‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America
One of the more entertaining stories from America’s history involves a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand that some might consider downright jesuitical. It is also a fitting tale for this week, when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The occasion was a visit of Éamon de Valera, a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, to the United States in 1919. Unlike most of his co-conspirators in the Rising, “Dev” had escaped execution at the hands of the British after the rebellion was brutally crushed, in part because he had been born in Manhattan and was an American citizen. In 1919, de Valera (by then a prominent Irish politician) came to the United States to raise money for the Irish independence cause and to campaign for U.S. recognition of the Irish Republic.
Éamon de Valera: “English rule has never been for the benefit of Ireland, has never been intended for the benefit of Ireland."
Between July and August of that year, “the Irish Lincoln” (who had to be smuggled in and out of the country because of British attempts to detain him and prevent the visit) traveled over 6,000 miles, criss-crossing the United States by rail and speaking to huge crowds of Irish Americans and other sympathizers, including sellout crowds at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The British government had made clear that they wanted no honors offered to de Valera during his visit. No fans of America anyway (the magazine was banned in Ireland at the time, in part because the magazine’s editor in chief, Richard Tierney, was a vehement critic of British rule), British diplomats objected when it was discovered that America’s editors planned on fêting de Valera at a dinner at their Jesuit residence. Former editor in chief Matt Malone, S.J., tells the tale in a 2015 article:
The British did not want the Jesuits to host de Valera for dinner? So Father Tierney did not offer de Valera dinner. He offered him a modest reception instead. One that took place in the dining room…with some very heavy hors d’oeuvres, served in multiple courses that were paired with wines. And there were Irish musicians playing rebel songs. And there were Irish republican signage and decorations everywhere. At the conclusion of the evening, all agreed that it was the most elegant and entertaining non-dinner an Irishman had ever enjoyed.
Shortly before he landed in the United States, de Valera had sent the editors of America an article protesting against English rule and calling for recognition of the Irish Republic, “Ireland’s Right to Independence.” Published in the June 7, 1919, issue of the magazine, the article argued that the principles of self-determination set forth by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and laid out in the founding documents of the League of Nations should be followed in the case of Ireland as well.
“English rule has never been for the benefit of Ireland, has never been intended for the benefit of Ireland. It has done all in its power to isolate Ireland from Europe and America, to retard her development, and to deprive her of a national civilization,” de Valera wrote. However, he noted, the Irish nation would not seek revenge if freed of her bonds. “The ambition of Ireland will be to recreate that period of her ancient independence of which she is proudest, when she gave freely of her great treasures to every nation within her reach, and entertained no thought of recompense or of selfish advantage,” de Valera wrote.
De Valera went on to found the Fianna Fáil party in 1926, then serve as Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland from 1932–48, 1951–54 and 1957–59, as well as President of Ireland from 1959–73. He died in 1975 at the age of 92. While he was not beloved by all Irish (readers of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake might catch the pun in mentions of the “devil era”), America’s writers and editors couldn’t get enough of him.
Matt Malone: "At the conclusion of the evening, all agreed that it was the most elegant and entertaining non-dinner an Irishman had ever enjoyed."
A profile of de Valera by James Daly in a 1920 issue had this to say: “Not often have genius, romance, personality and consecration to a noble cause contributed to supply so much matter for popular admiration of a kind peculiarly in harmony with our national ideals.” However, Daly noted, de Valera’s appearance was unassuming for such a genius. “He possesses none of the thrasonical splendor of a Garibaldi,” Daly wrote, and lacked “[Irish hero Daniel] O’Connell’s majesty of presence; his theatrical cloak; his flashing eyes; his eloquent inspiration; his thundering voice, as of a protagonist in an Athenian tragedy, rolling and reverberating through the theater of Dionysus even to the uppermost tiers of spectators.” De Valera, alas, had “no leonine head nor Promethean sturdiness of limb and gesture.”
Well, no one ever accused the Irish of lacking rhetorical flourish. (Oh, and by the way? Thrasonical: of, relating to, resembling, or characteristic of Thraso; bragging, boastful.)
Daly’s essay was followed by many more over the years, including a 1936 article by the famed “Hollywood Priest,” the American Jesuit Daniel Lord, upon his return from a visit to Ireland. “I sat and talked with de Valera and felt that, with the Holy Father, he was the sanest, most democratic statesman in modern Europe,” Lord wrote. Even criticisms of the Taoiseach, he argued, were the fault of the British: “De Valera is criticized because he has not in a few months completely restored to prosperity a land drained of its resources for centuries.”
Recent decades have brought more measured coverage, with regular America contributor Tom Deignan noting in a 2016 review of Ronan Fanning’s Éamon De Valera that “history has not been kind to Éamon de Valera.” Nevertheless, the man who “was Ireland” (to quote 1993 biographer Tim Pat Coogan) remains “Ireland’s arguably most consequential public figure,” one whose shortcomings must “be reconciled with his subsequent greatness.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Readers of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake might catch the pun in mentions of the “devil era.”
Our poetry selection for this week is “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
Former Jesuit, failed Senate candidate and Nixon speechwriter: the colorful life of John McLaughlin
The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
James T. Keane
Correction (March 15): A previous version of this article stated that Éamon de Valera was born in Brooklyn. He was born in Manhattan.