One of Syracuse’s most intriguing mayors is Democrat James McGuire, who in 1896 bucked a Republican establishment to be elected. Onondaga County Court Judge Joseph Fahey has written a biography of McGuire, James K. McGuire: Boy Mayor and Irish Nationalist. In his six years in office, McGuire built 38 schools, initiated extensive street paving and was a key figure in the creation of the Everson Museum and the Carnegie Library.
Grant Reeher (GR): How did you come to write a book about James McGuire?
Joseph Fahey (JF): It started as a project that was requested by the Irish-American Cultural Institute. They were going to do an anthology of Irish-American leaders in [Onondaga] County, and they knew I was related to him, so they asked me to write a profile and I wrote the profile. They didn’t do the anthology, and I took it to the American Conference of Irish Studies in New York and delivered it as a paper down there, and Jim MacKillop at Syracuse University Press was in the audience and went on to offer me to write a biography, and I agreed to do it.
GR: And what is the nature of your relation to him?
JF: He was my mother’s uncle. He was my great uncle. My grandfather’s older brother.
GR: What made you want to devote all the time that you did to write the book?
JF: From the profile, I thought he was a pretty fascinating character in so many chapters of his life. Both as a mayor of Syracuse — he was pretty prominent on the national stage in Democratic politics and state-wide politics — and then he would become a very close confidant of Eamon de Valera’s (Irish nationalist and president of Ireland). And he was involved in the Irish independence movement both above and below the radar screen. So I thought he was pretty interesting, and I wanted to learn more about him.
GR: Tell me how you went about researching his life.
JF: It was quite an undertaking, because he didn’t leave any papers or diaries or correspondence or anything behind. So I wound up going into the archives of City Hall and copying some of the correspondence from his administration. I spent probably a couple of years of nights and weekends in the local history section of the library, and I pretty much had a day by day account of his six years as mayor of Syracuse. I was able to access the American-Irish Historical Society’s archives, and then I was able to get cooperation from (Rep. James) Walsh about the Congressional investigations (McGuire) was involved in, and the archivists of Eamon de Valera’s papers in Ireland were very helpful, too. So, in the end, I was able to put together a pretty good picture of his life.
GR: Now why did he not leave anything of his own?
JF: I think because he had what I call this above-the-radar, below-the-radar existence. He was involved in a very secret organization called Clan na Gael that raised money for the Irish Republican brotherhood. He was involved in some gun-running activities of his own, and I think that because he had this sort of clandestine wall of his life, he deliberately didn’t keep these things.
GR: I read in your book that as a boy, McGuire was sent to a German school because they had the best reputation at the time. But the instruction was in German. How common was that then in the schools?
JF: I don’t know exactly how common it was at that point. I mean, the schools he went to were really offered by the Lutheran churches on the North Side. He became fluent in German, and he actually could campaign in German, he could talk to the German audiences in their native tongue, which was pretty effective at that time.
GR: How did he go about running for mayor?
JF: He had actually been approached by the Democratic Party before he was 21 years old to run for school commissioner and [state] assemblyman, and he declined both nominations. And after he was responsible … to support the family … after my great grandfather died and he established himself in business, he decided to run for mayor. And he ran an insurgent campaign — got the nomination of the Democratic side as an insurgent and then ran against a divided Republican party.
GR: When he becomes mayor, he particularly was a builder. He was responsible for 38 schools and also responsible for a lot of street paving, which was very significant back then in terms of economic development. What informed that nature of his approach to being a mayor?
JF: I think he had always recognized from having to leave school as a child the value of education. But he also saw that if you didn’t invest in education, especially in the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, you are going to have pretty devastated, depressed homeless people in the city, and he was very concerned about that. He was very concerned about offering constructive programming even in the Onondaga County penitentiary. I think he really placed a real value on education, and he had a special love for the library. He was a trustee of the library before he was mayor. That was the only other public office he ever held.
GR: Now, in those days, ethnic politics was really big. Did he try to create patronage for Irish-Americans?
JF: He did create patronage for the Irish, but I have to say about McGuire, he created patronage for anybody who was for him. So he didn’t discriminate along ethnic lines. If you were German or if you were Irish or you weren’t, he would find something for you.
GR: You’re a Democrat. This gentleman was a Democrat. Are Faheys all Democrats? Are McGuires all Democrats?
JF: Yeah, we are. Somebody once said to me that he wondered if I was going to become a Republican, and I said that if there is going to be a Republican Fahey someday, it will be somebody other than me.
GR: What defeated him as mayor?
JF: I think there was a certain amount of McGuire fatigue. You know he had three terms. He seemed to acknowledge that his focus had become devoted to running for governor, and that became a distraction from Syracuse, and he thought that hurt him with the Syracuse populous. And then the Republicans, they indicted him in the middle of his second term and created a legislative committee that took all the city’s prior debt and put it all into one budget, raising the tax rates, so they worked pretty hard to defeat him.
GR: He was a strong proponent of Irish independence, and that led him to advocate that the U.S. should side with the Germans in World War I, because the Germans were backing the Irish rebels. And he wrote some well known and controversial books at that time: The King, The Kaiser and Irish Freedom and What Germany Could Do for Ireland. He also housed and supported Irish rebels. Did he ever rethink any of those positions after World War I?
JF: I don’t think he ever rethought those positions; he surely didn’t apologize for them. What he did say — because he did become a subject of the congressional investigation and the propaganda at the conclusion of World War I — and his position was that at the time, (because) America had entered the war on the side of the British, he would pull his books from the market. He raised money for the American and British war effort, and was a loyal American, but up to the point where America was entering the war he felt that the Irish would do better if Germany prevailed over Britain.
GR: (He was) putting the interests of the Irish question above the American question in terms of World War I. If you think about that through the lens of the politics today, that would be a really, really chancy kind of move to make.
JF: It would, and it was. Wilson so loathed Irish-American leadership that he turned the forerunner of the FBI loose, and a number of them were charged with sedition and treason. Teddy Roosevelt recommended they all be interned in World War I.
GR: How long have you sat on the bench, and what kinds of cases typically come before you?
JF: I’ve been on the bench since Jan. 1, 1997, and I have handled almost exclusively felony-level criminal cases. I also handle annual reviews of civilly committed sex offenders under Article 10 of the mental hygiene law. But I would say 90 percent of my work is presiding over criminal trials.
GR: And are there any particular insights about law or society that this experience of being a judge has given you?
JF: I still believe that probably the greatest thing that we can do to avoid young people falling into lives of crime is to educate them and train them in ways that they can enter the workforce productively. H.G. Wells once said that history was a race between education and catastrophe, and I think that holds true, from what I see on the bench every day.
GR: Well, you’re sounding like James K. McGuire, I think — the focus on education. If you could change one thing about the criminal justice system, what would it be?
JF: I think I would probably say it would be wise to give judges more discretion over non-violent cases in which drugs and alcohol are a problem, to offer more treatment options that are out there. I think we are starting to see a lot of good work done in those areas, but I’m not sure if we’ll ever keep up with the number of cases coming through.
GR: Finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?
JF: That in my 64th year, I’m taking piano lessons.