On April 24, 1916, a band of Irish republicans took up arms against the British government in what became known as the Easter Rising. The rebels proposed a vision of a unified Ireland, liberated from the economic and political restrictions imposed by the British government. The Irish insurgency and its aftermath both captivated and appalled the U.S. public—including Congress.
The Rising began as rebels seized the General Post Office in Dublin and distributed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which affirmed the right of the Irish people to form an independent government and claimed the support of Ireland’s “exiled children in America.” In six days, the British military quashed the rebellion with brutal force. Nearly 500 people died in the fighting and thousands were arrested and detained without charges. Fourteen insurgents were executed between May 3 and May 12 at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. In that city alone, property damage estimates soared into the millions of pounds.
The American public closely followed these events. The New York Times devoted valuable front page space to the rebellion every day for two weeks. Irish Americans and Irish immigrants had been informed participants in the debate over Irish self-government well before 1916. Many sympathized with the revolutionaries, while more cautious voices were concerned that the violent uprising imperiled orderly negotiations for Irish home rule. On Capitol Hill, Congress quickly began considering resolutions on the so-called “Irish question.”
In the House, Republican Leonidas C. Dyer of St. Louis, Missouri, set the tone early on. Dyer’s legislative interests included a diverse set of causes: a national memorial for African-American veterans; municipal self-government and congressional representation for the District of Columbia; independence for the Philippines; and robust federal auto theft legislation. Perhaps most significantly, he introduced a controversial anti-lynching bill following racial violence in nearby East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917.
Dyer’s fervor for social and political justice shaped his approach to foreign policy. He praised the spirit of the Irish rebellion, roundly criticized what he felt was an excessive response by the British, and urged his House colleagues to take action. On May 12, 1916, Dyer submitted the first of many resolutions pertaining to Ireland and the Easter Rising, beginning a three-year bipartisan campaign to pass a resolution declaring congressional support for the cause of Irish independence.
Dyer wanted to leverage the growing power of Congress on the global stage to convince the British to back off the rebellion. To garner support, he framed his argument in terms that resonated with Americans. His resolution denounced the British response, and praised the patriotism of those in Ireland willing to follow “the inspiration of the American Revolution.” He reminded the House that “this Republic was erected by men who had the courage to shed their blood and to risk condign punishment” for national independence from Great Britain nearly a century and half earlier. The British should treat the Irish revolutionaries not as “traitors, outlaws, or criminals,” but as “prisoners of war in accordance with the rules of international law.” He pointed to a ready precedent in American history, when the Union Army gave Confederate prisoners the “rights of belligerents” during the Civil War.
By holding up the Irish rebels as spiritual descendants of the American Revolution, Dyer pioneered several themes that recurred in a flurry of proposals by several of his colleagues in the House during the next two weeks. On May 25, Dyer delivered a petition to fellow Missourian and Speaker of the House Champ Clark signed by 28 Members. It called for the House to pass the Dyer resolution, so that a “great service can be rendered to the cause of humanity and to the cause of international law.” But Dyer’s resolution and others like it were referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which seemed in no hurry to consider them.
On August 15, Dyer attempted to revive his dormant resolution and lamented the House’s refusal to act quickly. Days earlier, the British had executed Roger Casement, who was arrested in late April after soliciting German support for the cause of independence. While some colleagues hesitated to criticize Great Britain’s domestic affairs, Dyer believed Members had a responsibility to speak up when a foreign power “flagrantly disregarded” the “laws of civilization.” In fact, Dyer insisted that commenting on British policies in Ireland was “distinctly within the privilege of Congress.” He reproduced favorable letters and newspaper articles from across the country in the Congressional Record to demonstrate broad public backing. Irish immigrants along with second- and third-generation Irish Americans populated the districts of many Members—including Dyer’s—and they demanded congressional action. Opinions ranged from admiration for Dyer’s attempts to promote a “true American-spirited resolution,” to criticism of the U.S. government’s inaction and tacit acceptance of the British treatment of the rebels.
Throughout the summer of 1916, Dyer invoked the ideals of the American Revolution and employed the emerging language of human rights to praise the Irish pursuit of national independence. Ultimately, he fell short of his objective to bring a resolution before the House during the 64th Congress.
In early 1917, however, the “Irish question” took on new dimensions as the U.S. inched toward intervention in World War I. The Easter Rising had galvanized a vibrant popular movement in support of Irish independence within the United States. This, coupled with President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to join the Allied cause in the war, served as the catalyst for congressional action.
While Dyer was at the forefront of this debate in 1916, over the next three years he was part of a larger, more vocal faction within the House committed to forcing the Committee on Foreign Affairs to take action on this issue. As more of Dyer’s colleagues entered the fray, they shifted the debate away from the initial condemnation of the British to vocal support for Irish independence. For these Members, the “Irish question” was inseparable from larger debates about the role of the House in international affairs and the rapidly changing responsibilities of the United States in a world at war.
Part two of this story continues in July.
Sources: Congressional Record, Appendix, 64th Cong., 1st sess., (16 May, 12 July, 15 August 1916); Congressional Record, Senate, 64th Cong. 1st sess., (25 and 29 July, 1916); H. Res. 235, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 12 May 1916; H. Res. 239, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 17 May 1916; H. Res. 244, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 19 May 1916; H. Res. 245, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 20 May 1916; S. Res. 223, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 30 June 1916; S. Res. 237, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 22 July 1916; S. Res. 241, 64th Cong., 1st sess., 29 July 1916; Los Angeles Times, 20 May 1916; New York Times, 30 April, 13 May, 26 May 1916; Tim Pat Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising (London: Cassell, 2001); Daithí Ó Corráin, “’They blew up the best portion of our city and … it is their duty to replace it’: Compensation and Reconstruction in the Aftermath of the 1916 Rising,” Irish Historical Studies 34, no. 154 (November 2014): 272-295; Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, The 1916 Irish Rebellion (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016).Follow @USHouseHistory