Despite the rather obvious origins of my name, I often dreaded answering the question, “Are you Irish?” Growing up Catholic in Ogden, far from extended family, and in the land of the Utah Latter-day Saints, seemed to leave me unprepared to discuss what it means to be Irish-American.
Yet, from the archived pages of the Standard-Examiner, I recently learned about many interesting events related to my heritage that occurred in my own hometown. One happened one hundred years ago this week when two prominent Irish-American men, Don Maguire and Eamon de Valera, met at Ogden’s Union Station.
Maguire was born in 1852 into a large Irish Catholic family in Vermont. Too young to fight alongside his four brothers in the American Civil War, he eventually made his way west, working in mining and frontier trading. He also studied math, engineering, and languages at what then was called Santa Clara College in California.
After completion of the first intercontinental railroad in 1869, Maguire and his extended family moved to Ogden. He led commercial trading and supply expeditions throughout the Southwest, and developed mines and real estate ventures in Northern Utah and Weber County.
The Maguire family hosted the first known Catholic Mass in Ogden and helped construct the current St. Joseph’s Church building, completed in 1902. Maguire lived just a few blocks from the church, at 549 25th Street, in a red brick duplex that still stands today.
In his later years, Maguire organized mineral shows and wrote books about his many travels and adventures. He was killed in 1933, hit by a car while walking across 24th Street on his way to church.
De Valera was equally adventurous. He too was American-born, the son of a Spanish father and Irish mother. He joined the Irish independence movement and commanded an armed squadron in Dublin during the legendary but unsuccessful Easter Rising of 1916.
Unlike other insurgents, de Valera avoided the death sentence after the rebellion. He was not well known, but maybe also was spared because of his American birth. In 1916, England was seeking support from the United States during World War I.
After he got out of prison, de Valera gained power in the movement and toured the United States in 1919. He used the title “President of the Irish Republic,” an entity which did not yet formally exist. His trip sought official recognition for the emerging nation, raised money, and encouraged American popular support for Irish independence.
In the years after de Valera’s tour, the Irish endured a war with the British and suffered though a civil war before finally winning independence. De Valera served multiple terms both as Taoiseach (prime minister) and President of the Republic of Ireland. He died in 1975.
A century ago this week, on July 16, 1919, the rising young Irish leader and the aging Irish-American adventurer sat together in a car in front of Ogden’s Union Station. Maguire officially welcomed de Valera to town. The old man, stirred with emotion, described his longtime dream of Irish freedom.
De Valera then stood in the car and gave a short speech in support of Irish independence. He also displayed, for the first time in Utah, the newly-recognized Irish green, white, and orange flag. He returned to his train and left for San Francisco to address the Ancient Order of Hibernians there.
I was astounded that I never knew about these events. I lived two blocks from Maguire’s brick home. I passed it hundreds of times while walking to the Weber County Library or to the old Deseret Gym.
I was an altar boy at St. Joseph. I walked across (sometimes ran if I was late) the very same street where Maguire was killed. I never knew I was retracing the fading footsteps of one of Utah’s best known Irish-Catholics.
I also read and watched movies about de Valera. Alan Rickman famously depicted him in the 1996 drama Michael Collins. I never knew de Valera strolled across Union Station’s waxed checkerboard-tiled floors and emerged to gaze upon the western slope of Mount Ogden, just like me.
I often displayed and waved the Irish flag, or wore its tricolors. Not once did I realize that the now-familiar flag had made its Utah debut just steps from where I lived.
For years, I foolishly attributed my ignorance of all things Irish to the place where I lived and who lived nearby. The centennial of the de Valera/Maguire meeting proves that my own Irish-American history and culture always was accessible to me. I only had to open my eyes to find it.
It is exciting to know I can discover my Irish heritage in this dry mountain desert place I call home, as well as in the faraway lush green hillsides of Erin’s auld sod.