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  • Ethnic Identities and Diasporic Sensibilities: Transnational Irish-American Nationalism in Boston after World War I1
  • Damien Murray (bio)


After the end of World War I, Irish-American nationalism in Boston attracted the support of tens of thousands of Irish immigrants and Americans of Irish descent. For many of them, particularly the women, ethnic nationalism facilitated the fusion of a diasporic Irish identity with aspirations for democratic reform in America. These female Irish-American nationalists—left-leaning progressives, members of Gaelic-language schools, women suffragists—played a crucial role in the success of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) in Boston in the early 1920s. The AARIR was created by Eamon de Valera, president of Dáil Éireann (the legislature of the self-proclaimed Irish republic), who toured America between June 1919 and December 1920. Previous studies of Irish-American nationalism in this period have focused on elite male leaders and events after the Easter Rising in 1916,2 but the dominance of [End Page 102] women in the AARIR is best understood as the culmination of the enormous tide of Irish women immigrating to the United States in the late nineteenth century, along with the growing acceptance of a greater political role for women on both sides of the Atlantic by the early twentieth century.3 Irish-American nationalism in Boston consequently presented female nationalists with a progressive ethnic identity that differed from “Catholic Americanism,” a term that has been used to describe how Irish Americans believed that their American patriotism was reinforced by a militant Catholicism.4

The appeal of ethnic nationalism to women of Irish descent was amplified by the intersection of female political activism in Boston with the push for female political rights in Ireland and elsewhere. In other words, the convergence of local and international developments facilitated a diasporic identity. Quite the opposite occurred in the wider Irish nationalist community, whose racial discourse reflected the evolution of Ireland’s complex relationship with the British empire by the early twentieth century. More specifically, the ethnic attitudes expressed within Irish-American nationalism demonstrate that, rather than enhancing transatlantic unity, the movement displayed the important differences that existed among Bostonians of Irish descent, earlier Irish immigrants, and visiting Irish nationalist spokespersons. American-born Bostonians of Irish descent often viewed ethnic nationalism through the prism of their antagonistic relationship with local Yankees (Protestant Americans of British descent), a rivalry that had little meaning to the broader Irish transatlantic community. Meanwhile, Irish immigrants who arrived before World War I often placed Irish nationalism in the context of a wider anticolonial struggle against the British empire and, in so doing, were eager supporters of an alliance with Indian nationalists. Nevertheless, in a city with few Indians, most Irish-Americans did not view the Irish-Indian alliance [End Page 103] as having the potential to widen the appeal of their movement. Finally, visiting Irish nationalists between 1918 and 1921, inspired by the emergence of “white” dominions within the British empire, pointed to Irish people’s “whiteness” as justification for Ireland’s independence. This argument, however, held little appeal for Boston’s Irish Americans, whose main adversaries were the Yankees and not African Americans, who accounted for only 3 percent of the city’s population.5 Indeed, the argument that Irish Americans acquired a “white” racial identity in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to facilitate assimilation is less than compelling when applied to ethnic discourse in Boston in the early twentieth century.6 In the end, then, while the creation of a unified Irish diasporic identity was enhanced by a transatlantic movement in favor of greater political rights for women, it was also undermined by the failure of ethnic nationalism to articulate a common transnational ethnic or racial identity.7

“Unmannerly Women” and Gaelic-Language Schools

During Easter Week in 1920, more than sixty Irish-American women protested British policy in Ireland by picketing the British Embassy in Washington and insulting the British ambassador, with the result [End Page 104] that three of them were arrested.8 The protest was organized by Dr. William J. Maloney, a moderate socialist and a supporter of Eamon...


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