The ‘Boy Mayor of Syracuse’ — Oliver O’Hanlon on controversial nationalist ally James K McGuire

McGuire became an ally for Irish nationalists, including Eamon de Valera, in the United States

James K McGuire was only 26 years old when he was elected as mayor of Syracuse in New York in 1895. This earned him the nickname of “the Boy Mayor”. A popular politician, though sometimes controversial, he became an ally for Irish nationalists in the United States.

James Kennedy McGuire was born in New York in 1868 to a father from Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh and a mother from New York. He initially attended a German-speaking school in the city before going to a Christian Brothers’ school in Syracuse.

On leaving school at age 14, he worked in a variety of jobs including as a newsboy and worker in a candy factory before joining a hardware store and setting up his own store. A gifted orator, he soon set his sights on politics after being involved with several different unions.

The Democrat was elected to the office of mayor on a platform of “political, social and civil service reform”. He served three consecutive two-year terms in the Republican stronghold of Syracuse. Allied with the Tammany Hall contingent of his party, he was a populist reformer but his methods did not please everyone and he was twice indicted for malfeasance in office.


As mayor, he built over 38 schools in Syracuse and managed to attract a Carnegie library to the city by offering land to build it on as well as an annual grant for upkeep. McGuire also pushed for the founding of an art museum and public golf links during his tenure.

He said he got the idea for the golf course after a visit to England where he was told that golf was as much a sport for the poor man as it was for the rich man. Located in Burnet Park in the Tipperary Hill district of Syracuse, the course is one of the oldest in America. It has a shamrock-shaped bunker on the first hole.

Speaking in November 1900, McGuire said that he looked forward to seeing golfers play in the park where 300 hurlers could be seen playing hurling on any given Sunday.

Well connected and well thought of in the party, McGuire soon aspired to higher office.

In 1898, he made an unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic nomination for governor of New York State. The post ultimately went to Theodore Roosevelt.

Defeated in the 1901 municipal election, McGuire worked in the insurance business after leaving office. He was later employed as a lobbyist for an asphalt company, something which brought him great wealth.

McGuire was a member of many Irish fraternal organisations in the US, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus, as well as republican and nationalist ones such as Clan na Gael and the Friends of Irish Freedom.

In 1915, he published a 300-page book entitled The King, the Kaiser and Irish Freedom. This was followed in 1916 by another book, What Could Germany Do for Ireland? Both books advocated for greater cooperation between Ireland and Germany for the benefit of Ireland.

McGuire also wrote numerous newspaper articles on this subject. His books, which were banned in Britain and Canada, led to him being investigated by the US Department of Justice for German propaganda. He was also investigated by Congress on one occasion.

After the Easter Rising, McGuire helped raise money for a relief fund intended to help those affected. He also helped organise Eamon de Valera’s nationwide US tour and de Valera stayed at his home before attending a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

In New York, McGuire developed a friendship with Diarmuid Fawsitt. A member of Sinn Féin, Fawsitt had been in New York since 1918 and was appointed the Irish consul general to the city in 1919. Their relationship soured, however, over disagreements regarding Ireland’s future at the time of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

After the Dáil vote to approve the Treaty in January 1922, McGuire wrote to Fawsitt saying that his 14 fellow diners at a dinner party, who were all “friends of Ireland”, were “disgusted, all factions”.

McGuire confided to his friend that he “had a bad night with them” and that they thought that “you men who came here used the “Irish Republic” to extort money from your flesh and blood here”. McGuire continued that his companions thought that “the whole lot of you are bunco steerers and ‘con’ men and women”.

The term “bunco steerer” has fallen out of use but it can be explained as a “person who takes money or property from others by using lies or tricks”, in short – a swindler. He told Fawsitt that his “job as Consul of the Irish Republic is regarded as a fake”.

James K McGuire never returned to electoral politics and died aged 54 a little over 100 years ago in Washington DC in November 1923.