By Edward T. O’Donnell
Sixty-one years ago this week, on July 13, 1940, two of Irish America’s most powerful families — the Fords and the McDonnells — were joined through marriage. Henry Ford II, grandson of the fabled automaker Henry Ford, was to marry Anne McDonnell, daughter of Wall Street rainmaker James Francis McDonnell. No expense would be spared in an event that came as close to a royal wedding as 20th century America would ever get. As Stephen Birmingham wrote in his classic, "Real Lace": "If it was not the wedding of the century, it certainly was the last of the great weddings in America before World War II."
The father of the bride, James Francis McDonnell, was the son of a Famine refugee named Peter McDonnell who hailed from County Longford and arrived in New York around 1850. The elder McDonnell turned out to be one of the fortunate ones of his generation. He established a successful business and sent his son James Francis to Fordham. By then the McDonnell’s were among the many thousands of Irish Americans — known disparagingly to their working-class counterparts as "lace curtain" — who were determinedly clawing their way into middle-class respectability. When young James Francis graduated from Fordham in 1900, he headed for Wall Street.
By 1916, now a millionaire, McDonnell had his own major merger wedding. But in that era, his marriage to Anna Murray of Brooklyn, daughter of Irish-American tycoon Thomas E. Murray, commanded headlines only in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Still, there was no denying that he’d just become a member of the FIF’s — "first Irish families."
The Murray family into which James Francis had just married had come into its fortune by virtue of the genius of Thomas E. Murray Sr. He had only a few years of formal education, but was born with ambition and an extraordinary gift for mechanical invention. A job at an electrical power company in Albany led eventually to a career as one of the nation’s foremost experts in electricity and an irrepressible inventor of machinery and parts for electrical generators. By the time of his death, he’d registered more than 1,100 patents (second only to Thomas Edison) and amassed a fortune.
James Francis McDonnell grew even more wealthy in the years following his marriage. He and Anna built a mansion in New York and another on Long Island at Southampton. They also had 14 children.
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The source of Henry Ford II’s fortune needs little explanation. He, too, was the descendant of an immigrant who fled Ireland during the Famine. His great-grandfather had settled on a farm outside Detroit. His son Henry hated farming and loved mechanical things, so he headed for Detroit. There, like Thomas E. Murray, Sr., he found work as an engineer with an electric power company. But his fascination with automobiles led him to quit and found the Ford Motor Company in 1903. The rest, as they say, is history.
And so when it was announced to the press that the grandson of Henry Ford and granddaughter of Thomas E. Murray Sr. were engaged to be married in the summer of 1940, it became THE story, a welcome distraction from the winds of war across the Atlantic. For weeks leading up to the event, the press covered it like a royal wedding, devoting miles of column space to every detail of the preparations. One of the biggest pre-wedding stories was the announcement that Henry Ford II would convert (or reconvert, as some Catholics with an eye toward history liked to point out) to Catholicism so that the wedding could take place with the full blessing of the Catholic Church.
The event took place in Southampton and more than 1,000 of America’s most powerful and influential people — FIFs and non-FIFs alike — were invited. Hundreds more curious onlookers stood on the sidelines trying to catch a glimpse of the new couple. None other than Msgr. Fulton Sheen, the charismatic radio priest, performed the ceremony and in typical dramatic fashion, declared the marriage "unbreakable" (he was wrong). The reception, on the lawn of the family estate, was a gala affair for the record books.
Unlike the James Francis McDonnell-Anna Murray wedding of 1916, this one made headlines everywhere. A photograph of the elderly Henry Ford dancing with his new granddaughter-in-law was published in papers around the world.
What accounts for all this attention is not simply the money involved, but the fact that Irish Catholics in 1940 were beginning to enjoy an increasingly positive image in American society. To cite just one example, Hollywood had begun to make movies that starred hero priests and patriotic Irishmen — from "Boys Town" (1938) and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942), to "Going My Way" (1944), "The Bells of St. Mary’s" (1945) and "Fighting Father Dunne" (1948). Of course, Al Smith’s presidential election campaign only 12 years earlier (and John F. Kennedy’s campaign 20 years later) showed that not everyone was convinced. Still, the times were clearly changing. Once seen as subversive and dangerous, the Irish were now more and more at home in America.
But the money did help, too, and the FIFs — the Kennedys, Murrays, Cuddahys, McDonnells, Farrells, and Smiths — reveled in the moment. For if the new image of the Irish in popular culture told America that Irish Americans were wholesome, respectable and patriotic, the McDonnell-Ford wedding announced that they were also rich and powerful.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
July 11, 1921: War for Independence ends with truce between Britain and the IRA.
July 13, 1863: The New York City draft riots begin as opponents of conscription — many of them Irish — rampage for four days.
July 14, 1881: Outlaw Billy the Kid (William Bonney) is killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in New Mexico.
July 13, 1818: Hugh O’Brien, first Irish mayor of Boston, is born in Maguiresbridge, Co. Fermanagh.
July 15, 1899: Taoiseach Sean Lemass in Ballybrack is born in County Dublin.
July 18, 1874: Revolutionary Cathal Brugha is born in Dublin.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.