Iluminations: John Quinn, American Patron

Illuminations: John Quinn, American Patron
By:  J. Michael Finn

“… to forge a bond with the Irish all over the world
as one race and one group,
so that they may stand forever together.”

I was contacted recently by Kevin Hammer, one of our readers, who wrote to alert me about a series of lectures that were being held by Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio concerning an Irish American named John Quinn. I had run across the name of John Quinn previously in Irish history as a regular US correspondent with Maud Gonne, but I was not aware that he was born in Ohio and was also a patron of the arts and literature. There was a lot more to Mr. Quinn’s life than I first thought.

John Quinn was born April 14, 1870 in Tiffin, Ohio. He was the eldest of eight children of James William Quinn, a baker and Mary Quinlan. His grandparents, James Quinn, a blacksmith, and Mary (Madigan) Quinn, were both immigrants from Co. Limerick and had come to Tiffin in 1851.

When John was a year old, the Quinn family relocated to nearby Fostoria, Ohio, where James Quinn opened a prosperous bakery and grocery business. Mary Quinn was a firm believer in the value of education and saw to it that John did well in school. A year after graduating from Fostoria High School, John was appointed private secretary to US Treasury Secretary Charles W.  Foster, who was newly appointed by President Benjamin Harrison. He was a former Governor of Ohio and a family friend of the Quinn’s.While working in Washington, Quinn enrolled in Georgetown University, where he graduated with a degree in law. He then attended Harvard University, where he received a degree in law and international relations. 

In 1825, Quinn went to New York City to begin the practice law. He became one of Manhattans most prominent and successful lawyers. He opened his own practice in 1906 with offices in the building of the National Bank of Commerce, the country’s second largest bank.

Knowledgeable in both literature and philosophy, Quinn became an avid collector of books and art. He began a career as an active patron of the arts during his first voyage abroad, to England and Ireland, in 1902. Touring through Ireland, he attended a Feis Ceoil (pron: fesh  k’yole, i.e. Festival of Music) in Co. Galway, and there bought and commissioned paintings from John Butler Yeats  and Jack Yeats (father and brother of poet William Butler Yeats). 

After that trip, Quinn assumed the role of unofficial American patron and agent for the Irish cultural revival. Using vigorous promotions and nationwide lecture tours, he helped cultivate awareness in America of Irish cultural and political figures. Quinn wrote that his purpose in doing this was “… to forge a bond with the Irish all over the world as one race and one group, so that they may stand forever together.”

John Quinn organized a four-month (1903-04) North American lecture tour for Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats. Yeats delivered more than fifty lectures, many at leading American universities, and earned a much needed $3,200.Quinn also assisted Yeats and other Irish writers in legally establishing copyrights for their works in the U.S.

Douglas Hyde
Douglas Hyde was the co-founder of the Gaelic League (founded as Conradh na Gaeilge; Pron: kon-rah nah gail-gyuh) and the future President of Ireland. Launched in July 1893 in Ireland, the Gaelic League’s mission was to preserve and revive the Irish language. In the process, the founders hoped to recover Ireland’s Gaelic golden-age culture, heritage and identity. 

Quinn organized an American speaking tour for Douglas Hyde and it constituted the first significant promotion in America of the Gaelic League and the Irish Language. Hyde arrived in New York on November 15, 1905 and sailed for home on June 15, 1906.

Hyde spoke in over sixty cities across America and traveled over 19,000 miles (his tour included Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh), all paid for by Quinn.

On Saturday, November 25, 1905, accompanied by John Quinn, Hyde made a call on Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States. Quinn was a friend of Roosevelt and had arranged the invitation. 

Roosevelt invited them to have lunch with the president and his family. Hyde and Roosevelt liked each other immediately. “Roosevelt was delightful, perfectly genial, and very gracious,” Hyde wrote in his diary, “There was no formality whatsoever about him.”Amazingly, Hyde discovered that Roosevelt had a strong interest in everything related to Ireland, and an unexpectedly broad knowledge of the Irish language, folklore, and history. Although Roosevelt was not Irish, he had been raised by Irish nanny’s, who told him old stories from Irish mythology.  

According to reports, Roosevelt also had some knowledge of the Irish Language, as he was taught Irish by James Jeffery Roche, an Irish-American poet, journalist and diplomat from Boston (Roche was editor of the Boston Pilot and helped put Roosevelt in to office).

San Francisco Earthquake
In San Francisco, Hyde had the most successful of his visits and collected $1,200; however, when the earthquake of 1906 ruined the greater part of San Francisco, Hyde gave the money that had been collected there to the relief fund. The inhabitants did not forget this, and when the prosperity of the town was restored, they sent back the money to the Gaelic League.

On his return to Ireland, Hyde handed over $50,000 to the Gaelic League (including a $2,000 donation from the Ancient Order of Hibernians) as the proceeds of his American tour. The funds raised during the tour made a decisive contribution to the survival of the Irish language and to the Gaelic Revival in Ireland.

Quinn also sponsored the 1911 tour of the Abbey Theater and Lady Augusta Gregory in the U.S.  Gregory was an Irish dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theater and the Abbey Theater, and wrote numerous plays for both companies.

Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec 
Although very active in Irish culture and politics, Quinn also was a patron of artists from Europe. In the 1920s he owned the largest single collection of modern European paintings in the world. His collection included more than 2,500 pieces, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others.

On July 28, 1924, John Quinn died in New York City at age fifty-four, of intestinal cancer. His funeral was held at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic church in Manhattan, and he was buried at St. Wendelin Catholic Cemetery in Fostoria, Ohio. His grave is marked by a Celtic Cross.

Unmarried and leaving no heirs, Quinn willed that his extraordinary art collection be auctioned off and dispersed among museums and collectors around the world.

The English Department of Heidelberg University, in Tiffin, Ohio, currently sponsors a John Quinn Lecture Series. This lecture series explores Quinn’s involvement with and influence on modern art and literature in the early 20th century. Admission is free, but advance registration is required. For more information regarding the series, please see the following link:

*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 [email protected]

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