Documentary on OneThe Baron of Broadway

As heard on Documentary On One

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The near-unbelievable story of a man who, in the 1950s, tried to purchase the six counties of Northern Ireland and gift them back to the Republic of Ireland. 

During the ‘Roaring Twenties’ in New York City, a young man, short in stature but round in girth, decided to gentrify his persona. He named himself The Baron of Broadway, a moniker he would cultivate for the remainder of his eccentric and colourful life.

John J Hanley, who would later be known as Baron Hanley, was born into humble beginnings near the village of Strand just outside Newcastle West in County Limerick. But he quickly developed wanderlust and in the early 1900’s arrived in New York City. Prohibition, a ban on the sale and distribution of alcoholic liquor was soon to be put into law. John Hanley saw an opening that would make him rich and opened up a speakeasy that sold bootleg booze. He survived brushes with the law, racketeers, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, and emerged a very rich man.

Baron Hanley was rarely seen without his signature diamond-tipped walking cane and a silk hat. No one ever saw him behind the steering wheel of a motor vehicle, yet he was obsessed with cars. In one newspaper item, he boasted of having a stable-full of Pontiacs and Packards, each with its own chauffeur.

Another of the Baron’s obsessions was the cause of Irish reunification. From the 1920s up until the mid-1950s, he was a regular visitor to Ireland. On each occasion he shipped over one of his luxury automobiles and, on landing, recruited a chauffeur for the duration of his stay.

In the 1940’s American-based organisations such as The United Irish Counties Society began highlighting what they believed was the plight of a divided Ireland. Their anti-partition campaign hoped to embarrass Britain into allowing the re-establishment of a thirty-two county republic. Baron Hanley, a prominent member of this organisation, was an ideal candidate to participate in the ‘embarrassment’ drive. He began painting his big motorcars in green, white and orange, painting shamrocks on the doors and flying both the Papal and Irish flags from the bonnet.

On multiple occasions he crossed the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and announced himself in both Belfast and Stormont as a potential purchaser for the 6 counties . Over the years his offer is reported to have varied between six and thirty-two million US dollars. None of his offers were taken seriously by the authorities. However, in September of 1955, his impatience got the better of him and The Baron of Broadway called his chauffeur and ordered that he go directly to Britain. They would take their offer to the steps of No 10 Downing Street and make the British Prime Minister an offer that he could surely never refuse.

This is the story of the Baron of Broadway, one that proves sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Main image © Getty 

© The Listener 2019

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