An enterprising Irishman in Revolutionary Russia

Ian Mitchell

One person who will certainly not be remembered during today’s 101stanniversary commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution, is the Irish revolutionary, Patrick McCartan. Nonetheless, he is a figure of some interest because he travelled to Russia soon after the Bolshevik coup with the aim of attracting support for the “anti-imperialist” cause in Ireland at the time of the split with Great Britain.

In retirement in 1952, McCartan wrote a revealing, 42-page memoir of his time in Russia. It was only recently disinterred from the National Archives of Ireland, having lain for decades in the vaults of the Military History department of Defence Forces Ireland. McCartan’s life is a part of Irish history, but his observations in post-civil war Moscow cast an interesting side-light on Russia’s story.


Who was McCartan? In brief, he was the son of a Protestant farming family from Co. Tyrone, who emigrated to the United States in the 1890s where he fell in with an Irish revolutionary group that included the later leader of independent Ireland, Eamon De Valera. He returned to Ireland and qualified as a doctor, stood for parliament as a nationalist and took part in the failed Easter Rising in 1916 (Ireland’s equivalent of 1905 in Russia). He became a Sinn Fein activist and was elected to parliament in the new, unofficial, provisional Dail in 1920. That was when he was asked to go to Russia and ask for Soviet recognition of the Irish Republic, which had not yet been proclaimed and for which his comrades were still fighting. (This was the period of the notorious paramilitary “Black and Tans”, the last effort at imperial policing in Ireland, before the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment of the Free State withinthe British Empire.)

The context of McCartan’s expedition is interesting. In 1919 at the Versailles peace negotiations, the US President, Woodrow Wilson, had insisted that a foundational principle of the new international order that he was trying to create would be “national self-determination”. That was one of the famous Fourteen Points, promulgated in early 1918, on the basis of which the Central Powers had been prepared to stop fighting. However, by 1920 it was clear that the principle of the break-up of empires was to apply only to the defeated ones. Sinn Fein, the Irish independence party, had already sent a delegation to Paris to plead with the Americans that Ireland should be “liberated” from the British Empire. They got short shrift, so De Valera turned to Lenin.

Negotiating with the Soviets about Ireland

McCartan arrived in Reval (now Tallinn) on 6 February 1921, where he met with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Maxim Litvinov, and asked for recognition of the proclaimed but not yet established Irish Republic.

“Mr Litvinov was not enthusiastic about my visit,” McCartan wrote in his memoir. “He seemed at first to study me as a sort of curiosity and asked me if I had any plan or programme to suggest…. As President De Valera did not give me any specific instructions I was evasive… He openly expressed disappointment and intimated that it was folly for me to proceed if I had no plan to submit…. It was evident that he got his information from English sources and seemed to take the English liberal press viewpoint on Ireland… I asked him if they trusted England. He laughed and said of course they did not.”

“On February 14thI arrived in Moscow and was met by a man from the Foreign Office who left me at the hotel and told me that Mr Nurateva, the Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, would see me next day at twelve o’clock…. Mr Nurateva called that night at the hotel ‘to see if I was comfortable’. This act I regarded as one of friendship and courtesy and he maintained this attitude until he was thrown into prison on suspicion of being a British Agent.”

Soon, McCartan met Grigory Chicherin, the old aristocrat who was the Komisar for Foreign Affairs. “Mr Chicherin appeared an extremely gentle sort of man, very polite and a trifle nervous.” He asked what the Irish wanted, and he said recognition of the Irish Republic (which was then under negotiation with the British and in fact did not come into being until 1949, when it superseded the Free State that was inaugurated in 1922). “Chicherin pointed out that we were not in military control [of Ireland] that they had withdrawn recognition from the Ukraine when Germany was in military occupation of that country.”Chicherin also said he thought that, being Catholics, the Irish were opposed to Communism. “I became honestly indignant and said: then we were hostile to something that did not exist in Ireland. We concentrated on the fight against England and gave no attention to anything else. The mass of our people were decidedly friendly to Communist Russia not because they understood that Russia was Communist but because they saw England endeavouring to overthrow the present regime in Russia.”

“What armed forces have we in Ireland?” Chicherin asked. “It was obvious that he was looking for a nucleus around which the Proletariat of Ireland might rally, so when I saw what he was thinking of I did not say what the Citizen Army had been or what it likely was then. He knew more about it than I did.”

“It appeared that they wished to conclude the [trade] agreement with England before announcing my arrival [in Moscow]… The trade agreement was signed on 17 March. On 21 March I called on the Foreign Office to see how Ireland was affected by this. I was informed that Nurateva was in a sanatorium for a rest… It turned out that the sanatorium in which Nurateva was happened to be a prison, and he was still there when I left.”

McCartan was told to wait a week until Chicherin could see him. Then Chicherin asked him to wait a month. Five week later, McCartan called to ask about the meeting and was told  that Chicherin would be asked for a date, which would be given in a few days. Finally, he was told that Litvinov, Chicherin’s deputy, would see him—but only after he was back in Moscow from his holidays, which should be in a fortnight. McCartan waited but, once again, nothing happened. In late June he left Russia empty-handed, never to return.

Life in Moscow in 1921

McCartan wrote a long supplementary memo entitled “Conditions in Russia” to accompany his deposition on the diplomatic aspects of his trip. “Nobody in authority in Russia pretends to think that such a thing as liberty exists there… The idea of whether or not the present regime represents the will of the people is openly laughed at. They do, however, justify it on the grounds that dictatorship is essential during a transition period, that is the change from Feudalism to Communism…. Nobody that I happened to meet was prepared to discuss whether or not the tyrannical road along which they were at present walking was certain to lead to ideal liberty as understood by Communists.”

“Though it is claimed that the present Government is a dictatorship of the proletariat, it is nothing of the kind. It is a dictatorship of the Communist party, which represents less than 1% of the population…. Elections are more or less a farce. One found discontent in most of the factories one visited, and as far as one could learn the Red Army was as ready to turn out against the proletariat in case of a strike as the army in any capitalist country… The Kronstadt meeting [i.e. revolt] was a protest against prevailing conditions… Kronstadt shook the government and free trade in farm produce [i.e. the NEP] was granted almost immediately afterwards…. There were no shops until the middle of May… since then a few have been re-opened and sell bread and eggs. The markets have been re-opened and one can purchase practically anything in them. There are at least half a million people visiting these markets every day.”

“Like most American cities they have many things in Russia which are ‘the best in the world’… Here is not only nationalism but imperialism. The Russian laughs at the Estonian language as the British are accustomed to laugh at the Irish language. It is vulgar, horrible etc. I am not sure therefore that self-determination for Ireland would raise much enthusiasm in official circles. Anything they are likely to do for Ireland will be done in the hope of helping to break up the British Empire and thus further world revolution.”

While waiting for so long to see Chicherin and Litvinov, McCartan volunteered to work as a doctor, a skill which was then in desperately short supply after the bourgeoisie had been largely expelled from the country. “They said they would see the medical officer of health about it but, though they had the phone at hand, it was postponed and postponed until I got tired inquiring about it and assumed that they had some reason for not allowing me to do such work…. I [concluded] they were afraid that I would learn more than was good for me.”

McCartan’s only other idea of how to be useful in Moscow was to make propaganda for Irish independence. But he discovered two fundamental obstacles. First: “There is some interest in Ireland but the revolution in Ireland was a national one and hence it was concluded had little or nothing in common with Communism or ‘world revolution’.”

The second obstacle was that propaganda which, by definition, appeals to the ordinary people was irrelevant to McCartan’s purpose which was to gain official recognition. In despair he writes close to the end: “The people of Russia do not count and hence it makes no difference what they think. The present government is not responsive to them.”