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James O'Shaughnessy, the first chief executive of the 4A’s wept when given a Claddagh ring. Photo by: Colum Kenny

Ad king James O’Shaughnessy was the Irish-speaking son of a poor Galway emigrant

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James O'Shaughnessy, the first chief executive of the 4A’s wept when given a Claddagh ring. Photo by: Colum Kenny

The first chief executive of the 4A’s, America’s representative body for ad agencies, was the Irish-speaking son of an impoverished emigrant from County Galway.

Described by TIME magazine as “the best in the business of advertizing,” James O’Shaughnessy led the 4A’s from its offices in Manhattan between 1917 and 1928.

When he started with the American Association of Advertizing Agencies, advertizing was not highly regarded. By the time he retired, US presidents sang its praises.

After leading the 4A’s, O’Shaughnessy went on to become a consultant and was said to command the highest fees ever paid for advertizing counsel.

When he died in 1950, the trade magazine Printers’ Ink said that he “had the engaging Irish personality ideally suited to the job of making the important advertizing agents of the early part of the century sit down and talk things over.”

His grandparents had been tenants of the Gregory family, living within sight of Ballylee Tower where W.B. Yeats later wrote poetry. Orphaned during the Great Hunger, O’Shaughnessy’s father fled Ireland.

By a quirk of fate James himself would end up reviewing for the Chicago Tribune Lady Augusta Gregory’s US production of Synge’s "Playboy of the Western World."

James and his five brothers were members of a first-generation Irish-American family that took an active part in US politics and public life.

Their rise was “typical” of generations of Irish who found a future in the USA that they could never have enjoyed had they stayed in Ireland. Too little attention has been paid to the intriguing detail of such individual middle-class families.

Frank O’Shaughnessy, an Illinois attorney, was the first graduate of Notre Dame asked to give the commencement address at that university, and his brother Martin was first captain of the official Notre Dame basketball team.

Thomas “Gus” O’Shaughnessy was the leading Gaelic revival artist in North America, and has been credited by Italian-Americans for playing a critical role in the campaign to make Columbus Day a national holiday.

The brothers were among the founders and first presidents of the Irish Fellowship Club in Chicago, still today a key platform for Irish leaders visiting America.

By no means did all of them grow wealthy, but the collective fate of the O’Shaughnessy boys was one that many children of immigrants might envy.

Yet many immigrants could also understand the simple emotion reflected in one incident.

When James visited Dublin, the Publicity Club of Ireland presented him with a Claddagh gold ring from Co. Galway.

A member of that club later recalled, “The effect of this was remarkable. He simply broke down and wept. When he pulled himself together he just said one thing which I shall never forget. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘I want to tell you that not all of the money I have ever possessed could buy me anything I would value as highly as that ring.’”

Dublin's O'Connell Street, 1920.

In Ireland, O’Shaughnessy was made first patron of the Irish Association of Advertizing Agencies. Among those whom he met in Dublin was Kevin J. Kenny, founder of Ireland’s first full-service agency and my grandfather.

Discovering that encounter sparked the research that led me to write "An Irish-American Odyssey: The Remarkable Rise of the O’Shaughnessy Brothers," released today by University of Missouri Press. It contains much colorful material of human interest, including an Irish ghost-story from Missouri, and is intended for a general readership.

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