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South Galway family’s American Odyssey

A Dublin City University professor has spent the past five years on the trail of an illustrious South Galway family. His journey, and that of the O’Shaughnessys, reaches from the ruins of the old homestead in Newhall to Illinois, Missouri and New York.

In his new book, An Irish-American Odyssey: The Remarkable Rise of the O’Shaughnessy Brothers, Colum Kenny, journalist and DCU professor of communications, details the struggle and success of the family between 1860 and 1950.

The O’Shaughnessys had been tenants of the Gregorys of Kiltartan. The father of the titular siblings was born in Newhall, outside Gort, within sight of Ballylee Tower, long before its Yeats’ association. He left for Boston during the Great Famine, settling eventually in Missouri, where he named his home Newhall.

The extraordinary upward trajectory of the brothers’ fortunes saw one become the first CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New York, another establish himself as Chicago’s leading Gaelic Revival artist and a third named captain of the ‘fighting Irish’ Notre Dame basketball team.

A long-established interest in Irish-America and a chance meeting between two ad men in the 1920s prompted Professor Kenny to document the rise of the brothers and the O’Shaughnessy family.

“I have been fascinated for years by Irish America. I don’t think people really understand it. They have a very simple notion of what it is sometimes and I think it is much more complex. It is not all political, it ranges across a whole range of activity and social classes,” Professor Kenny told The Clare Champion.

“Then I discovered one of these guys had met my grandfather in Dublin in the 1920s,” he added.

“He was in advertising and my grandfather worked in advertising and I thought this was really interesting and that is actually what led me into trying to find out more about the Shaughnessys themselves and what they were,” he continued.

Professor Kenny was particularly struck by James O’Shaughnessy.

“When I looked into his background, I saw how famous he was and I had never heard of him. He was an Irish man, an Irish-speaking man, and for more than 10 years he was the CEO of this big advertising association in the United States,” he outlined.

An Irish-American Odyssey: The Remarkable Rise of the O’Shaughnessy Brothers tells how James O’Shaughnessy started in journalism in Missouri in the 1890s and went on to be a “star reporter” in Chicago, before going into advertising. He toured Europe as publicity agent for Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show and even came to Galway.

By a quirk of fate, in 1912, James reviewed, for the Chicago Tribune, Lady Gregory’s controversial US production of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. He deemed it “a harmless hoax”.

James married Mary Hynes, the daughter of another Galway man living in America. According to Professor Kenny’s research, it is not known if she was related to Mary Hynes of Ballylee in Galway, whom the blind poet, Raftery, famously celebrated in one of his songs.

Thomas (Gus) became the leading Gaelic Revival artist in America, as well as a promoter of Italian-American heritage, campaigning successfully to have Columbus Day enacted a public holiday.

Two other brothers, John and Frank, were lawyers who practised together. John successfully defended a young Irish Presbyterian girl accused of theft in an infamous “white slavery” case. Frank was the first graduate of the University of Notre Dame asked back to give its annual commencement address. More recently, Barack Obama gave that annual talk at Notre Dame.

The family was related to that of Martin Shaughnessy, who later emigrated and is now well-known as one of the construction workers photographed eating lunch on a girder high over Manhattan.

Professor Kenny uses the O’Shaughnessys’ lives and careers to illustrate the breadth of Irish experience and influence in the United States. An Irish-American Odyssey outlines the carving of American legacies in art, advertising, journalism and public service, something Professor Kenny believes has been largely neglected to date.

“I have met a wide range of Irish-Americans and I feel their story has not been that well told,” he commented. “I think it helps illegal Irish immigrants in the United States now, that somebody talks about the significant social and economic contributions that Irish people have made. It is not just the political impact,” he concluded.

By Nicola Corless

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