The Irish face of US Liberty

In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected for a second term of office

In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected for a second term of office. He decided it was time to redesign the US gold coinage which had remained unchanged for more than 50 years, writes Eileen Battersby.

Impressed with the quality of ancient Greek coinage, he asked Saint-Gaudens, whom he had appointed three years earlier as advisor to the Senate Commission, to design a new look for the existing $10 and $20 gold pieces.

Saint-Gaudens was excited by the project but soon discovered he had a problem - he couldn't "see" the face he needed. One day, or so the story goes, the sculptor set off to lunch alone at a village inn near his studio at Cornish, New Hampshire. A waitress came over to take his order. Saint-Gaudens looked up at her and realised he had found his model.

The "model" was Mary Cunningham, then 24 years old, and a native from Carrick,


Co Donegal, who had emigrated to the US with six of her brothers and one sister. The young woman's face with its straight classical nose and strong chin was exactly what Saint-Gaudens needed for his Miss Liberty.

Cunningham was wary. She thought posing for an artist meant having to take off one's clothes. Saint-Gaudens made it clear that he only needed her face.

The project went well. Difficulties emerged when the coins went into circulation and there were objections to the fact that the model for Liberty was Irish at a time when many New England employers and landlords kept a "no Irish need apply" policy. Little attention was placed on the artist himself being of Irish birth. In time, common sense triumphed and the coins were acknowledged as works of art.

Dublin specialist bookseller Enda Cunningham, founder of Cathach Books, first heard about Mary Cunningham, a cousin of his father, when he was a small boy. He never met Mary but the story of how her face came to symbolise America is part of his family's history. He has commissioned plaques honouring both Mary and Saint-Gaudens to be unveiled later this year. To mark the centenary of the death of Saint-Gaudens, an hour-long documentary, An American Master, has already premiered in the US. All eyes in Ireland may well look tomorrow to the Parnell monument, while in the US, Americans will look to their heroes, from Lincoln to Shaw, as depicted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and remember an American master. - EB