St. Patrick’s Day in America, 1920: Politics and poetry

The Irish War of Independence had grow increasingly violent by St. Patrick’s Day, 1920. In America, Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera continued his effort to raise money and political support for the Irish cause. His St. Patrick’s Day message was quoted in many U.S. newspapers. It said, in part:

Sons and Daughters of the Gael, wherever you be today, in the name of the Motherland, greeting! … Never before have the scattered children of Eire had such an opportunity for noble service. Today you can serve not only Ireland, but the world. … Those of our race who are citizens of this mighty land of America, whose thought will help to mould the policy of the leader among Nations–how much the world looks to you this St. Patrick’s Day–hopes in you–trusts in you. You can so easily accomplish that which is needed. You have only to have the will–the way is so clear. What would not the people in the old land give for the power which is yours!1

Éamon de Valera

New York City’s Irish community “answered the call to arms” in de Valera’s message “by throwing the greatest parade in the history of a city that held its first in 1766.”2 The Irish leader attended the March 17 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Patrick Hayes, who was appointed to the post a year earlier. Both men were seated together at the parade reviewing stand in front of the landmark church, along with New York City Mayor John F. Hylan and New York State Gov. Al Smith.

By odd coincidence, considering the Irish visitor, all four of these honorary parade-goers were New York natives. De Valera was born in the city in 1882 to a Irish immigrant mother and a Spanish father, who died three years later. The toddler was sent to Ireland to be raised in County Limerick by his relatives.

Any small talk about their shared birthplace, however, was secondary to the simmering tensions between de Valera and the American-based Friends of Irish Freedom, which was led by Gaelic American newspaper editor John Devoy and New York Supreme Court Judge Daniel F. Cohalan. At issue were disputes over control of the money being collected for Ireland and the efforts to influence American political leaders and U.S. policy.

None of this was on public view for the big day. As Hannigan writes:

At the end of St. Patrick’s Day, when Ireland held the city in its thrall, the impression may have been that the various combatants had put aside their personal grievances for the greater good. Though de Valera and Cohalan were at the same dinner by evening’s end with the appearance all was well, the truth was much different. The two men seemed to picture of professionalism that night, the politicking, scheming and plotting continued backstage. It would come to a boil very soon.”3

***

For St. Patrick’s Day 1920, Denis Aloysius McCarthy released a poem that emphasized the historic connections between Ireland and America, especially in the struggle for freedom. Like de Valera’s message, “St. Patrick’s Day” also was circulated in U.S. papers.4 It including these stanzas:

When America first uprose
And flung defiance at her foes
No laggards were the Irish then
In purse or purpose, means or men.

And ever since in all our wars,
Wherever gleamed the Stripes and Stars,
The loyal Irish, heart and hand,
Have fought for this beloved land.

So in the springtime of the year
When St. Patrick’s Day again is here,
T’is not alone on Irish breasts
The spray of Ireland’s shamrocks rests.

Our great Republic’s heart
Reveals today its tend’rer part,
As, smiling in her state serene,
She wears a touch of Ireland’s green.

Denis A. McCarthy

This poem should not confused with McCarthy’s “St. Patrick’s Day Memories” , from his 1906 collection, Voices From Erin.

The poet and journalist emigrated from Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, to America in 1886. He eventually settled in Boston. The Boston Globe did not mention him as having strong feelings about Irish independence in its August 1931 news obituary.

  1. See the full message in de Valera’s handwriting, as published in The Irish Press, Philadelphia, March 20, 1920.
  2. Hannigan, Dave, De Valera in America: The Rebel President and the Making of Irish Independence. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010. p. 128. The official New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade website dates the parade to 1762.
  3. Ibid., p.130.
  4. See the full poem as published in the Kentucky Irish American, March 20, 1920.

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