Situating Irish America in the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement

By Melissa Baird

The influence of the United States – its government, its Irish diasporic population, or the common overlap of both – on the ‘Troubles’ has been increasingly well researched.[1] However, the role of the United States in the Northern Irish civil rights movement, and how this related to the ‘Troubles’, is something that remains underexplored and underdeveloped. Studies of this transatlantic relationship tend to position the civil rights movement as a background chapter rather than offering a critical analysis of the situation in the mid to late 1960s. Chronologically and logistically this makes sense; regardless of how we define the timeframes of either the civil rights movement or the ‘Troubles’, the former always begins before the latter, while the latter outlasts the former by at least twenty years. In addition, of course, the ‘Troubles’ years saw a lot more “action” (read: death and destruction). Nonetheless, I argue that the period in which the civil rights movement and the ‘Troubles’ overlap or intersect is crucial to understanding the tensions which permeated through Northern Ireland at the time, not just between traditionally antagonistic communities, but also within groups and their ostensible allies in the United States.

The dominance of the ‘Troubles’ within collective memory and scholarly interests has some negative methodological implications for those concerned with the earlier period. The chronological distinction between the civil rights movement and the ‘Troubles’ years often interrupts an examination of how ideas and attitudes were changing in this transformative period. This distinction is then often reproduced in the structure of oral history interviews, and researchers have predominantly focused their questions on the period after the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland and the increasing support for the Provisional IRA from Irish America. A case in point is a man of great importance to my own research topic, Michael Flannery. Flannery was an anti-Treaty IRA soldier from county Tipperary, who moved to New York in the late 1920s to escape persecution from the Irish Free State Government for his part in the Civil War. Over the years, Flannery remained active in Irish Republican circles around New York City, and by the late 1960s, he became involved in a plethora of Irish American groups established to support the Northern Irish civil rights movement.

Flannery’s simultaneous involvement in these groups is at times confounding, as these organisations were generally distinctive from and even opposed to each other in terms of political ideology and attitudes towards race, as well as their overall objectives for the movement. For example, the American Congress for Irish Freedom (ACIF), of which Flannery was once the regional Chairman for New York, was virulently anti-Communist and hostile to the analogy between the struggle of Northern Irish Catholics and African Americans. Indeed, the ACIF castigated Bernadette Devlin when she visited the United States in August 1969 for speaking out against Irish American racism. The ACIF sought to use the violations of civil rights outlined by the Campaign for Social Justice and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) to embarrass the British on an international stage, in front of the United States and the United Nations, especially in the context of decolonisation. Yet while the majority of the ACIF exploited the contemporary anti-colonial sentiments, this did not signify their commitment to anti-colonialism in different contexts, especially in regard to American imperialism in areas like Vietnam.[2] In the case of political ideology then, the ACIF was made up of more conservative members of Irish American society. Moreover, while the leader of the ACIF, James Heaney, was avowedly non-violent, the rest of the members of the ACIF had a more tenuous connection with the strategies chosen by the NICRA, particularly those like Flannery who were veterans of the IRA.

Around the same time, though, Flannery created his own short-lived organization called the Irish Action Committee and was also on the executive committee of the National Association for Irish Justice (NAIJ), which was established by James Connolly’s grandson, Brian Heron. The NAIJ was predominantly made up of younger, more progressive Irish Americans than the ACIF and had connections with a myriad of African American groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as more radical groups like the Black Panther Party and the Students for a Democratic Society. The NAIJ made clear their affinity with the African American struggle and wanted to form an official connection between the two movements throughout 1969. Moreover, they sought to use the civil rights movement to expose the capitalist underpinnings of inequality within not just Northern Ireland, but within the Republic of Ireland as well, thereby creating momentum for the establishment of a socialist United Ireland. The NAIJ became the official affiliate of the NICRA in June 1969 and therefore endorsed their protest strategies, but again this did not mean that individual members had a commitment to non-violence beyond its strategic value, and even this was at times tested.

Inevitably, however, later interviews with Flannery focused on the organization that became the most prominent Irish American support group for Republicans throughout the ‘Troubles’: NORAID. Flannery co-founded NORAID, short for the Irish Northern Aid Committee, in April 1970, and it stemmed directly from civil rights support groups in cities like New York and Boston, often taking advantage of the extant organizational basis and membership lists of groups falling into disarray as a result of factionalism and personal antagonisms, which Flannery was often influential in creating. Many Irish Americans who had previously been involved with groups like the ACIF or the NAIJ then filtered into NORAID after 1970. However, NORAID became infamous as the alleged gun-running network in the United States for the Provisional IRA, which clearly contrasted from the official intentions of the groups which preceded it. Nevertheless, the majority of scholarly inquests for Flannery centred on NORAID’s relationship to the IRA rather than his overlapping involvement in civil rights groups or, more broadly, how attitudes within Irish American communities changed in regard to civil rights and the logistical details of how older groups were subsumed into NORAID.

Consequently, the distillation of distinctive Irish American support groups into NORAID from 1970 is yet to be fully explored.[3] Current studies of Irish America and the civil rights movement posit that the majority of Irish Americans were disinterested before the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland because of the movement’s affiliation with Black and left-wing groups in the United States and elsewhere, as well as Irish American inclination towards more traditional conceptualisations of Irish Republicanism. However, this fails to explain the complex and often competing notions of civil rights within Irish America, especially among the Irish American groups that emerged between 1967 and 1969 in support of the NICRA. Reports from both the Irish and American governments as well as letters written into Irish American newspapers show that before 1970, Irish American communities were extremely divided in their attitudes towards both the problems and proposed solutions to Northern Ireland, illustrated most clearly by the coexistence of organisations like the ACIF and the NAIJ.

As such, Irish American supporters of the Northern Irish civil rights movement mapped out a multitude of possibilities for their role in the future of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. While the collapse of Irish American support groups into NORAID became the reality, this was not inevitable. Thus, we must better comprehend how attitudes within the civil rights movement and its international support networks shifted within this period, not simply to explicate the chronology of the ‘Troubles’, but also to explain the failures of its alternatives.

[1] See for example, Andrew Sanders, The Long Peace Process: The United States of America and Northern Ireland, 1960-2008 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019); James Cooper, The Politics of Diplomacy: US Presidents and the Northern Ireland Conflict 1967-1998 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

[2] Andrew Wilson, Irish America and the Ulster Conflict 1968-1995 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 30-1.

[3] Wilson’s Irish America and the Ulster Conflict and Brian Dooley’s Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland & Black America (London: Pluto Press, 1998) currently offer the most comprehensive accounts of Irish American actions in the civil rights movement. While both acknowledge that Irish American attitudes were not monolithic, both studies were published before the release of Irish and American government documents, which significantly reveal how divisive concepts of civil rights were within Irish American communities at this time.

(Image: Clan na Gael members at a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Philadelphia, 1970, photograph by John Hamilton, taken from the Photo Album of Ireland’s project website,, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Non-commercial No-derivatives (CC BY-BY-NC-ND 4.0))

Melissa L. Baird is a PhD researcher in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Her thesis explores the relationship between Irish America and the Northern Irish civil rights movement 1967-1972. She has published short essays and reviews in the Irish Journal for American Studies and Irish Historical Studies. Her broader research interests include civil rights, social movements, and popular culture in twentieth century Ireland and America.

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