Letters reveal Roosevelt's fascination with Celtic mythology

Fri, Jul 22, 2011, 01:00

A US president’s interest in Cúchulain, Queen Maeve and other figures from Irish mythology has come to light following the sale in Dublin of papers relating to Theodore Roosevelt.

An archive, including letters sent from the White House, Washington signed by President Roosevelt, has been acquired for the State by the National Library of Ireland, which paid €1,800 for the lot at Mealy’s auction of rare books on Tuesday.

The documents show the Republican president, who served from 1901-1909, had a keen interest in Irish history and literature and was remarkably aware of developments in pre-Independence Ireland. Roosevelt corresponded with TP Gill who was secretary of the Irish Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (1900-1923), a former MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster (1885-1892) and editor of the Dublin Daily Express(1898-1899). He was an uncle of Tomás Mac Giolla, former president of the Workers Party and TD for Dublin West,  who died last year.

In a letter dated 1903, sent from his New York home in Oyster Bay which was known as “the summer White House”,   Roosevelt revealed his reading list included Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemneand Douglas Hyde’s Literary History of Ireland.

His interest delighted the artistic establishment in Dublin. Lady Gregory subsequently wrote to the president thanking him for reading her book and welcoming his support. She deplored the “discredit cast on the old Irish literature by the English professor of ancient literature in Trinity College Dublin” who had described her book as “so very low” and “his fellows who called it ‘all either silly or indecent or religious’.”

Her letter had the desired effect and resulted in a publicity coup and major boost for the “Celtic Twilight” movement in Ireland. In a development almost unthinkable today, an incumbent American president wrote a major essay titled “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in which he demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the legends of “Finn and the Fianna” the “Dun Bull of Cooley”, the “Children of Lir” and other mythical figures. The essay, accompanied by striking colour illustrations of Cúchulain and Queen Maeve by the renowned illustrator JC Leyendecker, was published in The Centurymagazine in New York in 1907. The National Library of Ireland has an original copy.

Roosevelt was enthralled and declared: “It is much to be desired that, wherever possible, chairs of Celtic [studies] should be established in our leading universities.”

Theodore Roosevelt, who had Dutch and Irish roots, was born in 1858 and died in 1919. He served as the 26th US president and famously gave his name to toy “Teddy Bears” following a much-publicised hunting incident in 1902. His distant cousin Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) served as the 32nd US president from 1933-1945.