomacy, politics and the first Dáil Éireann loans, 1919–1936 (Westport CT, 2002); Bernadette Whelan, United States foreign policy and Ireland: from empire to independence, 1913-29 (Four Courts Press, 2006).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 05/12/2022