Mayor of Chicago was persuaded to visit Ireland despite having no Irish roots

Diplomats arranged dispatch of reading material on Irish history

The State papers throw a spotlight on diplomatic efforts to curry favour when Chicago, whose municipal politics were steeped in the traditions of Irish-America, elected its first black mayor.

Harold Washington succeeded Irish-American Jane Byrne, the first female member of the cabinet of an Irish-American mayoral predecessor, Richard Daley.

Daley, a colossus of US municipal politics, made Chicago for a time as much as Irish-American dominated city as Boston or New York, if less renowned as such than either of them.

Washington had no immediately obvious connection to Ireland.


However, in early June 1983, shortly after his election, the Irish consulate in Chicago began wooing him. Liam Canniffe, the then consul general, wrote him a letter of congratulations, telling him that he would be "delighted to have the privilege of meeting with you sometime".

Washington responded with a note of thanks and an invite to the “1st Annual Heritage Costume Ball”.

A file on the mayor, released along with several reams of papers from Ireland’s consulate in Chicago, includes a partial transcript of an interview the mayor gave in March 1984 extolling the “fine leadership” the Irish had shown in Chicago and how “he had learned his politics from the Irish”.

The consulate pounced.

In a letter, dated May 4th, 1984, to the information section back in Dublin, vice consul Michael Gaffey, noted that the mayor had "on a number of occasions expressed an interest in learning more about Irish history. . .

“We would like therefore to provide him with some suitable reading material.”

A month later, several volumes including Ireland Since the Famine, by FSL Lyons; The Course of Irish History by TW Moody; and a copy of Speeches and Statements by Eamon de Valera, were winging their way to the mayor.

In August 1985, he was sent Ireland: A History by Robert Kee, and by December that year, the consulate was reporting to Dublin that the mayor was "very keen on making a visit to Ireland during his term of office (which expires in 1987)".

By May the following year, as part of a trip that included Ireland, Poland and Sweden, a schedule from the mayor’s office had him flying from Chicago to Dublin with Aer Lingus and, over the next two days, touring the city, hosting a dinner and breakfast briefing at the US embassy, visiting his opposite number at City Hall, having lunch at an unidentified “gothic castle”, going to the races and also the Abbey Theatre.

In the event, the visit was cancelled for reasons not disclosed in a cable from the consulate to Dublin and it seemed it would not be resurrected before the Chicago mayoral election in April 1987 – a contest Mr Washington won.

But the mayor’s evident interest in Ireland, and Irish diplomatic efforts at encouraging it, came to nought when, in November 1987, he suffered a heart attack at work and died.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times