Sunday, September 13, 2020

CROWDFUNDING THE REVOLUTION



I have always been amazed by the Counter State during the Irish War of Independence. The rebels set up a whole alternative state machinery which ran very efficiently under the noses of the British occupying forces.

The various aspects of this counter state gradually got the support of the people and, after the 1920 local elections, of the country's local authorities.

It was a cat and mouse game for those running it. The British had enormous advantages: a large trained military force, a paramilitary police force, control of the country's financial system, and so on.

It was not plain sailing for the rebels. They suffered loads of setbacks but persisted in the face of adversity. There were confiscations, deaths, and many close shaves. But the system kept working, defying the logic of the times.

The only restraint on the British was their international reputation. That was all that held them back from unleashing the full forces at their disposal. After all they couldn't be seen to be like the Germans when turning up at the Paris post-WWI peace conference. And they couldn't afford to alienate the USA which was very tuned in to what was going on in Ireland through its large Irish immigrant population. And after the savage British reaction to the 1916 rebellion, the British press was keeping its eyes peeled for any further savagery on the part of the administration. The rebels fully exploited these constraints

One of the most daring and amazingly successful acts of the counter state was the launch of the Dáil loan. This was promoted both and home and abroad in the United States. It brought in loads of cash and this was the cash that was moved around the country and hidden in plain sight in various accounts in the conventional banking system.

This is the crowdfunding referred to in the title of this admirable book which documents the trials and travails of the loan. It is a fascinating story and one which, although known in part, has not been documented in its entirety and put across in a book as riveting and entertaining as this. The author, Pat O'Sullivan Greene, has been following this up for a while now and he had access, inter alia, to the papers of Daithí Ó Donnchadha, who was secretary to the loan trustees and whom the author describes as Michael Collins's right hand man in financial matters.


The author gives us a glimpse of Daithí in his man about town disguise:
In his early forties, he had been appointed secretary to the trustees of the loan. In this role, he would become the chief launderer of the proceeds of the loan, often carrying thousands of pounds on his person from the clearing houses around the city.

Working closely with Michael Collins, he put systems and processes in place to record, control and safeguard the proceeds of the loan. Bank accounts were opened using fictitious names, or the names of ‘trusted friends’. He was responsible for recording the amounts subscribed and the issue of official receipts.

Source

The British eventually decided to pull out all the stops and attack the loan through the various accounts in which it was stashed. Alan Bell, head of British Intelligence in the city, became the Grand Inquisitor, as he serially summonned various relevant bank managers and grilled them under oath. The bankers were put to the pin of their collective collar to avoid revealing all and Collins realised that the funds were under real threat at this point. So he had Bell shot and that dealt with that for the moment.

After Independence the small matter of repaying the loan arose. When the loan was launched, probably few of the contributors ever expected to see their money back but now an independent Irish Government moved to repay the loan. The Free States Courts in 1925 released relevant funds to the Free State Government, which would then go on to repay the domestic element of the loan.

However, complications arose at the United States end where the de Valera faction claimed ownership of the funds. I'll let John Horgan take up the story from here:
De Valera was not slow to turn his new power and position to advantage in other ways, and now moved to put the final piece in place in a complicated jigsaw begun several years earlier. In 1919—21, Irish emigrants in the United States had subscribed funds for bonds to be redeemed by an independent Irish government. A large amount of money was collected and lodged in a US bank, but, after the Civil War, a dispute arose between de Valera (who had been involved in the fundraising) and the Free State government as to who owned the money. In 1927, the US supreme court decided that it belonged to neither, and ordered that the money be returned to the original subscribers.

In 1930, de Valera wrote to those subscribers, asking them to transfer their right to be reimbursed to him, so that he could launch a national Irish newspaper. Many did so. Now in government, he moved financial legislation to repay all the American lenders — those who had transferred their rights to him as well as those who had not — with a premium, effectively returning $1.25 for every dollar they had lent. The funds for this operation came from the Irish exchequer, which his party now controlled. Despite parliamentary accusations that de Valera was ‘looting the public purse for a party organ (DD, 5 July 1933), the measure was passed: £1.5 million was paid to the bondholders, £100,000 of which found its way directly back to the Irish Press on the basis of the transfers signed three years earlier.

Source

[Some of us will remember another £100,000 which split the Fianna Fáil party in 1970, but that is, of course, another story entirely.]


In the course of the War of Independence the Sinn Féin Bank had been replaced by the Land Bank which was then the bank of the revolution. After independence the Bank of Ireland became the Government's Banker and swallowed up the Land Bank in 1926 as depicted in Gordon Brewster's cartoon, above.


Meanwhile, with the Exchequer repaying the Dáil Bond Loan it had its own need of cash, and in 1927 it launched its own loan. Brewster's take on this is shown above.

Personal resonances:

The book evoked a number of personal resonances for me.

Uimhir 6

Number 6 Harcourt Street was the headquarters of the Sinn Féin Bank. It is now the site of the headquarters of Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language bookshop, and An Club. I spent a fair whack of time in the last of these, where the pint was cheap and, as long as you spoke only in Irish, you would not be thrown out until the early hours of the morning or when the cloud of cigarette smoke descended sufficiently low from the ceiling to threaten your senses.

Uncle Mick

My family tell me that my uncle used to be a runner for the other Mick (Collins) in London. I have no way of verifying this. The uncle did work in London around that time until the granny sent the eldest brother over to bring him home lest he be conscripted into WWI.

This is the uncle I had understood to have fought with Dev in Bolands Mills (Bakery) and whose record of this I couldn't trace. I found out later that he had actually been a flour salesman for the bakery. I wasn't entirely surprised as I never remember him expresssing any nationalist sentiments in the time I knew him.

Daithí Ó Donnchadha

I never knew Daithí, but I have had a lot of contact with his grandson, Niall, who has restored a Martello Tower in Killiney

Cathal Brugha Barracks

I spent a whole day, a while back, at an event in the barracks dealing with the Birth of the Counter State. It was a fantastic day and I learned a lot. You might like to click on the link above and check it out.

The Book

Just to remind you that we have been talking about Pat O'Sullivan Greene's book Crowdfunding the Revolution. A great read and another contribution to the Decade of Centenaries.

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