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First Visit by W. T. Cosgrave to Chicago and why it still matters

The first decade of Irish foreign policy is rich in documentary evidence including over 1000 documents published by the Royal Irish Academy.

There are far fewer photographs. Among those that survive, this is one of the most arresting. WT Cosgrave seems jammed uncomfortably into the back seat of a car with Chicago Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson. It is January 1928 and Cosgrave has just arrived on the first major leg of an extensive trip to the US and Canada.

W.T Cosgrave and Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson. Photo Courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Photographer Chicago Daily

W.T Cosgrave and Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson. Photo Courtesy of Chicago History Museum, Photographer Chicago Daily

He had earlier been greeted off a train from New York by a bevy of Aldermen in silk top hats and by Police Captain Patrick J Collins – brother of Michael Collins. But amid all the pomp and finery, Mayor Thompson steals the scene. His racoon coat marks him out as an altogether different, more flamboyant kind of politician - one of the most colourful and controversial Mayors in a city that rarely lacked colour or controversy. The picture is a study in the meeting of two political cultures and two very different political styles.

Thompson was serving his third and last term as Mayor. He had campaigned from a floating speakeasy on Lake Michigan. He had staged a mock debate in which he cast two live rats as his opponents. Alive to the potential of the Irish vote, he once publically threatened to punch King George in the nose if they ever met. At the time of the visit, crime linked to prohibition was out of control in Chicago and the feud between the Capone and Moran gangs, already underway, would soon culminate in the Valentine’s Day massacre.

WT Cosgrave’s visit to the US in 1928 was highly significant for our subsequent diplomacy in the US. It set the template for decades to come.

In Washington he stayed at the Mayflower Hotel, was hosted by President Calvin Coolidge, addressed the House of Representatives, visited the Senate Chamber and met with Congressmen friendly to Ireland.

In Philadelphia and New York he addressed the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick. In New York he also walked the floor of the Stock Exchange, met investors on Wall Street, reviewed the Fighting 69th Regiment and visited Colombia University.

In Chicago, he stayed at the Drake Hotel, visited universities as well as the offices of the Chicago Tribune, and was hosted by the Irish fellowship Club.

He added a visit to Canada, meeting in Ottawa with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. At each stop he met Governors and Mayors.

His message was repeated at each stop: Support Ireland. Visit Ireland. Buy Irish. News media followed him. His speech in Chicago was broadcast on radio across the nation. The Moving Picture Organisation recorded footage of his visit for “exhibition in the various cinema theatres”.

Two things strike me about this visit.

The first is its scale and ambition – five major stops in three weeks with two weeks added travelling time, all arranged by Ambassador Tim Smiddy and his small team in Washington. It was only in the succeeding months and years that followed, an Embassy was established in Ottawa and Consulates in New York, Boston and Chicago.

The second is its importance in setting the template for all high level visits that followed. Of course the agenda has broadened as support for the peace process, investment, immigration reform and community support have moved to centre stage. And the landscape has changed too as the influence moved south and Consulates were established in Atlanta and Austin.

But to any of us who have served in the US, these early themes and partner organisations are enduring, essential, important as ever.

In the past two months, Ireland’s 13th Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has visited Washington, Philadelphia and New York. He has been to Ottawa for a meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau. Next week he makes his last visit to the US as WT Cosgrave began his first – with a visit to Chicago.

Niall Burgess, Secretary General, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.