The Vicksburg Visit

Excerpt from the Vicksburgh Sunday Post

Excerpt from the Vicksburgh Sunday Post

The following obituary of Eamon de Valera is from the Mississippi newspaper, the Vicksburgh Sunday Post. It was kindly given to Galway Decade of Commemoration by Sr. Agnes Curley of Tuam. The article was given to Agnes by her brother Fr. P.J. Curley (originally of Creggs, Co. Roscommon and now pastor in Vicksburg), as he knew the Sisters of Mercy would treasure it in their archives. P.J. was originally given the article by the son of Eamon de Valera’s chauffeur during his trip in the US. De Valera delivered the speech referred to from the steps of the Mercy Convent in Vicksburg, where James Connolly’s niece Sr. Mary Claire O’Bryan was then the community’s superior.

‘Visit to Vicksburg Recalled

De Valera, The Fighting Irishman

By Gordon Cotton

Standing on the upstairs gallery of the Convent, the tall man with the piercing blue eyes spoke briefly to the school children and their teachers (Sisters of Mercy) who had gathered in the courtyard on an April day in 1920.  But when he spoke, the words that they heard were Gaelic, a language even the Irish sisters didn’t understand. Then the President of Ireland, in Vicksburg on one short leg of his tour of the United States, switched to English – but his brogue was so thick he was still difficult to comprehend.

Eamon de Valera, who died only last week at the age of 91, came to Vicksburg on April 20, 1920, sponsored by the local chapter of the American Friends of Irish Freedom. He spent 18 months touring the United States, seeking support for the newly-proclaimed Irish Republic, of which he was first president.

Vicksburg had a large number of citizens of Irish descent, and the leader from the Emerald Isle received a tumultuous welcome. Speaking at 8 p.m. at the Walnut Street Theatre, de Valera found an overflow crowd as Shantyboat Irish and Lace Curtain Irish packed the building and even crowded around the doors and windows and sat in the aisles to hear him plead the cause of Irish freedom.

When de Valera was elected President of the Irish Republic, he was spending time in a British jail for leading a revolution. He was American-born with a Spanish name, and his English captors thought the whole situation was humorous … for a little while.

But then de Valera escaped and fled to Ireland, and disguised as a seaman he set sail for America to take the cause of liberty to a people who could help. From June, 1919, until Christmas Eve, 1920, he toured the United States, telling the Irish story, seeking support from their American cousins. And the English quit laughing.

Knowing the British would deprive him of every luxury, he decided to deny them that pleasure, casting his pipe to the ground and telling them that he had just quit.

Born in New York in 1883, de Valera’s mother was Irish and his father Basque. His parents died when he was a baby, and his mother’s brother, Edmund Coll, took two-year-old Eamon back to Ireland where he grew up in the Limerick countryside.

A smart youth, he won scholarships and taught school in order to complete college, graduating from the Royal University with a degree in mathematical science. Though the English had tried to ban the Gaelic language, he learned it well enough to teach it to others who wanted to preserve the Irish heritage.

When the Easter Rebellion took place in 1916, Eamon de Valera was one of the commanders. Militarily, the rebellion failed, but the subsequent execution of 14 of its leaders and the imprisonment of about 2,000 of the volunteers by Great Britain cemented the Irish resistance to tyranny more than ever.

De Valera’s life was spared because technically he was an American, and the British hesitated to offend a nation they were courting as a needed ally in the World War. On the day of his arrest de Valera quit smoking. Knowing the British would deprive him of every luxury, he decided to deny them that pleasure, casting his pipe to the ground and telling them that he had just quit.

In Lincoln Jail, he organized the other prisoners so that a united front would be presented. It had taken 50,000 British troops with modern equipment to quell 3,000 freedom-seeking Irishmen armed with crude weapons. But no number of the victors could put down the Irish spirit.

After being freed from jail in 1917, de Valera stood for election to the Parliament and won by a two to one majority. When England decided to draft Irishmen to fight the Germans in 1918, the Irish refused, and de Valera was thrown into jail again, along with many other leaders in the movement for independence. Nevertheless his party won 75 out of 105 seats in Parliament though 36 of the candidates were in English jails.

When Parliament convened at Westminster, the Irish weren’t there. They met instead in Dublin on Jan. 21, 1919, and proclaimed themselves free of English rule and established the First Dail Eireann (First Assembly of Ireland). Their jailed friend, de Valera, was elected president at the second meeting.

In jail, he carefully gathered wax from the candles at Mass to make the impression of the key to the prison gate. Finally a blank key with tools to cut it was smuggled into his cell, and on the night of Feb. 3, 1919, de Valera and two accomplices walked out. Back in Ireland, he named his cabinet for the new government and then fled to America.

American Committees for Irish Freedom were organized all over the United States, and in Mississippi W.J. Vollor of Vicksburg was state chairman. On April 1, 1920, Vollor named the following members of the local committee to arrange the Vicksburg visit of de Valera: Mayor J.J. Hayes, E.A. Fitzgerald Sr., J.D. Laughlin, E.B. Cummings, Dr. H.H. Haralson, Steve Treanor and David Laudenheimer. It would later be expanded to a much larger number, and a ladies committee was also organized.

De Valera wasn’t being well-received everywhere he went in the United States, and Vollor told Vicksburgers on April 14 that such people were merely “presentday Tories,” comparing them to those who supported George III in 1776. And Vollor reminded them of what George Washington had told the Irish: “Patriots of Ireland, be strong in hope, your cause is identical with mine.” And Vollor also quoted Lloyd George’s complimentary comparison of de Valera with Jefferson Davis.

When de Valera arrived at the train at 11.15 on April 20, “De Valera Day” had been proclaimed in the city. At 1 p.m. a luncheon was given for de Valera at the National Park Hotel where approximately 100 guests dined in the latticed room in an entirely informal atmosphere.

That afternoon he took a tour of the Park, and later a reception was held at the hotel so the public could meet him. Every Irishman on Vicksburg’s Pumpkin Hill was present, along with hundreds of others who weren’t Irish. Music for the occasion was provided by Mrs. Laura Amis and Joseph Palermo; Kelly smith’s band also played for the President.

Dev Valera rode in the Vollor automobile, accompanied by Vollor, Judge George Anderson and Hon. A.A. Chaney. Also with de Valera was a fellow Irishman, the Rev. Irwin DD, a Presbyterian minister from Killead County in Ireland.

Prior to de Valera’s talk that night, a reception was held at the Elks Hall on Walnut St. for Mrs. Irwin (the President’s wife did not accompany him). The program was a long one with remarks by various notables including Vollor, District Attorney Thames, and the Rev. Irwin, who assured the audience that Irish Protestants were just as much for freedom as de Valera and his Catholic friends.

When de Valera rose to speak, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Up to that time, the oratory had been eloquent and flowery. But de Valera spoke in an unemotional tone described by the EVENING POST the next day as filled with conviction. He assured the audience that “What I seek in America is that the United States recognize Ireland’s right to national self-determination – that and nothing more.”

Only a few days previously, the British ambassador to the United States had said that England had no quarrel with Ireland. De Valera told the audience that it was like a robber having no quarrel with his victims as long as he could rob them. If there was no quarrel, de Valera asked, why did the English station an army on Irish soil and equip it with the latest weapons? Warming to his subject, he said that “centuries of ruthless and often brutal injustice, centuries of insolence and insult have driven hatred of British rule into the very marrow of the Irish race.”

The Irish leader emphasized that his nation was not one of the British Isles; that they had fought for their freedom for 750 years. American patriots had set forth the belief that government derives its consent to govern from the people, he reminded his audience, and the Irish would never submit to the English.

The reporters noted that he looked weary and his face bore drawn lines from the strenuous pace he was keeping. They admired his scholarly approach to questions.

De Valera expressed his distrust of the proposed League of Nations, which would allow England to continue its domination. England had relaxed its rigid rules only during the World War, he said, when they needed help.

“We are not the aggressors,” he told the audience.

When he finished speaking, the crowd rose to its feet and gave him a thundering ovation. Then they passed a resolution asking the government to recognize Ireland’s independence and to persuade the British to do the same.

Though he was a serious man, the POST and HERALD both noted that he could relax and express himself in a warm and personal way. He was most appreciative of the flowers a child handed him at the conclusion of his address. For the occasion, he wore a simple dark suit, black bow tie, and a white shirt with a turn-over collar. The reporters noted that he looked weary and his face bore drawn lines from the strenuous pace he was keeping. They admired his scholarly approach to questions.

The next day, after a visit to the convent, he departed for other speaking engagements in Atlanta and Macon. In Vicksburg he had created quite a sensation, and several still recall his visit.

Five of those who remember him are Sisters of Mercy. Sister Mary Joseph recalls the visit for several reasons. It was her first year to each, she said, and the schools had a half holiday. The Mother Superior at the time, she said, was Mother Mary Claire O’Bryan, Irish-born and a niece of Gen. James Connolly, the leader of the Easter Rebellion who had been executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Jail by the British (wounded and suffering from gangrene, Connolly had been taken by stretcher to the execution spot and propped up so the British could murder him).

Another who remembers him is Sister Hildegarde, who was present when he spoke at the convent, and Sister Mary Fidelis, who is of Irish descent, and said, “I remember I shook hands with him – it was something to write home about.” Sister Ignacious laughed and said that she is “one old person who cannot remember the past,” but she was impressed by his deep blue piercing eyes. De Valera’s visit here was important to Sister Stanislaus because of her Irish grandfather, who took the IRISH WORLD, claiming it was the only money he spent on something worthwhile. Sister Stanislaus knew all about what had happened in Ireland because she was “raised in a house with a grandfather born in Dublin who talked of nothing else.”

Irishmen in Vicksburg took de Valera’s hat and cut it to ribbons for souvenirs, and Sister Mary Joseph says that Nick Conti, who owned a clothing store, presented him with a new Stetson. Mrs. Lucille True also recalls the visit, and though she was on the arrangements committee. Her father was W.J. Vollor, the chairman of the state committee, and her nephew Frank has the speech which his grandfather delivered when “De Valera Day” was held.

Another Vicksburger who recalls the visit is Cy O’Neill, whose mother was a member of the group which attended the luncheon for de Valera. O’Neill remembers standing on the sidewalk in front of the National Park Hotel and watching the President enter the building.

After he returned to Ireland, de Valera was caught up in a civil war. When it was over and England reluctantly granted independence, he was elected Taoiseach (prime minister), serving until 1948. In 1957 he was returned to the post, and in 1959 he became president once again, serving until voluntary retirement two years ago.

Eamon de Valera died Friday, Aug. 29, and his funeral was held Tuesday, Sept. 2. More than any other man, he represented the fight for Irish freedom, a struggle that began in the 12th century and will last “until Cromwell gets out of hell.”

[From the Vicksburg Sunday Post, 7 September 1975]

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