The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grabbed headlines over the last year but many of its demands and tactics echo what Irish people were demanding back in the early 20th century.
This was brought home to me in recent research on my great-granduncle William McEnhill (1863-1943) who was Irish born but emigrated to the United States and lived most of his life in New Jersey. He was, to put it mildly, an ardent Irish Republican.
Irish people and the British Empire
Irish Americans were highly organised throughout the 20th century in support of what they viewed as a life and death struggle to remove the British Empire from Ireland. In 1922, the Irish Free State was declared. In effect, the first part of the British Empire since the American Revolution to get its freedom.
And what happened in Ireland was closely observed by those seeking to overthrow British rule in South Africa, Palestine and India. The interconnections are fascinating. For example, William went to fight in the Boer War in South Africa – on the side of the Boers against the British.
Although we now look at the Boers as responsible for the subsequent racist hell of apartheid South Africa, at the turn of the 20th century, many Irish people viewed them as plucky rebels taking on the Brits.
Irish Lives Matter in 1927 – issues that chime with BLM
By 1927, William had been elected as an officer of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. On 3 October of that year, The Yonkers Herald reported that the association had adopted an America First resolution. That demanded the United States “should manage its own affairs without entangling alliances with other countries, specifically the British Empire”.
As with BLM today, this Irish Lives Matter movement objected to Hollywood’s depiction of Irish people. It successfully managed to remove a Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie called The Callahans and The Murphys from distribution. And that movie has now been totally lost. It seems to have been a screenplay that played to all the most hackneyed stereotypes of Catholic Irish families – ie, zillions of children.
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The association also supported the ousting of Chicago’s rather dictatorial schools superintendent William H. McAndrew who was described as “the stool pigeon of King George”. McAndrew had no time for the teaching trade unions and was accused of imposing a curriculum that denigrated the Founding Fathers.
His removal was engineered by Mayor William Hale Thompson who later staged a weird “trial” of McAndrew by the board of education alleging he was un-American (an unfortunate foreshadowing of anti-Communist witch hunts in the 1950s).
Given the public discourse now around statues, school curriculums, representation, enfranchisement and media attitudes – it seems that the Irish Lives Matter movement of the 1920s has found a strong echo today in the Black Lives Matter protests.