Laurence Ginnell’s Chicago Mission, 1920-1921

On the left, Laurence Ginnell at his desk in Chicago, c. 1920 (George Grantham Bain Collection, United States Library of Congress). On the right, Athlone native John Fitzpatrick, the powerful boss of the Chicago Federation of Labor, with the renowned Irish-American trade union activist Mother Jones (Mary Harris, born in Cork).

In June 1920, Laurence Ginnell, the TD for Westmeath and Director of Publicity in the First Dáil, set out for the United States after spending more than half of the previous two years in prison. In our latest guest blog, Paul Hughes discusses Ginnell’s activities in the USA.

A member of the House of Commons since 1906, Ginnell parted ways with the Irish Parliamentary Party on a variety of issues, most notably the party’s lack of support for the prosecution, between 1906 and 1909, of his Ranch War campaign – the last major agrarian agitation before independence. From 1910 onwards, Ginnell served his constituents as an independent nationalist MP.

A sympathetic voice in Westminster for the 1916 rebels, Ginnell turned his back on parliament in July 1917 to join Sinn Féin. After inciting land seizures and cattle drives in the west and midlands, he was jailed the following March, and spent most of the ensuing eighteen months in Mountjoy and Reading jails.

Respite and the republic

With his health shattered by the effects of incarceration, the 67-year-old Ginnell went to the Aran Islands in September 1919 to recover some of his old vigour. He expressed to the Dáil a wish to conduct a lecture tour in the United States, where the Sinn Féin president, Éamon de Valera, had been based since the previous June.

Ginnell returned to his native Delvin in the summer of 1920 before setting sail for America. He was joined by his wife, Alice, a daughter of James King, the first vice-chairman of Westmeath County Council and a farmer living at Kilbride House, near Gaybrook, Mullingar. Originally a radical constitutionalist, King’s views hardened over the years and by 1920, were in line with those of his son-in-law (although they subsequently disagreed on the Anglo-Irish Treaty).

Continuing, on an at-large basis, in his role as Director of Publicity (Desmond FitzGerald was appointed in his stead back in Ireland), Ginnell was posted to a consular position in Chicago by the Dáil. His primary responsibility was propaganda, but as one of the more experienced political heads in the Irish republican movement, Ginnell was also valued by de Valera as an asset in negotiating the fractious and partisan world of American politics.

In late July 1920, he arrived in New York via Montréal, and linked up with de Valera in Washington, DC. The press in the US Capitol heralded Ginnell – who was well known in America from his colourful days as an MP – as de Valera’s ‘co-adjutor’, and his arrival was reported as having caused a sensation in Irish-American circles.

His first port of call Stateside was to speak in front of 10,000 people at an Irish republican rally at Madison Square Garden, New York in early August. The meeting was held in protest against the British Government’s decision to prevent the Irish-Australian cleric, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, from visiting Ireland by arresting him and taking him to England.

Irish struggles

Setting up in Chicago, Ginnell worked under one of the Dáil’s chief financial agents in the United States, James O’Mara (another former Irish Parliamentary Party M.P.), and was charged with co-ordinating publicity for the Dáil in the fourteen states of the American Midwest – a rural heartland replete with agrarian radicals who had much in common with Ginnell’s political outlook. The centre of this publicity campaign was the Benjamin Franklin Bureau, established in Chicago by O’Mara, Ginnell and the Irish-Canadian journalist, J. C. Walsh.

After embarking on a speaking tour in the states of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, Ginnell returned to Chicago to tackle his next duties: setting up an advisory council comprising influential people from diverse backgrounds, who would endeavour to generate broader public support for Irish independence. Ginnell cast a wide net and became friendly with some of Chicago’s leading progressive voices. Among them were the University of Chicago academic, Robert Morss Lovett; Emil G. Hirsch, an Illinois rabbi and a leader of Reform Judaism; the renowned social campaigner and philanthropist Jane Addams, and William Hale (‘Big Bill’) Thompson, the controversial mayor of Chicago who became well known for his subsequent connections to the gangster Al Capone.

Before Ginnell set foot in America, tensions about strategy had erupted between de Valera and some of the leading US-based campaigners for Irish independence, chiefly, the old Fenian and Gaelic American publisher John Devoy, and the New York Supreme Court judge, Daniel F. Cohalan. With the US presidential election approaching, animosities boiled over in the summer and autumn of 1920, causing a split in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s American sister organisation, Clan na Gael, and the public pressure group, the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF).

The split was formalised at an acrimonious meeting held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in September 1920, attended by de Valera and Ginnell. From there, a reorganised Clan na Gael, loyal to the Dáil, was established, while de Valera set about supplanting the FOIF with a new organisation, the American Association for the Recognition of an Irish Republic (AARIR).

Win friends, influence people

Herein lay the kernel of Ginnell’s mission. In order to ensure as much American support as possible came down on the side of de Valera, the Dáil and these new organisations, his role was to marshal support not only from Irish-Americans, but also influential people from non-Irish backgrounds. A further example of this was his penetration into American labour circles. The boss of the powerful Chicago Federation of Labor, John Fitzpatrick, who was originally from Athlone, worked closely with his fellow Westmeath native in establishing strong links between American labour and Irish republicans.

Alice Ginnell, meanwhile, campaigned alongside her husband to convince both labour and women’s groups in Chicago and the broader Midwest to pursue a boycott of British goods. In the autumn of 1920, De Valera apportioned $10,000 in funds for the opening of an office, the Labor Bureau of Irish Independence, which thrived on the mutual enthusiasm of Ginnell and Fitzpatrick. The Bureau produced circulars and leaflets, sent letters to labour newspapers, and organised pro-Sinn Féin meetings and committees among trade union members.

Ginnell was highly active not only on this but other propaganda fronts, most notably in October, when news of the death by hunger strike of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, reverberated around the world. He was part of a delegation led by the former governor of Illinois, the Irish-American Edward F. Dunne, which attempted to convince the Wilson administration to accept a memorial to MacSwiney on behalf of the Irish Republic and concerned American citizens. Despite Dunne and Ginnell securing an audience with US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

In December 1920, Ginnell also put the Irish independence case to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, the brainchild of prominent Americans seeking to establish, through a series of public hearings, facts about British policy in Ireland and events unfolding there. The hearings in Washington were bathed in the spotlight of the press, and Ginnell’s lengthy testimony generated plentiful interest. However, little of what he said was used in the Commission’s report; much of his remarks dealt with Ireland’s historic claim to independence, or detailed his own personal experiences of prison or the land question. The Commission, on the other hand, wanted to hear more substantial facts about atrocities, or how British policy was affecting daily life in Ireland.

A tough audience

Back in Chicago, Ginnell and his wife opened an office at North Dearborn Street for the purpose of setting up a regional fundraising drive to assist relief work in Ireland. However, O’Mara’s return to the Midwest, coupled with de Valera’s departure for home, changed his position in America. It quickly became apparent that Ginnell’s local fundraising initiative was clashing with the national collection strategy being pursued by the AARIR. O’Mara tried, and eventually succeeded, in having Ginnell’s collections wound up and the revenue transferred to the Dáil, which set the money aside as an emergency fund for relatives of those who died during the Irish Revolution.

Ginnell was deeply frustrated by this encroachment on his activities. He was further put out after discovering, on returning from a lecture tour of the southern states in early 1921, that his ongoing efforts at developing synergies with the American labour movement had been neglected by O’Mara. De Valera (now back in Ireland) and his deputy in the US, Harry Boland, were convinced that Chicago was too small for the presence of two high-profile veterans of the Irish cause, and they moved to defuse simmering tensions between Ginnell and O’Mara by redeploying the former to the south for an extended lecture tour.

While he had been greeted with much adulation at previous speaking engagements further north, Ginnell met with different audiences on his round trip of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. He encountered Protestant evangelicals with anti-Irish, anti-Catholic and nativist sentiments, who charged Irish republicanism with being sectarian, Anglophobic or sympathetic to Bolshevism. Writing in the Catholic Bulletin in September 1922, he recalled fielding questions that were ‘startling in their novelty, and some in their eccentricity and unreasonableness, especially those suggesting our love of roast Protestant for breakfast’. Despite having to face down such claims, he regarded the tour as a success, and returned to Chicago to plot his next move.

De Valera and Boland had other ideas however, and by July 1921, Laurence and Alice Ginnell were on the move again – this time on a ship to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where new duties on behalf of the Dáil awaited.


Bureau of Military History witness statement of Alice Ginnell (WS 982); contemporary American newspapers (; Éamon de Valera papers, UCD Archives; James O’Mara papers, National Library of Ireland; papers, diaries and letter books of Alice and Laurence Ginnell, in possession of the Ginnell family, Mullingar; J. C. Walsh papers, New York Public Library; Albert Coyle (ed.), Evidence on conditions in Ireland: comprising the complete testimony, affidavits and exhibits presented before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (Washington, DC, 1921); Catholic Bulletin (Sept. 1922); Irish Times (31 December 2007); David Brundage, ‘A tale of two cities: exporting the Irish Revolution to Chicago and Buenos Aires’ in History Ireland, ‘The Irish Revolution, 1919-21: a global history’ (Dublin, 2019), pp 61-64; Francis M. Carroll, American opinion and the Irish question, 1910-23 (Dublin, 1978).

Dr Paul Hughes (@paolohughes) completed a PhD thesis at Queen’s University, Belfast in 2018 entitled ‘The Irish republicanism activism of Laurence Ginnell, 1916-23’, and is currently writing a biography of Ginnell.

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 13/11/2020