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Remembering Robert Briscoe in a standout year

Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe with President Kennedy in 1962. JFK Library photo.

By Ray O’Hanlon

When people gather this coming Monday evening at the 21 Club in Midtown Manhattan to celebrate the 23rd annual Robert Briscoe Awards, they will be doing so in the year that many are casting their minds back to Dublin one hundred years ago.

That was the Dublin where Robert Emmet Briscoe would someday don the Lord Mayor’s chain of office, thus becoming the first Jewish Lord Mayor of the Irish capital while beating New York, a city that would later become noted for its Jewish mayors, to the distinction.

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But Briscoe’s path to being Dublin’s first citizen was somewhat different to his New York co-religionists.

You could say that he had to fight for his chain of office.

Briscoe, whose brother was named Wolfe Tone Briscoe, was born in Dublin in 1894 to parents whose roots were in Lithuania.

He was in his native city during the 1916 Rising, and while he wasn’t a direct participant, the rebellion changed the course of his life.

After the rising, Briscoe traveled to the United States with Éamon de Valera.

He attended meetings of Clan na Gael and met Liam Mellows.

Briscoe returned to Ireland in August, 1917 and joined Na Fianna Éireann.

He would be an active participant in the War of Independence alongside Catholics, Protestants, Dissenters, men and women of no religious faith whatsoever.

Because he had not fought in 1916, Briscoe was not known to British authorities so was involved in intelligence work, and the highly risky procurement of arms and ammunition.

After World War I, and on the orders of Michael Collins, Briscoe went to Germany and continued to organize supplies for the republican cause.

Somewhat ironically, given who sent him on this mission, Briscoe would continue his operations in Germany during the Civil War – for the anti-treaty forces.

He was a Dev man, and his future political career (he returned to Ireland in 1924) would be with de Valera’s Fianna Fáil.

Given the man whose name is attached to the honors being presented Monday night then, this is something of an outstanding year for the Briscoe Awards which are hosted by the Emerald Isle Immigration Center.

This year’s honorees are Melinda Katz, Queens Borough President, and Deborah King, Executive Director of 1199 SEIU Training & Employment Funds.