Tag Archives: Mary MacSwiney

Coincidental crossings of the ‘Celtic’, December 1920

Muriel and Mary MacSwiney sailed from Ireland to America in late 1920 to testify about the hunger strike death of Terence MacSwiney, husband and brother, respectively, and the ongoing fight for freedom in their homeland. Their westbound journey aboard the liner Celtic was highly anticipated, and their arrival in New York City became front page news.

The Celtic.

Six days later, Irish leader Éamon de Valera was secreted aboard the same ship for its eastbound return to Europe, ending his 18-month mission to America. The stowaway risked arrest by British authorities if discovered once the Celtic berthed in Liverpool, England. Publicity was the last thing de Valera and other Irish supporters wanted.

These consecutive crossings of a ship named for the Irish race are coincidental. Yet they also symbolize the close relationship between Ireland and America, and highlight key events and participants of the Irish revolution at the end of its second year; what a Times of London correspondent described as “the transatlantic Irish pot boiling with a vengeance.”1 Muriel MacSwiney and de Valera each concluded their voyage aboard the Celtic with public statements about Irish hopes for American help, wishes that were mostly dashed in the new year, 1921.

‘Embarked Quietly’

Muriel MacSwiney, left, and Mary MacSwiney, right, at the Washington hearings.

News of Muriel MacSwiney’s trip aboard the Celtic began to appear in U.S. papers shortly after her husband’s Oct. 25 starvation death in a British prison. She accepted an invitation to appear before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, meeting in Washington, D.C. Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, established the non-U.S. government commission on behalf of Irish sympathizers. British authorities, though dubious of the commission, privately assured U.S. officials that they would not refuse passports to Irish witnesses, including the MacSwineys.2 Nearly 40 Irish, British, and American witnesses testified at commission hearings from November 1920 through January 1921.

On Nov. 25, the MacSwineys  “embarked quietly” on the Celtic at  Queenstown, the Associated Press reported in U.S. papers. “Few people were aware that they were sailing.”3 Irish papers subsequently reported their departure with 400 others at the port, now called Cobh, a quick stop between Liverpool and New York City. The two women “were greeted on embarking the line with cheers from their fellow passengers.”4

The twin-funnel, 701-foot Celtic was launched in April 1901 from the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, part of the White Star fleet that later included Titanic. Converted to merchant and troop ship duty during the Great War, it struck a mine in 1917 off the Isle of Man, killing 17 people aboard. A year later it was torpedoed in the Irish Sea, causing six deaths. Once the war ended, the Celtic was restored to its original purpose, and people hurried to board and enjoy its accommodations on the nine-day crossings of safer seas. The Celtic called at New York about once a month, according to schedules published in 1920 newspapers.

MacSwineys Arrival

The Celtic arrived shortly before 10 a.m. on Dec. 5, at New York City’s Pier 60, a day behind schedule due to westerly gales. The next to last night at sea “was so violent that the tops of the angry waves were blown over the bridge and funnels, smothering the ship with icy spray,” The New York Times reported. Many passengers became seasick as “the big ship was tossed about.”5

This image appeared in the Boston Pilot on Dec. 5, 1920.

Muriel and Mary were the first passengers off the ship, their bags carried down the gangway by a special delegation of Irish longshoremen, ahead of American financier J. Peirpont Morgan and his wife. The two Irish women seemed unaware they had crossed the Atlantic with the famous couple, who had been in Europe since August, according to news accounts.6  

A crowd of up to 3,000 awaited them, less than half the estimated 10,000 that had gathered at the pier a day earlier. The scene turned chaotic as police confused which door the women would enter. Villard and Harry Boland, de Valera’s secretary, headed the reception. A parade of more than 70 automobiles followed, with crowds waving the Stars and Stripes and the tricolor of the Irish Republic.

Muriel MacSwiney was described as “a slender, gray eyed young woman dressed in deep mourning, with masses of black hair showing in ripples when she threw back her heavy widow’s veil.” At the end of the day, she issued a statement: 

I am deeply grateful for the wonderful reception given to me this morning, and especially to the women of America for their generous tribute to my husband’s memory. I have had many beautiful letters from America, even from American children, and I am happy to be in a country where so many are thinking about the cause of Ireland. … We feel in Ireland that America has a greater responsibility in the matter than any other land on account of her fine traditions and her war pledges, and because there are so many millions of our kin in this country.”

The women soon traveled to Washington and testified before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland over three days, Dec. 8-10. Front page coverage of the MacSwineys appeared in the leading Irish-American weeklies, The Gaelic American, New York, and The Irish Press, Philadelphia, on Dec. 11. That same day, the Celtic began its eastward voyage back to Europe.

Eastward Crossing

Éamon de Valera

Éamon de Valera’s return to Ireland was cloaked in as much mystery as his June 1919 arrival in America, when he’d been hidden aboard the White Star’s Lapland. Now, two weeks before Christmas, he was spirited aboard the Celtic shortly before it sailed for Liverpool. In both instances, White Star bosun Barney Downes and other Irish sailors provided key help in smuggling the leader aboard ship.7

Smuggling people, guns, and information aboard transatlantic ships was a regular operation of the war, according to an Irish Volunteer based in Liverpool from 1918-1922:

The liners plying between Liverpool and New York, especially the White Star and Cunard Boats, had Irishmen aboard who were employed to take dispatches from Liverpool for New York and vice versa. These sailors also engaged in the stowing away of leaders who wished to avoid arrest. The mode of procedure was for such a person or persons to go aboard several hours before the Liner was due to leave the dock for a landing stage and to be hidden away in the bowels of the ship. … The Atlantic route was our most important route both on account of the source of [weapons] supply at New York and because of the fact that sailings were very regular and frequent. Our best boats on that line were the Celtic and the Baltic [both of the White Star fleet].8

A few weeks before his clandestine voyage, de Valera publicly organized the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic in a split from the establishment Friends of Irish Freedom. The rancorous move ended 18 months of nearly non-stop, coast-to-coast travel to raise money and political support for the Irish republic. By early December, Boland told the America reporters that de Valera needed rest from all the activity and was keeping out of view.

The Dec. 11, 1920, issue of The Evening World, New York, reported European-bound Christmas mail and some prominent passengers on the Celtic, but not stowaway Éamon de Valera.

Rumors of de Valera’s return to Ireland, however, soon began to “exercise the talents” of journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.9 The London press said de Valera was traveling to the capital for what turned out to be an unauthorized Irish peace overture. American reporters checked the hotels de Valera usually frequented in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Close associates of the Irish leader remained coy about his whereabouts. A Dec. 15 statement attributed to de Valera huffed: “I did not ask Mr. Lloyd George’s permission to come to the United States, and I shall not ask for it when the time of my return to Ireland comes.”10 He was already four days at sea.

It is unclear whether this crossing of the Celtic encountered rough weather, but de Valera was known to easily get seasick, especially hidden away from fresh air. The ship arrived in Liverpool on Dec. 20 (See maps below.), just as British officials ordered that de Valera not be prevented from landing. He was back in Dublin two before Christmas, but remained in hiding.11

Finally, on Dec. 31, Boland announced de Valera had return to Ireland. The story topped the year-end front pages of many U.S. newspapers and quoted from de Valera’s farewell message to America:

May you ever remain as I have known you, the land of the generous hearted and the kindly. … I came to you on a holy mission; a mission of freedom; I return to my people who sent me, not indeed as I had dreamed it, with the mission accomplished, but withal with a message that will cheer in the dark days that have come upon them and will inspire the acceptance of such sacrifices as must yet be made. …. You will not need to be assured that Ireland will ‘not be ungrateful.’12

Afterward

Muriel MacSwiney sailed home to Ireland the next day, New Year’s Day, 1921, aboard the Panhandle State. Mary MacSwiney remained in America and continued to speak out for Irish independence. While many regular Americans supported the Irish cause, the U.S. government under new President Warren Harding considered it a British domestic issue, the same stance as predecessor Woodrow Wilson. In August, with a ceasefire agreed in the war, Mary MacSwiney and Boland returned to Ireland together aboard the White Star’s Olympic.13 Four months later a treaty ended the war and created the Irish Free State.

In December 1928 the Celtic ran aground in a storm on the approach to Queenstown (Cobh), near Roche’s Point Lighthouse. It was found unworthy of repair and scrapped.

Charting Dev’s Return to Ireland on the Celtic

The two maps below are from the “Shipping News” pages of The New York Herald. Note each map shows representations of more than two dozen passenger liners. Clicking the images will show a larger view in most browsers.

This map is from Dec. 12, 1920, a day after the Celtic left New York with stowaway Éamon De Valera. The Celtic is represented by the circled 1 in Row D, third block from bottom, in a cluster of ships off the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

 This map is from Dec. 19, 1920. The Celtic is represented by the circled 3 in Row Q, second block from the top. It arrived the next day at Liverpool, England.

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See all the stories in my American Reporting of Irish Independence series.

Washington, D.C.’s Irish hot spots, 1919-1921

Irish efforts to win U.S. political recognition and financial support for the fledgling state occurred across America during the 1919-1921 revolutionary period. Éamon De Valera traveled coast-to-coast from June 1919 to December 1920. Chapters of the Friends of Irish Freedom and Ancient Order of Hibernians met in large cities and small towns. In Washington, D.C., it’s tempting to think of only the hearing rooms and hallways of the U.S. Capitol, or White House and diplomatic offices, as the center of such activity. But important work and key events of Irish interest unfolded at other locations beyond these landmarks. Here’s a look at several of them:

Munsey Building in 1919. Smithsonian Archives

In August 1919, the Friends of Irish Freedom moved most of its activities from New York City to Washington, D.C. “Headquarters of the Irish National Bureau have been established in the Musey Building, which will carry on the fight of the Americans interested, under the noses of Congress and the Executive departments of the government,” one of the city’s daily newspapers reported on its front page.1

The building opened in 1905 at 1329 E Street N.W., about three blocks from the White House. It was named after Frank Munsey, a Guilded Age capitalist who bought and sold newspapers across America and also perfected a printing processes that used low-quality “pulp” paper for periodicals that were inexpensive to produce and filled with racy fare that made them widely popular: pulp fiction.2

The FOIF’s Irish National Bureau located on the 10th floor of the 13-floor Munsey. Canadian journalist Katherine Hughes, the Bureau’s secretary, furnished the offices in mahogany with green velvet rugs.3 There, a small staff of writers produced the weekly News Letter, pamphlets, and press releases, in addition to facilitating meetings with elected leaders and government officials, much like any other interest group or trade association in Washington.

“The national council of the Friends of Irish Freedom believe the President and Congress should have the assistance of a Bureau located at the Nation’s Capitol,” declared Bureau Director Daniel T. O’Connell. “All the societies associated with the thoughts, traditions and interests of Americans of Irish blood have constantly urged the formation of a bureau that could from Washington respresent them in functioning more directly with national live.”4

On Jan. 8, 1920, De Valera opened offices of  the Irish Government in Exile in the building. The night before, he gave his first Washington speech to more than 5,000 supporters at the Y.M.C.A. Liberty Hut, a large event venue for everything from circuses to conventions, opposite Union Station. The Munsey lease document is held in De Valera’s official papers at University College Dublin. The Irish Legation offices later moved to the Hotel Lafayette.

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Lafayette Hotel in Washington D.C., between 1910 and 1926. Library of Congress

Opened in 1916 at the southeast corner of 16th and I (or “Eye”) streets, about two miles west of the Capitol, the Hotel Lafayette hosted at least two key Irish events during 1920.

On April 7, members of the U.S. Senate and House, “dignitaries of the church, bankers, educators, writers and representatives of the bar” honored De Valera at a “Free Ireland” banquet in advance of his tour of the American South. Guests dined on “Baked Sea Trout Florida” and roast turkey with cranberry sauce. “The speaking continued until nearly 2 a.m.”5

From November 1920 through January 1921 the hotel also became the headquarters for the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, a non-U.S. government body created by pro-Irish interests to generate publicity and political support for the fledgling Irish republic. The blue-ribbon panel included two U.S. senators and six other military, religious, and civic leaders. It interviewed 18 American, 18 Irish, and two British witnesses, with a focus on military reprisals against citizens and the revolutionaries.

An early news story reported “several halls in the city have been placed in the disposal” of the commission, but the Lafayette’s ballroom hosted all but one of the six hearing sessions.6 The exception occurred in December at the Odd Fellows Hall. See below.

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Headlines about the De Valera protest march and rally, and the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, in The Evening Star, Nov. 17, 1920, page 16.

The commission hearings opened the same week that De Valera launched the FOIF rival organization American Associaiton for Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) at the Raleigh Hotel, a short walk from the Munsey Building. “The conference which opened with an address by De Valera yesterday morning remained in almost continuous session behind closed doors for 15 hours, adopted a policy, a name, a constitution, and a plan of organization,” a local papeer reported.7

Located at the northeast corner of 12th Street N.W., and Pennsylvania Avenue, the site had been occupied by several earlier inns and office buildings, including where Andrew Johnson took the presidential oath in April 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The 13-story Beaux Arts hotel where De Valera and the AARIR huddled was built in 1911.8

The night before the AARIR formation meeting, more than 2,000 Irish sympathizers marched past the White House “through a driving cold rain” to the Coliseum, “where they joined waiting thousands at the auditorium in a monster protest meeting against America’s silence on conditions in Ireland. … Undaunted by the refusal of the fire marshal to permit more than 3,500 persons in the hall, fully 4,000 persons awaited outside in the rain, where they were addressed during the evening by De Valera …”9

Center Market, 1920s.

The “Coliseum” at the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue was a wing of the Center Market, “a massive, sprawling marketplace, one of the biggest in the country,” located there since the early 1800s. The building used for the 1920 Irish meeting opened in 1872 and closed in 1931.10

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Odd Fellows Hall, cirica 1921. Library of Congress

On Dec. 8 and 9, 1920, the Odd Fellows Hall at 419 Seventh Street N.W., hosted American Commission hearings featuring the highly anticipated testimoney of Murial MacSwiney, wife of the late hunger striker, and his sister, Mary. The building opened in 1917 replaced the fraternal organization’s earlier, more ornate home.11

“A large crowd assembled at Odd Fellows Hall this morning long before the hearing was scheduled to begin,” one of the dailies reported. “Only 600 tickets of admission were distributed, but more than three times that number waited in the corridors of the building in an effort to gain admission.”12

St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Church image from 1976

Murial MacSwiney also attended Mass at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church. “Hundreds of persons thronged the vacinity of the church to catch a glimse of the visitor,” the press reported.13

St. Matthew’s was designated a cathedral in 1939, and in 1963 it was site of the funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy. The city’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, established in 1792 as “the oldest parish in the Federal City” and the site of an annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass.

It’s also worth noting that Irish-born and pro-independence Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne, Australia, stopped in Washington in July 1920, a month before his arrest by British authorities while trying to visit Ireland. During his stay Mannix attended events at Catholic University of America, and Georgetown University, both church-affiliated institutions.

St. Matthew’s, St. Patrick’s, the Odd Fellows Hall, and the two universities survive today. The Munsey Building, both downtown hotels, and the two event venues were scraped from the Washington, D.C. cityscape decades ago.