Shamrock diplomacy – Pauline Murphy on the birth of a St Patrick’s Day US presidential tradition

A ‘skull-cracking blackthorn from generations of pugnacious Munster men’ was presented to US president Taft

It was February 25th, 1910, when a telegraph message arrived for Edward Maguire Lahiff at his home in Monkstown, Co Cork. The message was from America and in it was a request of presidential proportions:

“To Edward M Lahiff, Fir Hill, Monkstown, Cork, Ireland. President Taft coming to Chicago, St Patrick’s Day, guest of Irish Fellowship Club.Want him to stand on Irish soil. Ship immediately by express, twelve square feet best possible Irish sod with shamrocks growing, also historic blackthorn.’’

Edward Maguire Lahiff was born in 1862, the son of a shopkeeper in Whitegate, east Cork. When he emigrated to the United States at the age of 24, he found employment as a coal deliveryman but he quickly built a solid journalistic career and worked for the Chicago Herald. He also became an important cog in the Irish American political machine. He served as secretary to Chicago mayors and was leader of the Illinois Democrat Party. Lahiff also campaigned for the Irish Land League and Home Rule.

Lahiff would make a number of trips back home; one trip in 1895 was made for Ellen Malone, a farmer’s daughter from Ballyhea whom he married.

In 1910 Lahiff carried out the duty he was tasked with. To source the sod he went to LJ Engledew at Rostellan Castle near his native Whitegate. Four large strips of sod were cut from the grounds of Rostellan with shamrock sown into it. Lahiff didn’t go far from his own door for the blackthorn stick. He cut it from a tree at Fir Hill, Monkstown, and it was described in the Chicago Tribune as a “furnished skull-cracking blackthorn from generations of pugnacious Munster men”.

The Cork Examiner of February 28th, 1910, reported that Lahiff had successfully sent the sod and stick off to America from Cobh on board the White Star line steamer The St Louis. The special package from Cork arrived in Chicago six days before St Patrick’s Day. A local florist was tasked with the upkeep of the sod before it was then put on display, along with the blackthorn stick, in La Salle Hotel for a few days leading up to St Patrick’s Day.

The hotel was overwhelmed with the amount of people who wanted to see and touch the sod from Ireland. Mostly Irish people, many of them wept when they saw the green grass with shamrocks. One journalist remarked that the sod was kept fresh by the many Irish tears that fell on it. Because so many people had picked pieces off it, by St Patrick’s Day the large 12ft roll of sod had been reduced and sported bald patches.

The Irish Fellowship Club in Chicago also commissioned a chair for President William Howard Taft to use during his historic visit. The chair for the rotund commander-in-chief was crafted by local Irish carpenters with the president’s initials W.H.T carved in its head. The chair is now on display in Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Centre and is known as the presidential chair. Only those known as noble guests have sat on the chair in recent years, such as Irish presidents Robinson and McAleese, many taoisigh and a plethora of Irish American senators and mayors.

When President Taft arrived in Chicago March 17th, 1910, he led the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade with his large entourage from the 33rd Street train station to La Salle hotel. In the luxurious hotel the Irish Fellowship Club hosted their annual St Patrick’s Day banquet in the hotel’s Red Room where fellowship president MJ Faherty presented the US president with the blackthorn stick from Monkstown. President Taft then took to his feet to give a brief speech as he stood on the sod from east Cork.

President Taft took the blackthorn and sod back to the White House even though Chicago Cubs owner Charlie Murphy, a son of Irish emigrants, offered the Irish Fellowship Club $100 for the sod. Murphy had planned to set the sod at the home plate in the Cubs ballpark but instead it went to Washington.

President Taft, like many American presidents before and after, had Irish roots. His great-great-great grandfather Robert Taft was born in Co Louth and left for America as a young man.

President Taft’s attendance at the St Patrick’s Day event in Chicago was a recognition of the growing Irish vote in American politics, a vote which in the decades after resulted in an Irish Catholic becoming president of the United States.

As for the man who sent the sod from Rostellan and the blackthorn from Monkstown, Edward Lahiff died April 10th, 1914, and is buried under an ivy-covered celtic cross in the Old Graveyard Aghada, not far from the grounds of Rostellan.

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