'My American Struggle': A Priest's Bold Bid To Put Injustice in Ulster on U.S. Agenda

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Sidebar: Seàn McManus' Brother a Hero of IRA Border Campaign

A Review By Liam Murphy / Heritage Editor

"My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland"
By Father Seàn McManus (Cork: The Collins Press, 2011)

It is obvious to anyone who has ever spoken with Redemptorist priest Seàn McManus that he wrote every word of this book, his first memoir. You can hear his voice as you read.

What is not obvious is that the original manuscript was probably twice as long. This was confirmed by McManus when he was taken to task for many sins of omission (e.g., how could you mention Dave Burke, of the National Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, only twice! and former Irish National Caucus Director Bobby Bateman only once! And what about Eoin McKiernan of the Irish American Cultural Institute!)

Sins of omission notwithstanding, this is a very important book. It would be equally important, even if it were not so entertaining a read. It is “vintage” Seàn McManus. But it is more — a virtual treatise on how to make the U.S. Congress pass principled moral legislation, often against seemingly insurmountable odds, and then get a reluctant President to sign it. It should, in fact, be required reading in political-science classes.

In 130 minutes, Jimmy Stewart is able to narrate the story of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a saga of an honest man vying against the political “machine,” spanning less than a year. In 261 pages (with 15 pages of endnote documentation), McManus tells a story that spans almost 67 years, some 37 or so spent crusading on Capitol Hill, against opposition far more complex, and devious, than that faced in Frank Capra’s classic motion picture.

First you have to understand the man — an Ulsterman, and then his mission — a nonviolent struggle for justice in the six occupied counties of the gerrymandered province of Ulster, a statelet known as “Northern Ireland.”

The parish of Kinawley, where McManus was born (the 10th of twelve children) on a small farm in rural Ireland, lies astride the Cavan-Fermanagh border, which is also the artificial border that partitions both Ulster and Ireland. The McManus farm is in the British-occupied area.

McManus family photo, outside their home in Fermanagh. (1956). Back row: Frankie, Patrick, Sean. Front row: Jim, Terence, Thomas, the child in front is Myles. Click on image for a larger view. The brothers, including Sean, were all avid Gaelic footballers.

McManus' family members are universally patriotic, but each goes about it in his or her own way. Among his brothers was Patrick, the quintessential physical-force IRA-man, and a leader of the Resistance Campaign, who was killed in 1958. His equally patriotic brother Frank was an elected Member (the Brits would say thorn-in-the-side) of Parliament, from the Irish Independence Party. When the British government wanted to pull a fast one, and deny Frank the opportunity to speak, its leaders would convene an emergency meeting of the House of Commons in the middle of the night, with Frank being among those MPs whom they purposely failed to notify.

Irish National Caucus Gets To Work

The English connection, and its concomitant injustice, is a problem of long duration, going back centuries before the founding of the United States. It is complicated for the Irish in America by the decades-long NATO partnership between the United States and Britain, and a State Department often seeming to suffer from terminal Anglophilia. The felony is compounded by what often seems the Dublin government’s Vichy-like collaboration with Northern Ireland’s British overseers.

Numerous Irish-Americans, over the years, have lobbied Congress on behalf of the cause of “Peace with Justice and Honor for All Ireland,”

American Irish Historical Society
On top of the Waldorf-Astoria, New York, 1922, during de Valera's fund-raising visit. From left, standing: Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, de Valera, Diarmuid Lynch and Dr. Patrick McCartan. Sitting: John Devoy. Lynch was the National Secretary of the Friend of Irish Freedom from 1918 to 1932.

as Cardinal John O'Connor put it in his first Saint Patrick’s Day sermon as Archbishop of New York. From the Friends of Irish Freedom in the 1920s to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, they came, said their piece, and then went home -- and Congress returned to business as usual.

There had never been a truly Irish lobby permanently on Capitol Hill, at least not until that established by McManus and his Irish National Caucus (INC). The Caucus was founded by McManus on February 6, 1974. Over time, it became obvious that to be truly effective it would require two things, first, the undivided attention of McManus, and second, a full-time presence on Capitol Hill.

The INC Capitol Hill office was opened December 10, 1978. Sligo-born Bishop Thomas Drury, head of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, citing Church teaching that “action on behalf of justice [is] … a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel,” arranged for the Redemptorist Order to reassign McManus to his authority for a full-time “Special Ministry of Justice and Peace for Ireland.” This was announced in a press release December 11, 1978.

However, in Congress (and in American political life generally), unlike during the Irish War of Independence, the momentum for justice in the remaining British-ruled portion of Ireland did not get its push from Irish-American office-holders. Rather, Tip O’Neill, Teddy Kennedy, Hugh Carey and Pat Moynihan, the “Four Horsemen” and others of their mindset, came to toe the Dublin government’s cautious line, and did their best to thwart the Irish National Caucus.

Father Sean McManus and U.S.
Representative Ben Gilman

Fortunately, there were non-Irish statesmen in the House of Representatives, ready to stand up to party and government leaders, ready to fight to gain fair treatment for the Irish in the North. These included:

  • Mario Biaggi, founding chairman of the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs;
  • Ben Gilman, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs;
  • Hamilton Fish, of the Judiciary Committee;
  • Joe Dio Guardi, author of the “One Ireland” resolution, which aimed at putting financial pressure on the British government to end the Partition of Ireland. This resolution apparently hit a sensitive nerve, to the extent that Ian Paisley’s South Carolina fundamentalist friend, Bob Jones, wrote a letter (August 18, 1988) to Dio Guardi, denouncing the idea and Dio Guardi, calling him "a puppet on the Pope's string."
  • Lester Wolf and Dick Ottinger of New York, and others, many of whom were omitted from the print edition.

    There were also other courageous Irish-American members of the House who pushed back against the tide of indifference. Paul Cronin of Massachusetts comes to mind, as do Representatives Tom Manton, Peter King and Joe Crowley, of New York, Bob Dornan of California, and Chris Smith of New Jersey.

    The MacBride Principles

    Though in many respects the book is a standout, it is not perfect. Among the photos are two errors: first, in a photo caption, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is identified as “First Lady” long after she relinquished that title, and, perhaps more importantly, there is no photo of Rita (Kelly) Mullen, typically hard at work at her desk, though she is mentioned in the text. The index is also annoyingly incomplete. Rita's administrative support was invaluable to the Caucus' early successes.

    'We were all in the back of the same lorry once.'
    — Former Irish Minister of Defense Kevin Boland

    Of these, there were many. For one, the Caucus persuaded Congress in 1979 to halt the shipment of .357 Magnum revolvers to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). With hearings and debates ringing through the halls of Congress, the fruit of the Caucus’ intense lobbying, justice for Ireland had become, for the first time since the 1920s, a serious American issue.

    If McManus' text is to be faulted, beyond its omissions, I would point to his gratuitous comments about Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Daithí O Conaill "unfortunately" splitting from “Gerry Adams in 1986” to “form Republican Sinn Fèin.” McManus' remarks in this regard ignore the principal issue of the split in 1986, in which Republican Sinn Fèin insisted on continuing the traditional Republican policy of abstention from "Partition" parliaments, rather than trying to thwart the system from within.

    The 1986 split was as much philosophical (almost theological) as it was institutional. McManus' book begs the question of who split from whom. It should not be the purpose of the Irish National Caucus, nor of this book, to entangle itself in the disputes among present and former traditional Irish republicans — the INC would be better to cling to its mission of influencing American policy on behalf of justice in Ireland, remembering, in the charitable words of one-time Irish Minister of Defense Kevin Boland, that "we were all in the back of the same lorry once."

    Seàn McManus

    Perhaps the Irish National Caucus’ crowning achievement is the MacBride Principles, based on the “Sullivan Principles,” which insisted on fair employment opportunities in apartheid South Africa, MacBride (named for Nobel Laureate Se‡n MacBride, the principles' most prominent co-sponsor) applied similar criteria to American firms doing business in Northern Ireland. The story of how this happened is an adventure tale in itself, and Homer could not have told it any better than McManus does in “My American Struggle.”

    This is an important book, not only for historians and for political scientists, but also for Irish America. If it were to be made into an audio book, McManus himself should do the reading, for then we could hear, as well as read, the strong voice of a man who has come to represent the best of what it means to be Irish in America.

    Seàn McManus tells his own story — his own "Mo Scéal Féin," but between his lines one can discern the outlines of an even more epic story, where Americans of all stripes mobilize the forces of good to achieve a greater good (against seemingly impossible odds), driven by one man’s nonviolent, irrepressible quest for “Peace with Justice for All Ireland,” an as-yet, unfinished task. Go saoraidh Dia Éire! WGT

    Liam Murphy, heritage editor of TheWildGeese.com, worked to promote Irish unification while serving various roles in the Ancient Order of Hibernians during the 1970s, including editor of the National Hibernian Digest from 1976-78, and assistant editor from 1974-76 under Dave Burke. With Burke, Eoin McKiernan, Jack Keane and others, he helped arrange Father Seàn McManus' landmark presentation at the 1974 AOH National Convention. Murphy is an unapologetic admirer of Seàn Mac Bride and of the Mac Bride Principles, as well as of U.S. Representatives Ben Gilman, Mario Biaggi and other members of the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs. Liam can be reached via e-mail at liam@TheWildGeese.com.


    This feature was edited by Gerry
    Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

    Copyright © 2011 by Liam Murphy and
    GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed
    without prior permission from the author.
    Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish National Caucus, Irish lobby, Sean McManus, United States, macbride principles


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