San Francisco and the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic

Timothy Sarbaugh, the excellent historian of Irish America, noted in his 1987 essay about Eamon de Valera and Irish Republicanism in California that the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) had, at its height, 150 branches or “councils” throughout the state and about 20,000 members. The AARIR– an unwieldy name that John Devoy, the cranky old Fenian who led the Clan Na Gael, immediately called “The Growl” because of the guttural tones suggested by the acronym– supplanted the Friends of Irish Freedom, Devoy’s organization which had been, until 1920, the primary vehicle for mobilizing Irish American monetary and political support.

The AARIR was organized into 14 district councils. District XII was based in San Francisco and the Bay Area and boasted of at least 68 councils by Sept 22, 1921. We know this because at that time and unknown individual typed up a list of all of the councils on a piece of legal paper. Entitled “Membership Roll Of Councils In District No. XII To And Including Sept 22, 1921” (it’s always so wonderful when anonymous scribes date their work), the paper is an invaluable source of information about the San Francisco councils of the AARIR. The membership roll and other clerical ephemera from that time lives in a box of stuff collected by Dr. Charles Albert Shumate, a dermatologist and local historian who had an Irish grandmother. Dr. Shumate’s collection of clippings from Irish newspapers and assorted AARIR ephemera is held in the Rare Book Room of the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco.

The official membership roll written by the anonymous scribe has been mapped by me, here, using another undated council roster. Both lists give the names of individual supporters, and the addresses of the councils. The 68 councils collectively raised $14,410 in support of the new Irish Republic, which sprang into being on January 21st 1919 when Sinn Fein met in Dublin as the Dail Eireann, adopted a provisional constitution and declared themselves an independent Republic.

These lists are the ephemeral residue of what was an intensely productive and busy period of time in San Francisco for Irish Americans. The councils committed themselves to more than just fundraising: there was an outpouring of citizen lobbying, speaker’s events, social evenings with whist parties and dansants and regularly scheduled meeting when the local councils met in order to get their heads around what was happening in Ireland. Many council members immigrated after the mid-1870’s, during the Cogadh na Talúnnd, the land war in which the collective action of Irish tenantry succeeded in undoing the hated and unjust system of tenant evictions, absentee landlords, and land usage and distribution. From this struggle came the boycott which was used in San Francisco during the 15-month period of AARIR council activity, at its height between November 1920 and February 1922. The Anglo-Irish Treaty brought an end to the era of AARIR community organizing, although a few branches held persisted: Council 17, the Terence McSwiney branch, which met in the Redman’s Hall on 16th Street, was planning new membership drives in the spring of 1922, even as branches in other parts of the nation were calling it quits.

But for that 15-month period, people were busy. They were ably assisted in their ability to respond to the situation in Ireland, thanks to the AARIR’s national press and publicity wing, the Benjamin Franklin Bureau, and later the Irish Press and Publicity Bureau, the California branch of the national bureau that was headquartered at the Hewes Building in San Francisco, and overseen by Father Peter Yorke. Both of these media projects printed pamphlets and bulletins that described — sometimes in horrifying graphic detail– the atrocities visited on Ireland and its people by the British troops, and the paramilitary units known as the Black and Tans, and the Auxies.

San Francisco had always been well-supplied with information. Yorke had almost two decades worth of publishing experience at that point. He founded The Leader, a weekly newspaper, in 1902 and had thereafter used the editorial column as a personal pulpit to comment on anything that caught his attention or displeased. For example, cars: Yorke was unimpressed by them and thought they were a dangerous addition to city life. (He was a smart guy.)

After the events of 1916, The Leader began to publish nonstop accounts of the terror and mayhem of British military occupation. In this he was helped by the editor of The Leader, Laurence De Lacey, who was a wily and indefatigable Fenian who figured in the power struggle between de Valera and John Devoy. De Lacey broke into the offices of the Gaelic American, the newspaper published by Devoy, as the power struggle between de Valera and Devoy intensified. (That’s a story for another time.)

De Lacey and Yorke made sure that Irish San Franciscans knew everything: the burning of factories, and homes, the examples of brutal torture meted out by British paramilitaries, and the wholesale destruction of cities and villages in Ireland. An editorial insert written by the New York-based American Committee for Relief in Ireland made the situation plain:

“In Ireland, today thousands of women and children have been driven to the pitiful refuge of the fields and open country. Balbriggan, Granard, Tralee, Templemore, Trim, Tobereurry, Lisburn, Thurles, and numerous other towns and villages have been burned and homes have been wiped out by fire…over forty creameries, the co-operative plants of great and small communities built by Irish farmers have been razed to the ground and the economic units they served have been paralyzed.”

Yorke, the resident cleric at St. Peter’s, filled every possible role an ambitious Irishman could fill: he was the Vice President of Sinn Fein in California, the former head of the Friends of Irish Freedom and the new State Director of AARIR after it was founded in November 17th, 1920. Yorke toured the state in the latter capacity, commanding chapter members of the Friends of Irish Freedom to discontinue their work as FOIF’ers and immediately form new AARIR councils.

“To form a branch of the American Association for the Irish Republic is the easiest thing imaginable,” he advised Leader readers late in 1920. “You don’t need any mandate or credentials. You can start anytime or anywhere. You don’t have to hire a hall. You can meet in your own homes. Get twelve people to agree to work for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. Elect a President Secretary and Treasurer. Send their names to Father Yorke, 504 Grant Building, Market Street San Francisco. He will register your branch and send your Treasurer the official receipt book. On receiving stubs and per capita from you, he will send the credentials for your delegate or delegates.”

At other times, he was more direct. “The State Convention of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic is only fourteen days away,” he wrote curtly in January, 1921. “Get busy.”

People did. They met in homes, in churches, in associational halls, in residential hotels and, as in the case of Mr. M.J. Jordan, at the County Jail No. 2 out in Ingleside. San Francisco AARIR council members were contending with a lot in those days: within a little more than a decade they’d endured a laborious and inconclusive graft investigation that upended a somnolent and corrupt city government, which deprived the laboring classes of a representative government and left the true boodlers untouched. There were two terrible strikes against the United Railroads that ended badly both times for labor, once in 1907—31 people were killed— and again in 1917.

Father Peter Yorke’s call to form AARIR councils from a December 1920 edition of The Leader

Many dues-paying council members were also dues-paying trade union members, and were frequently embroiled in labor disputes and strikes at this time: Michael McGuire, a boilermaker with Lodge #25, started striking for better wages and working conditions on October 1, 1919, and didn’t stop until sometime in 1920. McGuire, who housed Council 39 in his in-law’s residence on Guerrero Street, sent a letter and a picture of his striking brothers to the Boilermakers and Iron Ship Journal, a publication for union members, in the middle of the strike.

“Dear Sir and Brother: I am sending you herewith photograph taken on June 13th, of the striking members of the San Francisco Bay District after eight- and one-half months on strike. Hoping if possible that you will reproduce the photograph in the next Issue of our Journal. I am, Yours fraternally, M. J. McGuire, Business Agent No. 6.

But it wasn’t all bad news. The city was growing, and acquiring new amenities for city dwellers: the first municipally owned rail car ran down Geary Street in 1912, three years before the Panama Pacific International Exposition opened. There was yet more to come: municipally provided water, an expansion of transit lines and the tunnels to accommodate them, and the construction of new civic spaces. Sometimes, as was the case with acquiring rail lines on Geary Street, or boring a tunnel through the side of Twin Peaks, the passage of bonds or the creation of assessment districts caused some hand wringing over the money that was needed, but ultimately the city committed to the future and paid up. They knew the city was growing and changing.

But even as the scars of the earthquake healed and San Francisco was rebuilt, Ireland was being systematically dismantled. AARIR council members like McGuire, or Theresa Earles McCarthy, the President of Council 67, the Nurses Branch, angered by the destruction, must have also mused on the stark contrast between the renewed city they knew, and the vandalized cities of Ireland, a contrast that might have seemed vast and unbridgeable. But as union members, teachers, public health workers—as San Franciscans— they were accustomed to working on behalf of a future that broke with the past. Brought up within the atmosphere of communal benevolence and collective action, which characterized the Irish community in San Francisco since the city’s founding, they knew what to do. They got busy. 

Submitted September 17, 2019. Tonight, I’m honored to be a part of a panel hosted by the San Francisco Historical Society and the Consulate General of Ireland which will feature Eamon’s de Valera’s grandson, Éamon Ó Cuív, TD, former Minister of at least six departments, including the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. We’ll be marking the centenary of Eamon de Valera’s time in America, which included a trip to San Francisco in July and November of 1919. de Valera visited just about every state in the nation, I think, and had an exhausting schedule, which makes me wonder: Where was Eamon de Valera one hundred years ago today? (I think he may have been in Rhode Island.)

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