Illuminations: The Italian Friend of Ireland
By: J. Michael Finn
The following quote is from a December 19, 1933, letter to Joseph McGarrity (an Irish-American political activist and leader of Clan na Gael): “In regard to the Green Little Island and her people, never have I ceased doing everything in my power to aid Ireland in attaining her goal.” The letter was written by an Italian-American from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Joseph J. Castellini was born of in Little Bethlehem, a small immigrant community on upper Vine Street, in Cincinnati, Ohio on March 14, 1876. Educated in the public schools, Castellini began his business career as a newsboy in Cincinnati. At the age of fifteen, he enrolled in a night business school, where he studied bookkeeping while working days as a clerk and fruit handler.
In 1896 he started in business shipping and distributing fruits and vegetables with two partners. He eventually struck out on his own under the name J. J. Castellini Company. Castellini became active in the community with Italian-American organizations, civic projects, and charitable causes. He was also active in the parish of Sacred Heart Church (the Italian parish) and St. Mary’s Church, his own parish in the Hyde Park area of Cincinnati. He was a member and officer in several Italian organizations, including the Italian Benevolent Association.
How did this Italian-American businessman get involved with Irish affairs? On January 19, 1898, Castellini married Eleanor Cooney, also a native of Cincinnati. It was through her influence and intervention that Joseph became interested in Irish affairs. Joseph is quoted as saying, “My wife converted me. And you know that a convert is the hottest man for a cause that you can find.” Joseph and Eleanor raised a family of five boys.
Castellini’s work for the Irish cause seems to have begun around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising. He and his wife were members of the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF), a national Irish organization which had several branches in Cincinnati. In the FOIF, Castellini became well-known nationally by Irish-Americans, as well as, by republicans in Ireland. He became a personal friend of Eamon De Valera. According to reports he may have provided some funding to assist the 1916 Easter Rising.
From 1919 until 1920, Eamon de Valera visited the United States. His hope was to unite Irish America behind recognition of the Irish republic; instead he divided Irish-American opinion. De Valera insisted upon controlling the message to Irish America; the national FOIF insisted that they should control the message.
Frustrated by the FOIF leadership, de Valera formed his own organization, the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR), , on November 17, 1920. The FOIF lost a significant number of members, as thousands left the FOIF to join the AARIR, including Joseph J. Castellini. Castellini was elected as a national vice-president of the AARIR, and concentrated his efforts on promoting recognition of the Irish Republic.
Castellini wasted little time in calling the citizens of Cincinnati to join the new organization. On December 12, 1920 Castellini organized a rally at Memorial Hall in Cincinnati. The “large and enthusiastic” audience heard Captain Robert Montieth, a veteran of the 1916 Rising, detail the hopes and aspirations of the Irish people, and the methods resorted to by the British Government to suppress the Republic. Several branches of the AARIR were soon active in Cincinnati, with Castellini serving as President of the Patrick Henry Branch.
In January 1922, Castellini was named as an American delegate to the Irish Race Congress held in Paris, France. Castellini and his son, Albert D. Castellini (1902-1969), also attended as a delegate. Albert was enrolled at the University of Notre Dame studying law. Albert later become a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
In Paris, substantial delegations were present from all parts of the world where Irish people or people of Irish descent were found. The gathering was tragically altered with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921.
The Sinn Féin movement was irrevocably split into two factions, one supporting the Treaty and the other opposing it. The delegates succeeded in having a resolution passed which reflected opposition to the Treaty, and which favored an independent Irish Republic, rather than a Free State.
Joseph Castellini’s return to Cincinnati from Paris and Europe was celebrated by his many friends in Cincinnati. A grand testimonial dinner, attended by 700 guests, was held on March 26, 1922 at the Hotel Alms. In his speech, Castellini noted the split in Irish opinion that occurred at the Congress by telling the crowd, “If the Irish people reject the treaty, we will fight on with them to the end. If, however, they accept it, we bow to their will and permit the future to determine our course of action.”
Joseph and Eleanor Castellini often hosted republican visitors from Ireland in their home. Countess Constance de Markievicz noted in her diary during her 1922 visit to Cincinnati, “We stayed with a Mr. and Mrs. Castellini at Cincinnati, awfully nice people … I knew his father in Paris.” Castellini also escorted Irish republicans Linda Kearns and Kathleen Boland on their tour of various Ohio cities in January 1923.
On March 17, 1924 Castellini addressed the combined councils of the AARIR at the Hotel Sinton in Cincinnati. He delivered a speech titled “America’s Debt to Ireland.” In it he made the case for the Irish Republic when he said, “The yoke of slavery will be lifted from the shoulders of the Irish when the world learns the truth, ‘for the truth shall make them free.’
Therefore, let us resolve that we will expend our best efforts to secure justice and freedom for our old and true friend, Ireland.” The speech was later published in booklet form and was popular throughout the United States and Ireland.
Castellini also served as president of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks National Bank from 1925 until 1929 and was a director for the Fifth Third National Bank. He resigned as president of the Railway Clerks National Bank in 1929 due to charges of improper activities that led to the bank’s closure (charges he denied).
On October 26, 1930, shortly after the closing of the Railway Clerks National Bank, the Associated Irish Organizations of Greater Cincinnati, representing 40,000 Irish Americans, issued a resolution expressing confidence in Castellini’s honesty and integrity. Aside from this brief incident, Castellini remained a pillar of Cincinnati society, serving on numerous boards and active in civic activities.
Joseph J. Castellini, successful businessman, friend of Ireland, author, inventor, civic leader and bank president, died on May 8, 1949 at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati. He was seventy-three years old. The produce business Castellini founded in 1896 survives today as the Castellini Companies. Joseph Castellini’s grandson, Robert H. Castellini, currently serves as Chairman of the Castellini Companies. Robert is also part owner and Chief Executive Officer of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.