Politics and Military

An Irishman’s Quest for the U.S. National Anthem

George O’Shaunessy was appalled that in 1914 the United States did not have a national anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner was written 100 years before by Francis Scott Key, inspired by the American victory over the British in the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

George O'Shaunessy

George O’Shaunessy

The stirring song had grown in popularity during the 19th century. Brass bands played it at Independence Day celebrations. The Navy played it at flag raisings since 1889. It was performed before baseball games since at least 1897. But it wasn’t the only patriotic song played at public events. So were My Country ‘Tis of Thee and Hail, Columbia.

O’Shaunessy’s fervent quest to make the Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem reflects the patriotism of the naturalized U.S. citizen. He was born in Galway, Ireland, on May 1, 1868. He immigrated to the United States as a boy and became a lawyer in New York. In 1907 he met and married a woman from Rhode Island, and decided to live in Providence. Three years later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

On Dec. 16, 1914, Rep. George O’Shaunessy, a 46-year-old Rhode Island Democrat, rose on the floor of the House to introduce a bill making the Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem. It was time for the United States to officially sanction the song, he said. Most people thought it was already the national anthem.

O’Shaunessy’s bill died in committee. He introduced it again during the next session of Congress, where it passed the House but was killed in the Senate.

Sheet music for The Star-Spangled Banner

Sheet music for The Star-Spangled Banner

There was a reason Congress didn’t sanction the Star-Spangled Banner: Many people opposed it because the melody was the same as an English drinking song called Anacreon in Heaven.

A telegram from the National Music Foundation to President Herbert Hoover read,

The Star-Spangled banner as a national anthem puts us to shame before civilization world. We look to you to avoid the national embarrassment.

O’Shaunessy left Congress in 1919 and returned to Providence. He must have wondered if in his lifetime he would hear the Star-Spangled Banner played as the national anthem.

He was 62 years old on March 3, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law making The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of the United States of America. George O’Shaunessy died three years later in Providence on Nov. 28, 1934.

With thanks to Hidden History of Rhode Island: Not-to-be-Forgotten Tales of the Ocean State by Glenn Laxton.

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