Joseph McGarrity, publisher of The Irish Press in Philadelphia, played a more direct role in America’s effort to secure Irish independence than William M. Higgins, publisher of the Kentucky Irish American in Louisville. [See earlier posts on the series landing page.]
McGarrity was born in 1874 in Carrickmore, County Tyrone, 22 years after Higgins in Syracuse, N.Y., to Famine-era Irish immigrants. McGarrity immigrated to America in 1892, a year after Charles Stewart Parnell’s death. The 18-year-old McGarrity settled in Philadelphia, where he lived until 1940–15 year longer than Higgins.
The same name Irish Press in Dublin, begun nine years after McGarrity folded his Philadelphia journal, published this description at his death:
Joseph McGarrity was big in everything. Well over six feet in his socks, with the proportions of an athlete, and the strength of a lion, he was an Irishman good to look upon. Vigour radiated from him. In his talk … he could not keep still–the hands, the toss of the head, the sudden pacing of the floor, all drove home the point he was making. His voice–the American accent making musical the hard speech of his native Tyrone–was big, too, and he did not hesitate to use it to drown yours if the day was to be won by emphasis. Yet this virile person could suddenly become as gentle as a woman.1
McGarrity pursued business enterprises, including liquor wholesaling and real estate in Philadelphia and nearby New York and Atlantic City, N.J. He also was a leading member of the Clan na Gael, the secretive Irish republican organization in the United States that worked closely with the separatist movement in Ireland.
In March 1918, a week after St. Patrick’s Day, McGarrity launched The Irish Press as the U.S. Post Office, “yielding to British diplomatic pressure,”2 banned the New York-based Irish World and the Gaelic American newspapers from the mail due to war-related suspicions of espionage.
Patrick McCartan, another Tyrone native who McGarrity picked as editor of The Irish Press, recalled in his 1932 monograph:
He believed an Irish paper with a circulation of even two thousand would keep our flag flying [in Philadelphia], till the war ended. … [Clan na Gael members] sold the Irish Press at the doors of the churches, with the result that the circulation soon passed ten thousand. … [V]olunteers took the Irish Press in suit cases, or my motor express to New York, where they sold it at the churches.3
Circulating The Irish Press in New York City aggravated the feud between McGarrity and John Devoy, veteran Irish republican activist in America and publisher of the Gaelic American. “Even through the [mail] ban on the Gaelic American had lapsed, the new paper competed with Devoy’s as the voice of the militant exiles,” Devoy biographer Terry Goloway wrote.4
The core of the Devoy-McGarrity fight centered on how, or whether, America should recognize the newly proclaimed Irish Republic as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson negotiated the post-war order in Paris; how funds raised in America should be used to help the Irish; and who should control the message and the money. These tensions mounted in the weeks before the February 1919 Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia, and the June 1919 U.S. arrival of Irish President Eamon de Valera. Golway continued:
…this distrust, verging on paranoia and evident on all sides, would cripple the American movement. As war raged in Ireland, Irish rebels in America would watch each other with studied care, looking for nuances, hints, and suggestions that the war in Ireland might conclude with something less than the Republic the men of Easter  had proclaimed and died for. It was as though they knew that the end would be bitter, that compromise would taint the purity of victory–and that somebody would have to bear the blame.5
More on McGarrity and Devoy and their newspapers as this series continues.
Joseph McGarrity’s papers are held at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. The McGarrity Collection at Villanova University, Philadelphia, contains monographs focusing on Irish history, literature, folklore, travel, music, and Irish-American history, in addition to microfilm of his papers held in Dublin. A selection of the material, including digitized copies of The Irish Press, is available in an online collection.
- The Irish Press, Dublin, Aug. 7, 1940, p. 1
- Dennis Clark, The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1973, pgs. 151-52
- Patrick McCartan, With De Valera In America, Brentano, New York, 1932. pgs. 37, 39
- Terry Golway, Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom, St. Martin Press, New York, 1998. p. 261.
- Ibid, p. 263