John J. and Edmond I. O’Shea, County Waterford emigrants turned American priests, reunited with a famous friend at the June 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
It was not the brothers first return to Ireland, but this time they arrived with 500 other pilgrims from the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, including Cardinal Dennis J. Doherty, the Pennsylvania-born son of County Mayo parents. More than a million people attended the week-long spectacle of processions and devotional ceremonies, which reinforced Irish-Catholic identity for generations.
In addition to the religious activities, the event also focused international attention on the decade-old Irish Free State and its leader, Éamon de Valera, the O’Shea’s friend. It was in this secular context that the brothers witnessed an ironic moment of Irish history, one that spanned 13 years of de Valera’s political career and their own roles in supporting him and their homeland’s independence. The episode was “so striking in its contrast,” one newspaper reported, “that it could form the theme of as fascinating a novel as any writer of romantic fiction could conceive.”1
Edmond delivered his friend to the reunion location, the deck of an aging ocean liner. John took photos and home movies.
Edmond O’Shea emigrated in 1907 from Dungarvan, age 21, and was ordained in 1912 in Philadelphia.2 John O’Shea arrived in the City of Brotherly Love in 1915, age 31, after working as a newspaper reporter and member of the Dungarvan council. He was ordained by Cardinal Dougherty in 1919.3
The brothers supported the Irish cause from both sides of the Atlantic. They were among “the patriotic priests who encouraged the good work in Philadelphia” during the February 1919 Irish Race Convention, convened in the city soon after the Sinn Féin election victory in Ireland and establishment of a separatist Dáil Éireann parliament. They marched with de Valera later that year when he visited the city during his U.S. tour to raise money and political support for Ireland.4
“We have found a man we can trust,” Edmond declared in The Irish Press, Philadelphia’s pro-independence weekly with direct ties to de Valera and the Dáil.5 He hailed de Valera’s tour as “received with acclaim from coast to coast,”6 though it also had its share of critics.
Home in Ireland in August 1920, Edmond was attacked by two policemen, “thrown down, throttled,” their revolvers drawn, for flying an Irish tricolor flag at Blarney Castle. “Possibly influenced by the crowd which gathered, the police returned to barracks without me,” he swore in testimony to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.7
John spent the first three years of his priesthood at two parishes 100 miles west of Philadelphia’s core Irish community, then second in size only to New York.8 He also spoke against British rule, telling audiences of how soldiers and police dragged innocent Irish from their beds at night and deported them to English prisons without a hearing “for no other reason than that they loved their country.”9
As events in Ireland settled in the mid-1920s after the founding of the Free State, partition of the island, and civil war, John was transferred back to a Philadelphia parish. Cardinal Dougherty tasked Edmond with founding a new parish and building a church in the city.10 Both brothers regularly returned to Ireland to visit family and friends, including de Valera, who held several political roles through the 1920s and early 1930s.11
Pilgrimage to Ireland
Given such backgrounds, it’s not surprising the O’Shea brothers joined the 500 priests, nuns, and laity from the Archdioceses of Philadelphia at the 31st Eucharistic Congress in Ireland. Cardinal Daugherty announced the trip in October 1931. He told his flock it would be “an occasion for a visit to the place of their birth … [or] a golden opportunity to make a journey to the land of their Fathers. … [It was also an] extraordinary opportunity to profess publicly their devotion to the Blessed Eucharistic, and to refresh their souls by a visit to the land whose soil has been hallowed by the blood of martyrs.”12
Over the next nine months details of the pilgrimage were published in the diocesan Catholic Standard & Times, proclaimed at Sunday masses, and promoted by the Thomas Cook & Sons travel agency. Costs started at $250, about $4,700 today,13 rather dear for the third year of the Great Depression. The tour package included using the luxury steamship chartered for the transatlantic journey as the pilgrims’ floating hotel accommodations in Dublin. That ship was the Red Star Line’s S.S. Lapland.
In June 1919, de Valera stowed away aboard the Lapland in Liverpool as he avoided British authorities for his secret mission to America. As I’ve detailed in an earlier post, plenty of other Irish passengers boarded the ship as paying emigrants or tourists, according to the manifest. Built in 1908 in Belfast, the Lapland was a troop transport in the war years immediately prior to de Valera’s crossing. The ship got a makeover in early 1931, as described by the Catholic Standard & Times:
Everything necessary was done to make her physically a most modern cabin liner. Every convenience known to ocean transportation … is available to her passengers. Thus, the Lapland has a delightful newness about her, yet she has retained her former personality that made her so popular with thousands of travelers.14
President Comes Aboard
In Ireland, Edmond O’Shea accompanied de Valera and his two sons on a captain’s launch from the Dublin dockside to the anchored Lapland.15 The Irish Press described the Philadelphia priest as “an old friend of his and a staunch supporter of the Irish cause.” Edmond was a director of The Irish Press Corporation in America, which supported the paper de Valera founded nine months earlier.16
De Valera’s shipboard visit returned the courtesy call Cardinal Dougherty had paid to his government offices a few days prior. The Press revealed:
During his conversation with [Cardinal Dougherty], Mr. de Valera related a dramatic story concerning the last time on which he had been on board the Lapland. It was in 1918 [sic, 1919] in the height of the war with England, that he had been stowed away on board and brought to New York for an important mission there. He had been sheltered in the lamp room and was very sea sick for the entire voyage.
Details of de Valera’s 1919 crossing were closely guarded at the time and caused wild speculation: “Did he fly?” “Come on a sub?” That doesn’t mean the particulars remained unknown to Irish insiders. By 1931, Cardinal Dougherty almost seemed to wink when he wrote the Lapland was “especially engaged” for the pilgrimage.17 He and de Valera, and their senior aides, communicated during the 1919-1920 U.S. tour and remained in contact up to and after the 1932 event.18
The Press reported the pilgrims who lined the Lapland‘s deck rails gave de Valera “a remarkable ovation” … [and he] shook hands with several hundreds of the American visitors on board.” Any triumphalism for de Valera during the one-hour visit was likely moderated by the death of his County Limerick-born mother less than two week earlier in Rochester, New York. She had planned to attend the Eucharistic Congress.19
Several Irish newspapers reported de Valera’s second boarding of the Lapland, and some repeated the Independent‘s description of a “striking contrast” and “fascinating novel.” The president asked to visit the lamp room where he had hidden 13 years earlier. The captain “gladly acceded to his request.”
American secular papers ignored the story.20 The Catholic Standard & Times noted Edmond’s role in bringing de Valera aboard the Lapland, but not the Irish leader’s past association with the ship. John surly recounted the visit weeks later when he gave a presentation about the Eucharistic Congress to his home parish. The evening featured his “seven moving picture reels” of highlights and photos of the Irish leader.21
It’s worth remembering that de Valera was opposition leader, not president, in the fall of 1931 when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made its Lapland arrangements. It’s unlikely the ship was chartered intentionally. It seems just as unlikely that Cardinal Dougherty and the O’Shea brothers were hearing about Dev’s 1919 crossing for the first time in 1932, as suggested in the press accounts. The reveal appears designed to generate those accounts, especially since the same papers also described the visit as “purely private.” De Valera and his supporters recognized the opportunity presented by the coincidence and leveraged it to bolster his reputation.22
If there was a conspiracy or inside joke among the priests and the politicians, they likely carried it to their graves. When Edmond O’Shea died in 1949, The Irish Press noted his close friendship with de Valera and said his “last letters home spoke of his deep longing for the re-unification of the country.”23 John O’Shea died in 1956, five years after Cardinal Dougherty. De Valera remained in government until 1973, after a political career of more than 50 years. He died two years later.
As for the Lapland, its 1931 makeover was short-lived. The ship was sold to Japan for scrap a year after the Eucharistic Congress and the second boarding of the former stowaway.24
FURTHER READING: “History Now” presenter Barry Sheppard has written several articles about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress for The Irish Story: