When bigots tried to ban Dev from Birmingham, Alabama

Éamon de Valera faced one of the most hostile receptions of his U.S. tour to raise money and political support for Ireland during an April 21, 1920, stop in Birmingham, Alabama.

De Valera in 1919

An American Legion post in the southern industrial city urged Alabama Gov. Thomas E. Kilby to declare de Valera persona non grata, in part because Irish separatists had sought German assistance during the late world war, when America allied with Britain. A Pennsylvania chapter of the patriotic veterans organization began grumbling about de Valera as he visited Pittsburgh in October 1919. Similar rhetoric surfaced a month later in Los Angeles

Now, however, the strongest opposition to de Valera’s appearance was driven by “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) hatred of Catholics that prevailed in Birmingham during the second and third decades of the twentieth century,” David B. Franklin wrote in a 2004 History Ireland article. “The Irish-American population in particular was an insidious threat, [because unlike blacks] that ethnic group mixed so freely with the WASP majority in all situations except religion.”

Kilby declined to grant the Legion’s requested declaration and steered away from overt anti-Catholicism. Instead, he released a statement that said the Sinn Féin leader should be deported by the U.S. State Department. And he suggested that some “patriotic Americans” were “seriously misled” in their “zeal for a cause which involves the internal affairs of a friendly nation [Britain].”1

Frank J. Thompson, state chairman of the American Commission on Irish Independence, rebuked Kilby on grounds of patriotism and politics:

The time is coming, whether Governor Kilby realizes it or not, when the same moral law that governs man shall govern nations and when robber nations, like the burglarious individual, will have to realize the truth of the principle and be governed by it. … [He should] familiarize himself more thoroughly with the attributes of a real American and the history of our country, before he attempts to catalogue or classify those who sympathize with the aspirations of the Irish people.”2

Thompson, leader of Alabama’s Irish bond drive effort, a few days earlier had welcomed de Valera to Mobile, the state’s more heavily Catholic port city, where there were no protests. Despite the agitation in Birmingham, de Valera was allowed to make his speech. He was joined by Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister James Alexander Hamilton Irwin of County Antrim, who said that Irish freedom was not only a Catholic concern.

Anti-Catholic bigots tried to block Éamon de Valera from making an April 1920 speech at this Birmingham, Alabama, playhouse, then the Jefferson Theatre, later renamed Erlanger. Birmingham Public Library

Kilby and the Legion got more press attention before de Valera’s visit than the speech received afterward, according to a review of available digital newspaper archives. The New York Times reported de Valera “was greeted with mingled applause and shouts of ‘throw him out’ ” and that “objectors caused considerable confusion inside the crowded theatre.”3 The Irish Press, the Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to Sinn Féin leadership in Ireland, declared “a great throng crowded Jefferson Theatre to its utmost capacity … despite an organized attempt of bigots to prevent the meeting…”4

The Birmingham episode received only minimal attention in Irish newspapers, which focused more coverage on the deadly tornadoes that swept through Alabama and other U.S. southern states in the same week.

  1. “Kilby Would Deport President De Valera”, The Mongtomery (Alabama) Advertiser, April 20, 1920.
  2. “Governor’s Letter on De Valera Challenged”, The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, April 22, 1920.
  3. “Cheer and Hiss De Valera”, The New York Times, April 22, 1920.
  4. Great Crowd Hears Him in Birmingham”, The Irish Press, May 1, 1920.

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