No. 36 NAI DFA Secretary's Files S64

Letter from Michael MacWhite to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Washington, 10 March 1937

A Chara,
Before the expiration of another week eight years will have elapsed since I presented my letters accrediting me as Minister Plenipotentiary from the Saorstát to the President of the United States of America.

Soon after my arrival in this country I discovered that for one reason or another the Saorstát Legation did not occupy a very important place either in the estimation of the Administration or in that of the other Diplomatic Missions of which there are fifty-four in this capital. It was to a large extent ignored by them as well as by many of our own people. Some of the latter regarded it as an adjunct of the British Embassy. It had few, if any, contacts with Irish societies or with those Catholic educational institutions which are directed mainly by persons of Irish birth or antecedents whose sympathies are of so much interest for us and it was not in very high standing with the Catholic Hierarchy of America. The circumstances under which I entered upon my duties were not therefore of the most favourable kind.

As the primary duty of a Minister Plenipotentiary is to safeguard the interests of his nation and, at the same time, to uphold its prestige and maintain it on a level equal, if not superior, to that of other States, I set about, after a brief survey, to overcome the difficulties that stood in the way. It became necessary for me at the outset to emphasise that I represented a country and not a party. It took a little while for some of our own people to realise this as a purely diplomatic mission was something to which they were unaccustomed. It was imperative to avoid intrigues and cliques so as not to become the instrument of either individuals or parties, which is not an easy matter as those acquainted with conditions in this country can readily understand.

Little by little, I established contacts with outstanding representatives of our race some of whom were not always in accord with the policy of the Government of the day. As the occasion presented itself I visited some of the principals among the Catholic Hierarchy including the four Cardinals and was most cordially received by all of them. I have met them frequently since, either at the Catholic University or at other functions, and I flatter myself no little at the disposition they always manifest towards me.

During my time here I have been the guest of many Irish Clubs and Associations, and, in addition, have delivered addresses at half a score Universities and Colleges. Some of these have bestowed on me the highest honours permitted by their Charters. I have also lectured for Federal and State Bar Associations and various cultural and civic organisations. Everywhere, I have been welcomed with the utmost cordiality and kindness.

In my relations with the Administration I have always insisted on the independent status of the Saorstát and demonstrated why separate consideration should be given to our problems, irrespective of how Great Britain may be affected thereby. Sometimes my listeners were not very sympathetic nor were they always willing to be convinced against their ingrained prejudices, but time and circumstances and continued effort have forced them to modify their attitude and render them more sympathetic to our views.

American newspapers have frequently repeated the time-worn bogey that the Irish are a quarrelsome and thriftless people who are governed either by malice or hatred, or both, in their attitude towards England. Some of them have even suggested that the Saorstát Government was not entirely blameless in this respect. To reply to these charges to the Editors would only provoke an insidious repetition of them, as they would always have the last word, but individual newspaper men are, as a rule easy to approach, and are not impervious to certain kinds of argument. It required a little time, however, to convince those who were brought up in an anti-Irish atmosphere that the members of our Government were honest, capable and serious-minded Administrators who applied the most intelligent and efficient methods to the solution [of] problems which were the outcome of centuries of oppression and misgovernment. I brought to their attention repeatedly the fact that, in regard to our National finances, no country in Europe had a more enviable reputation than ours; and that during the last five years no State of equal size and population had progressed in industrial development to anything like the same extent. Even our Social Security Services outdistanced by far those of the United States with all its resources.

In the field of International relations and World peace I called attention to the many praiseworthy contributions we have made. That the stand taken by President de Valera on the Manchukuo affair, on the Italo-Ethiopian dispute and in regard to the Civil War in Spain, was inspired by the highest principles of diplomacy and statesmanship and had, in the eyes of the European nations, added to the prestige of both his country and himself.

On the question of the Land Annuity dispute and the Penal tariffs that ensued I experienced no little difficulty in getting State Department and other officials to see the justice of our case. English news agencies had been able to disseminate, effectively and in advance, the British viewpoint of the issues involved, and in this country British propaganda rarely or ever falls on deaf ears. Some would like to attribute the stand taken by the Government to the 'old hatred' of England, but they have a better appreciation of the rights and wrongs of the case to-day and a clearer understanding then heretofore of the policy of the Saorstát not only in her relations with Britain but with the outside world as well.

In the social life of this capital where wealth counts for so much our role, notwithstanding our slender resources, has not been altogether insignificant. In the beginning, I found it necessary to bring the representatives of other nations to a realisation of the political existence of the Irish Free State. Almost the first step in accomplishing this was by forcing them and the people of the circles in which they moved to acknowledge that we, ourselves, socially existed. Money is not in itself a means to this end; tact and savoir faire are also necessary. We began by entertaining Cabinet Ministers and other high officials of the Administration, and were the subject of their hospitality in return. We did the same with Ambassadors and other Envoys, so much so, that within a short time one could meet at our Receptions almost everybody of weight and influence in the political, diplomatic and social life of Washington. Although we have no Legation residence, which is a considerable disadvantage, our social functions are, admittedly, the envy of many of the more elaborate Embassies and Legations here.

After this brief survey you will, I am sure, realise that without expanding facilities it is scarcely possible to extend our contacts or increase the prestige of the Legation beyond the present level. It is, in fact, a matter of surprise to me that popular interest has been maintained so long. It is well known that after a certain lapse of time a Chief of Mission, in whatever capital he may be, comes to be taken for granted. Once that point is reached he cannot hope to make headway against the indifference that long association inevitably produces. There is novelty and attraction in new Envoys and a renewal of public interest in their new environment for the country they represent. That is the reason why, in my opinion, no Ambassador or Minister should, unless in very exceptional circumstances, remain more than five or six years accredited to the same country.

For the reasons set out here it would be in the interests of the Department and of the Public service that I be transferred to a Post nearer home. As I understand there is to be a vacancy in Paris in the near future, I respectfully submit that my seniority in the diplomatic service of the Saorstát and the efficiency with which I have performed the duties associated with my rank, over a period of sixteen years, entitles me to the Minister's first consideration for this appointment. It is, I am sure, unnecessary for me to recall my activities at Geneva where it is generally recognised that I laid the groundwork for the election of the Saorstát to a seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and, in other ways, advanced her status and prestige.

I have a background of a military character which is not without its advantages in France and have had friendly and close relations with two or three former Ambassadors who now reside in the French capital. Many members of the Paris Diplomatic Corps are old acquaintances of mine. I am aware that certain difficulties have been encountered by Saorstát Ministers in the establishment of closer contacts in French diplomatic and official circles but these can hardly be regarded as being insurmountable. Tact and experience should be helpful in overcoming them. To have been for eight years a Minister in the United States carries a certain amount of prestige in France and a long acquaintanceship with American diplomats in Paris cannot but be helpful. It is not difficult to foresee how this may be made to serve as a level for strengthening and enlarging our official contacts with the French Government. Both my wife and myself speak tolerably good French and know France from one end to the other.

There are other reasons of a more personal character, though by no means insignificant, why I should like to be appointed to Paris. I have a son1 whom I want to have educated in the Saorstát and brought up in a manner befitting an Irish citizen. He attends Castleknock College at present. As the Departmental regulations do not permit me to return to Ireland each year except at a financial sacrifice I can ill afford, he must at considerable expense come over here for his Summer holidays. Besides, were he to contract a serious illness while at Castleknock neither his mother nor myself could get to him in time to be of any comfort or service. My wife has also contracted Sinus trouble while in this country. Local Health authorities report that this complaint is, for some undetermined cause, endemic in the District of Columbia. Like myself, she finds the climate here very exhausting, and quite recently was sent by her Doctor to Bermuda in order to avoid a complete breakdown.

I shall be obliged if you give this matter your most serious consideration and bring it to the attention of the Minister at your early convenience.

Mise, le meas,
[signed] M. MacWhite

1 Eoin MacWhite (1923-72), who later served in the Department of External Affairs including as Ambassador to Australia (1964-7) and the Netherlands (1967-72).

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