Tag Archives: Terence MacSwiney

MacSwiney’s ‘Principles of Freedom’ makes U.S. debut

Terence MacSwiney

Nearly 150 Irish civilians were killed by military and police forces from the Oct. 25, 1920, voluntary hunger strike death of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney to the January 1921 U.S. publication of Principles of Freedom, a collection of his essays.1 Many of these deaths were reported in U.S. newspapers, most notably “Bloody Sunday” in November 1920, but few received as much ongoing attention as MacSwiney’s martyrdom. Three months after his death, the posthumous book prompted a new round of headlines. 

E.P. Dutton & Co. of New York published the 244-page book six months before the first Irish edition from Talbot Press Limited, Dublin.2 The book contained 19 chapters, what MacSwiney called “articles,” all but one of which was previously published in the Irish republican newspaper Irish Freedom during 1911-1912. In the preface, MacSwiney said:

It was my intention to publish these articles in book form as soon as possible. I had them typed for the purpose. I had no time for revision save to insert in the typed copy words or lines omitted from the original printed matter. I also made an occasional verbal alteration in the original. One article, however, that on “Intellectual Freedom,” though written in the series in the place in which it now stands, was not printed with them. It is now published for the first time.”

MacSwiney devoted three pages of the preface to explain his essay “Religion” to “avoid a possible misconception amongst people outside of Ireland.” He continued:

In Ireland there is no religious dissension, but there is religious sincerity. English politicians, to serve the end of dividing Ireland, have worked on the religious feelings of the North, suggesting the dangers of Catholic ascendancy. There is not now, and there never was, any such danger, but our enemies, by raising the cry, sowed discord in the North, with the aim of destroying Irish unity. 

Arrested Aug. 12, 1920, for possession of “seditious articles and documents,” MacSwiney was tried four days later and sentenced to two years at Brixton Prison in south London. He probably wrote the preface and finalized the book deal during his hunger strike.

Correspondence between MacSwiney and E.P. Dutton & Co. is held by Syracuse University.3 My request for copies of this material is backlogged by COVID-19 slowdowns and lower priority due to being unaffiliated with the university. I’ll update in a future post.

U.S. Reviews

Reviews of MacSwiney’s book began to appear in U.S. newspapers the last week of January 1921, a month after his wife, Muriel, and sister, Mary, testified at American Commission on Conditions in Ireland hearings in Washington, D.C. The widow returned quickly to Ireland, but the sister remained in America to make the rounds of pro-Irish independence speaking engagements. 

MacSwiney’s “dying plea for Ireland” was “the peroration of a poet, an idealist, a dreamer, who possessed, nevertheless, a sense of humor, a leaning toward the practical, an insight into human nature which illuminate at frequent intervals the pages of the book,” The Evening World’s Martin Green wrote in one of the earliest reviews.4

“The martyr to the Irish cause was strong for the ‘dreamers, cranks and fools’. In his opinion those so designated are the backbone of a movement such as Ireland is undergoing.”

The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to the separatist government in Dublin, said the book was “a valuable contribution to philosophy … universal in its viewpoints; it happens to have Ireland as a particular and living illustration … though it can hardly be called a piece of Irish republican propaganda.”5

An editorial in the St. Louis Star said MacSwiney’s book “will not only prove a memorial to his life and his sacrifice, but it furnish the world a fresh insight into the spirit of the Irish people.”6

Period newspaper adverts show the book retailed for $2, or just under $30 with a century of inflation.7 Today, a California antiquarian and used book dealer advertises a 1921 first edition of the E.P. Dutton version in “Very Good Plus” condition for $150. (Digitized U.S. and Irish editions are linked in Note 2.)  

“Here is a document of extraordinary interest,” says the book’s original dust jacket. “It is the mind of an Irish irreconcilable turned inside out by himself for our inspection.”

From New York Herald, March 13, 1921.

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.

***

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

Irish Pittsburgh’s November to remember, 1920

Terence MacSwiney

Pittsburgh’s Irish community in November 1920 mourned the hunger-strike death of Terence MacSwiney and remembered the Manchester Martyrs of 1867. It followed news of “Bloody Sunday” in Dublin; the opening of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland hearings in Washington, D.C.; and the launch of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) to rival the established Clan na Gael and affiliated Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF).

About 14,000 Irish immigrants lived in Pittsburgh at the time, or 2.4 percent the city’s population; down from an 11 percent post-Famine peak of 27,000 in 1890.1 The population of first generation Irish Americans with at least one Irish-born parent in the city and surrounding regions is not clear.

Mourning MacSwiney

A reported 5,000 Irish sympathizers packed the Lyceum Theater in downtown Pittsburgh the evening of Oct. 31, 1920, to mourn MacSwiney’s death six days earlier. Another 2,000 unable to get inside held an overflow demonstration on Penn Avenue. Both groups listened to speeches for more than two hours about MacSwiney and the other hunger strikers Joseph Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald.2

Lyceum Theater sign can be seen in middle of the block of this 1914 photo. The downtown vaudeville house was a popular meeting place for Pittsburgh’s Irish community, including an anti-conscription protest and “Self-Determination for Ireland” rally in 1918.

Three days later, Catholic church hierarchy and over 2,000 mourners attended a solemn high mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the city’s Oakland district. An Irish tricolor was placed over a coffin. Subsequent memorial masses were held at St. Patrick’s Church, near downtown, with a sermon on “Destiny of the Irish Race”; and St. John the Evangelist, on the city’s Southside. 3

Martyrs Meeting

Western Pennsylvania representatives of the Clan na Gael packed the Lyceum again on Nov. 21 to hear Fenian legend John Devoy, then 78. There is no indication in the Pittsburgh newspaper coverage that news of the Bloody Sunday events hours earlier that day in Ireland reached the meeting. Instead, Devoy framed his Manchester Martyrs remembrance around the launch of the AARIR by Harry Boland and Éamon De Valera.

Pittsburgh newspaper headline the morning after John Devoy appearance in the city.

The “attempt to wreck the old organization which has kept the I.R.B. in Ireland alive for half a century, has had no effect whatever in Pittsburgh, except to make the members angry at [the] unwarrantable action, and they crowded the theater with their wives, children and neighbors to testify to their unbroken faith in the organization and the cause it represents in America but for its steadfastness and devotion.” Devoy’s Gaelic American reported two weeks later.4

The New York newspaper said its editor’s Pittsburgh hotel quarters were crowded “with old timers and young men who came to pledge their support in opposing the attempt to break the organization and to learn the inside history of the latest scheme to make a split among the American Irish.”

John Devoy

In his speech, Devoy recounted that he was locked up at Millbank Prison in London, about 200 miles south of Manchester, when William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien were executed. He said newspaper accounts were smuggled to him by the I.R.B.’s Tom O’Bolger, who had avoided capture in the attempt to free Fenian prisoners from English custody, the event that ensnared Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien.

“The executions were intended to strike terror into the Irish people, but they had the very opposite effect. A wave of anti-English feeling swept over Ireland,” Devoy told the Lyceum audience.5

‘Avoid Splits’

Devoy also warned the Pittsburgh Irish to “avoid splits, which have ruined every Irish movement for the past 100 years. … Now, when the Irish in America are more united than at any other period in the history of the country, a new split is launched. It can only help England and bring discouragement to the people in the Old Land. The one thing that Ireland needs most is a United Irish Race in America, standing shoulder to shoulder, and acting under their own elected leaders.”

The split did occur, as further reported in the same issue of the Gaelic American: “… De Valera … said there was no split and that the two organizations could get along without friction. While making this statement he was making all the friction he possibly could. … [FOIF members were] induced by gross falsehood and misrepresentation to succeed and join the rival organization which is creating disunion in America while Lloyd George is butchering the people of Ireland.”6

Commission Hearings

The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland was a non-U.S. government body created in autumn 1920 to generate political support for the Irish cause. Pittsburgh Leader Publisher Alexander P. Moore was selected to sit on the high-profile panel. A year earlier, as event co-chairman for de Valera’s visit to Pittsburgh, Moore described himself as “the son of an Ulster Protestant whose father was driven out of Ireland because he fought for Irish freedom.”7 The newspaper man excused himself from commission service because he was “unable to give the time necessary to the inquiry,” with hearings that lasted from November through January 1921.8

In early December, Pittsburgh innkeeper and Irish immigrant Patrick J. Guilfoil was called before the commission to testify about his experiences in Ireland earlier in the year. He described how Irish republican gunmen killed two Royal Irish Constabulary officers at Feakle, Co. Clare, where he was staying, which resulted in military reprisals on the village 50 miles north to Limerick city. Guilfoil also described the Cork city funeral procession of hunger striker Michael Fitzgerald. “Pittsburgh Witness In Irish Probe P.J. Guilfoil Tells of Raid by Military on County Clare Town’ and “Local Man Tells of Burning of Town in County Clare,” the city’s newspapers headlined.9

Guilfoil’s testimony was noted in other U.S. newspaper coverage of the Dec. 10 hearing, but it was overshadowed by the same-day testimony of Mary MacSwiney, sister of the late hunger striker; and by three former RIC officers who quit the force in protest of British “misrule” in Ireland. A treaty to separate Ireland from that rule and end the war would be agreed within a year. But the island was partitioned and the new free state plunged into civil war.

Related Work:

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.

***

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.

***

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

***

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.

MacSwiney’s martyrdom in the Irish-American press

MacSwiney

The Oct. 25, 1920, hunger strike death of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney in an English prison increased international attention on Ireland’s fight for independence. Irish leader Eamon de Valera, nearing the end of his 18-month tour of the United States, said that MacSwiney and other Irish hunger strikers “were forced by the tyranny that would deprive them of liberty to make death the alternative.” The Friends of Irish Freedom organized “manifestations of indignation and sorrow” in American cities. At New York City’s Polo Grounds, an estimated 40,000 attended an observance inside the baseball stadium, with another 10,000 kept outside the gates.

Below are short excerpts from four editorials in the Irish-American press about MacSwiney’s martyrdom. Click the hyperlinked headline below each quote to see the digitized newspaper page with the full editorial.

“What must be the infamy of a system that survives only by sending Pearse and Casement to a quicklime grave, or MacSwiney to a death such as that described by the dispatches of recent days have given so much space.”

MacSwiney, The Irish Press, Philadelphia, Oct. 30

“At the funeral in the city of which MacSwiney was the Chief Magistrate, the English savages made utterly needless display of machine guns, armed motor lorries and ‘Black and Tan’ murderers and looters for the purpose of overawing the people, but which only succeeded in demonstrating to the world that England holds Ireland only by brute force. The whole MacSwiney episode, designed by Lloyd George as a means of striking terror into the Irish people has had the very opposite effect.”

MacSwiney’s Spirit Still Lives, The Gaelic American, New York, Nov. 6

“During the past week the tricolor of the Irish republic, carried in tremendous demonstrations on every continent of the globe, has been saluted as the emblem of the universal freedom sanctified and made secure by the voluntary sacrifice of the martyred Irishman.”

The Tribute of Humanity, News Letter, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6

” ‘It is not,’ MacSwiney told his fellow countrymen upon his election as Lord Mayor of Cork on March 30, 1920, ‘to those who can inflict the most suffering, but to those who can suffer most that victory will come.’ ”

Martyred, Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, Oct. 30

U.S. reporter scooped last Terence MacSwiney interview

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 in 1920.

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

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.

Markievicz

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.

Votes for women, support for Ireland

National Museum of American History

In 10 weeks American women are expected to have a large impact in deciding the U.S. presidential election, which arrives at the centenary of their enfranchisement. The August 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution also was followed by a presidential vote in America as the war of independence unfolded in Ireland.

“Women of Irish blood in the United States should lose no time in qualifying as voters, so that their wonderful influence may be used to make better laws in the United States, as well as assisting to secure recognition of the Irish Republic,” The Irish Press of Philadelphia editorialized. “Those who fail to do so are neglecting their duty and will be held responsible for their negligence by those of the race who make use of this new and powerful weapon, which the vote places in the hands of every woman who can qualify as a citizen of this Republic.1

Irish women had received restricted voting rights in February 1918. Ten months later they helped sweep republican Sinn Féin candidates to office, including Constance Georgine Markievicz, the first women elected to Parliament. “Countess” Markievicz and the other separatists refused their seats in London and instead formed a breakaway government in Dublin.

By August 1920, the war in Ireland was turning more brutal. Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney and others were dying in prison hunger strikes. “Will the newly-enfranchised American Women show their love for freedom and justice by asking their Government to prove its good faith to the democracies of the world by stopping the murder of Mayor MacSwiney and his companions?” Irish activist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington asked in a public cable.2

A small but determined group of American women activists continued their months-long protest against imperial rule in Ireland through demonstrations outside the British embassy and other locations in Washington, D.C. Some suffragists and supporters of Irish independence criticized their tactics as counterproductive.

In a pair of early September 1920 editorials, The Irish Press addressed both the “women pickets” and MacSwiney’s pending martyrdom:3

American women will appreciate the suffering of the wives and mothers of Irishmen who are forced to sacrifice all for their motherland. American women are now fully enfranchised citizens; will they by their votes permit the continued recognition by the United States of the Government in Ireland [Britain] that is responsible for conditions such as this? …

The people of Ireland … may expect the utmost assistance of all American women. … Picketing … is not easy work [and] many men would not care to undertake it. … If all the women in the United States would take action, not necessarily in the same manner, but with the same earnestness, the mothers of Ireland would never again need to sacrifice their sons.

Ireland was not a major issue in the November 1920 election. Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio overwhelmed the state’s Democratic Gov. James M. Cox in a rebuke to Woodrow Wilson’s eight years in the White House. Women swelled the voting turnout to nearly 27 million from 18.5 million four years earlier. Harding supported Irish humanitarian relief early in 1921, but his administration took an arms-length approach the war, then quickly endorsed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Irish-American influence ebbed in Washington as Americans focused on domestic affairs.4

American women pickets on behalf of Ireland, April 1920.

Further reading:

Tara M. McCarthy’s Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920 is “an important and understudied perspective on the evolution of women’s activism in the United States … emphasizing the particular role of Irish American women in the politics of reform through the interlinked lenses of Irish nationalism, labor, and suffrage,” the Women’s History Association of Ireland said in a review. “These are explored using local, national, and transnational contexts and therefore provide a useful addition to the study of American politics in addition to the Irish diaspora’s experiences abroad.”

The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial website offers several profiles of native Irish and Irish-American women who helped win the vote a century ago. They including:

Burns and other women are also in the “Fearless: A Tribute to Irish American Women” feature from the Library of Congress.

My “American Reporting of Irish Independence” series includes an interview with American historian Catherine M. Burns about the 1920 women’s pickets. A separate post about Mary Galvin of Philadelphia explores the activity of one of the women.

Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City, October 1917.