Éamon de Valera’s October 1919 visit to Pittsburgh

This post fits two ongoing series: “American Reporting of Irish Independence” and “Pittsburgh Irish.” Check out my earlier stories from each link. MH

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De Valera in 1919

Éamon de Valera had been touring America for three months when reports of his upcoming stop in Pittsburgh appeared in the city’s newspapers. The Sept. 18 Post-Gazette announced a Sept. 26 visit, but the next day told readers “no date has been set.” On Sept. 28, the newspaper reported the Irish leader would arrive in the city on Oct. 3. 

The Daily Post announced the itinerary:

Upon his arrival Friday evening he will be escorted to the William Penn Hotel by prominent friends of Irish freedom. After dinner he will attend a meeting of representatives of the Irish American societies of Western Pennsylvania in the ballroom … Admission to this meeting will be by card. On Saturday he will attend exercises at Duquesne University, where he will have conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws. On Saturday evening he will address two meetings, on at the Syria Mosque and the other at Memorial hall. … While de Valera is speaking in one hall the meeting in the other will be addressed by either Frank P. Walsh, former chairman of the war labor board and now chairman of the American commission on Irish independence, or by Harry J. Boland, secretary of the Sinn Fein organization in Ireland.1

This event would cap more than a year of large, passionate public meetings in the city focused on Irish independence. In May 1918, Pittsburgh’s Irish community protested British military conscription in Ireland, six months before the end of the Great War. In December 1918, they rallied again to support Ireland’s cause at the post-war Paris peace conference. In June 1919, a “record-breaking crowd” of 5,000 gathered for a “non-denominational self-determination mass meeting where speakers discussed the claims of Ireland to conduct its own affairs without interference.”2

Domestic Opposition 

The same edition of the Daily Post that published de Valera’s Pittsburgh itinerary also reported on “Ulster Day” in the city, a seventh anniversary commemoration of the Ulster Covenant against home rule in Ireland. North of Ireland Protestants opposed this milder form of political autonomy before the war; now they disparaged the independent government sought by de Valera and the republican Sinn Féin party.

The Ulster Society of Pittsburgh gathered at the Smithfield Street Methodist Episcopal Church, where Rev. E. M. McFadden preached on the history of “Ulsterites in Ireland.” It is unclear from newspaper accounts whether McFadden mentioned de Valera’s upcoming visit, only that he orated about how the spirit of prior generations of Ulstermen “finds a parallel in the accentuating motives that dominate the minds of their descendants in their continuation of the fight today.”3 

Two month earlier, McFadden organized a resolution inviting unionist leader Sir Edward Carson to the United States to “offset the propaganda for Irish independence.”4 In December, McFadden traveled to New York City to meet the visiting delegation of Protestant clergy, sans Carson, from Ulster.5

Secular opposition to de Valera also mounted the week of his Pittsburgh visit. In Harrisburg, 200 miles to the east, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Legion passed a resolution that declared New York City-born de Valera “was an American and should have served in the army of navy and that he should not be accepted or recognized by any city of the United States.” The patriotic veterans organization, chartered by Congress a month earlier, adopted the motion to considerable cheering, despite attempts to speak against it.6

His Arrival

De Valera reached Pittsburgh’s Union Station about 8 p.m. Oct. 3, more than an hour late. Such evening arrivals were by design, “so as to facilitate demonstrations” that working people could not attend during the day.7 Boland and Walsh accompanied de Valera, as advanced, and they were cheered by a crowd of about 5,000. Two columns of uniformed veterans and cadets flanked the path to 100 waiting automobiles, but “it was almost impossible for police to clear a passageway” for the motorcade to make the half-mile trip to the William Penn Hotel.8

In two speeches the following evening, de Valera compared Ireland to the 13 American colonies.

We ask but one thing for ourselves–freedom. We have no fight with Great Britain on other subjects. Let us govern ourselves as we see fit, have some say in the making of laws which we must obey, and Ireland will rise among the great nations of the world, a credit to the land that gave us freedom.9

The Daily Post reported that de Valera was “warmly greeted by thousands of Irish sympathizers” who lined up for blocks an hour before the speech and filled the overflow hall. Their “wildly enthusiastic demonstrations testif[ied] to the popularity of the cause.”10 The newspaper reports do not mention any counter protests.

The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to the Sinn Féin government in Ireland, devoted its Oct. 9 issue to de Valera’s two-day visit to that city prior to his Pittsburgh stop. The Pittsburgh coverage appeared a week later and emphasized the two halls needed to accommodate “the great crowd … overwhelmed with joy, many standing on their seats and all cheering and applauding several minutes” upon his arrival.11

Undated photo of the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. The building opened in 1916, three years before de Valera’s visit. It was demolished in 1991.

The nationalist weekly also reported the comments of Alexander P. Moore, publisher of the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper and one of the event co-chairmen. Unsurprisingly, the city’s other dailies were silent about the comments of the rival publisher. Moore downplayed the religious divide in Ireland.

“I am a living denial of the statement that the Irish cause is a religious question,” he said. “I am the son of an Ulster Protestant whose father was driven out of Ireland because he fought for Irish freedom.”12 

Return Visits

Before his Pittsburgh speeches, De Valera made a brief visit to Duquesne University, but he was unable to attend the announced ceremony due to a schedule “misunderstanding.”13 He returned to Pittsburgh eight months later to give an address and accept the honorary degree from the Catholic college.14

This second visit came shortly after de Valera’s failure to convince the U.S. Republican Party to adopt a pro-Irish plank at its national convention in Chicago, and before a similar effort fell short at the Democratic convention in San Francisco. Animosity deepened between factions of Irish America. Some U.S. newspapers reported de Valera had “outstayed his welcome in the United States” and was about to leave America.15 In Pittsburgh, de Valera told reporters: “I will not leave this county until I am definitely recalled by the Irish parliament or deported.”16 He remained in America until December 1920.

De Valera’s reception at the Catholic university was warmed by a special connection to Ireland:

The University thus honours him not merely in consideration of this scholarship, which is widely acknowledged, not merely out of sympathy with the cause which he represents, but also as a tribute to one who has attained eminence and has been associated both as pupil and teacher with a sister college, namely, Blackrock College in Dublin.17

De Valera returned to Pittsburgh in March 1930, then an out-of-power leader of the opposition Fianna Fáil political party and chancellor of the National University of Ireland. He was in the United States to raise money for a newspaper venture, The Irish Press, which a year later would begin to publish in Dublin. The same-name Philadelphia paper that reported his 1919 U.S. visit ceased publication in 1922.

De Valera’s 1920 and 1930 trips to Pittsburgh didn’t generate nearly as much excitement or press coverage as in October 1919. The 1930 visit came within a decade of the war-ending treaty that created the 26-county Irish Free State, shy of the republic de Valera and his supporters had sought in 1919. Six counties in Ulster were partitioned as Northern Ireland and remained part of Great Britain. A bloody civil war divided the Irish in the south. 

“Irish Americans became utterly disillusioned” by the two-year civil war and “enthusiasm for the nationalist movement in Ireland dissipated.18 In America, as in Ireland, many would blame de Valera for the division that lingered for decades to come.

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In addition to cited newspapers, these books also were consulted:

  • Dolan, James P., The Irish Americans: A History. Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
  • Hannigan, Dave, De Valera in America: The Rebel President and the Making of Irish Independence. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010.
  • McCartan, Patrick, With De Valera In America. Brentano, New York, 1932.
  • McCullagh, David, De Valera, Rise 1882-1932. Gill Books, New York, 2017.
  • O’Doherty, Katherine, Assignment America: De Valera’s Mission to the United States. De Tanko Publishers, New York, 1957.
  • O’Neil, Gerard F., Pittsburgh Irish: Erin on the Three Rivers. The History Press, Charleston, S.C., 2015.
  1. “De Valera and Party to Be Here Friday”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 29, 1919, p. 7.
  2. “Record Crowd Fills Mosque At Irish Meet” , Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 2, 1919, p. 1.
  3. “Ulster Day Is Observed At Services” , Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 29, 1919, p. 5.
  4. “Sir Edward Carson Asked To Come Here”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 17, 1919, p. 2.
  5. “Dr. McFadden To Welcome Ministers”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 2, 1919, p. 8; and O’Doherty, Assignment America, p. 114.
  6. “American Legion Ends Convention in Harrisburg: Pass Resolution Scoring the President of Ireland For Conduct During the War” , The (Lancaster, Pa.) News-Journal, Oct. 6, 1919, p. 6.
  7. McCullagh, Rise, p. 169, Note 53, citing Éamon de Valera Papers, “Observations with respect to Tour,” P150/965.
  8. “5,000 Cheer De Valera on Arrival Here”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Oct. 4, 1919, p. 7.
  9. “Irish Fight For Freedom Is Described by De Valera”, The Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 5, pgs. 1 & 4.
  10. “Irish Leader Greeted by Enthusiastic Audience at Syria Mosque”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Oct. 5, 1919, pgs. 1 & 2.
  11. “U.S. Under British Rule Would Be Like Ireland”, The Irish Press, Oct. 16, 1919, p. 5.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Misunderstanding Costs De Valera Degree of LL.D. At Duquesne University”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 5, 1919, p. 2.; and “Visit of the Irish President”, Duquesne Monthly, Vol. 27, No. 2, November 1919.
  14. “The Irish Question” by Eamon De Valera, Duquesne Monthly, Vol. 27, No. 10, July 1920.
  15. “The Conspiracy” editorial in The Irish Press, June 26, 1920, p. 4, quoting The New York World, June 14, 1920; and McCartan, With De Valera, pgs. 196-97.
  16. “De Valera Receives Degree Here Tonight”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 22, 1920, p. 7.
  17. O’Doherty, Assignment America, p. 171.
  18. Dolan, The Irish Americans, p. 204-205.

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