EMK Institute marks centennial of Irish rebel’s visit to Boston
By Peter F. Stevens
One hundred years ago, on June 29, 1919, cheers erupted from at least 40,000 throats at Fenway Park. for a thin, bespectacled man as he strode toward home plate. They chanted his name, but it was not the one usually bursting from Fenway crowds—star left-handed pitcher and slugger Babe Ruth. The name on everyone’s lips was “de Valera.” The famed Irish rebel had come to plead his homeland’s cause to the Irish of Boston.
A living symbol of the brutally defeated Easter Rising of 1916, he brought his cause to such Irish American bastions as New York City and raised money to arm and support Michael Collins and the other rebels at home. In New York three days before, when de Valera returned to his Waldorf-Astoria Hotel room, which was paid for by American supporters of Irish leaders, he was handed a telegram at the lobby desk. The letter from Boston Mayor Andrew J. Peters read:
“On behalf of the citizens of Boston, I have the privilege of extending to you the greetings of a city whose citizens have such sympathy with the cause for which you are working. It will be a great pleasure to have you with us.”
“Dev” had agreed to speak in Boston, and local politicians used their clout to reserve Fenway Park for the occasion. On that day, dozens of marching bands filed into Fenway as both the Stars and Stripes and the unofficial orange, white and green banner of the gestating “Irish Republic” waved above the marchers’ heads in the warm air. A horde of Irish men and women besieged the turnstiles and pushed their way to the stands. With room for only 33,000 or so in the seats, thousands of spectators streamed onto the field. The green façade of the ballpark, commented a local wag, had never looked as green as when the Boston Irish came to hear “Dev.”
Suddenly, all eyes turned to a band and a knot of dignitaries flanked by a phalanx of policemen who were clearing a narrow path through the crowd. Cheers rumbled from the stands and across the diamond as the throng recognized the tall, angular Dev amid the police and officials. As the group inched toward the podium at home plate, “heads were bared as Old Glory passed and remained so until the Irish tri-color had gone on.” The band blared patriotic tunes, both American and Irish.
Reverend Philip J. O’Donnell, the rector of St. James Church, climbed onto the platform and stood behind the podium, which had several megaphones attached. He signaled for quiet, and when he had some semblance of it from the boisterous crowd, he leaned toward the megaphones and, in his finest pulpit tones, offered de Valera “the best wishes and greeting of Cardinal O’Connell,” who had been unable to attend. Then, as the throng lowered their heads, O’Donnell offered a prayer for Ireland.
The next order of business was the reading of a letter from Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts, who was out of the city to receive medical treatment. “Silent Cal” had written that America must support the concept that all men should be free. With wry understatement, Coolidge had surmised, “Mr. de Valera would find especially strong in Massachusetts the desire for freedom of his land.” One look at the Fenway crowd attested to the truth of the governor’s words.
Following Coolidge’s message, Mayor Peters took the podium, turned to de Valera and expressed “confidence that you will guide to a successful solution the difficult problem of the Irish people.”
Then, the moment Boston’s Irish had awaited materialized. “Dev” replaced the mayor at the podium, and a groundswell of cheers shook the field and the stands. Several times the hero of the Rising, one of the lucky ones, like Collins, to have escaped a British firing squad, raised his hands for quiet. Finally, the din ebbed just enough for him to speak.
His voice did not carry well, and the crowd strained to hear. His message, however, proved powerful. He blasted the League of Nations for its failure to uphold Ireland’s “equality of rights among nations, small no less than great.”
Though his glasses and sober suit hinted at the mathematics professor he had once been, de Valera’s speech left little doubt as to the rebel he had become. “The man who established your republic sought the aid of France,” he said. “I seek the aid of America.”
Once again an ovation burst across the ballpark.
As he continued his address, the crowd on the field surged closer to the podium and its platform and “carried press tables and all police arrangements with them.” The platform trembled “under the crush of the thousands” and “appeared at times in danger of collapse.” Several women fainted in the throng.
De Valera went on, “We in Ireland clearly recognize that if the wrong turning be now taken, if violence be reestablished” by the British forces, America must bear much of the blame for failure to oversee a true League of Nations.
A Boston Globe reporter at the scene later wrote that de Valera’s voice, “with a bit of a brogue, notwithstanding his birth in the country [the United States], reminded the Boston Irish that they must never turn their hearts and minds from Ireland and allow it to sink back into sullen despair.” Another “rousing ovation” cascaded from the stands and the field as he stepped away from the platform.
When US Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts addressed the crowd, he “asked Mr. de Valera to take back to Dublin” the message that the Irish could “depend upon it that Boston and the United States will never place an obstacle in the way of Irish independence.”
Walsh whipped up the crowd’s emotions to a near frenzy when he shouted that “if England refuses [to free Ireland] and offers the mailed fist, Irish manhood under the leadership of de Valera will fight.” De Valera, Walsh cried, is “the Lincoln of Ireland” and “would take the shackles off Irishmen.”
One hundred years ago in the cradle of their new country’s independence, Boston’s Irish heard the gaunt rebel rekindle their native land’s struggle for freedom. Few in the throng at Fenway would forget the day when “Dev” came to town—and all backed his cause with their dollars and their hearts.
Note: All quotations above were taken from the Boston Globe, June 29-30, 1919. Interested readers can view footage of De Valera at Fenway Park at the following link: britishpathe.com/video/eamon-de-valera-in-boston
In partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, the Consulate General of Ireland is pleased to invite you to 1919-2019: de Valera in Boston & 100 Years of Ireland-U.S. Relations, taking place on Mon., July 1, at 6 p.m.