The peaceful protest captured by this striking photo took place on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House in 1920. The banners held by the angry young protesters are highlighting the failure of President Woodrow Wilson to make good his pledge to support Ireland’s fight for independence.
It was made clear to Wilson by Irish Americans in the Democratic Party and other Irish organisations, that the move to enter into the war alongside the British would be strongly opposed. This disapproval was intensified following the violent 1916 Easter Rising, and so, an attempt to placate their anger, Wilson promised to approach Britain in an attempt to negotiate Ireland’s independence in 1917.
At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, it became clear that Wilson had not gone through with his promise to the Irish Americans. Enraged further by the knowledge that it was their votes – the Irish American votes along with German American votes – which had secured Wilson’s election to office in 1916, the Irish American community publicly decried Wilson.
This frustration surfaced itself not only in the form of peaceful protests such as this, but in violent acts such as the Irish anti-conscription crisis of 1918, and the explosions on Black Tom Island and Kingsland (now Lyndhurst).
By 1920 Ireland had two home ruled states within the British Empire. This may have satisfied Wilson, but the majority of Irish and Irish Americans still supported a full republic.
This image is made all the more poignant – no doubt deliberately so – by the fact that the signs, which include the slogan ‘We protested the murder of children in Belgium and Armenia, we won’t stand for it in Ireland’, are being held by innocent looking children. The efficacy of the protest is in its immediacy – it says, ‘we, the children you see here, are next.’
Their small stature and fragility is off-set by the inclusion of the adult in the middle, whose shadowed eyes are glancing nervously to the left, in the same direction as the boy and girl to her right are looking. This, along with the direction the woman is leaning, slightly off-balances the image, the focal point of which should be the two signs in the middle, but which is actually the three children facing directly forward, giving the image a slightly eerie feel.
This is intensified by the presence of another woman in the shadows in the background. She is perhaps a passer-by, keen to see what is going on, or a fellow protester anxious to get in the shot.
A series of these images can be found at the Library of Congress.