First diplomats

 The Grand Hôtel
In early 1919, the speaker of Dáil Éireann, Seán T. O’Kelly, and French-educated George Gavan Duffy were sent to Paris in time for the Peace Conference that would lead to the infamous Versailles Treaty. The men were sent to convince US president Woodward Wilson to accept an invitation to Dublin and to promote the cause of Irish independence among conference delegates and European opinion makers. However, the US president had no intention of upsetting Great Britain, and the French were equally dismissive of O’Kelly’s approaches. In all events, the Irish stood much less of a chance of receiving a hearing than representatives from eastern and central European nations previously under the Austrian or Russian yoke. As O’Kelly wrote to Cathal Brugha in March 1919, “the prospects of being heard are very slight indeed.”

Undaunted, O’Kelly set in motion the wheels of propaganda for the Irish cause from his base in the Grand Hôtel on the rue Scribe (9th arrondissement) where the boorish George Moore had used to stay. Some of O’Kelly’s work consisted of circulating translations of an undoubtedly scintillating piece of literature written by two Irish Jesuits entitled ‘The Case for Irish Independence’ to the European press as well as a progressively well-produced propaganda sheet, the Bulletin irlandais. Success on the propaganda front seems to have been limited in the early days, and O’Kelly soon understood that cheque book journalism was the order of the day. Journalists would only write about Irish independence and politicians would only take up the cause if they were paid to do so. “What I want is a few thousand pounds…for the purpose of smoothing a passage to the presence of great men here and of securing the ear of the press,” wrote O’Kelly to Cathal Brugha. “You can get nothing whatsoever done otherwise. They all expect it. They are in the habit of getting it and…they are very frank in letting you know their point of view in the matter”.

 Gavan Duffy expulsion, 
Le Petit Parisien, Sept. 5, 1920
Along with trying to convince journalists to write about the Irish cause, O’Kelly and Gavan Duffy set about mobilizing the Irish community in Paris. In a long report to Dublin in January 1920, Gavan Duffy writes that they “have a little ceilidh every Saturday for the Irish students and Sinn Féin friends generally. At Christmas we asked the students of the newly reopened Irish College, who number 29, to a tea here, but their rector would not let them out”. But O’Kelly and Gavan Duffy both understood the need to establish a dedicated Irish press bureau in Paris, with Gavan Duffy believing “it would be necessary to have competent Frenchmen, preferably Bretons, on the staff or available at short notice.”

The French expelled George Gavan Duffy in early September 1920. The French authorities denied they had acted under British pressure, but Gavan Duffy was under no illusion. With a lot of sympathy generated in the French press for the mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, who had commenced his fatal hunger strike, the French authorities probably did not take kindly to Gavan Duffy’s publication of a supposedly private letter he had written to the French president, Alexandre Millerand. Gavan Duffy stayed briefly in Brussels before heading for Italy, where the British had less influence.

O’Kelly may not have been too sad to see the back of Gavan Duffy, for tensions would seem to have grown between the two men. Probably homesick and feeling dejected by the lack of concrete results for their efforts, both Gavan Duffy and O’Kelly had already let Dáil Éireann know they wanted to come home by the summer of 1919. But even if their cause seemed hopeless, the funds kept coming. And even with Gavan Duffy gone, O’Kelly could call at various times upon a small team of fellow Sinn Féiners to spend it. Those involved in the Paris mission included the remarkable Michael MacWhite (a Corkman who had served in the French Foreign Legion in the First World War and had been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his valour), Joseph Walshe, Leopold Kerney, Seán Murphy and Erskine Childers (considered a highly effective promoter of the Irish cause, “owing to his acquaintance with influential persons in Paris”). These men made themselves busy making the case for Irish independence and generally raising the profile of the Irish Republic. One stunt saw MacWhite join in an Armistice Day parade in Paris uninvited. Dressed in his French foreign legion officer uniform, MacWhite even managed to lay a wreath in honour of the dead on behalf of the still-unrecognised Irish government.

 Irish Race Congress delegates at the Grand Hôtel, January 1922
O’Kelly was still living and working in the Grand Hôtel in January 1922, when the slightly farcical ‘Irish Race Congress’, took place there.The Congress, which was attended by delegates from South Africa and many Latin American countries, as well as the UK and US, heard talks by William Butler Yeats and Douglas Hyde, among others. But by this time, Ireland was on the brink of civil war, leading to strained relations between pro- and anti-Treaty delegates (who included Éamon de Valera). The Congress came up with the idea of establishing an organization called Fine Ghaedheal to represent Irish people scattered throughout the world, but the organization was hijacked by the anti-Treaty-ites and soon died a cash-less death. For his part, O’Kelly’s sympathy for the Republican cause—much on display during the Congress—led to reprimands from Gavan Duffy, who had just become Minister for Foreign Affairs in Dublin, and to O’Kelly’s departure from the diplomatic service.

By the time he left, Irish propaganda efforts seem to have gone to pot. In April 1922, John Chartres, who had taken over O’Kelly's position temporarily, wrote back to Dublin that “publicity in any real sense I find practically at a standstill. The bulletin seems never to have been noticed by the press for some time past and I have found no machinery for otherwise informing and molding public opinion on the subject of Ireland.” Six weeks later, Seán Murphy reported to Gavan Duffy that “organization was not the strong point of this office until the arrival of Mr. Chartres.”
Despite the ups and downs of Ireland’s diplomatic mission to France, by mid-1922, efforts got underway to find more permanent premises for the Irish Legation in Paris, although it was not until the inimitable Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh took matters in hand that the Irish Legation was able to set up in its own offices at 27 bis rue de Villejust (16th arrondissement) in 1930. As for the Bulletin irlandais, it re-appeared as an anti-Treaty and pro-De Valera propaganda sheet in 1924-1925. This version of the Bulletin was produced by a self-styled délégation irlandaise headed by Leopold Kerney, which gave its address as 4, rue de la Terrasse in the 17th arrondissement.

Select Bibliography

Bulletin irlandais, 1921-1922, 1924-1925, microfilm available at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, catalogue reference JO-67596

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy,
Vol. 1, 1919-1922 (1998)
Ed. Michael Kennedy

“Ireland & Europe, 1919-1989—A Diplomatic and Political History”
Dermot Keogh (1990)

‘The Irish Race Conference 1922, reconsidered’
Gerard Keown
in Irish Historical Studies, vol. 32, no. 127 (May 2001)

‘The George Gavan Duffy Papers’ in History Ireland, vol. 8, issue 4 (Winter 2000)