Book: James K. McGuire: Boy Mayor and Irish Nationalist
Joseph E. Fahey is a judge in the New York State Unified Court System and an adjunct professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law. He is a member of the American Conference of Irish Studies, the American Irish Historical Society, and the Irish American Cultural Institute.
Can you briefly tell us about your new book, James K. McGuire?
James K. McGuire: Boy Mayor and Irish Nationalist is the only account of this man’s fascinating journey through American History. Forced to leave school at the age of thirteen to support his family and educated by his mother, he became an orator, author, publisher, public official and the leader of two Irish independence groups. He influenced American policy and politics on the local, state and national level. At the same time he engaged in the fight for Irish independence both overtly and clandestinely, legally and illegally. Investigated by the Justice Department and Congress, he was indicted twice but never convicted. He left his imprint on most of the events of his day without leaving a paper trail.
How did the tragedy he overcame when he was young influence McGuire’s success as a young adult?
In the wake of his younger brother’s death by drowning in a local canal, McGuire’s father sank into a deep alcohol fueled depression from which he never emerged. Leaving school at the age of thirteen, McGuire learned quickly that he had to rely on his intelligence and other talents to successfully provide for the family. He became a teetotaler who never wasted a moment of his life and devoted his energies to learning to become a gifted orator, prolific writer of public policy tracts and a talented, hardworking young businessman who was promoted early to the highest level of his employer’s company. His talents were such that he was offered and declined the nomination for various public offices before he was old enough to serve. When the time was right, he wrestled the Democratic Party nomination for mayor from the party bosses and became the youngest Mayor in Syracuse’s history.
As the youngest Mayor of a major city in the U.S. and after his successful election, how did McGuire’s influence help shape the City of Syracuse into what it is today?
While Syracuse has changed greatly over the past century, McGuire was responsible for the construction of the Carnegie Library and the municipal golf course at Burnet Park He championed the creation of an art museum. He was responsible for construction of thirty-eight of the City’s schools at the time he left office. He was the first mayor to serve under the White Charter or strong mayor form of government.
How do you think politics (in Syracuse and in general) have changed or remained the same since McGuire’s time?
Politics in Syracuse has changed from Republican Party dominance to Democratic Party dominance. After his defeat by Jay Kline in 1901, Syracuse did not have another democratic mayor for almost fifty years; The Republican Party’s grip on power was so strong that despite his achievements not one school or public building is named after McGuire. Political campaigns, which were primarily waged through the numerous newspapers that published several times per day, are now waged on the television, radio and internet at tremendous cost to the candidates. This has given campaign finance and large money contributors an outsized influence in many political races. It has also led to the rise of Political action committees and “super pacs” which are allowed to advocate and engage in political discourse on a semi-anonymous basis.
How has your background in law influenced your writing this book?
My legal training has caused me to be an exhaustive investigator and researcher in writing this book. McGuire left no personal papers, diaries or correspondence. I suspect the reason for that was due to his clandestine activities as head of the secret organization named Clan-na-Gael which worked for Irish independence, sometimes, not always legally. As a result I had to recreate his life from other sources. I collected hundreds of newspaper articles from the Local History section of the Central Library. I spent days in the City Hall Archives scanning his correspondence into a computer. I traveled to New York City to copy correspondence between him and other Irish-American leader. I obtained copies of his indictments and testimony about him from a U.S. Senate sub-committee that investigated his activities just prior to World War I. I obtained copies of all of his books and read them. I was fortunate to have assistance from the archivist in control of Eamon de Valera’s record and obtained correspondence between McGuire and Harry Boland. My first draft of the biography contained an almost daily chronicle of the six years he was Mayor and approached nine-hundred pages. Fortunately I had the assistance of excellent editors at the Press who brought it to a more manageable length.
How has your Irish heritage contributed to this book?
This book started as a profile requested by the local Irish-American Cultural Institute Chapter who knew that McGuire was my great-uncle. It originally was thirty-four pages long. Following a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Conference of Irish Studies in New York City in 2006, I was approached by Jim MacKillop of the Press who was interested in my writing a biography. Seven years later, it is about to be released. I would not have been approached to write the initial profile if I were not Irish and a descendant of McGuire. My Irish heritage fueled my curiosity and kept me engaged in the exhaustive investigation and journey learning about this fascinating individual and his life and times.
Do you think McGuire’s term did more good or harm to the City of Syracuse?
McGuire’s terms as mayor have to be weighed in the context of the forces that were arrayed against him. His first term was marked by a hostile Board of Aldermen who blocked many of his reform initiatives. During his second two terms, he was confronted by a united Republican Party locally and an aggressive and hostile Republican Administration at the state level. The utilized everything at their disposal to try and end his career, including imposing fiscal burdens on his administration and unsuccessfully prosecuting him for malfeasance. Still, he was able to build schools, a library, a golf course, a shelter for the male homeless population (and advocating a shelter for the female homeless) and establishing public works programs for the unemployed. On balance, I think he serves Syracuse well.
Do you think readers will have a positive view of McGuire after reading this book?
I believe readers will come away with admiration for someone who overcame the tragedies and obstacles that McGuire endured, accomplished all that he did in so many different undertakings and rose to the top of American and Irish-American politics.
Is there anything new we can expect from you in the near future?
I have just completed a book about one of the cases I defended while in practice as a lawyer. It is an account of a double homicide in which mental illness and the concept of legal insanity are paramount. I’m currently seeking a publisher for that work. I have also begun research and investigation into the life of an Irish Fenian leader, who was imprisoned by the British, exiled to America, sought political office here and was a target of an assassination attempt. It is the story of another fascinating life.