One hundred years ago, Eamon De Valera began the new year in the United States of America.
He had arrived there the previous June, coming in his capacity as president of the first Irish legislature to lobby for recognition of the emerging Irish state.
The first legislature was actually elected before Ireland gained independence from Great Britain. Twenty-seven of the candidates who won seats to represent Ireland in the British parliamentary election of 1918 instead took their seats in Dublin, not London, in January 1919 with De Valera as president. Many elected representatives were in prison at the time for their roles in the 1916 Uprising, and others went to their seats in the British House of Commons. (It was not until 1922 that Britain recognized the fledgling state, and Ireland did not become a republic until 1949 when it left the British Commonwealth.
The nation’s long and precarious fight for freedom meant that other nations needed persuading to see it as a free and sovereign state. The USA was seen by the Irish as one of the most important because of its size and influence, and also because of the strong links forged by wave after wave of Irish immigrants. The USA’s own history as British colony that fought to become free could only add to the bond between the two places.
De Valera’s goal in going to the USA was to drum up support for Ireland’s fight for freedom. His focus was on building public support, particularly among Irish-Americans as they were an important voting bloc, and raising badly needed funds. And of course, he wanted the public recognition of Ireland to influence President Woodrow Wilson to support Irish freedom.
Building the New York Connection
De Valera spent the bulk of his time in New York City, which was also his birthplace. He was born in Manhattan to an Irish mother and Spanish Basque father. When his father died when he was two, his mother sent him to her family back in County Limerick. He literally owed his life to his American citizenship; it prevented the British from executing him for his role in the 1916 Uprising.
His arrival in New York was low key as he had just escaped prison in Britain, but after a trip to Philadelphia and a visit to his mother in Rochester, NY, he launched his public campaign. De Valera held a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on June 23, 1919 that drew more than a thousand people including reporters from around the world. The following month, he sold out Madison Square Garden and crowds thronged the streets outside.
Then January 1920 marked a turning point. New York Mayor John Hyland hosted a reception in De Valera’s honor on the same scale as one he’d held for the Prince of Wales. With this, Dev gained the political recognition the movement desperately needed. He toured the country, drawing huge crowds in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
If He Could Make It There…
Financially too, his time in the USA was an enormous success. In the 18 months he was there, Dev raised more than five million dollars. That is a massive sum now, but at the time it was astonishing. Controversially, he sold bonds with the clear understanding that the Irish state was not liable to repay them until and unless the fight for freedom was won.
De Valera’s efforts in the USA also included building bridges to other communities suffering from imperialism. He became close to the Friends of Freedom for India, telling them “patriots of India, your cause is identical with ours.”
Dev also gained the support of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who was living in New York and leading the Universal Negro Improvement Association. New York was a city of immigrants, and that gave De Valera the opportunity to reach out beyond the USA from his base there. This helped gain global attention for the cause of Irish freedom.
He returned to Ireland in December of 1920 having accomplished much, including attracting the attention of the international press. Dev also stirred up some controversy and division in Irish-American circles. He made enemies as well as friends. Ultimately, he failed to win over officialdom, but he did raise a huge amount of money, educated the public about the situation in Ireland under British rule and built alliances with other groups seeking freedom.