MacWhite had had a rich life up to that point. He had left Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, exercising a number of professions in northern European countries (teaching in Denmark, where he met his wife, and freelance journalism in Germany, for example), before being sent to report on the first Balkan War of 1912-1913 between Turkey and a fractious coalition of Greeks, Serbians, Bulgarians and Montenegrins. Just before the First World War, he joined the French Foreign Legion, and ended up fighting in the Balkans and at Gallipoli, earning the Croix de Guerre in the process. The French sent MacWhite on a fund-raising effort to the US. MacWhite knew the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, and after the end of the war he offered his services to the movement. Sinn Féin sent him to Paris, where he became part of the team that included Sean T. O’Kelly and George Gavan Duffy who worked out of the Grand Hotel in a propaganda and lobbying campaign designed to swing the international public opinion behind Irish independence during the Paris Peace Treaty negotiations in Versailles.
The efforts of the Irish were only intermittently successful. The French authorities were anxious not to upset their British allies (who engaged in counter-propaganda against the Sinn Féiners in Paris), and actually expelled Gavan Duffy in September 1920.
It may well be that Gavan Duffy’s expulsion was in retaliation for a memorable stunt pulled off by MacWhite three months earlier. On June 27, 1920, a large ceremony was organised to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Admiral Lazare Hoche (the ceremony should have been held two years earlier, but had been delayed by the war). Given Hoche’s command of the ill-fated naval expedition to Bantry Bay in December 1796, the representatives of Ireland’s provisional government felt they could legitimately participate in the ceremony. MacWhite, by now officially the secretary to the Irish delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, went to see the mayor of Versailles, Henri Saint-Mleux. According to MacWhite himself, the mayor gave the Irish the green light to partake in the ceremony but to "act discretely and avoid publicity". Saint-Mleux also apparently agreed with the idea that the Irish should be able to place a bronze palm on Hoche’s statue with the inscription Hommage de l’Irlande reconnaissante, 1798-1920.
It so happened that MacWhite had yet to be officially demobed and could still wear the uniform of an officer of the Foreign Legion. Which is what he did on that Sunday in June 1920. The rest of the story is best left to MacWhite himself.
“As the party with huge wreaths passed the town hall, I slipped out at a slight interval bearing the Irish tribute. As I was dressed in a military uniform, decorated with the Croix de guerre and the fourragère of the Legion of Honour people wondered who I was and what I represented. I was thought of a delegate from the Foreign Legion (…) The large weaths were placed on the right and left of Hoche's statue. I placed my tribute in front at his feet, retreated three steps and gave the military salute, then turned around and saluted those on the platform. After the bands had played the Marsellaise I disappeared into the crowd. My work was done. The British military attaché reported the matter to his chief, and an energetic protest from the British embassy followed to the French foreign office “against the French military authorities for permitting a bronze palm with so-called Irish republican colours to be carried on the military processions”...
A special meeting of the French cabinet was convened to decide on a reply to the British protest, but neither Gavan Duffy nor MacWhite were ever questioned on the matter. However, the mayor of Versailles found himself in hot water. In a newspaper article in the French edition of the New York Herald that carried the headline: ‘Versailles Mayor gives recognition to Fenians’, it was even mentioned that the mayor "was in danger of losing his job". In the event, Saint-Mleux held on to his job and Gavan Duffy was expelled, supposedly for an unrelated incident. But of the “bronze palm” the Irish apparently left in homage to Admiral Hoche there is no sign today.
MacWhite went on to an illustrious career in Irish diplomacy, serving as Ireland’s representative to Switzerland in Berne and the League of Nations in Geneva before serving as minister plenipotentiary in Washington and Rome. In 1955, five years into his retirement, he sold a limited first edition (numbered 143) of James Joyce’s Ulysses for 27 guineas.
BibliographyPapers of Michael MacWhite,
Ref. E UCDA P194, University College Dublin
Ireland & Europe 1919-1989, A Diplomatic and Political History,
Dermot Keogh (1990)