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Mary Gunn: Gateshead’s Irish nationalist and Labour activist.

In 2018, in celebration of the centenary of women in British politics, Gateshead Library Service highlighted the lives of ten women, both local and national, in British political history, and presented a copy of the exhibition booklet to every Gateshead school.[1]

One of the local women featured in the booklet is Mary Gunn (1883-1958), who became the first female Mayor of Gateshead in 1942, was the first woman to chair the town’s Labour Party, and was the first female Roman Catholic municipal councillor in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.

Mary Gunn, however, was not just a pioneering Labour activist in Gateshead but was also, along with her husband, Hugh Gunn, sister, Annie Hanlon, and brother-in-law, James Gunn, an Irish nationalist and a founding member of Gateshead’s Irish Labour Party – an organisation that today is all but forgotten but which, for a few years after 1919, flourished on Tyneside.

This post will explore the history of the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead and highlight the key roles played by Mary Gunn and her family.

Before the Great War, many, possilby even majority of working-class Irish Catholics in Britain were already voting for British Labour party candidates at the polls and shunning those candidates supported by the Irish nationalist organisations. This transfer of allegiance from ‘green’ to ‘red’ politics was dramatically illustrated in 1907, when Pete Curran, the Glasgow-born Irish Catholic trade union organiser, won the Jarrow by-election for Labour, relegating the local working-class Irish nationalist candidate, John O’Hanlon, to fourth place.[2] But after the Great War, as revolution shook Ireland, not all of Tyneside’s Irish Catholics were willing to reject so completely their nationalist origins and fully embrace a British labour movement that championed their class. So a new organisation was needed that would allow working-class Irish men and women to ally themselves to the British labour movement without surrendering their unique ethnic identity. This was the Irish Labour Party.[3]

Before looking at the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead, however, the origins of this organisation on Tyneside must be explored.

In 1891, the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum(On the Condition of the Working-Classes) reversed the Catholic Church’s long-held opposition to labour combinations and offered toleration for ‘workingmen’s unions’, provided that there was no violation of the Church’s own social teachings, particularly those relating to the family and private property.[4] In Britain, Catholic workers responded to this relaxation with the Catholic Social Guild, formed in Manchester in 1909,[5] and by 1914 there were over twenty of its study groups on Tyneside.[6]

In November 1917, at a meeting of the Tyne Dock study group, ‘the advisability of forming a Catholic Labour Party’ in Britain was discussed.[7] Two of the men at this meeting, Luke Hannon and William McAnany, were Irish Catholics active not only in the labour movement, as colliery delegates to the Durham Miners Federation, but also in Irish nationalist organisations. Out of this discussion, the Irish Labour Party on Tyneside was born. 

In November 1918, just weeks before the general election, the ‘Tyne Dock Irish Labour Party’, with William McAnany as secretary, met for the first time.[8] At a subsequent meeting, the new party agreed to support Labour’s parliamentary candidate in South Shields.[9] Previously, Liberal candidates in favour of Home Rule had been certain of the Irish vote.

Labour, however, failed to secure South Shields in the general election, as it failed across Tyneside, in spite of widespread support from Irish Catholic voters. The general election also saw Sinn Féin triumph over the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the resulting collapse of the United Irish League of Great Britain that had before 1914 dominated Irish nationalist politics in the North East of England. In this time of disappointment, upheaval and uncertainty, with war approaching in Ireland, the Irish Labour Party spread up the Tyne, first to Newcastle and then to ‘the most solidly working-class constituency on Tyneside’ – Gateshead.[10]

Though the Irish Labour Party’s records, including those from Gateshead, probably no longer exist, the party’s actions and programme may be reconstructed through the pages of contemporary newspapers.[11] A key source is the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’s newspaper in Dublin, The Voice of Labour, which in June 1919 printed the aims of the Gateshead branch. These three aims were almost certainly held by the other branches across Tyneside.

‘Self-Determination for Ireland; affiliation to the British Labour Party for work in common with British workers for better conditions; and the election of Irish workers, men and women, on the public bodies so that Irish workers in Great Britain may play their proper part in local government.’[12]

The inaugural meeting of the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead was held in the Catholic Young Men’s Society’s rooms in Ellison Street on Sunday afternoon 9 March 1919 with speakers from the Tyne Dock and Newcastle branches. These speakers declared that ‘Ireland’s hopes rested only with the Labour Party’, but insisted that they must not ‘merge into the Independent Labour Party and thus give up their separate spirit until their country was free’.[13] During this first meeting Annie Hanlon was elected assistant branch secretary.[14]

Annie Hanlon (1885-1938), the younger sister of Mary Gunn, had lived in Gateshead since 1902 and was working as a shop assistant in Newcastle. Already active in the Shop Assistants’ Union, she was later described in the Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular as ‘one of our young and enthusiastic lady members… keenly interested in the women’s side of public life and an active social worker’.[15]

Though promoting Irish self-determination was the principal stated aim of the Gateshead branch of the Irish Labour Party, the second aim – ‘affiliation to the British Labour Party’ – was soon achieved, when the branch, with its ‘enthusiastic workers’, was admitted to the Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council (GLPTC) in May 1919.[16] The significance of this affiliation was explained at the Irish Labour Party’s first conference in July 1919, which was held in Westfield Hall on Alexandra Road, when Gateshead’s branch chairman, Thomas Ryan, reported that before the branch had been formed there had only been two Irish members of the town’s Labour Party, whereas, after only four months, the branch had almost 400 members affiliated to the local Labour Party.[17]

Tyne Dock’s Irish Labour Party had achieved electoral success under Labour’s banner in April 1919, with six members elected to the Board of Guardians and one to Durham County Council.[18] Gateshead’s opportunity to achieve its third objective soon followed, when two municipal by-elections were contested on behalf of Labour by Irish Labour Party members.

In July, James McVay, a Felling-born trade union official, was elected in the North East ward as the Irish Labour Party’s first councillor. This victory prompted the GLPTC’s secretaryto highlight what could be achieved ‘when the forces of Labour are united’, and predict ‘a future for Labour in this district that does not portend much success for the bourgeoisie in their dying struggle to maintain municipal monopoly’. [19] Then in August, Mary Gunn’s brother-in-law, James Gunn, was selected to fight the North ward for Labour.

Born in County Fermanagh, James Gunn (1867-1935) was described as a ‘ticket agent’ when he stood for election in August 1919, but had previously been a publican in Gateshead. James’s opponent in the election was a Catholic Truth Society candidate backed by the parish priest of St Joseph’s Church. After a bitter contest, during which he was denounced from the pulpit and accused of being ‘anti-clerical’, James Gunn was elected as Labour’s fifth, and the Irish Labour Party’s second, councillor in Gateshead.[20]

The Gateshead branch achieved further success in the municipal elections of November 1919, when two more of its members were elected as Labour councillors.[21] Then, in the municipal elections a year later, two Irish Labour Party women were selected as Labour candidates – the first women to be chosen by Labour in Gateshead.

In the North West ward was Mary Gunn, described as being ‘one of our most active workers’, who ‘has all a mother’s interest in domestic questions and the care of child life’.[22] Mary Gunn (née Hanlon) had been born in Sunderland in 1883, where her Irish-born father had worked as a coal miner. Mary’s first job was in service, but later she was a school teacher in Gateshead. In 1904, she married Hugh Gunn.

Mary had been a member of the Irish Labour Party from its formation in March 1919 and by October 1920 was also serving on the executive committee of the Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council.[23] At an election meeting in Teams, Mary, supported by the Irish Labour Party’s drum and fife band, spoke of the need for proper housing and children’s playing fields in the town, and appealed to voters to vote for her ‘as it was the first opportunity they had of returning a Labour woman to the Council’.[24]

Standing in the East ward was Mary’s sister, Annie Hanlon. Both women, however, were defeated by male Coalition candidates.[25] These two defeats may simply have been the result of Labour’s unpopularity at the polls in November 1920, but may, possibly, have reflected voters’ disapproval of female candidates. The Irish Labour Party’s increasingly militant nationalist stance in 1920 – as shall be explained later – may also have influenced the outcome.

After the electoral disappointments of 1920, the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead hoped for greater success in November 1921, though the results were mixed. James Gunn lost his North ward seat, though his sister-in-law, Mary Gunn, standing once againin the North West ward, defeated a male Ratepayers Association candidate by 1669 votes to 1038.[26] Mary thus became Gateshead’s first female Labour councillor and the first female Catholic municipal councillor in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.[27] And she held this ward for Labour until 1938, when she was elected an Alderman.

Then in November 1923, as the Labour Party took control of Gateshead’s town council for the first time, Annie Hanlon was elected in the West Central ward, as Labour’s third female councillor in the town. Annie held this ward until 1926, when, for family reasons, she did not seek re-election.[28]

But what of Hugh Gunn (1861-1927), Mary’s husband? He had been born in County Fermanagh and, probably, moved to Tyneside with his younger brother in the late nineteenth century. Hugh had then worked for twenty years in the licensing trade in Newcastle, but by 1911 was living in Gateshead with his wife Mary, and both were working as insurance agents.

Hugh Gunn too had been a founding member of the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead, though he never sought election to the town council.[29] Rather, Hugh was elected to Gateshead’s Board of Guardians in April 1919 and remained a Guardian until his death in January 1927. Hugh was also the Irish Labour Party’s ‘organising secretary’, during its early eventful years, and his obituary suggests that the Gateshead branch was ‘largely a child of his activities’.[30]

Though success in municipal politics was actively pursued, the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead was, from its formation, an Irish nationalist organisation that sought to aid the nationalist cause by influencing the British Labour movement to support Irish self-determination.

The branch had its first major success in October 1919, when the Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council unanimously supported an Irish Labour Party resolution ‘demanding the withdrawal of troops from Ireland’ and declaring that the Irish people’s ‘only crime is that they, as a nation, desire to rule themselves’.[31] Further success followed, when the GLPTC called on the Parliamentary Labour Party ‘to demand the immediate release or trial of all the Irish political prisoners’.[32] And demands for the release of Irish political prisoners, the withdrawal of British troops, and Irish self-determination became the norm at Irish Labour Party meetings and rallies in Gateshead.[33]

As the Anglo-Irish War intensified during 1920, so the Irish Labour Party’s nationalism became increasingly militant. This militancy is illustrated in the language used in meetings of the Newcastle branch, which condemned British rule in Ireland as ‘the most treacherous, hypocritical and despotic that have disgraced the annals of the British Parliament’, and emphasised the party’s blood-soaked nationalist heritage:

‘We, members of the Irish Labour Party, recall with pride the spirit of independence and love of freedom displayed by the Irish Labour leaders during the memorable year 1916. That we pledge ourselves to cultivate and bloom the seeds they planted, and watered with their blood. Further, we recognise that nothing short of that independence for which they died will satisfy the Irish people and for that aim and object the Irish Labour Party stands first.’[34]

These sentiments would have been applauded across the Tyne in Gateshead, where a second Irish Labour Party branch was formed in 1920.[35]

From August 1920, the hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, galvanised Irish Catholic public opinion across Tyneside. In Gateshead’s council chamber, James Gunn and the other four Irish Labour Party councillors persuaded a majority of the council to pass a resolution demanding the Lord Mayor’s release, whilst the GLPTC protested ‘against the inhuman treatment’ of the Lord Mayor and described British action in Ireland as ‘military oppression unknown in the history of a civilised people’. [36]

By the end of 1920, with the death of the Lord Mayor of Cork after seventy-four days on hunger strike, and the deepening crisis in Ireland, the British Labour movement’s attitude to Irish self-determination was changing. Across the North East, local Labour parties demanded ‘the withdrawal of British troops’,[37] whilst in January 1921 a ‘crowded and enthusiastic’ ‘Peace with Ireland’ meeting, organised by the local Irish Labour Party branch, was held in Gateshead town hall with John Brotherton, the prospective Labour parliamentary candidate, in the chair.[38]

On 17 March 1921, the Irish Labour Party organised a St Patrick’s Day demonstration in Gateshead town hall and many in the crowded hall were seen to be wearing Irish Republican tricolour badges as well as shamrocks. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was the main speaker, and, during her visit to Gateshead, this radical feminist and Irish nationalist, whose husband had been murdered by a British officer during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, was the guest of Councillor James Gunn and his Armagh-born wife, Katie.[39]

In July 1921, however, with neither the Crown forces nor the Irish Republican Army seemingly able to achieve an outright military victory, a truce was agreed.[40] A conference followed and, on 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London.[41]

On 17 March 1922, Gateshead’s Irish Labour Party held a St Patrick’s Day celebration in the town hall, during which Father Patrick Staunton from St Joseph’s Church told the audience that Michael Collins would not have signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty ‘if he had not thought it gave salvation to his country’, and he urged everyone ‘to accept the present treaty’.[42] And that advice was heeded in Gateshead and across Tyneside, as the majority of Tyneside’s Irish Catholics followed the example of Dáil Éireann and approved the Treaty.

After 1922, there are gradually fewer references to the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead in the local or Catholic press. And by the late 1920s, the branch appears to have merged with the mainstream British Labour Party and ceased to be a distinct, active political organisation, though still meeting for social and cultural events.[43] It was not, however, forgotten.

In 1942, Alderman Mary Gunn was chosen as the first female mayor of the borough, and The Gateshead Herald reminded its readers that she was ‘a born Irish fighter’ and ‘a true representative of the working housewife’, who had been a ‘stalwart supporter of the Irish Labour Party’, which had ‘in its day played a lively and effective part in rousing the Gateshead voters of Irish descent to take an interest in municipal affairs’.[44]

And, in 1944, another Irish Labour Party stalwart, Tipperary-born Thomas Ryan, was elected Mayor of Gateshead. He had been chairman of the Gateshead branch and was credited with having ‘assisted in the formation of the Irish people of our town into a definite political body’.[45]

In 1927, Mary Gunn’s husband, Hugh, died and his obituary in The Gateshead Herald provides an epitaph not only for this ‘keen Irish Nationalist’ and ‘ardent Labour man’, but also for the Irish Labour Party itself, which, through its affiliation to the British Labour Party, had ‘built a bridge for many of our loyal and active adherents’:

‘While the great majority of local Irishmen were still finding their chief political interest in the Irish Question, Hugh Gunn was working in his quiet and persistent way to induce them to take an active part in the British Labour Movement. It was one of the joys of his life that he lived to see his efforts crowned with such a remarkable measure of success.’[46]

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, the Irish Labour Party’s principal objective of ‘self-determination for Ireland’ had, to the satisfaction of its membership, been achieved.[47] There was, therefore, no longer any need for a separate Irish labour organisation in Gateshead and so the Irish Labour Party simply withered away.

Newspaper Sources


[1] https://www.gateshead.gov.uk/media/11308/Woman-s-Suffrage-Booklet/pdf/1621b-PS-WomansSuffrageBookletonline2017.pdf?m=636826412750200000.

[2] A.W. Purdue, ‘Jarrow Politics, 1885-1914: The Challenge to Liberal Hegemony’, Northern History, 18.1 (1982), pp.182-198.

[3] For a detailed study of the Irish Labour Party on Tyneside, download my Northumbria University thesis ‘Irish Nationalist Organisations in the North East of England, 1890-1925’. https://core.ac.uk/display/19974694

[4] Rerum Novarum (Rome, 1891), paragraph 49. http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html

[5] J. M. Cleary, Catholic Social Action in Britain, 1909-1959. A history of the Catholic Social Guild (Oxford, 1961), pp.33-35.

[6] Michael Morris and Leo Gooch, Down Your Aisles, The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, 1850-2000 (Hartlepool, 2000), p.32.

[7] Tyneside Catholic News, 1 December 1917.

[8] Wearside Catholic News, 23 November 1918.

[9] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 26 November 1918.

[10] W. D. Manders, A History of Gateshead (Gateshead, 1973), p.279; Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 24 February and 10 March 1919.

[11] If you know the location of the records of any of the branches of the Irish Labour Party on Tyneside or even just one photograph, please, get in touch.

[12] Irish Opinion: The Voice of Labour, 14 June 1919.

[13] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 10 March 1919.

[14] Tyneside Catholic News, 15 March 1919.

[15] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 48 (October 1920).

[16] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 31 (June 1919).

[17] Tyneside Catholic News, 19 July 1919.

[18] Tyneside Catholic News, 19 April 1919.

[19] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 33 (August 1919).

[20] Tyneside Catholic News, 30 August 1919; Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 6 September 1919.

[21] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 3 November 1919.

[22] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 48 (October 1920).

[23] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 48 (October 1920).

[24] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 25 October 1920.

[25] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 50 (November 1920).

[26] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 2 November 1921.

[27] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular GLPC, 61 (October 1921); Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 2 November 1921; Northern Catholic Calendar, 1922.

[28] Manders, Gateshead, p.49; Gateshead Herald, September 1938.

[29] Newcastle Journal & North Star, 1 February 1927.

[30] Gateshead & District Labour News, 31 (March 1927).

[31] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 36 (October 1919).

[32] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 16 April 1920.

[33] Tyneside Catholic News, 12 June 1920.

[34] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 9 February and 5 April 1920.

[35] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 47 (September 1920).

[36] Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular, 47 (September 1920); Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 2 September 1920.

[37] Auckland & County Chronicle & Stanley News, 20 January 1921.

[38] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 1 February 1921.

[39] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 17 & 18 March 1921.

[40] Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin, 2002), pp.192-197.

[41] Frank Pakenham, Peace by Ordeal: An Account from First-hand Sources of the Negotiation and Signature of the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 (London, 1935).

[42] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 18 March 1922. The militant nationalist organisation in Gateshead, the Irish Self-Determination League, held a rival anti-Treaty rally in the Co-operative Hall that same night. Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 25 March 1922.

[43] The last reference to the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead as a distinct political organisation was in October 1928. Gateshead and District Labour News, 50 (October 1928).

[44] Gateshead Herald, December 1942.

[45] Gateshead & District Labour News, 50 (October 1928); Manders, Gateshead, p.349.

[46] Gateshead Herald, December 1942; Gateshead & District Labour News, 31 (March 1927).

[47] Irish Opinion: The Voice of Labour, 14 June 1919.

2 replies on “Mary Gunn: Gateshead’s Irish nationalist and Labour activist.”

Hello. I’d like to have a chat with you about this post. I’m doing some work for Gateshead Archives about the various communities who’ve come to the area over the last 400 years. The aim is to produce a teaching pack. I’d not heard about the Gateshead Irish Labour Party until I started reading the election reports in ‘Gateshead Labour Party and Trades Council Monthly Circular’ last week so you’ve just answered a lot of questions for me! I’d very much like to refer to your work in the teaching pack. I’m also asking everyone I know the same question at the moment – do you know of any people of colour with Gateshead connections in the same period.

By the way, you’ll have spotted the material about the Irish community in Pipewellgate in David Olosuga’s thesis in the library? Again, this was new to me untl last week. Archives are so much fun.

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Hi Steve, I would like to have a chat about your work. When I conducted archival research last week, I also came across the Gateshead Irish Party within the Gateshead Labour Circular. My research situates County Durham’s labour movement during the year 1919 transnationally, and addresses working class attitudes towards the British Empire in relation to wider events, e.g. Amritsar, Egypt and Ireland. I have tried to locate your email, but cannot find it online. My email is j.redmayne2@newcastle.ac.uk.

In regard to footnote 11, Dave Douglass’s ‘Red Banner, Green Rosette’ has assessed the role of Tyneside Irish miners and their influence in radical politics during the nineteenth and twentieth century. He may know more about record locations.

All the best with your research,
Best wishes, Joe.

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