In March 1919, against a background of escalating violence in Ireland, a new nationalist political organisation, the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain (ISDL), was created by Sinn Féin to mobilise the support of the Irish living in Britain. And, in the industrial towns and colliery villages of the North East of England, from Ashington in the north to Redcar in the south, over 50 branches of this republican organisation were formed. There had been Irish nationalist organisations in the North East since the early decades of the nineteenth century, but in the ISDL, for the first time, a woman was to have a leading role.
Theresa Mason (née Price) was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1882. As a child, she lived in the Plough Inn on Byker Bank, where her father, James Price, was barman. Though both Theresa’s parents had been born in England, her father had been raised by Irish-born John and Mary Lannen, and it is probable that James had Irish-born parents. Nothing is known of Theresa’s early life but, in the 1901 census, she was recorded as living in Windsor Street, Byker, with her grandmother Mary Lannen, and working as a school teacher.
In 1905, Theresa Price married Robert McDonough Mason in Newcastle. Born in Birmingham about 1859, Robert was working as a barman at the Plough Inn in Byker in 1901. By then, he had established a reputation on Tyneside for his advanced Irish nationalist views, and had been elected president of the Newcastle branch of the Amnesty Association campaigning for the release of Irish political prisoners. Robert later withdrew from public involvement in Irish nationalist politics, and, at the time of the 1911 census, was working as a bar manager and living with his wife, Theresa, and their two small children at 75 Doncaster Road, Sandyford.
In 1919, though her husband was no longer politically active, Theresa Mason joined the Irish Self-Determination League, and in September was elected vice president of the Newcastle branch. In early 1920, control of Tyneside’s ISDL passed to men, who, as members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, were secretly raising an IRA brigade on Tyneside. Theresa, however, retained her position as Newcastle’s vice president and in 1920 and 1921 regularly shared platforms in halls and at open air meetings with these men. After two of these leaders, Gilbert Barrington and Richard Purcell, were arrested in October 1921 following a bungled attempt to steal explosives, Theresa assumed greater influence in the ISDL and was selected to represent Tyneside at the Irish Race Conference in Paris in January 1922.
The ISDL, however, was by then already in decline. After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Irish nationalists in Britain, as in Ireland, split into those who accepted the Treaty and supported the creation of an Irish Free State, and those who rejected the Treaty and demanded an Irish Republic. Theresa Mason wholeheartedly rejected the Treaty, declaring her support for ‘President de Valera and the Irish Republic’. And, at the ISDL’s conference in London in April 1922, applauded ‘Ireland’s children’ who had ‘fought for the Republic’. The majority of ISDL members, however, satisfied with the Treaty, abandoned the organisation to the militants, and by mid-1922, the Tyneside’s ISDL had been reduced to just a handful of republican branches.
Undaunted, Theresa Mason continued to campaign for an Irish Republic. In August 1922, she spoke at an anti-Treaty meeting on Town Moor in Newcastle and was photographed by the Illustrated Chronicle; in March 1923 she shared a platform in Newcastle’s town hall with the Countess Markievicz, the republican heroine of 1916; and in 1924 she was appointed as the ISDL’s official organiser on Tyneside. In December 1924, however, disillusioned with the ISDL’s leadership in London and the inability of republican organisations in Britain to form a united front, she affiliated Newcastle’s ISDL branch and its remaining 40 to 50 members to Sinn Féin in Dublin.
It is not known when or why Theresa finally abandoned her active involvement in Irish republican politics. Her sight, however, was failing, prompting a pilgrimage to Lourdes in October 1924. She died in 1940, aged 58 years.
Today, Theresa Mason is all-but forgotten. But a century ago, she was at the forefront of advanced Irish nationalism on Tyneside and, though her views were rejected by the majority of Irish migrants and their descendants on Tyneside, she deserves to be remembered.
Note: Robert McDonough Mason, Gilbert Barrington and Richard Purcell will all feature in future blogs on this website https://exilesinengland.com/
 Tyneside Catholic News, 6 September. 1919. The British Library https://www.bl.uk/
 Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26 & 28 August 1920. Newcastle City Libraryhttps://www.newcastle.gov.uk/services/libraries-culture/your-libraries/city-library
 The Irish Exile, April 1922. The British Library https://www.bl.uk/
 Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle, 11 August 1922. Newcastle City Libraryhttps://www.newcastle.gov.uk/services/libraries-culture/your-libraries/city-library
 For Theresa Mason’s correspondence with ISDL headquarters in London see the Art Ó Briain papers, National Library of Ireland https://www.nli.ie/
9 replies on “Theresa Mason, Tyneside’s Irish republican activist.”
thank you for your article on Theresa Mason. I found it really interesting.Theresa is my great auntie, however, I have only recently become aware of her story. The only mention of Irish Nationalism I was aware of was a comment from my Auntie Molly (Theresa’s niece) who told me that James Price (her grandfather) was a Fenian. I have unearthed some details about James Price. His mother (Mary) and father (Michael) settled in Dunnington, near York in the early 1850s. They were both Irish. Michael died when James was young and Mary married John Lannen. The family later moved to Darlington where James worked in an Iron foundry.James moved to Newcastle and married Mary-Ann Cunningham in 1878. He worked as a porter in the College of Arts and then as a bar manager. He was also a professional photographer. The family were aware that he ran the Plough at Byker and possibly another Byker pub. We knew that Theresa was a teacher (possibly at St. Dominic’s Shieldfield). There is also a family story that James painted the stations of the cross that used to be in St. Dominic’s Priory, but I can’t conform this.
Thanks again for bringing Theresa’s story to light. I would love to see the photo of her on the Town Moor!
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I’m really interested in your blog after finding your PhD Thesis a few years ago. Theresa was the sister of my husband’s Great Grandfather – Michael Patrick Price. Did you know that the John Cunningham you mention in your thesis was Theresa’s uncle (her mother’s brother) ? Liz Watson
Liz, Many thanks for your comment. Glad you like my blog! No, I didn’t know that John Cunningham was related to Theresa Mason, but there were many family links amongst Irish nationalists. Do you know anything more about Robert and Theresa Mason? I’d really like to know why Robert retired from nationalist politics. Best wishes, Steve.
Hi Steve, Unfortunately I don’t know why Robert retired from politics, but I have been trying to track down his (and Theresa’s) descendants and I will let you know if I find out anything. I have found a few interesting bits of information in the BNA archives about Theresa’s father James that you may not have picked up. Do you have a contact email so that I can share them with you. Liz
Hi Liz. Great to hear from you. That sounds really interesting. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope you are all well,
Sorry Liz- I think I got the ‘Steves’ mixed up!
No problem Steve P. – I promised Joe I’d send you the info ages ago. This is a reminder to do it before my BNA subscription runs out !
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