By spring 1920, Philadelphia’s Mary J. Galvin wanted to fight for Irish freedom. While many details of her decision are unknowable, a few of its roots are certain:
- The 24-year-old telephone company stenographer was the daughter of post-Famine immigrants in a city of 65,000 native Irish, second only to New York.
- The Irish Press, a Philly-based weekly with direct ties to Dublin separatists, had publicized independence since it launched in March 1918. Galvin’s name would soon appear on its pages.
- Eamon de Valera, one of the separatist leaders, had toured America since June 1919 to raise political and financial support for the war in Ireland, including stops in the City of Brotherly Love. Galvin’s family contributed $25 to the Irish bond drive in February 1920, more than double the usual $10 donation.
Two months later, Galvin boarded a train for the 150-mile ride south to Washington, D.C., where she marched to the front lines of the transatlantic debate over “the Irish question.” She joined several dozen picket-carrying women outside the British Embassy to protest the Empire’s rule in Ireland.
Galvin and nine other women were arrested and charged under an obscure federal statute with a technical assault on the British government, an offense punishable by a fine and up to three years in prison. Most of the women accepted quick release on bond. Galvin, reported to have “recently experienced a long illness,” and Maura Quinn of Boston, spent the night in a D.C. jail.
The pair were freed the next morning through a ruse. Mrs. James Walsh told them to get ready for court, then informed them of their release once outside the jail.
“We were told to go, and as Mrs. Walsh is our captain we had to obey, though we were perfectly willing to remain in jail,” Galvin said.
Women pickets outside the British Embassy, April 1920.
Irish separatists in America had organized several days of embassy protests to draw attention to their cause. Some of the pickets were paid, others selected for their appealing looks to attract more press coverage. It is unclear how Galvin came to join the half dozen women from Philadelphia who arrived in Washington for the protests.
The arrests surprised the organizers, who quickly discontinued the media stunt. A split developed between the Irish separatists and more militant American women who extended the picketing through the summer as their own enterprise.
All factions, whatever the cause, are composed of individuals who must decide whether to continue their participation, or move on. Galvin, back in Philadelphia, soon found other ways to continue her fight for Ireland.
Irish immigrants and Irish-American activists took offense to the silent movie “Kathleen Mavourneen” since its fall 1919 release. The film included scenes of pigs and chickens kept inside the cottages of Irish peasants, which to the activists was nothing less than British propaganda. In February 1920, young men smashed the movie projector and caused other damage at a San Francisco theater showing the film.
In May 1920, Galvin, acting as president of the American Economic Society for Irish Freedom, took her complaints about the film to two Philadelphia theater managers. “Convinced by the lady’s argument,” The Irish Press reported, both managers canceled further screenings.
Another “active and zealous friend of Ireland,” John Ryan, was arrested for protesting outside a third Philly theater. A magistrate ridiculed him as “the kind of Irishman who is a detriment to the Irish cause.”
Galvin’s group quickly issued a statement:
“We, Philadelphians, banded together to resist the baneful inroads of British propaganda on our people admire the action of John Ryan in opposing singlehanded the showing of the insidious libel ‘Kathleen Mavourneen.’ … We consider [him] a detriment to no cause, Irish or American, but rather we consider a dispenser of justice, who passes a hasty judgement on one sided evidence a detriment to American prestige, and we Americans will be proud to be represented at the hearing as coworkers with John Ryan, who will stand Friday where Pearse stood in his day–a scapegoat in the dock for Irish independence.”
The Philadelphia dailies appear to have ignored the crusade against the film and Ryan’s day in court. The big papers did not miss several of Galvin’s other protests.
Photo of Mary Galvin with original caption from the Evening Public Ledger, May 20, 1920.
On May 19, Galvin “escorted” British Ambassador Sir Auckland Geddes to his appearance at the Franklin Institute, the Public Ledger wisecracked under a photo that showed her holding a picket sign. Geddes was in Philadelphia to receive a medal on behalf of Charles A. Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine.
A week later, Galvin and Theresa Pont of Philadelphia were arrested in front of the city’s Metropolitan Opera House as the United British Societies celebrated an “Empire Day” event. De Valera had been welcomed to the same venue eight months earlier.
The pair, surrounded by 15 police officers, refused two orders to move along. “Miss Galvin … started to orate and berate the acting [police] lieutenant because of what she termed his ‘lack of justice,’ ” the Inquirer reported.
“I am an American, born in this country, and if this is justice, I can’t see it,” Galvin “shouted,” according to the paper, which also noted her April arrest at the British Embassy in Washington.
A crowd “immediately started to sympathize with the prisoners.” The two protesters were hustled away and charged with breach of the peace. Police “compelled the pedestrians to amble along.”
The two protesters spent a short time at the station house before being released. A magistrate discharged the case the next day.
In August, Galvin joined other “militant women pickets for the cause of Irish freedom [who] forced their way” into a West Philadelphia suffrage demonstration and “stirred up a lively rumpus” days after the passage of the 19th Amendment. “Their flaming signs urging American women to intercede for Ireland aroused the anger of the local suffrage leaders.”
By now, Galvin was notorious. The story noted she “has twice been arrested for picketing.”
With federal charges still pending against Galvin and the nine other British Embassy protesters, one of the West Philly demonstrators held a sign that asked: “Shall American women allow ten pickets to be imprisoned by American law for protesting against the slaughter of Irish by English gunmen.”
As 1920 drew to a close, the war in Ireland grew uglier. In October, Cork city Mayor Terence James MacSwiney died on hunger strike. In December, British troops torched the city.
Cork city ruins, December 1920.
Galvin’s reaction to these and other events is only partial clear. As secretary of a relief committee effort, she gathered food supplies and other assistance for Ireland. She distributed “credential cards and collection blanks” for financial assistance, the checks payable to one of the city’s Catholic priests.
Two days before Christmas, the steamship Honolulu sailed from New York City laden with more than 100 tons of relief supplies. “A large portion of the shipment is flour and other foods, and includes quantities of clothing for men, women and children,” the Inquirer reported.
In the new year, Galvin disappeared from the pages of the Irish Press and the Philadelphia dailies. She was mentioned in a Washington Post story that the U.S. government finally dropped its April 1920 charges against the 10 embassy pickets. The women no longer faced three years behind bars.
It’s impossible to know what Galvin thought of the July 1921 ceasefire in Ireland, the December 1921 treaty with Britain and partition of the island, or the civil war that followed. A decade after her year of protest, she remained single, lived with her widowed mother, and still worked at the telephone company.
In 1920, however, Mary Galvin shook her clenched fist at the British Empire. She extended her open hand to the Irish people. More than 60 years before Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands uttered his famous quote, she had found her “own particular part to play,” neither “too great or too small.”