There wasn’t much excitement in the drab, grey, post war years of the fifties, but Castlebar could at least savour the annual summer visits of the colourful Baron of Broadway.
John J Hanley was a Limerick native who had emigrated to the US at a young age, made a fortune in the new world, lost it in the Wall Street crash, and built it up all over again. Or so we were told.
In the 1930s, false reports had appeared in the media that he had been gunned down in a hold up in New York city. But his annual appearances in Castlebar - to which he had formed some unexplained attachment - was always guaranteed to generate excitement, colour and extensive newspaper coverage.
The Baron’s mode of transport was a long, sleek, left hand Buick Roadmaster, decorated with the Papal, Tricolour and American pennants, with prominent shamrock symbols on either side proclaiming the owner’s allegiance and patriotism. His apparel consisted of a well cut suit and a top hat, and he would strut the streets of the town flaunting a diamond studded walking stick.
But John J Hanley’s burning ambition was to see the reunification of Ireland, to which he was prepared to go to any length or cost. On his visit of 1951, he made the announcement that his plans were to travel to Belfast to meet with the Northern prime minister, Lord Brookeborough, face to face. There he would negotiate the terms of a reunification deal, and he was prepared to buy back the Six Counties from the invaders at a million dollars per county.
This audacious offer, together with the Baron’s well publicised plans, won extensive national coverage, and by the time he left Castlebar on his mission, the eyes of the country were on him. As he travelled east and then north, thousands came out to cheer him on. There were stops at every town along the way, there were crowds to address, autographs to be signed, pictures taken, local dignitaries to be met, good wishes to be accepted from ardent nationalists who fully believed that a united Ireland was within sight.
Stern warnings at the border from the RUC that the Baron was travelling at his own risk with his pennants still fluttering in the breeze eventually led to a stand-off at Belfast, where the Tricolour was forcibly removed from the car. His cause, it had to be admitted, was not helped by the graphic cartoon which showed Uncle Sam’s heel firmly embedded in a map of northern Ireland.
Arriving at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast, a crowd of several hundred was on hand to cheer Mr Hanley and his entourage. However, an emissary dispatched to Stormont to seek Lord Brookeborough’s assent to a meeting returned with disappointing news. The Prime Minister was away, and wouldn’t be back anytime soon.
And so the Baron’s quest to finally solve the Irish question ended in failure. Even an improved offer, to pay 12 million dollars for the six counties, fell on deaf ears in the end. But the flamboyant Mr Hanley and his entourage, returning to Castlebar empty handed, had not given up hope entirely. The next time, he promised, he would try again, and if he was rebuffed at Stormont, then he would bring his proposals directly to Downing Street.
Soon afterwards, the Baron faded from history. There were no more crusades to win back the North. But for a few colourful summers, John J Hanley had given Castlebar, and the whole country, something to be entertained about.