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  • The Sinn Féin Millionaire: James O’Mara and the First American Bond-Certificate Drive, 1919–1921
  • Stephen Kelly

Studies of the Irish government’s first bond-certificate drive in the United States from 1919 to 1921 agree that James O’Mara (1873–1948) made an important contribution to its success. Arthur Mitchell writes that “much of the credit for the efficient organization of the campaign belongs to James O’Mara.”1 Katherine O’Doherty argues that his arrival to America was critical for the development of an effective organization.2 In the early 1960s, Patricia Lavelle, O’Mara’s eldest daughter, offered a substantial revision of O’Mara’s contribution to the bond-certificate drive, though her book verges on a hagiographical tribute rather than an objective historical study.3 New evidence recently uncovered from Irish archival institutions, together with access to O’Mara’s personal papers, allows a critical reassessment of O’Mara’s role in the organization and floating of the bond-certificate drive.4 [End Page 75]

The first bond-certificate drive, which raised approximately $5,100,000, helped to keep both the political and revolutionary movements alive in Ireland during the country’s struggle for independence.5 The mission was a crucial factor in the struggle to convince people in Ireland, Britain, and throughout the world that the Irish Republic existed and that Dáil Éireann was its legitimate government. From the moment O’Mara arrived to America in November 1919 as financial director of the external loan campaign, he assumed personal responsibility for the entire enterprise. He was Sinn Féin’s key political operative in the United States, a superlative administrator, and a tireless advocate of the effort. Under his instructions, offices were established in all major cities; he supervised the training of staff and the production of literature; at the same time, he trained his organizers in the art of collecting money. Most important, in conjunction with Eamon de Valéra, he devised the mechanisms for how the bond-certificate drive would operate. Under his instructions each subscriber would receive a certificate of indebtedness of the Irish Republic, which was non-interest bearing.

O’Mara was often forceful, stubborn, and strong-headed. At times, his single-mindedness was his greatest defect. As a self-made millionaire, with an excellent business mind, he resented any interference in his affairs while in America. These resentments manifested in O’Mara’s hostile dealings with the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF), as well as his antagonistic relationship with de Valéra. Earlier historiography has underestimated just how bitter personal relations were between O’Mara and de Valéra. Eventually, de Valera’s wish to retain sole authority of Irish finances in America led O’Mara to resign as Sinn Féin’s financial director and as trustee of Dáil Éireann in May 1921.

Born in County Limerick on August 6, 1873, O’Mara was the eldest surviving son among seven sons and five daughters. He had a comfortable childhood. His father, Stephen O’Mara, owned a successful bacon business and was MP for Upper Ossory in Kilkenny South for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). In 1888 O’Mara moved to Kildare to attend Clongowes Wood College. Following the death of his uncle in the summer of 1893, O’Mara, only twenty-one, was [End Page 76] appointed commission agent for his father’s bacon business in London. He spent the next two decades in London where he became a successful provision broker and immersed himself into the bacon trade.

In 1900, as his family business flourished, O’Mara succeeded his father as MP for the IPP in Kilkenny South. During his early years in the House of Commons he devoted much of his energy toward championing local constituency matters. One of O’Mara’s most famous contributions at Westminster was his successful navigation of a bill through the House of Commons in 1903 that made St. Patrick’s Day an official bank holiday in Ireland.6 It was O’Mara’s involvement with the IPP’s policy of non-cooperation and obstruction at Westminster that was his finest contribution during his early years as a...