Negro Sinn Féiners and Black Fenians
“HEROIC IRELAND” AND THE BLACK NATIONALIST IMAGINATION
I suffer with the Irish. I think I understand the Irish. My belonging to
a subject race entitles me to some understanding of them.
—Claude McKay, 1921
The New Manhood Movement… is nothing more nor less than a
Sinn Féin movement among Negroes.
—Anselmo Jackson, 1921
IN JANUARY 1919 THE NEWLY ELECTED representatives of Dáil Éireann (the Parliament of Ireland) issued their “Message to the Free Nations of the World,” in which they called for full recognition of the Irish Republic and warned that “the permanent peace of Europe can… be secured… only by establishing… government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people.” Meeting in Dublin’s Mansion House, they also called on the “civilised world” to serve as the guarantor of Ireland’s claim to national independence.1 Practically speaking, these terms were meant to apply mainly to the nations of Europe and to the United States. But in the context of 1919, they were fraught with ambiguity. Did the “free nations” include revolutionary Russia? Did the “civilised world” include the nationalist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America whose leaders took the language of democracy and self-determination every bit as seriously as their white, European counterparts? Russia stood athwart the postwar world as an emerging colossus that was at once a beacon of hope and a portent of great danger. In their quest for allies, many Irish republicans were open to an alliance with Russia, especially since the Bolsheviks were even more aggressive than Woodrow Wilson in promoting the principle of self-determination and far more sweeping than the American president in their understanding of its meaning. Lenin and Trotsky argued that all peoples who were unwillingly subjected to foreign rule should be liberated. This led the Irish World to proclaim that “the Russian people stand today as the foremost champions of liberty, social justice and peace.” In its editorial “All Hail Russia!” the venerable Irish American weekly predicted that “the Irish [will] become fit partners of the Russians in the regeneration of the world.”2