Primary Documents

Irish Picket Ulster Premier On His Arrival at Idlewild, 6 April 1950

(00:50 mins, MPEG4)

© 2008 Archives of Irish America, NYU. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

AIA 40 Grimes Collection

Sir Basil Brooke travelled to the United States in April 1950 on an official visit for speaking engagements in Washington, DC and New York City. Prime Minister of Northern Ireland since 1943 and an avowed anti-Catholic member of the Ulster Unionist Party, Brooke’s visit especially roused the ire of the New York Irish, hundreds of whom turned out to picket him under the auspices of the American-Irish Minute Men of 1949. New York’s mayor, William O’Dwyer, a native of County Mayo, said he would not welcome Brooke to City Hall and, to make sure of it, went to Florida for vacation that week.

The New York protests in 1950 indicate the extent to which current political events in Ireland quickly emerged in the diaspora. When Ireland (then Éire) declared itself a Republic, effective April 1949, the British Government passed the Ireland Act to reaffirm that the six counties partitioned in 1920 as Northern Ireland remained part of His Majesty’s Dominions, a status that could only be changed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland. The American-Irish Minute Men of 1949 disagreed; based in New York City, the new home of the United Nations, it advocated instead for a U.N. plebiscite that would allow the people of Northern Ireland to decide whether or not to join the Republic of Ireland. To that end, they had already picketed outside the British Consulate and during the September 1949 visit of the British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin.

In advance of his trip, Brooke declared that he would not discuss partition while in the United States. Instead, Brooke announced he would “tell Americans about Northern Ireland’s contribution to Britain’s economic recovery” and “stress the valuable role the North has filled as a dollar earner for the United Kingdom through the export of its famous linen.”(1) On March 30th, the New York Times reported that Brooke was “opposed to the idea of the United States mediating on the partition of Ireland” and that he “denied his visit was at the behest of the British Foreign Office to counteract a strong anti-partition feeling in the United States.”(2) Compounding matters was a simultaneous vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to “halt Great Britain’s Marshall Plan Funds as long as Ireland was partitioned.”(3) Anti-partitionists argued that American money was being used to support British troops in Northern Ireland.

Judge Matthew J. Troy of the New York Court of Special Sessions and a U.S. Army veteran of World War II, in his capacity as chairman of the thousand member American-Irish Minute Men, carefully prepared for Brooke’s visit.(4) On April 5th, pickets were assigned to Idlewild as well as La Guardia airports in addition to the Queen Mary’s Hudson River pier “in case Sir Basil tries to sneak in,” Troy told the press, because Brooke had originally planned to sail, then announced he would fly.(5) The following day, when Brooke changed planes at New York International Airport (Idlewild) enroute to a speaking engagement at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., he was on the ground for less than an hour but Troy had ensured an Irish welcome for him. According to the New York Times,

the pickets paraded in orderly fashion in front of the administration building, carrying signs that read: “The British Gestapo Chief Sir Basil Brooke is here,” “There’ll always be an England while she can deal from the bottom,” “If Brooke is an Irishman, Benedict Arnold was a great American,” “Sure we need water, but we don’t need a dirty Brooke.”(6)

Brooke responded, “It makes no impression whatsoever.”(7) The Idlewild picket was covered in the pages of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor.

When Brooke returned to New York City on April 11th, the American-Irish Minute Men had 250 pickets outside his hotel. The next night, when Brooke accepted the Ulster-Irish Society’s distinguished service award for “the part Northern Ireland played as host to United States troops during World War II” at the Waldorf-Astoria, Troy arranged for one thousand pickets to cover the hotel’s four entrances.(8) Irish poet and playwright Padraic Colum had the last word in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times on April 12th, asking

Are you confident that the families who gladly offered hospitality to American soldiers are in favor of the government of Sir Basil Brooke, a government that denied the Ulster people the right to parade on St. Patrick’s Day, St. Patrick who founded his metropolis in Ulster and who is buried in Ulster?…Irish unity will come: the defense of Western Europe is hampered without it. Sir Basil Brooke could show himself not only an Irish but a European statesman by favoring the idea of an All-Ireland Council in St. Patrick’s metropolis, Armagh.(9)

The American-Irish Minute Men were part of a larger movement among the New York Irish that is best represented by the American League for an Undivided Ireland (1947).

Marion R. Casey

Glucksman Ireland House

New York University

For an oral history of the Idlewild protest, listen to Kathleen Mulvey in New York Stories at http://www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/aia/exhibits.php Her recollection of Dennis O’Neill’s disruption of the orderly picket is corroborated in the newspaper coverage of 7 April 1950.

The Idlewild pickets were filmed by John Grimes, the seventeen year old son of Patrick J. Grimes from County Offaly who ran a popular travel agency in New York City. In 1955 the elder Grimes purchased the Irish Echo newspaper and John succeeded him as its publisher in 1978.

Special thanks to Alice Moscoso, Moving Image Preservation Specialist, and her staff in the Preservation Department, Division of Libraries, New York University for converting this footage from 8mm film to a MPEG digital file.

Further Reading:

Notes:

  1. “Premier Disturbs Belfast Unionists,” New York Times, 5 March 1950, p. 58
  2. “Brooke Opposes U.S. Action,” New York Times, 30 March 1950, p. 11
  3. “U.S. House Action Delights Ireland,” New York Times, 31 March 1950, p. 18
  4. Troy noted his military service in letters to the editor of the New York Times on 17 September 1949, p. 16, and on 15 October 1949, p. 14
  5. “Pickets Turn Out in Vain for Brooke,” New York Times, 6 April 1950, p. 10
  6. “Irish Picket Ulster Premier On His Arrival at Idlewild,” New York Times, 7 April 1950, p. 1
  7. “Boos, Catcalls ‘Greet’ Ulster Premier in N.Y.,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 April 1950, p. 10
  8. “Brooke Advocates United Irish Front,” New York Times, 15 April 1950, p. 5
  9. Padraic Colum, “Sir Basil Brooke’s Visit; His Status as Representative Queried, Partition of Ireland Discussed,” New York Times, 12 April 1950, p. 26