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Eamon de Valera's visit to Boston in 1919 and 100 years of Irish-US relations

Ambassador Speaking

I travelled to Boston in early July to take part in a panel discussion on Irish-US relations. My fellow panellists were Professor Catherine Shannon, a long-time exponent of Irish Studies in Massachusetts, RTÉ journalist and author of a recent 2-volume biography of Eamon de Valera, David McCullagh, and an Irish academic at Elms College, Damien Murray. The panel was moderated by Boston Globe journalist, Kevin Cullen. This discussion took place at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute and was organised in conjunction with my colleagues at Ireland's Consulate General in Boston, Laoise Moore and Aoife Budd. The event attracted an attendance of 300, which testifies to the enduring interest in Irish affairs that exists in the Boston area.

This discussion was arranged to mark the centenary of Eamon de Valera's visit to Boston in June 1919 when he addressed a crowd estimated at 50,000 in the city's Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. De Valera's appearance in Boston was part of his 18-month sojourn in the United States while Ireland's war of independence was raging at home. At that time, de Valera was President of the Irish Republic whose independence had been declared by the First Irish Dáil in January 1919, when a majority of those elected from Irish constituencies at the General Election of December 1918 refused to take their seats at Westminster and convened instead at Dublin's Mansion House.

It might seem odd that the leader of a political movement dedicated to creating an independent Irish State should absent himself from his country at such a crucial time. De Valera's decision was not as unusual as it might at first sight appear, for the key requirement of the fledgling State he represented was international recognition. The Sinn Féin movement had tried and failed to secure recognition at the Versailles Peace Conference, where President Wilson had declined to apply the principle of self-determination to Ireland on account of the fact that it was part of the territory of his British ally.

Despite Wilson's reluctance to endorse Ireland's claims, the United States was an obvious place to go in search of international recognition for the new Irish Republic, for any representative of Ireland could be assured of a warm welcome because of the presence there of a substantial population of Irish birth and descent.

De Valera's 1919 American visit did not create the tradition of Irish American involvement in Irish affairs. That goes back much further in history, to the members of the United Irishmen who found refuge in the United States in the early 19th century. But it was the Great Famine and its aftermath, with the arrival in America of millions of Irish immigrants that gave birth to Irish America as we know it today.

Those new arrivals and their descendants became part of the fabric of modern America, but they also retained a deep concern for the fate of the country they had left behind. In the decades that followed the Famine, they were strongly supportive of Irish political and cultural movements. David Doyle, in his contribution to A New History of Ireland, VI, points to "the intergenerational loyalty between Irish-born and their American offspring" which "underpinned the role of the American Irish in funding and encouraging the Irish independence movement, especially in the 1880s and from 1910 to 1922, and in securing transatlantic attention for its objectives." The capacity of Irish America to influence American Government policy became a factor in the calculations of British Government in its dealings with Ireland.

By the time de Valera arrived in the United States, therefore, American influence on Irish affairs was a well-established reality, but he certainly added to it and huge crowds came out to hear him during the 18 months he spent travelling around the United States. His tour included appearances in Chicago, San Francisco and New York's Madison Square Garden where he spoke in front of an estimated crowd of 50,000. He also visited less populous regions such as Montana and Utah.

The remarkable thing about Irish-American influence is the extent to which it has persisted across the generations. This past two years as Ambassador, I have come across communities all over America that retain a distinctive pride in their Irish heritage even when, in many instances, they are descended from Irish immigrants who arrived in America in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

That bond between Irish America and Ireland played an important part in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement. Pressure from Irish America from the 1970s onwards encouraged successive American administrations to take an interest in the pursuit of peace in Ireland. This culminated in the key role played by Senator George Mitchell and President Bill Clinton in helping deliver the Good Friday Agreement.

Today, there is an active Friends of Ireland in Congress headed by Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Congressman Richie Neal, which has been very supportive of Ireland's position on Brexit, notably our determination to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

In de Valera's time, and in the decades before and after his 1919 visit to America, much of the focus was on fundraising for Irish causes. Recent decades have seen a new Irish-American relationship emerge, one that is economically-oriented and increasingly based on two-way flows of benefit across the Atlantic.

That vast ocean, which 19th century emigrants crossed in conditions of great hardship, is now crossed daily by Irish people and Americans who can fly from 24 airports right across the United States. It is traversed by the 2 million Americans who visit Ireland annually. An impressive statistic is that 10% of all Americans who visit Europe annually travel to Ireland.

The Atlantic Ocean is also crossed by Irish and American businesspeople in search of economic opportunities in our respective countries. Two-way trade between us now amounts to around $150 billion annually. Investment flows are also a vital part of our contemporary ties with the United States. There are now more than 700 US companies with operations in Ireland where they employ in excess of 150,000 Irish people. Those companies' Irish operations are part of their global profile, an integral part of what makes them world leaders in their various fields. Among other reasons, they come to Ireland in search of a European Union base where they can tap into a highly-educated, English-speaking workforce and can also freely recruit multilingual workers from across the EU.

Irish investment is also making an increasing impact across the United States. Irish companies now employ at least 100,000 people throughout the US and that figure is growing by the year.

The bonds that link Ireland and the US are being refreshed by interaction between younger people. 11,000 Americans come to Ireland each year on Study Abroad programmes and that number is also on the rise. All of our Universities have multiple connections with American counterparts. More than 8,000 young Irish people come to America each year on official exchange programs (for Summer Work Travel, 12-month Internships, Camp Counsellor etc.)

The Irish-US relationship that existed 100 years ago when de Valera came to America has thus been deepened and broadened during the intervening generations. It has much potential for further development, including on account of Brexit which will result in Ireland being the sole remaining English-speaking country in the European Union and, thus, with its strong affinities, with the US, a valuable bridge across the Atlantic.

At the Boston event, I was asked by a member of the audience to venture an opinion on what Eamon de Valera might have made of Brexit? This was an unexpected question, but an interesting one too! In my reply, I acknowledged that de Valera might not have been a natural enthusiast for EU membership. However, I offered the view that, as a pragmatist and a skilled politician, he would have come to understand the beneficial impact of EU membership on Ireland. Membership has increased our prosperity and national wellbeing. It has reduced what had been an unhealthy economic dependence on Britain and deepened our ties with our European neighbours. And it has helped improve relations between Britain and Ireland and between the two parts of Ireland. The potential for Brexit to cut across those manifold gains for Ireland would, I think, have made de Valera averse to, and anxious about, Brexit, just as all Irish political leaders are today. 

Group Photo Team Ireland in the USA

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States


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