Leitrim man James McGurrin was a champion of Irish-American life

Prin Duignan


Prin Duignan

Leitrim man James McGurrin was a champion of Irish-American life

“Today the American negro is confronted by the same forces against which the Irish had to contend right here in this city less than a century ago. This is a struggle in which Americans of Irish lineage cannot be neutral. It is a duty imposed on us by our heritage to enlist right now and take our stand in the front lines of the fight for interracial justice”.
The above quote from a speech, delivered to an Irish-American audience in 1948 in New York, exemplifies one of the causes championed by James (Jim ) McGurrin who emigrated from Corry, Drumkeerin to America in his early teens and subsequently played a major role in Irish-American life as a jurist, historian, business man and politician over more than sixty years. His work involved the forging of economic, political and cultural links with Ireland especially after 1922 when the newly established Irish Free State struggled to overcome enormous financial and economic difficulties.
James McGurrin was born in in Derrinwillan, Corry, Drumkeerin in December 1886, the eldest child of John McGurrin, a blacksmith, and Catherine McMorrow. There were two other children in the family, Patrick and Mary Ann. Their father died in 1891 and his widow married Thomas Rynn a native of Curryglass, Dowra in 1896. In 1901 James aged 15 emigrated to America.
He attended De Witt Clinton High School in Lower Manhattan, one of the most prestigious second level colleges in New York. After graduation he went on to the famous Columbia university but left without completing his degree course. From a young age he was profoundly influenced by Sligo native William Bourke Corcoran (Cockran) a prominent senator in American politics and one of the foremost orators of his day. Apparently, while James was still attending high school he was brought by one of his teachers to hear the great orator speak in Carnegie Hall in 1904 .

Political Life

James McGurrin was unusually interested in Irish politics from a very young age. In 1901 he attended a huge political meeting in Drumkeerin which was addressed by one of the leading nationalists of the time, PA McHugh, a native of Glenfarne and later a member of parliament for North Leitrim. A few months afterwards, James, now in the US, was among the crowd when McHugh and the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond spoke in Boston.
His involvement in Irish American affairs was such that he was already very well known in Ireland before he decided to return to his native land in 1913. In July he commenced a round of meetings in Sligo and Leitrim on the subject of the Home Rule movement, which had the backing of the agrarian organisation, the United Irish League (UIL). The League which was very well established in America, probably financed McGurrin’s three Irish tours between 1913 and 1915. A farewell dinner in his honour in Shanley’s Hotel, New York was organised by the Leitrim Society (recently reformed by Patrick Hayes, a native of Carrick-on-Shannon). Among those invited was Rev Patrick Forde, Newbridge, a priest in Brooklyn.
One of McGurrin’s first meetings in Ireland took place in July in Drumkeerin. The president of the local branch of the UIL Myles McKenna of Liskillew, chaired the meeting while the secretary Tom McNulty, Shivdellagh in the course of his report reminded the crowd of those who had been evicted in the recent past, including John McGrail, Patrick McGourty, Miss Clancy, Francis Flynn(Drummons), William Porteus and the Travers children.
McGurrin himself told the crowd that ‘we are assembled here to celebrate several successive steps on the pathway to freedom …..let old feuds and personal animosities be forgotten…let everything be forgotten except the welfare of our country - Ireland - the land for which you men of North Leitrim have struggled so unselfishly’.
At a Home Rule demonstration in Sligo the following September, McGurrin was adjudged to be the most effective speaker. A contemporary referring to his oratorical skills likened him to “a musician who can send his hearers into ecstasy”.
McGurrin went back to New York in October but returned again to Ireland the following December at the request of ‘the leader of the Irish party to take part in the Home Rule campaign’. One of his first official engagements was with Cardinal Logue who entertained him over a few days in February (1914) in Armagh. McGurrin briefed Logue on the American support for the Home Rule movement and he also presented him with some ‘remarkable testimonials’ from Cardinal Farley of New York.
After the Armagh visit, McGurrin headed for England where he spoke in a number of locations including London where he met members of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and also of the Liberal party in the anterooms of the House of Commons. By April he was back in Corry staying with his mother who had been widowed for a second time five years previously.
His second local meeting, following on that of Drumkeerin the previous year, took place in Newbridge where several bands brought an air of festivity to the proceedings. On the platform were Thomas Fallon, chairman, Leitrim Co Council, Peter Cawley, Coolaney, Alderman Foley, Sligo and Alderman Jinks, mayor of Sligo. The meeting was chaired by local man, Peter Dolan. In his speech McGurrin attacked Sir Edward Carson “and all his chorus of bigotry, abetted by the Tory gold and all the influence of wealth and fashion in the whole British Empire”.
The meeting concluded with the playing of ‘A Nation Once Again’ and later the speakers and other guests retired to Terry Kellys, Drumkeerin where they were served ‘a sumptuous repast’. The following month he addressed the crowd at the Sports held in Fahy, Ballinaglera in a field provided by James and John McMorrow . McGurrin urged his listeners to oppose any ‘dismemberment of Ireland’. Two corps of the paramilitary National Volunteers organisation which supported Redmond took part in some of the competitions.

On St Patrick’s Day 1915 McGurrin delivered a striking speech from an upper window of John Hamilton’s premises in Dowra. Home Rule, he stated, was still uppermost in people’s minds but that the Great War in Europe had cast a dark shadow but that “out of this gloom and sorrow and tragedy and carnage there will emerge an Ireland that will prove to all the world that as Irishmen of different religious beliefs, ardently cherished, could stand loyally together, fighting shoulder to shoulder and shedding their blood for the success of a common cause on the battlefields of empire , that in the new Ireland that is to be, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, without abating the fervour of their religious opinions, will be found cooperating together, working faithfully side by side for the welfare and prosperity of our common country”.
Later that year McGurrin made statements outlining his support for the recruitment of Irishmen into the British army something which John Redmond had advocated in his famous Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow speech in September 1914. At a meeting convened by Captain John O’Donnell of Larkfield House in the Market Yard in Dromahair, McGurrin declared that “the man who, under the cloak of Sinn Féinism….says that this is not Ireland’s cause at this crucial moment is stabbing Ireland in the back”.
A week later, in Sligo he said that on his return to America he would inform his audience of the real situation in Ireland and not the one depicted by Roger Casement, Jim Larkin and Sheehy-Skeffington who he referred to as traitors to the cause of Ireland. He also denounced the Clan na Gael organisation in America, which had a physical force tradition and also its leader, the veteran Fenian John Devoy.
At this Sligo meeting also, James McGurrin promised to aid the effort to erect a memorial in Sligo to PA McHugh who had inspired him from a young age. He also published a poem in tribute to his friend Rev Charles Flynn PP, Manorhamilton, a native of Ballinaglera who had died in Dublin in August.

1916 Rising

McGurrin was back in the US just six months before the 1916 Rising, an event which would have far-reaching effects on Irish political life in general and on Redmond’s Irish parliamentary party in particular. After the execution of the leaders loyalties began to shift and in the general election of 1918 the IPP was virtually wiped out by the revitalised Sinn Féin party. Both Casement and Skeffington who he had denounced at the recruiting meeting in Dromahair were dead as was his fellow north Leitrim man Seán MacDiarmada. (Years later he was to refer to his “fond memories of Seán McDermott”). Hanna, Sheehy Skeffington’s widow went on a tour of American states in the aftermath of the Rising promoting the republican cause and gradually political opinion began to change . By the end of 1917 James McGurrin himself was an open supporter of Sinn Féin.
In the same year McGurrin became engaged to Anna R Donohue and the following year they married. More familiarly known as Nance she was a daughter of Michael Donohue (1864-1958), a native of Killeshandra, Co Cavan and a Democratic member of the American Congress 1911-1914. Donohue held the position of real estate assessor for the city of Philadelphia from 1919 to 1946. Nance frequently accompanied James on his visits to Ireland. She died in 1966. The couple had no children.
A new American-Irish organisation The Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) was founded in New York in 1916. James McGurrin became a member and in June 1919 he was elected on to its national council. The FOIF was heavily influenced by Devoy’s republican Clan na Gael organisation whose aim was ”to encourage and assist any movement that will tend to bring about the national independence of Ireland”. McGurrin was one of the main speakers at a public commemoration of the Easter Rising, held in Washington on 27 April 1919 which put a huge emphasis on the legitimacy of Ireland’s claim for independence in the aftermath of the Great War. A few weeks later Eamon de Valera arrived in the US on a fund raising and publicity tour.
De Valera failed to get recognition for an Irish republic and he became embroiled in a power struggle with the American Irish leaders John Devoy and Judge Cohalan. McGurrin sided with Devoy and Cohalan and voiced his opposition to de Valera at a rally in the Bronx in October 1919. He retained an antipathy towards de Valera preferring to engage with John Dillon and his son James of the famous Ballaghadereen political dynasty.
1920 was a significant year in the life of the McGurrin family both in America and Ireland. James’ brother Patrick had joined the Newbridge Company of the IRA which was led by Stephen Flynn, later a member of Dáil Éireann. Newbridge was strategically important during the War of Independence in that nearby Corry Lodge and environs were used as both as a training camp and recovery centre for wounded volunteers. Local leaders from other areas including Billy Pilkington, Sligo visited Corry regularly. Meanwhile in New York, James put his name forward as a Democratic candidate for the American Congress election in the 18th Congressional District in New York. Despite “putting up a stiff fight” he was beaten in the primary by the incumbent James F Carew who went on to win the seat again.

New York County Courthouse

In the run up to the Truce agreed between the British Government and the IRA, in July 2021, James McGurrin issued a statement on behalf of the Friends of Irish Freedom: “Peace with honour is desired but at the same time we must insist that it come together with what the people have fought for so long - the establishment of an Irish Republic….. From our local point of view at this time, the danger is that Lloyd George, in whom we have little faith may be manoeuvring to break down the morale of the republican army. Unless the move is a sincere one on the part of the British, a truce would have that effect. Lloyd George has yet to prove himself”.
The subsequent Treaty and Civil War tore Irish America apart. The FOIF, through Diarmaid Lynch, one of the 1916 leaders and a close friend of McGurrin, visited Ireland in a vain effort to bring about a cessation of hostilities between the pro and anti Treatyites. It would appear that Lynch and McGurrin eventually recognised and supported the first Free State government.
In the early years of the 1920s McGurrin had become a very successful businessman working first as advertising manager of Marks Arnheim Inc. one of the largest clothing houses in America and then as managing director of the Irish Enterprises Corporation. In was in the latter capacity that he visited Ireland some eight months after the end of the Civil War, the terrible effects of which, in his view, were unparalleled in Irish industrial history and were similar to the situation confronted by Abraham Lincoln at the close of the American Civil War.
The Irish Enterprises Corporation was founded in New York in 1922 by James Molloy, a native of Ardara, Co Donegal. Its objects were; ‘to feature and sell Irish tweeds, worsted hosieries, sweaters, knitwear of the finer quality’. The corporation was reorganised in October 1923 with a capital of two hundred thousand dollars for expansion. “The tweeds produced by James Molloy in the Donegal heirlooms are the finest ever imported into America”, according to McGurrin.
Two other businessmen, the brothers Stephen and Michael McPartland, near neighbours of the McGurrins in Newbridge, were directors of the Irish Enterprises Corporation. Stephen McPartland had played a very important role in Irish American politics. He was one of the founder members of the United Irish League of America and he took the Parnellite side in the aftermath of the divorce case. He accompanied the remains of John Devoy to Dublin in 1929 for reinterrment in Glasnevin Cemetery.
One of the most enduring pursuits of James McGurrin was his study of Irish history and culture and he found an outlet for his interest in the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) of which he was first a member, then secretary general and finally president general over a long number of years. Although it was non-political and non-sectarian since its establishment in1897, its influence was significant especially in the 1930 and 40s in strengthening cultural bonds between America and Ireland.
For example when Professor Eoin Macneill visited the US in 1930 on a mission to develop departments of Celtic studies at university level he was given a platform for his proposals by the AIHS and by James McGurrin who himself assiduously pursued the same objective in the case of Harvard, Yale and Columbia his old alma mater.
McGurrin also proposed a scheme whereby Irish third level students of history would interchange with American students. A feature of the work of the AIHS was its commemoration of Irish Americans especially those who had contributed in important ways to the country of their adoption. Among those thus honoured were Commodore John Barry , Thomas Moore and John Boyle O’Reilly.

Irish Literature

Invariably, Irish Government representatives made contact with the AIHS, including in the late 20s, General Seán MacEoin, Minister of Defence, James N Dolan TD from Manorhamilton and Michael McWhite, representative of the Free State Government. Later in 1938 Robert Brennan, the Fianna Fail US minister was formally welcomed by McGurrin and by De Valera’s old adversary Judge Cohalan.
One of McGurrin’s great interests was Irish literature and on different occasions he discussed Irish works with WB Yeats, Oliver St John Gogarty and Padraic and Mary Colum.
The great politician and orator Edmund Burke was one of his heroes about whom he wrote and lectured. He published letters regularly in Irish and American newspapers on topics as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, Celtic studies and race relations. He frequently spoke on various American radio stations on themes usually centered around the Christian way of life. His biographical pieces included tributes to Judge John Goff and Diarmaid Lynch. However, his magnum opus in the field of biography was his book, published in 1948, on the life and times of Burke Cockran who, as already noted, had a critical influence on him while he was still a teenager.

Julius A Archibald

Much of James McGurrin’s professional life was in the business sphere but in 1934 he entered the legal world when he was appointed Deputy County Court Clerk of New York.
In 1938 he was made first deputy, the year that office was combined with that of Commissioner of Jurors, a position which he found extremely rewarding. He was now in a position to influence legal appointments and he didn’t hesitate particularly when the advancement of people of colour and of women was an issue. In 1958 McGurrin now Court Clerk for New York County, was instrumental in the appointment of Julius A Archibald to the office of Deputy Court Clerk of New York, the first black lawyer ever to hold this position. Another major change he helped to bring about concerned women serving on juries. In June 1937 in his capacity as Assistant Jury Commissioner he administered the oath to the first women, twenty five in all, who were chosen to serve as jurors in the history of New York state. His work for those denied the full rights of citizens extended also to his radio broadcasts which included such topics as ‘The Crusade for Freedom’ and ‘The Crusade for Interracial Justice’.
In September 1950, McGurrin was one of the founders of an organisation titled ‘The John Boyle O’Reilly Committee for Interracial Justice’. Named after the Irish poet and editor of the Boston Pilot newspaper who was unrelenting in his protests against the injustices inflicted on coloured Americans, the committee comprised New Yorkers of Irish descent who were working to achieve equality for the black community.
One of the first public acts of this new group was a ceremony at the grave of Pierre Toussaint a black slave of Haitian origin who died in 1853.
Freed at the age of 45, Toussaint, together with his wife devoted his life to caring for orphan children and victims of the 1849 cholera epidemic in New York, helping Haitian and Cuban emigrants and supporting education for black children.
James McGurrin died peacefully on 13 April 1971 at his home, 60 Gramercy Park, New York. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Author Prin Duignan
(For assistance in the research for this article, thank you to Tommy O’Rourke, Mickie Harrison, Aodh Flynn, Pat Duignan and Josephine Hogan, née McGurrin).