Women activists and US funds: The formation of the Irish White Cross

What began as a series of protests led to the raising of $5m in aid distributed in Ireland

In the early months of 1920, prominent Americans came together to bring international attention to Ireland's campaign for independence. Their belief in the rights of small nations and a desire for peace in the years following the first World War, brought many people who were not of Irish ethnicity to support the cause for Irish self-determination. What began as a series of protests became an enquiry, an investigation in Ireland and ultimately it led to the raising of $5 million in aid distributed in Ireland by the Irish White Cross.

Reports with statistics and first-hand accounts were used by journalists to highlight the case of Ireland and what was described as “conditions”. The work began in the early months of 1920 and built momentum as the situation in Ireland deteriorated. The year would become known as the “year of terror”, as new recruits were drafted into the police and a volunteer army engaged in a guerrilla war.

The mastermind behind the establishment of the American Committee on Conditions in Ireland was Dr William J Maloney, a Scot, who in 1920 was a professor of nervous diseases at Fordam University, New York. He described himself as "a nobody in the movement" but according to Kelly Anne Reynolds, who has been researching this enigmatic figure, he was "one of the most complex characters of the Irish revolution". The recipient of a British army military cross, he joined with Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of New York's The Nation newspaper to make an appeal for a committee of 100 of "fair minded citizens" to take up the cause of Ireland.

The objective was to place “the Irish case before the tribunal of the civilised world”.

Senators, church leaders, heads of corporations, academics, writers, lawyers and trade union officials, numbering 150 from 36 US states, responded. The owner of The Nation and Oswald's mother, Helen Frances Garrison Villard, who had been a member of the National Convention of Women Advocating Equal Suffrage and a founder the Women's Peace Society, joined the committee.

Several of the women members were leaders in the National Women's Party who that year successfully agitated to achieve the 19th Amendment, "that the right to vote could no longer be denied to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex". They now turned to advocate for Ireland. They included Elizabeth Sheldon Rogers, Abby Scott Baker who was the party's political and press chair, Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Women's Journal, Zona Gale, novelist, journalist and playwright who would go on to win the first Pulitzer Prize for drama, and author Mary Austin, who wrote a host of popular books including A Woman of Genius. Anne Martin, former university professor and first national chairwoman of the party was the first woman to run for the US senate. She was also one of the few members of the committee who was Irish American.

Others who joined the cause were Kenyton Hayden Rector, the first female architect in Ohio, Harriott Staton Blatch, founder of the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women who had introduced monster suffrage parades to the US, and Lucy Branham, a suffrage activist who as well as joining the Irish cause was executive secretary of the American Society for Cultural Relations with Russia.

The committee also included Labour activists Emma Steghagen of the Women's Trade Union League and Rose Schneidermann, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Anna Garlin Spencer, the first woman ordained a minister in Rhode Island, president of the National Council of Women, founding member of the Women's Peace Party and first chair of the National Board of Women's International League of Peace and Freedom joined as did academic Bertha H Mailly.

The committee elected five members to become commissioners, whose "national distinction and integrity was beyond question". Jane Addams was elected as one of those five. The commission of enquiry, "Non-political, non-sectarian and solely humanitarian", was held in Washington. Supporters and officials of the British government in Ireland refused to attend. Efforts to rectify this failed. It was noted as a defect of the enquiry.

Hearings began in mid-November 1920. Many witnesses were prevented from travelling, unable to obtain passports, or felt unable to attend following intimidation. The British branch of the Women's International League sent representatives; they had held their own investigation in Ireland. Fifteen Americans who had visited Ireland testified, including Ruth Russell, author of What's the Matter with Ireland, she went undercover to live in a Dublin tenement and gave a full account of the poverty she witnessed.

The most high-profile witness was Muriel MacSwiney. The death of her husband, Terence, the lord mayor of Cork, while on hunger strike in prison in England had made international news. The young mother, widowed only weeks before, was accompanied by her sister-in-law, Mary. The MacSwineys gave powerful testimony. Mary told the enquiry: "The men can get on, the women can stand the suffering, but it is for the children I plead."

That month the American Committee for Relief in Ireland was formed. Addams and Elisabeth Marbury were the only women on the executive. Marbury, a pioneer of modern American theatre and veteran literary agent, was a valuable member because she could access anyone in the entertainment industry. Concerts became a key way of raising funds.

In February 1921, members of the Committee on Conditions in Ireland (who were all Quakers) travelled to Ireland led by Clemens J France, a Labour lawyer from Seattle, "to ascertain to what extent the newly-formed American Committee for Relief in Ireland would be called on for aid". Over 49 days of investigation, they travelled to 600 locations in 95 cities, towns and villages to see property damaged or destroyed during the previous year. Maud Gonne MacBride and veteran suffrage campaigner Charlotte Despard accompanied them to some locations.

The delegation heard first-hand accounts. Its subsequent reports estimated that 3,000 families became homeless and there were 100,000 victims, most of whom they concluded were non-combatants. One of the greatest acts of destruction was in Cork in December 1920 when 45 businesses were set on fire in the commercial heart of the city. The city engineer estimated that 4,000 people – men, women and children – were affected.

France remained on in Ireland when the delegation returned to the US. He continued to receive correspondence from those seeking help (now in the collection of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Rothe House).

In March 1921, as the Commission on Conditions in Ireland reported, the American Commission for Relief in Ireland launched its appeal on St Patrick’s Day. US president Warren Harding wrote, “The people of America will never be deaf to the call of relief on behalf of suffering humanity.”

Fundraising drives began across 48 states. The Friends of Irish Freedom assisted as did other Irish-American groups such as the American Association of the Irish Republic.

In Dublin, the Irish White Cross Society was founded in February 1921. It distributed funds raised in the US and elsewhere. Its board of trustees had representatives from many religious organisations. The Catholic Church predominated; its parish system was used to distribute funds.

The sole female trustee was a Bostonian. Mary Alden Osgood moved to London when she married Erskine Childers. Best known for her role in the Howth gun running plot, during the first World War she worked for the welfare of Belgian refugees. In 1919, the Childers family moved to Ireland.

The executive committee included Nannie O'Rahilly, another American. As Miss Nancy Brown, of 5th Avenue, New York she met and married Michael O'Rahilly who was killed in the 1916 Rising. Several committee members were widowed as a result of the Rising, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Áine Ceannt, Kathleen Clarke and Maud Gonne MacBride. O'Rahilly was actively involved in school meals for children which the Irish White Cross now funded, and the Dublin Workrooms where women were employed making clothes for women and children. A special committee was set up to look after orphans.

In 1926, Jane Addams was in Dublin’s Mansion House at the fifth congress of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom which had 150 delegates from 20 countries. It was the first international conference to be hosted in the Irish Free State. Addams had been the inspiration for the founding of the organisation in the Hague in 1915, gathering delegates from “warring and neutral nations seeking peace”.

Two years after Addams visited, in 1928, the Irish White Cross was wound up. Few Irish people, then as now, are aware of the role she played in the welfare, education, employment and health of so many Irish men, women and children.

Historian Margaret Ward, in Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's Her Memoirs and Political Writings, describes how Sheehy Skeffington was an internationally-minded women invited to be a delegate at the first Congress of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom but was refused a passport to attend. In her papers in the National Library there is a photograph of the National Women's Party. In her address in Dublin in 1926 Addams evoked Sheehy Skeffington's late husband, Francis, when she quoted his words:"I want to see the age-long fight against injustice clothe itself in new forms, suited to a new age."

Those words aptly describe the work of Americans, Irish-Americans and others who “used new forms” to assist the Irish with humanitarian aid distributed by the Irish White Cross; their ways of engaging the media, the international social network and the use of the individual human-interest stories are all forms of activism we are aware of in the modern day. It’s notable too that those who orchestrated these events remained in the shadows. Finding these people who wanted to remain undetected makes the work of historians so challenging as it requires skill and patience to piece the fragments together to make a narrative.

This focus on the decade of centenaries has been to encourage the dissemination of new scholarship and the opening of new collections (in particularly virtually) and this has provided us with a more complex narrative, which is all the richer in the telling.

This article is based on research collected for Toward America, a short film made as part of the Decade of Centenaries Women’s Strand Mna100.ie which tells the story of the role of key women in the formation of the Irish White Cross but also those who were central to the organisations such as the American Committee on Conditions in Ireland and American Committee for Relief in Ireland without which the formation of the Irish White Cross would not have been possible.

Sinéad McCoole is an Irish historian, author and exhibition curator