The last Irish-born mayor of New York City

Extraordinary Emigrants: As New York prepares to elect a new mayor, we remember William O’Dwyer

New York City’s 100th mayor William O’Dwyer. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

New York City’s 100th mayor William O’Dwyer. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

In June 1910, a steamship sailed across the Atlantic from the French port of Cherbourg with a young Mayo man on board. After two years of study at the Irish college in Salamanca in northwestern Spain the 22-year-old seminarian had abandoned his vocation for a new life on a new continent. His time in North America would certainly prove memorable and he would leave a lasting impression on his adoptive home city of New York, eventually rising to the office of mayor of NYC.

William O’Dwyer, a native of Lismiraun in central Mayo, was the son of Patrick and Bridget O’Dwyer, who ran the local national school in Bohola, and the eldest of their 11 children. His abandonment of his studies would not have been well received back home and was likely a key factor in his decision to immigrate to the United States rather than return to Ireland.

Upon arrival in New York he followed in the footsteps of many immigrants before him and worked a series of odd jobs on various construction sites, in bars and hotels and on the boats and ships that called at the city’s port. In 1917, some seven years after he first stepped foot in the city, he obtained his naturalisation papers and decided to join the NYPD. While working as a clerk for the city’s Police Commissioner he did night classes at Fordham University law school. He earned his law degree in 1924 and soon after passed the bar exams and began practicing law privately from 1925.

In 1932 O’Dwyer came to prominence when he sponsored an American tour by the Mayo Gaelic football team, then Connacht Champions and his own home team. In New York this allowed him to mix with the city’s elite, cement his position among the large Irish-America community and let those back in Ireland know he was prospering. Soon after he was appointed to the Brooklyn Magistrates Court and by 1940 had been appointed King’s County (Brooklyn) district attorney.

The borough was then home to “Murder, Inc” a notorious hit squad made up of Italian and Jewish-American gangsters who were responsible for hundreds of murders over the previous decade. As the local district attorney, O’Dwyer played a prominent role in securing convictions against several members of the outfit.That raised his media profile considerably and helped secure his reputation as someone who was tough on crime.

O’Dwyer ran against the legendary Italian American Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945 in the 1941 New York mayoral election on behalf of the Democratic Party. Though unsuccessful, O’Dwyer polled well and lost the race by a relatively narrow margin.

In the wake of Pearl Harbour, O’Dwyer enlisted in the US Army in early 1942. He was first awarded the rank of major, but later rose to brigadier-general and was appointed by President Roosevelt to lead the economic section of the Allied Control Commission in southern Italy in February 1944. His role was largely a humanitarian one and he ensured the people of the region remained fed and food production was increased. He became the executive director of the War Refugee Board in January 1945 and remained so until the end of the war, earning the Legion of Merit, a military award given to US service personal for exceptionally meritorious conduct. He was responsible for supplying food to the recently liberated concentration camps among other duties.

O’Dwyer returned to New York in time to join the mayoral race and with La Guardia retiring, easily won and was elected the 100th mayor of New York City in November 1945. He reputedly celebrated his inauguration to the tune “It’s a Great Day for the Irish” and while he was mayor-elect, worked closely with his one-time rival, La Guardia to ensure a smooth and amicable transfer of power.

His personable nature and willingness to overturn long established traditions, such as doubling the subway fare, helped him bring about his vision

As mayor he was tasked with managing the city as it reverted to a peacetime economy, dealt with the debts accumulated during the war years and oversaw the financing of several large-scale construction projects, including the new United Nations headquarters. His personable nature and willingness to overturn long established traditions, such as doubling the subway fare, helped him bring about his vision.

O’Dwyer was re-elected in 1949, but resigned the following year and was appointed the new US Ambassador to Mexico by President Truman. His final years in the public eye were marred by allegations of corruption and potential links with organised crime though no charges were ever brought against him. He stepped down as ambassador in 1952 to make way for the incoming Republican administration, but remained in Mexico City for the next eight years before returning to NYC where he died of heart failure at the age of 74. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The race to find a successor for current NYC mayor Bill de Blasio is well underway,so it is an opportune time to look back on the last time an Irish immigrant held that prestigious office. William O’Dwyer didn’t hail from a political dynasty or come from great wealth, but instead exemplifies how an immigrant of modest means can still bring about transformative change for the better in their adoptive homeland. How different might the history of New York have been if a young Irish seminarian had never left Salamanca?

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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