President Éamon de Valera visits Butte, Montana, on July 25, 1919, during his American Tour of 1919-20. Montana Lieutenant Governor W. W. McDowell meets his train and rides with de Valera through the streets to where de Valera then addresses over 10,000 people who have come out to hear him. The next day, de Valera addresses a joint session of the Montana State Legislature.
De Valera’s eventful 1919 begins in Lincoln Jail and ends in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, the largest and most luxurious hotel in the world. Smuggled aboard the SS Lapland in Liverpool in June, he sails for the United States during the closing stages of the Paris Peace Conference. As London’s Sunday Express complains in August 1919, “there is more Irish blood in America than in Ireland,” making the United States the obvious destination for a sustained propaganda and fundraising mission.
After his highly-publicised American debut at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, the self-styled “President of the Irish Republic” embarks on the first leg of what is to be an eighteen month tour of the United States. The purpose of his mission is twofold: to gain formal recognition of the Irish Republic and to raise funds via a bond issue to support the independence movement and the newly established Dáil Éireann.
Between July and August 1919, de Valera and his entourage travel over 6,000 miles from New York to San Francisco, addressing enormous crowds at dozens of venues. He fills Madison Square Garden to capacity and receives a thirty-minute standing ovation from 25,000 people in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Twice as many people fill Boston’s Fenway Park on June 29, cheering the arrival of the “Irish Lincoln.” The Sinn Féin envoys also visit less obvious Irish communities of the period, such as Scranton, Savannah, New Orleans and Kansas City. For de Valera’s personal secretary, Seán Nunan, the public meeting in Butte, Montana is like “an election meeting at home – there were so many first-generation Irishmen working on the mines – mainly from around Allihies in West Cork.” In San Francisco de Valera dedicates a statue of Robert Emmet by Irish-born sculptor Jerome Connor in Golden Gate Park, a replica of which stands sentinel in St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin. This is one of many symbolic gestures linking the American and Irish struggles for independence played out before the flashing bulbs of the ubiquitous press photographers. On August 15 The Cork Examiner notes that the enthusiastic American exchanges “indicate that few public missionaries from other lands – possibly only Mr. Parnell – have ever had such receptions as were accorded to the Sinn Féin leader.”
De Valera’s team deserves credit for the incredible logistical triumph that is the U.S. tour. As chief organiser, Liam Mellows travels ahead to each city, ensuring a suitable reception is prepared and a venue secured for a mass meeting. Seán Nunan is de Valera’s fastidious personal secretary and Harry Boland, Sinn Féin TD for South Roscommon and Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) envoy, is at his side troubleshooting, speechmaking and shaking hands. As the tour progresses, de Valera’s supporting cast expands to include, Kerry-born Kathleen O’Connell who becomes de Valera’s full-time personal secretary from 1919.
The next stage of de Valera’s American odyssey begins on October 1, 1919 in Philadelphia, a city with a rich Irish heritage and rife with symbolism of America’s struggle for independence. Over the next three weeks, de Valera and his team travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific seaboard and back again, delivering seventeen major public speeches and a host of smaller ones to aggregate crowds of over half a million.
The pace is relentless as the Irish team makes its way through middle America. De Valera is received as a visiting dignitary at multiple state legislatures and presented with honorary degrees from six American universities. In line with his secondary objective to foster the interest of “wealthy men of the race in the industrial development of Ireland,” he addresses the Chambers of Commerce in a number of cities and arranges a personal meeting with Henry Ford, the son of an Irish emigrant, during his visit to Detroit in October. In the same month in Wisconsin, he is made a Chief of the Chippewa Nation, an honour he later says meant more to him than all the freedoms of all the cites he was ever given. It is not surprising that by the time they reach Denver on October 30, The Irish World reports that “the President looked tired.” Still, he musters the energy to make high profile visits to Portland, Los Angeles and San Diego before beginning the return journey to New York at the end of November.
After a short break for Christmas, the Irish team prepares for the launch of the Bond Certificate Drive. A week-long frenzy of publicity kicks off on January 17 at New York City Hall where Mayor John F. Hylan presents de Valera with the Freedom of the City. During the spring of 1920, de Valera addresses the Maryland General Assembly at Annapolis before making the swing through the southern states of America.
It is not all plain sailing for the Sinn Féin representatives in America. The tour of the west coast in late 1919 sees increasing tensions with American patriotic bodies who are critical of de Valera’s perceived pro-German stance during World War I. He is heckled during a speech in Seattle and a tricolour is ripped from his car in Portland by members of the American Legion. The trip through the southern states in the spring of 1920 coincides with rising American anti-immigration and anti-Catholic nativism. A small number of counter demonstrations are organised by right-wing Americans. Most notably, members of the Ku Klux Klan make unwelcome appearances at several rallies in the American south, making clear their opposition to de Valera’s presence.
The Irish envoys also contend with antagonism from the leaders of Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF), the broad-based popular front of Clan na Gael headed by veteran Fenian John Devoy and Judge Daniel Cohalan. The FOIF uses its significant resources to finance de Valera’s tour and facilitate the Bond Certificate Drive, but behind the scenes there are significant personality clashes and tensions over tactics.
The increasingly public dispute comes to a head in a row over strategies at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June 1920. Drawing on his influential political contacts, Cohalan persuades the Republican Party to include Irish self-determination in their election platform. However, much to Cohalan’s fury, de Valera leads a separate delegation to the Convention and insists on a resolution calling for recognition of the Irish Republic. The result is that two resolutions are submitted to the Platform Committee, which indicates dissension in the Irish ranks and gives the Committee the excuse to include neither in the final platform. After de Valera also fails to secure the endorsement of the Democratic convention in San Francisco in June, it is clear that the Irish question will not be a significant factor in the ensuing presidential election. Relations between the FOIF and de Valera reach a new low. In November 1920, de Valera makes the final break with the FOIF and sets up a new organisation, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic.
De Valera is in Washington, D.C. on October 25 when Terence MacSwiney dies after 74 days on hunger strike. Six days later, at the last great meeting of the American tour, 40,000 people fill New York’s Polo Grounds to commemorate MacSwiney’s death. By late November, de Valera knows that it is time to return to Ireland. Smuggled aboard SS Celtic in New York harbour on December 10, he prepares for the nine-day journey home. He had failed to obtain the recognition of the United States Government for the Republic, but his cross-continental tour and associated press coverage raised international awareness and over $5 million for the Irish cause.
(From: An article by Helene O’Keeffe that was first published in the Irish Examiner on March 24, 2020 | Photo: Eamon de Valera, center, president of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, in Butte, Montana, in 1919 to encourage support for Ireland’s fight for independence. Courtesy of Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives)