YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – On Oct. 5, 1919, Youngstown welcomed one of Ireland’s most legendary – and polarizing – political figures as he toured the country to galvanize American support for Ireland’s independence from Great Britain.
“What I seek in America is that the United States recognize – in Ireland’s case – Ireland’s right to national self-determination,” thundered Eamon de Valera before a crowd of 10,000 people at the Idora Park pavilion, according to an account by the Youngstown Vindicator. “That and nothing more.”
A year earlier, de Valera was serving time in an English prison, arrested on charges he and others had conspired with Germany to assist in the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. In February 1919, he escaped from Lincoln jail after a blank key was smuggled into the prison by way of a fruitcake, and then filed accordingly to fit the locks of the prison.
Nine months later – de Valera’s status as an Irish patriot cemented in part by the legendary escape – the rebel found himself addressing thousands at the outdoor event. It was organized by leading Youngstown Irish-Americans such as Joseph Curran, attorneys Thomas McNamara and Thomas Muldoon, the Rev. John R. Kenney, and John Gallagher, who operated a wholesale liquor business.
“I am in America as the official head of the republic established by the will of the Irish people,” de Valera said. He justified Ireland’s cause by framing it within an American historical narrative that all could understand.
“The degree of unanimity on this issue is higher than that claimed by the American colonies when they declared their independence and decided they would no longer allow themselves to be exploited by England in the interests of her imperialism,” de Valera said. Throughout the speech, he likened the efforts of himself and other Irish leaders to George Washington and America’s founders.
The right to Irish self-determination, he said, was also consistent with the aims of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points – his vision of a postwar world that was confounded by opposition from isolationists in this country and by England, France and Italy following World War I.
De Valera was well known throughout Irish-American circles. Born in New York City to an impoverished Irish mother, he was placed in an orphanage until the age of 2 before an uncle took him to Ireland where he was reared by grandparents. He was educated there and became a teacher before becoming involved in politics.
In 1916, de Valera participated in the Easter Rebellion, the ill-fated effort of Irish rebels to seize control of the government in Dublin and other parts of the country. British forces subdued the rebellion within a week and its leaders – including de Valera – were arrested and sentenced to death. Fourteen were executed. De Valera’s sentence, however, was commuted because of several factors, including his status as an American citizen by birth.
In response to the executions, in 1918, Ireland’s Sinn Fein party gained a majority of seats in the Dail Erieanne, or Irish parliament. De Valera was named leader of the party and president of the Dail.
By 1919, he hoped to carry the cause of Irish independence to the United States, where he was met with rousing receptions.
During the Youngstown event, Thomas McNamara presented the assembly with a list of resolutions introduced by local Irish-American societies urging the United States to recognize Ireland’s independence. One resolution advocated that the U.S. government “by the continued use of its moral influence, have Ireland’s demand for freedom recognized.”
That same evening, de Valera was honored at a banquet at the Ohio Hotel that was attended by more than 500. “There was an outburst of applause that continued for 10 minutes,” when de Valera entered the ballroom, the Vindicator reported.
De Valera’s visit to Youngstown was a logical stop on a tour that included 40 cities across the country. As the second decade of the 20th century came to a close, Youngstown ranked as the 50th largest city in the country with a population of 132,358. By that time, much of the Irish population in Youngstown was second- or third- generation. Another 1,578 were noted as Irish-born during the 1920 census.
Youngstown was also a good target to raise money for the Irish cause because the region’s factories were ranked collectively second only to Pittsburgh in steel production.
But De Valera’s timing may not have been good. The country was in the midst of a contentious steel strike and Youngstown’s mills were shut down.
There is no record as to how much money de Valera raised on his stop in Youngstown, if any.
De Valera continued his tour across the United States the following day, heading to Akron, Canton and then to the Midwest and the West before turning to cities in the South and eventually a third trip to New York.
Elsewhere, de Valera’s tour was met with wild, supportive crowds – 60,000 attended in Fenway Park in Boston. Similarly sized crowds greeted him at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
But his relationship with leading Irish-Americans was complicated. Powerful figures in New York City that included John Devoy and Judge Daniel Cohalan, members of the Friends of Irish Freedom, bulked at de Valera’s plan to raise $10 million by issuing bonds. They also resented de Valera’s attempts to place the Irish question before the platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
To powerful Irish-Americans, de Valera’s actions infringed on U.S. sovereignty and eventually led to them splitting with the Sinn Fein leader. De Valera ended the tour in December 1920 and returned to Ireland.
De Valera’s U.S. visit was just as contentious among rebel leaders in Ireland because many resented his absence while that country waged its military campaign against England. As de Valera toured the United States, rebel leaders such as Michael Collins spearheaded a brutal guerilla war against British forces and bore the brunt of the fighting. By 1921, Collins’ war had forced Britain to the bargaining table and formal negotiations began with Britain over the fate of Ireland.
In December, the Anglo-Irish Treaty declaring Ireland a free state was negotiated by Collins and signed by the delegates. De Valera, who was absent, opposed the agreement because it partitioned the country and recognized the six northern counties as remaining under British rule. He and Collins, once friends, were now political enemies as de Valera led the fight against the treaty. The schism resulted in the Irish Civil War, which culminated in a victory for the pro-treaty faction.
Collins was killed in an ambush in 1922. De Valera formed another political party, Fianna Fail, to initiate constitutional changes. He served three terms as prime minister of Ireland, or Taoiseach, between 1937 and 1959, and served as president between 1959 and 1973. He died in 1975.
Ireland’s road to full independence ended in 1949, when the country was officially declared a republic. For a brief moment in 1919, a leg of that road ran through Youngstown.
Pictured: Eamon de Valera visited Youngstown in 1919 as part of a tour to raise money.