St. Patrick’s Day 1920 found strife in Ireland and turmoil in America. Eamon de Valera was coming to America. Those who cared, one way or the other, split into rival camps. De Valera was President of the self-proclaimed “Irish Free State” to those who believed in such a thing. To those who did not, such as the British Government, de Valera was considered a dangerous rebel and anarchist. Both factions were in full flower with the coming of the famous Irishman to springtime America.
American was buzzing after the end of World War I: Youth were charging blazes-bent into the Roaring ’20s…Feds were busting commies…Cops were chasing bank robbers…Bathtub gin was catching on…Women were bobbing their hair. Into that roiling time came Eamon de Valera to America as a stowaway, to raise $6 million for the cause of Irish independence. De Valera had commanded the last battalion to surrender at the Easter Rising of 1916. He had transcended a death sentence and a life prison term. In the spring of 1920, he was an escapee from detention for alleged complicity with the Germans during WWI.
On April 4, at the Lexington Hotel in New York, 3,500 Irish-Americans strained to comprehend every Irish word from the “lean leader on the lam." Then word flashed like magic to Jacksonville, Florida that de Valera was coming to that sleepy Southern city. Not surprisingly, a tizzy ensued. ”Not Our Affair!” screamed the local chapter of the America First Association. ”Ireland is not on the map of the United States,” said the America Firsters in ads in The Florida Times-Union and Florida Metropolis, ”The people of Jacksonville and all 100-percent Americans have their hands full attending to their own business.”
At the Duval Theater in Jacksonville, Bishop M.J. Curley of the Diocese of St. Augustine welcomed the Irish leader. The theater was packed for the Irish President. On a crowded stage, de Valera spoke passionately of an Ireland once and future free. At his side were Major J.M. Kelley of the American Legion and New York’s famous Irish Fighting 69th, Belfast Presbyterian minister J.A.H. Irvin, and Jacksonville Friends of Irish Freedom: the Rev. Michael Maher of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, P.A. Holt, the Rev. W.H. Hiller, Ben Burbridge, J.D. Burbridge, A.N. O’Keefe and John Crowley. The evening ended after midnight with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a "Hip-Hip-Hooray" for Ireland and de Valera.
Eamon de Valera would become the dominant figure in modern Irish history until his death in 1975.
SOURCE: a Jacksonville TIMES-UNION newspaper article dated March 22, 1998