By mid-April 1923 the Irish Free State army regularly routed anti-government forces. Liam Lynch, the IRA’s chief of staff, was killed on April 10; Austin Stack, his deputy, was captured a few days later. Talk of a ceasefire and the end of Ireland’s 10-month-old civil war was in the air, and in the press.
But the death by natural causes of Irish politician Laurence GinnellSee Dictionary of Irish Biography entry. in a Washington, D.C. hotel room also contributed to the demoralization of the “irregulars.” Since August 1922, the 71-year-old served as envoy to the United States for Éamon de Valera’s unrecognized Irish republic. Ginnell had no real diplomatic status, and his stature was diminished after a failed attempt to take control of the Free State’s consulate office in New York City.
“He was in apparent good health earlier today, and when a hotel attendant called to deliver a message said he would attend to it later. On going back he was found dead,” the Evening Star reported on page 13.”Irish Republican Leader Dies Here”, Evening Star, Washington, D.C., April 17, 1923. Historians have suggested Ginnell’s health suffered from the cumulative impacts of several imprisonments earlier in his life.
Ginnell died at D.C.’s Hotel Lafayette, about two miles west of the U.S. Capitol. Three Aprils earlier a dinner honoring de Valera, then on his 18-month tour of America, was staged in the hotel’s ballroom. From November 1920 through January 1921 the Lafayette became headquarters of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, a non-U.S. government body created by pro-Irish interests to generate publicity and political support for the declared Irish republic. Ginnell’s combative and argumentative nature emerged at the outset of his Dec. 15, 1920, testimony before the commission, :
I cannot go into this thing unless I am allowed to state the conditions. The evidence I have to give you is at your disposal only on the condition that it is not to be made use of in any recommendations regarding Ireland. We in Ireland have settled our own government on the basis of your President’s own statements. We have applied the right of self-determination to our own country. Indeed, I will not go behind the present status of the Republican Government in Ireland today. Indeed, I will not give any evidence whatever unless I am assured that no effort will be made to go behind the Irish Republican Government, the only constitutional government in Ireland today. And to attempt to discuss the right of Ireland to her independence is to attempt to re-establish the English Government where she has lost all power and respect whatsoever. If I get the assurance that that is not your intention, then I will sit down and begin my evidence immediately.See Ginnell’s full testimony, pages 462-505.
The Washington Herald described Ginnell as “one of Sinn Fein’s most militant spirits” upon his arrival in the city earlier in 1920.”Notes By A Washington Observer”, The Washington Herald, July 29, 1920. In coverage of his 1923 death, the American, Irish, and British press noted Ginnell’s unique status of having been elected as an Irish Parliamentary Party member in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, and as a Sinn Féin republican in Dáil Éireann. The irascible Ginnell held the distinction of being ejected from both legislative bodies.
Following his 1920 American Commission appearance, Ginnell represented the Irish republic in South America. His telegramed vote against the Anglo-Irish Treaty was not accepted, but he became, at de Valera’s request, the only opposition member to sit in the Dáil. It was because of his relationship with de Valera that John Devoy’s Gaelic American offered a critical, if respectful, assessment of Ginnell’s career.See “Ginnell, De Valera’s Envoy in America, Dies Suddenly“, The Gaelic American, April 28, 1923.
Ginnell entered politics during the Plan of Campaign agitation of the Irish Land War in the late 1880s, “the stormy petrel of Parnellite politics,” according to press accounts. He was the co-founder of the Irish Literary Society (1892) and the author of several books, including The brehon laws: a legal guide (1894), The doubtful grant of Ireland by Pope Adrian IV to King Henry II (1899), and Land and liberty (1908) .DIB, linked in Note 1.
The first of three funeral Masses for Ginnell was held at D.C.’s St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, 40 years later the site of slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s service. Ginnell’s body was then conveyed to New York City, where another Mass occurred at the Carmelite Catholic church on East 28th Street.
During the Irish revolutionary period, the Manhattan church’s friars sheltered Irish revolutionaries on the run from British authorities, including de Valera. They also stashed part of a cache of 600 Thompson submachine guns, wrapped in burlap sacks and bound for Ireland during the war.”The End of an Era at Bellevue and a Nearby Church”, The New York Times, June 27, 2007.
In a telegram to Alice Ginnell (née King), de Valera described his departed colleague as “one of the most indefatigable workers for Ireland.””Delegations From Many States At Ginnell Funeral”, Buffalo Morning Express, April 21, 1923. But only a week earlier de Valera effectively removed Ginnell from Irish activities in America, “an unfortunate and sad end to a long career.”Dr. Paul Hughes, a Mullingar-based journalist and historian, in the “Laurence Ginnell–Part 2: from Ireland to America” podcast from the Westmeath County Council Decade of Centenaries, … Continue reading
Finally, the widow accompanied her husband’s body back to Ireland, contrary to an incorrect press report that Ginnell was buried in New York. Major Michael A Kelly, veteran of the Irish American 69th New York Infantry Regiment, represented De Valera at the May 1, 1923, service at the Carmelite church on Whitefriars Street, Dublin. Interment followed in Ginnell’s native Delvin, County Westmeath.
The Irish Civil War ended before the month concluded.
- See more of my American Reporting of Irish Independence centenary series, including Washington, D.C.’s Irish hot spots, 1919-1921.
|↑1||See Dictionary of Irish Biography entry.|
|↑2||”Irish Republican Leader Dies Here”, Evening Star, Washington, D.C., April 17, 1923.|
|↑3||See Ginnell’s full testimony, pages 462-505.|
|↑4||”Notes By A Washington Observer”, The Washington Herald, July 29, 1920.|
|↑5||See “Ginnell, De Valera’s Envoy in America, Dies Suddenly“, The Gaelic American, April 28, 1923.|
|↑6||DIB, linked in Note 1.|
|↑7||”The End of an Era at Bellevue and a Nearby Church”, The New York Times, June 27, 2007.|
|↑8||”Delegations From Many States At Ginnell Funeral”, Buffalo Morning Express, April 21, 1923.|
|↑9||Dr. Paul Hughes, a Mullingar-based journalist and historian, in the “Laurence Ginnell–Part 2: from Ireland to America” podcast from the Westmeath County Council Decade of Centenaries, Jan. 24, 2022.|