Irish Nationalism in Atlantic Canada: The Self-Determination for Ireland League in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1920-23

by Patrick Mannion

Spring 2016 marks the centenary of Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising. The event is the pinnacle of what Irish historians are calling the “decade of centenaries” – anniversaries of the seminal events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State: the Home Rule Crisis (1912), the Rising itself (1916), the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921), and the Civil War (1922-1923). As we enter this period of reflection and commemoration, there is unprecedented historical interest in Irish nationalism, both in Ireland itself and throughout the diaspora. Canada has been by no means immune to this trend. The last decade has seen a number of key works that examine how Canadians of Irish birth and descent supported (and opposed) the twentieth-century movement for Irish independence. The articles in David Wilson’s edited volume, Irish Nationalism in Canada, set the tone, while recent monographs by Simon Jolivet, Robert McLaughlin, and a fine biography of Irish-Canadian nationalist leader Katherine Hughes by Pádraig Ó Siadhail have greatly enhanced our understanding of Irish nationalism, unionism, and identity in Canada.[1]

Although it is not ignored completely – McLaughlin focuses in part on New Brunswick, while Ó Siadhail traces Hughes’ tour of the region in detail – Atlantic Canada is underrepresented in this emerging historiography. My recent article in Acadiensis, “Contested Nationalism: The ‘Irish Question’ in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1919-1923” is, first and foremost, an attempt to redress this imbalance. It compares how two medium-sized North Atlantic port cities, home to overwhelmingly native-born Irish-Catholic populations, fit into regional, national, and transnational Irish nationalist networks in the post-World War One period. As in many other North American cities, we see a substantial surge in local responses to the Irish Question from 1920 to 1923.


Katherine Hughes. Source: Library and Archives Canada/MIKAN 4106511

In both St. John’s and Halifax, an Irish nationalist resurgence began with the visit of Katherine Hughes in 1920. Born on Prince Edward Island, Hughes had been working with the Friends of Irish Freedom in the United States, where she developed a close working relationship with the Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera over the course of his American tour. He personally selected her to reinvigorate and reorganize the nationalist movement in Canada. Beginning in Montreal, where she collaborated with a former Orangeman-turned-nationalist, Lindsay Crawford, Hughes established the “Self-Determination for Ireland League,” (SDIL) and embarked on a British North American tour to spread the organization.

She spoke in Halifax in July and in St. John’s in October. Before arriving, Hughes contacted leading Catholics of Irish descent, and it was they who organized and publicized the meetings, giving the movement instant credibility. In both cases, her public lectures were attended by over one-thousand people. A branch of the SDIL was established in each, with a local president and executive composed of upper- and middle-class Irish Catholics. The League essentially functioned as a lobbying and propaganda organization, designed to link local passions for Irish independence into a national and transnational movement. Nationalist material was sent from the parent organization in Ottawa and Montreal to the branches for dissemination in local newspapers, while they also sent speakers to raise awareness of Ireland’s plight.

The overriding narrative that dominated both support for and opposition to the League was the question of loyalty. As other historians of Irish identity in British North America, such as Mark McGowan, have pointed out, unlike their Irish-American counterparts, Irish-Canadian nationalism was frequently imbued with a strong sense of imperial loyalty.[2] As nationalism in Ireland became increasingly radical and republican after Easter 1916, did responses to Irish nationalism in British North America follow suit? Hughes and many of the leaders of the SDIL movement, both nationally and locally, were unquestionably republican nationalists in favour of Ireland’s full separation from the Empire. In one letter to De Valera about the state of the League in Newfoundland, for example, Hughes rejoiced that some of its executive were evolving from “Redmondite status to republican.”[3] Nevertheless, the public discourse that surrounded Irish nationalism loudly and assertively proclaimed the movement’s loyalty. Hughes’ speeches in both Halifax and St. John’s highlighted the role of Irish and Catholic troops in the Great War, as did speeches by national president Linsday Crawford in each city towards the end of 1920. League meetings frequently finished with the singing of God Save the King or O Canada. The president of the Halifax branch, W.P. Burns, summarized the public stance of the SDIL in a letter to the Herald, stating that the League’s “patriotic work will bring blessings to our own land, and will weld together this Empire more fairly than ever.”[4] The League presented the case for Irish self-government in devoutly loyal, pro-imperial terms.


Archbishop Edward Roche. Source: Archives and Special Collections (Collection 185), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL.

Despite such assertions, the League’s existence in each city was actively and overtly contested by members of what Newfoundland’s Governor referred to as “loyal circles.”[5] The public face of this opposition was led in both places by the Orange Order as well as, in Halifax, by the newly-formed British Empire Alliance. The League’s opponents spared no effort in characterizing it as disloyal, or even seditious. A mass meeting in Halifax was organized where the “organization within our midst whose insidious aim is the destruction and disunion of the British Empire”[6] was decried. Around the same time, the Orangemen of Newfoundland, at one of their largest ever meetings in St. John’s, expressed their belief that the League’s objective “is to have Ireland secede from the British Empire and become a Republic, and regards the League as a disloyal movement […] and wholly unworthy of men and women who are enjoying the liberties and privileges of the British Empire.”[7] Passions regarding the Irish Question had reached a fever pitch. Accusations of bigotry, disloyalty, and sectarianism were hurled from one side to the other. In the wake of the Orange Order resolution in Newfoundland, the Catholic Archbishop Edward Roche wrote to League president R.T. McGrath urging restraint and caution in any response to the Orangemen in order to avoid the “throes of a sectarian war.”[8] The identifiable members of the League were almost exclusively Catholics of Irish descent – for the first time, at least since the 1880s, responses to Irish nationalism had developed a sectarian undertone.

A sectarian war did not develop, but the furore over the SDIL continued through the spring and early summer of 1921. Lengthy debates took place in local newspapers, while meetings and lectures continued, both for and against Irish independence. At absolutely no point, in either city, was support for an independent Irish Republic openly articulated. In the end it was events in Ireland rather than North America that brought an end to the agitation. Following the signing of a truce, and, subsequently, the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, the League faded into obscurity – though its Newfoundland mechanism remained in place until May 1923.

So what is the significance of the League’s dramatic rise and fall in 1920 and 1921? This fascinating era allows us to examine the strength, depth, and variability of inter-generational Irish identities in the early-twentieth century. It also demonstrates how, in British North America, discussion of Ireland’s political destiny became entirely subsumed into debates over loyalty. Furthermore, we see the complex spatial contexts in which ethnicity was created. Irishness ran deep in St. John’s and Halifax, nurtured by networks of religion, education, associational life, and, of course, family. Much of the organizational impetus for the post-war nationalist surge, however, came from outside. Through the SDIL, ideas and momentum flowed into these communities, significantly affecting local understandings of “being Irish.” It is with these nationalist networks that my own research is primarily concerned. As much as Irish ethnicity and identity evolved and changed over time and across generations, it also diffused from place to place.

It is difficult to determine just how widespread and enduring this ethnic resurgence was. Unfortunately, membership lists for the SDIL have not survived, so it is impossible to reconstruct the size or composition of the St. John’s and Halifax branches, and analysis from the key perspectives of class or gender is problematic. Still, the sheer number of people that attended meetings, as well as the organized, virulent opposition of the Orange Order and other groups, suggests that this was not a small, isolated movement. It is striking that the League was able to achieve such prominence in cities with tiny Irish-born populations – in St. John’s in 1921 there were just 127 Irish-born individuals, and just 478 in Halifax. Moreover, in both cases, this rise in Irish identity took place after two decades of relative apathy regarding the political destiny of Ireland. This calls on us to reject linear models of ethnic assimilation. Irishness did not necessarily wane generation by generation, nor was it passed on in an undiluted fashion from parents to children. Rather, Irish identities were constructed, invented, and reinvented over time and space by a multitude of both domestic and external forces. In the early-1920s, when events in the ancestral homeland reached a critical juncture and the networks of the SDIL provided organization and momentum, the Irish aspects of individuals’ identities came to the fore. Ethnicity rose and fell depending on circumstances in old world and new, and despite being several generations removed from their ancestral homeland, those of Irish descent in St. John’s and Halifax remained connected to a transnational Irish diaspora until well into the twentieth century.

Patrick Mannion’s 2013 dissertation, “The Irish Diaspora in Comparative Perspective: St. John’s, Newfoundland, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Portland, Maine, 1880-1923” is a comparative study of Irish community and identity in those three port cities, focusing particularly on the construction of nationalism in different regional contexts. He is currently a per-course instructor in the Department of History, Memorial University of Newfoundland.


[1] Simon Jolivet, Le Vert et le Bleu: Identité Québécoise et Identité Irlandais au Tournant du XXe Siècle (La Presse de L’Université de Montreal, 2011); Robert McLaughlin, Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Pádraig Ó Siadhail, Katherine Hughes: A Life and a Journey (Newcastle, Ontario: Penumbra Press, 2014); David A. Wilson, ed., Irish Nationalism in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).

[2] For example, see Mark McGowan, The Waning of the Green: Catholics, the Irish and Identity in Toronto, 1887-1922 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999).

[3] Katherine Hughes to Eamon de Valera, “Who’s who in Newfoundland,” undated, 1920, University College Dublin Archives, Eamon de Valera Papers, P-150/995.

[4] Halifax Herald, December 7, 1920.

[5] Governor Charles Alexander Harris to Viscount Milner, May 8, 1920. Colonial Office (CO) CO 194/298.

[6] Morning Chronicle, November 29, 1920.

[7] Evening Telegram, December 7, 1920.

[8] Archbishop Edward Roche to R.T. McGrath, December 4, 1920, Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, Edward Roche Papers, 107/15/30.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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