O’Shaunessy, George Francis, 1868-
George Francis O’Shaunessy was born in Galway, Ireland on May 1, 1868. His parents came to America when he was a child and settled in New Jersey. George was educated in New York City parochial schools and received a law degree from Columbia University in 1889. Thereafter he acquired a reputation as an able lawyer and a political reformer. In 1904 he was appointed Deputy Attorney General of New York and in 1906 he served as assistant corporation counsel of New York City.
On a business trip to Rhode Island in 1907 he met his future wife, Julian Keily. Settling in Rhode Island he opened a law firm, O’Shaunessy, Gainer and Carr, in partnership with future Providence mayor Joseph H. Gainer. Eventually the firm would become O’Shaunessy and Cannon. There are Cannons practicing law in Rhode Island to this day.
In 1910, George O’Shaunessy was elected as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives. When he took office on March 4, 1911, he became Rhode Island’s first Irish Catholic member of Congress. Following his reelection, he became one of the state’s three congressman, because population increases earned Rhode Island three representatives to Congress from 1913 until 1933. During his career, O’Shaunessy allied himself with Rhode Island’s reform-oriented Democrats and against the Republican political machine that controlled the state. As a congressman he has been described as “a constant friend of the naval stations in Narragansett Bay” and a major source of public funding for the developing port of Providence.
Known as a dynamic speaker, George introduced a bill on December 6, 1914 calling for The Star Spangled Banner to become the National Anthem. The poem, written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key who had relatives in Providence, was put to the music of an English drinking song, Anacreon in Heaven decades earlier. Despite numerous attempts by past members of Congress to make the verse the national anthem, it was a piece of legislation that always died. George’s bill, the 40th to call for designating The Star Spangled Banner as our National Anthem, was sent to committee. The House eventually approved it only to watch the Senate shoot it down. President Woodrow Wilson, with whom O’Shaunessy was quite friendly, ordered it played at all military functions, but it took a reluctant President Herbert Hoover to finally sign the bill making The Star Spangled Banner our national anthem. He did so in 1931–eighty-eight years after the death of Francis Scott Key.
O’Shaunessy’s elective political career ended when he unsuccessfully sought the post of U.S. Senator in 1918 against able and popular Republican incumbent LeBaron B. Colt. As a consolation for his service and support, President Wilson, appointed him collector of internal revenue for Rhode Island, a post he occupied until 1921 when he returned to the private practice of law until his retirement in 1931.
On November 3, 1934, George O’Shaunessy suffered a fatal heart attack in his home at 716 Elmgrove Avenue in Providence. He was buried in the only tomb at St. Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket. The name on the tomb is Keily, his wife’s family name, and there is no indication that this is George’s final resting place. Today we remedy that anonymity by placing the name of George O’Shaunessy on the roster of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
– Glenn V. Laxton