"To plead the cause of Irish freedom, Eamon de Valera came to Hartford today" read the local newspaper account of the 1920 visit by one of the founders of the Irish Republic.
Just four years earlier--in 1916--de Valera and other Irish patriots had been engaged in fierce gun battles with the British in Dublin during the short-lived but inspiring rebellion known as the Easter Rising. De Valera himself was the last of the rebel leaders to surrender. He escaped execution, probably because he had been born in the United States, but also because of the outcry against the British execution of rebellion leaders. Outrage was at its height with the official murder of trade union leader James Connolly, who had been wounded during the Rising and had to be tied a chair in order to be shot. De Valera, however, did spend months in prison. After his release, he found himself quickly back inside a jail once again in 1918 on the specious charge of helping to foster a "German plot" against the Crown. The imprisonment was an indication of how worried the British were about this New York-born Irishman and his compatriots. On February 3, 1919, de Valera escaped from jail with the help of Michael Collins. In June, he stowed away on the Celtic, an Irish liner bound for New York.
By October, the Hartford Board of Alderman was preparing for Dev's visit. They unanimously passed a resolution "extending the freedom of the city" to de Valera and offering a warm welcome from "the city with a big heart, with big, broad-gauged people."
De Valera arrived at Hartford's Union Station to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd on the morning of January 3, 1920. On hand to meet him were local Irish-American politicians, military men, and the Pearse branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom, this country's active network of independence supporters. De Valera was accompanied on this stop of his tour by Lindsay Crawford of Ulster, a "former Orangeman" living in Canada who ran a newspaper there and headed the Protestant Friends of Irish Freedom. Also on the trip was Liam Mellowes, a member-in-exile of the Dail Eireann (the rebel Irish Assembly) who would be dead a few years later, a casualty of the island's civil war.
Dev walked to the Hotel Heublein on Wells Street off Bushnell Park, where he gave press interviews. "Everybody who understands our cause cannot but help but sympathize with it," he told reporters. "Ireland is not a constituent part of the British Empire joined to England by a covenant," he continued. "For more than 700 years Ireland has been held by force of arms, through four centuries by a continuous armed struggle, and for the later time only by the presence of soldiers and in the face of repeated insurrections."
De Valera also commented on a British proposal to divide Ireland. "The people of Ulster are just as much Irish as are the people of any other part of the island. Lloyd George is trying to find something that doesn't exist when he tries to find an Ulster separate from Leinster, Munster, and Connaught [the other three Irish provinces]." He allowed that provincial autonomy, like a "United States of Ireland, so to speak," might be a workable alternative if it did not endanger "national solidarity." The Irish patriot also commented on the issue of religious division in Ireland: "England has put it before you in a guise to suit her interests, trying to show that it is a grave question and actually has tried to make it one."
From the hotel, de Valera traveled up the hill to the State Capitol to meet Governor Holcomb, and then by car to City Hall where he was received by Mayor Kinsella and the Aldermen. After lunch, Dev strode to the Governor's Foot Guard Hall on High Street, accompanied by a parade of hundreds of local people. He spoke again that night at St. Peter's Church hall on South Green.
De Valera's welcome was not without its detractors. One opponent was Arthur L. Shipman, the city's Corporation Counsel. Shipman wrote in December to Mayor Kinsella "on behalf of several citizens" to object to the official welcome Dev was receiving. He asked the Mayor to welcome the visitor only "as an individual," since the formal recognition by the City of Hartford was "an offense to international civility on which the law of nations is founded." Kinsella replied to Shipman: "I have no particular interest in your views of international relationship."
The Irishman's trip to the U. S. was controversial on a number of fronts. De Valera angered some Americans by opposing President Woodrow Wilson's plan for the League of Nations. He attempted to convince both the Democratic and Republican parties to adopt pro-independence planks but was generally met with resentment from party regulars who didn't want an outsider trying to influence American politics. He even alienated key American supporters when he set up a rival organization to compete with existing Irish support groups. De Valera was also reported to have sent back to Ireland only $2 million of the $5 million he raised in the States. The rest, according to Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan, stayed in American banks and was used years later to help the de Valera family start its own newspaper chain.
Most of de Valera's opposition, however, came from conservative friends of British colonialism. The Wall Street Journal dismissed de Valera's American supporters as "Irish domestic servants and others of like or lower standards of intelligence." Still another Hartford detractor called de Valera a "felon and a traitor." To this, Dev replied: "An Irishman can only be a traitor to Ireland." From Hartford, Eamon de Valera traveled across the country, galvanizing national support for the Irish cause.