American journalist Dorothy Thompson interviewed Irish separatist Terence MacSwiney hours before his Aug. 12, 1920, arrest for sedition. He died two months later on hunger strike in a London prison, a martyr for the cause of Irish freedom. She became one of the world’s most famous foreign correspondents, propelled by her “last interview” scoop.
Thompson turned 27 in July 1920 as she sailed to Europe to pursue a journalism career. The 1914 Syracuse University graduate had worked as an organizer and publicity agent in the women’s suffrage movement, including articles in The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.1
Thompson was three years younger than Ruth Russell, who reported from Ireland in spring 1919 for the Chicago Daily News. More than three dozen women had filed dispatches from Europe during the just-ended Great War for U.S. newspapers and magazines, but such roles for female journalists remained exceptional.2
MacSwiney had worked for the Irish republican cause since at least 1913. He was Lord Mayor of Cork when Thompson arrived in Ireland trying to track down distant relatives. Their interview happened “completely by accident,” according to Thompson biographer Peter Kurth, who wrote the mayor was arrested “barely an hour” after the reporter left his office.3 In fact, Thompson reported MacSwiney’s arrest came “two hours after I left the city hall.”
Kurth maintains that Thompson “had no idea of the value of her notes until, sometime later, she carried them back to England, stuffed casually in the pocket of her coat.” International News Service London chief Earl Reeves recognized their worth as MacSwiney’s arrest made global headlines.4 Yet Reeves dispatched the story to America by mail rather than more expensive wire transmission, which further explains the more than two week gap before the interview began to appear in U.S. papers.
MacSwiney was 41, married, with a 2-year-old daughter. Thompson described him as “a slender, rather youthful man, with a characteristic south-of-Ireland face, very dark, blue eyes, set in a thicket of black lashes, an impulsive mouth, and dark, curly hair. He looked tired and a little pale.”
Much of their conversation focused on the Sinn Féin courts, which operated as part of the fledgling Irish Republic simultaneous with the established British government. MacSwiney refused to recognize the latter’s authority when charged with possession of seditous articles and documents. Thompson also asked him about police murders in Ireland, and whether such attacks jeopardized “good will” among the Irish people. He replied:
“You must understand that we are in a state of war. For the English government to deny does not alter the facts. The police–the Royal Irish Constabulary–never have been a bona fide police force. They have always been in a measure an army of occupation. They live in barracks. They are armed.”
Read 100 years later, the interview is noteworthy for Thompson’s opening sentences that “a flash of premonition” appeared on MacSwiney’s “almost mystic smile” when she suggested he occupied “a very dangerous position.”
“ ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ he replied slowly, then added with another smile, ‘if I were to think about it.’ ”
The Minneapolis (Minnesota) Star headlined MacSwiney’s “premonition of death” when it published the interview on Sept. 1, 1920, seven weeks before he passed. (At left.)
Thompson’s hometown newspaper headlined “Buffalo Girl Last to See MacSwiney” and boasted of her “distinction of being the last representative of the press” to interview the Sinn Féin mayor.5 At least one paper used the sexist “woman reporter” trope to promote the story.6 The interview does not appear to have attracted attention in the Irish press.
Back to Ireland
The International News Service sent Thompson back across the Irish Sea to write a “series of pen pictures from Ireland.” In one dispatch7, she described the “sunny, windy day on which I went to Cork,” finding it “singularly peaceful and remote” at first glance. Thompson continued:
It’s wide, quiet streets, the old plastered houses, clambering up the hillside, many of them buried in rank gardens, the almost total absence of automobiles, the girls sauntering along with shawls over their heads, all add to the impression of age, as thought the city had been left in the backwaters of progress. It seemed so casual and friendly a place that the report that it, among all cities in Ireland, was nearest civil war was incredible.
But the faces of the people, when you looked at them closely, were strained, and their eyes rather abnormally bright. All of them were either profoundly discouraged or showed traces of an ugly mood lying underneath a surface of disciplined restraint. …
On the one night that I spent in Cork I remained out after the 10 o’clock curfew deliberately. The city seemed to be in a nervous mood, greatly augmented when the soldiers rode down from the barracks on the hill with fixed bayonets and with machine guns rattling after them.
Like Russell in March 1919, Thompson interviewed Constance Georgine Markievicz, a leader of the separatist government. “She is a tall, gaunt, blond woman careless about her dress, nervous and hurried in her speech, with something of the same humorless intensity that distinguishes [Eamon] De Valera [then nearing the end of his 18-month U.S. tour],” Thompson wrote. “In internal politics she is a socialist and very radical, standing in that particular almost alone among the members of the Sinn Fein ministry.”8
Thompson’s Ireland dispatches appeared in U.S. newspapers through October 1920. I have not found any of her clips where she made additional references to the MacSwiney interview or reported on his death.
After Ireland, Thompson’s career took off and evolved to include radio broadcasting. She “was lionized as few journalists before or since have been. … the model for the glamorous foreign correspondent and columnist played by Katherine Hepburn in the 1942 film Woman of the Year. Typically, she was identified as the second most influential and admired women in the United States, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.”9 Thompson died in 1961.
I’ll explore U.S. mainstream and Irish-American newspaper coverage of MacSwiney’s martyrdom in a future post. See previous stories in my American reporting of Irish independence series, including my Ruth Russell monograph.