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The Anglo-Irish Treaty and Irish Nationalists in the North East of England.

[Note: This post was originally presented as an on-line talk to the Tyneside Irish Cultural Society on 2 December 2021 to mark the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. As the talk was illustrated, some changes have been made to the text below.]

100 years ago next week, on 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London. And this evening, I’ll be looking at the impact of that signing, and the subsequent ratification of the Treaty by Dáil Éireann in January 1922, on Irish nationalists here in the North East of England.

And I’ll begin with a meeting in Newcastle on 6 June 1922. A meeting that lay at the very heart of what happened on Tyneside, in the difficult months that followed.

On that day, the Tyneside District Council of the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain – the ISDL – met in the Trades Hall in Newcastle’s Clayton Street. In the chair was Richard Purcell, a 39-year-old Irish-born former coal miner living in Gosforth, who had only been released from Dartmoor Prison some ten weeks before.

Since the summer of 1919, these Irish nationalists, activists representing ISDL branches from across Tyneside, had been united in their demand for an Irish Republic. They had sung ‘The Soldier’s Song’.[1] They had carried the green, white and orange tri-colour.[2] They had cheered for President de Valera.[3]

But that unity was now shattered, prompting Mary Emms, secretary of Newcastle’s ISDL branch, who had attended the meeting, to write to the League’s headquarters in London asserting that what followed the meeting proved that ‘the blackest treachery has been at work’.[4]

And I’ll return later to describe in detail this eventful – and emotionally charged – meeting.

This shattering of the nationalists’ united front and the bitter division here in the North East into pro and anti-Treaty camps echoed what was happening in Ireland itself.

Three weeks after the meeting in Newcastle, Provisional government troops in Dublin began shelling the Four Courts, which had been occupied by anti-Treaty forces since April. And the Irish Civil War began.

And, though fists, stones and fireworks were thrown,[5] as far as I am aware, no bullets were fired, as Irish nationalists in the North East fought their own version of the civil war.

But I’ll not simply be looking at what happened in the North East, and particularly on Tyneside, in the months following the signing of the Treaty. I’ll also be looking at the key players; those men and women, who for years had devoted their lives to the cause of Ireland; who had worked together tirelessly for that cause; and some of whom had even been to prison for that cause. But who, when it came to taking sides in the Treaty debate, chose different sides.

However, away from this minority of activists, what did the majority of the North East’s Irish wish for Ireland, and, perhaps more importantly, for themselves and their families living here in England, after the Treaty was signed?

That too must be considered.

But let’s go back a few years to the general election of December 1918 and the overwhelming rejection at the polls of the Irish Parliamentary Party – the party of John Redmond and of Home Rule. Without the Irish Party at Westminster, swept away by Sinn Féin, the United Irish League of Great Britain, the main nationalist organisation here, no longer had a purpose, and all but ceased to exist.[6]

Here in the North East, the United Irish League had had over thirty branches before 1914, everywhere from Tyne Dock to Trimdon, but, by early 1919, most League branches, as active ‘political’ as distinct from ‘social’ (i.e. ‘drinking’) clubs, had simply died out, other than for the Irish National Club in Clayton Street, where the League’s aging leadership continued to meet, and, as we shall see, bide their time.

In late March 1919, acting on the written instructions of Sinn Féin’s president, Eamon de Valera, a new nationalist organisation was launched in Britain to fill this void; harness the growing anger of the Irish in Britain over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ireland; and make the demand for Irish self-determination their sole political focus.

The North East’s first branch of the Irish Self-Determination League was formed in South Shields in early summer 1919, almost certainly by a revived cell of the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the IRB.[7] A second Fenian-inspired branch opened in Jarrow in September. And both took up the cry for Irish self-determination, and the release of all Irish political prisoners.[8]

ISDL branches followed in Newcastle, Gateshead and along the Tyne, and eventually along the Wear and Tees. And by November 1921, there were 66 branches in the North East: 31 on Tyneside, 23 in Mid-Durham and 12 on Teesside.[9]

Most of these, however, mustered far fewer than 100 members, with a far smaller core of activists. Some of these members had previously been in the United Irish League or the Ancient Order of Hibernians. But many, possibly most, were new to nationalist politics and that is especially true of the women, who joined the ISDL and became some of its most active members, as we’ll see later.

By the summer of 1920, the limited war in Ireland had flared into a brutal conflict. And it was against this background that some 10,000 people met in Durham’s Wharton Park on 2 August 1920 for the first Irish gala in the city since 1914.[10] And the first organised by the ISDL.

Against a backdrop of republican tri-colours and banners, the crowds sang ‘The Soldier’s Song’, as the speakers took their seats on the platform. The main speaker was Sean Milroy, Sinn Féin’s Director of Organisation, and a veteran of Easter 1916 and the escape from Lincoln gaol, who said, to cheers, that he had brought a ‘message from the gaols of Ireland and from the dead who died for Ireland… that Ireland was winning’.[11]

Joining Milroy on the gala platform were some of Tyneside’s leading ISDL activists. And, as they feature in that explosive District Council meeting in June 1922, I’ll explain who they were.

In the chair was Terence O’Connor, then Treasurer of the ISDL’s Tyneside District Council, who, in his opening speech, told the gala crowds that they were there ‘to express their confidence in and loyalty to the Irish Republic’. A republic, he said, that had been established ‘by the will of the people of Ireland’.

Born in Kibblesworth about 1869 of Irish-born parents (his father was a miner), Terence O’Connor owned a grocer’s shop in Jarrow and had been active in constitutional nationalist politics – and possibly more advanced activities as well – from at least 1906. Interestingly, he was also active in local politics, and was both a town councillor and a Durham County Councillor, and in 1938 became Jarrow’s first Roman Catholic mayor.[12]

Next to speak was Richard Purcell, who had been president of Newcastle’s ISDL branch since February 1920. Born in Kilkenny about 1883, he had worked underground at Coxlodge and later Hazelerigg collieries. Active in the Northumberland Miners’ Association, he came to the ISDL, via the Newcastle branch of the Irish Labour Party.[13]

In his gala speech, Purcell called on the crowds to support the Irish at home ‘in this, the greatest and last fight for Irish freedom’. And he added – to loud cheers:

‘If the English Government boasted of having an English garrison in Ireland, well, there was an Irish garrison in England, and they would hold the fort for Ireland and keep the orange, green, and white colours flying.’

And Purcell knew all about an ‘Irish garrison in England’, as he had, on his own initiative, already secretly raised, without reference to Dublin, a company of Irish Volunteers within Newcastle’s ISDL branch.

Next up to speak was Gilbert Barrington, who told the gala audience that ‘they must be prepared to stand behind their kith and kin in Ireland to the last ounce of their strength in the great fight for liberty’.

Born in Blackburn in 1889, but later moved with his family to South Shields, where his Irish-born father was a furniture dealer and active Irish nationalist, Gilbert Barrington taught at St Bede’s school (four of his sisters were also teachers) and he had returned to the school in 1919, after he had been demobilised from the Royal Army Medical Corps. Like Purcell, Barrington came to the ISDL via the Irish Labour Party (South Shields branch), and, like Purcell, he too had secretly raised a company of Irish Volunteers within the South Shields ISDL.

It is clear from contemporary newspaper reports of ISDL meetings and demonstrations held across Tyneside in 1920 and 1921 that Barrington, Purcell and O’Connor spoke at meeting after meeting to hammer home the importance of supporting the Irish Republic; a Republic, they contended, that had existed since Easter 1916. And they used these meetings to highlight the key issues of the day – be it supporting Irish railway workers refusing to handle munitions for the British Army; or demanding the release of political prisoners; or condemning British reprisals in Ireland.

These three were joined on the platforms by other speakers, but none more fervently republican than Theresa Mason, who was to feature in the Tyneside District Council meeting in June 1922.

Born in Newcastle in 1882 to English-born parents, though of Irish descent, Theresa Price was a school teacher before her marriage in 1905 to the advanced Irish nationalist Robert McDonough Mason, who had been president of Newcastle’s Amnesty Association. In 1919, though her husband had by then withdrawn from active Irish politics, Theresa Mason joined the ISDL and was soon elected vice-president of the Newcastle branch.[14]   

On Monday 1 August 1921, three weeks after a Truce had been agreed in Ireland, a second ISDL gala was held in Wharton Park in Durham.

Once again Terence O’Connor was in the chair, and he reminded his audience that the Truce had only been brought about ‘by the fighting men in Ireland’, and he warned that:

‘Unless the peace terms were satisfactory, they would go on fighting until the recognition of the Irish Republic was accomplished, and until the British withdrew the whole of their troops from Ireland.’

Richard Purcell and Gilbert Barrington also spoke, moving and seconding a resolution that, whilst welcoming the Truce, stressed that ‘an enduring peace’ could only be based on ‘the principle of self-determination’.

And Barrington told his audience: ‘If the truce conference broke down, every man and woman at home was ready to go on with the fight again.’ And he asked the question ‘Are you ready?’ And the shouted reply was ‘Yes’.[15]

Richard Purcell had, by now, left the pits and had been employed since April 1921, as a full-time ISDL Organiser in the North of England, whilst Barrington, still teaching at St Bede’s, was also now secretary of the League’s Tyneside District Council.

However, probably unknown to most of the 10,000 or so people attending that Durham gala, Purcell was also the Commanding Officer of the Tyneside Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, which, by March 1921, comprised ten companies and some 450 Volunteers, whilst Barrington was Brigade Quartermaster. And both had held these ranks since November 1920.

The Tyneside Brigade had undertaken military operations in the North East from February 1921, and had only stopped for the Truce, though the Brigade was ordered by Rory O’Connor, the Officer Commanding in Britain, to continue to acquire and ship much-needed arms and ammunition to Ireland. And it was after a raid on the magazine at Bebside colliery in October 1921 that Purcell and Barrington were arrested, tried and imprisoned.[16]

The months of delay between agreeing a Truce in July and the eventual signing of a Treaty in December 1921 was catastrophic for the ISDL.[17] Membership collapsed. From a report from the general secretary to the League’s executive, Tyneside’s membership fell by 78 per cent; and Teesside’s by 72 per cent; though in Mid-Durham, the smallest of the three North East Districts, membership only fell by 48 per cent. This figure, however, masks the almost complete collapse of some branches. For example, No.4 branch in Crook was left with just 7 members out of the 131 affiliated members of March 1921.[18]

Why had the membership collapsed?

The ISDL’s leadership in London blamed unemployment, arguing that on Teesside and in Mid-Durham 80 per cent of its members were unemployed.[19] However, an internal, unpublished report to the leadership blamed ‘apathy’ as the main cause, plus ‘uncertainty about the political situation’ in Ireland.[20]

On 7 January 1922, the ISDL suffered a further, ultimately fatal, blow, when Dáil Éireann, after a long and acrimonious debate, narrowly ratified the Treaty. And, just as the Dáil had split between those in favour of the Treaty and those against, so the ISDL split.

But before we start looking in detail at what this meant for the ISDL in the North East of England – away from the febrile meetings, the accusations of betrayal, the broken friendships – what did the majority of the North East’s Irish think about the Treaty and its ratification?

Even before the Dáil vote, the British Cabinet had been advised by the Home Office’s Director of Intelligence that the Irish in the North of England were generally in favour of the Treaty.[21] And an anonymous Newcastle correspondent writing in the Weekly Freeman’s Journal, just after the Treaty had been signed, possibly put into words what many Tyneside Irish were thinking that December, when he wrote ‘the end of Ireland’s agony has been reached’.[22]

That thinking may have been influenced by the whole-hearted support for the Treaty in the pages of the widely-read Catholic newspaper empire of Charles Diamond, which included the Tyneside Catholic News. In an editorial on 31 December, Diamond wrote ‘I believe that an overwhelming majority of the Irish of Great Britain support the Treaty and the men who signed it’. And he dismissed the claims of the ISDL’s republican leadership in London to speak for the Irish in Britain.[23]

There was public support too for the Treaty from the Catholic Church, when the County Meath-born Bishop of Middlesbrough, Richard Lacy, wrote in an open letter in January 1922:

‘In common with every true lover of Ireland, I rejoice and thank God for the decision arrived at by Dáil Éireann. The Treaty gives the Irish the substance of freedom beyond the wildest dreams of the men, who have bled for her in the past.’[24]

And Father Staunton from St Joseph’s in Gateshead told a 1922 St Patrick’s Day event in the town hall that Michael Collins would not have signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty ‘if he had not thought it gave salvation to his country’. And the priest urged every Irishman ‘to accept the present treaty’.

Whilst, back in Newcastle, a wreath was placed on the Cowen monument on Westgate Road with the inscription ‘To the memory of Joseph Cowen – Ireland’s consistent friend and helper… The dream of his life is realised today.’ This wreath was labelled from ‘Grateful Tyneside Irishmen’. These, I suspect, were the United Irish League diehards in the Irish National Club.[25]

So, how was the ratification of the Treaty received in the ISDL branches?

Generally, from newspaper reports of branch meetings, the news appears to have been welcomed, though, in Gosforth, their ‘joy’ was offset by the realisation that the Treaty’s terms ‘fall considerably short of what the Irish people set out to achieve’.[26]

However, there appears to have been no such reservations in Stanley, County Durham. In late January 1922, a meeting in the town’s Hibernian Hall heard the branch chairman express the hope that the Treaty would be ‘the foundation of an everlasting peace with Great Britain and Ireland’. And, as a sign of the changing times, he ended the evening with ‘God Save Ireland’ rather than the republican anthem ‘The Soldiers’ Song’.[27] This was followed in February with a banquet to celebrate the birth of the Irish Free State, attended not only by Stanley’s ISDL grandees, but also by old United Irish Leaguers, who had shunned the ISDL.[28]

Not all League branches, however, were as quick to abandon the republican anthem. On 15 January, the Newcastle branch welcomed two of the five IRA prisoners just released from the local prison. An impromptu concert followed with songs including ‘Who is Ireland’s Enemy’, and ‘Black and Tans’, whilst Theresa Mason recited ‘The Flag of the Irish Republic’.

And the meeting ended with ‘The Soldier’s Song’, and ‘cheers for the Irish Republic, de Valera… and the IRA’.[29]

In February 1922, the British Cabinet was warned that the ISDL’s London leadership and some in the North of England were ‘decided Republicans’.[30] And, without doubt, one of Tyneside’s ‘decided Republicans’ was Theresa Mason, who, after Barrington and Purcell were arrested in October 1921, became the League’s busiest and most influential speaker in the North East.

She also spoke at the ISDL’s national delegate conference in London on 1 April 1922 (and was the only woman reported to have spoken at length in the key debate on the League’s future). There she pleaded for unity and the Treaty’s rejection, because Ireland, she said, had been ‘handed this Treaty on the point of England’s sword’.[31]

Whilst Theresa Mason may have represented Tyneside to the ISDL’s national conference as being staunchly republican, pro-Treaty supporters were gathering strength in the North East. And one of these was Martha Larkin. Born in County Armagh about 1861, she lived in Elswick with her husband Thomas, a steelworker and Trade Unionist. Both were prominent in Newcastle’s Irish Labour Party and later the ISDL.

Martha Larkin and Theresa Mason had regularly shared platforms at League meetings, but that unity ended at a branch meeting in Newcastle on 11 December 1921, when Theresa Mason moved a vote of confidence in ‘President de Valera’, as she described him, and was opposed by Martha Larkin and several other members.[32]

After the Treaty’s ratification in January 1922, the division between the two women deepened. And at a subsequent branch meeting, Martha Larkin asserted that ‘if the majority of our people were in favour of accepting the Free State, she was in favour of supporting them’. And was immediately denounced by Theresa Mason as ‘a Free Stater’.

Undeterred, Martha Larkin then challenged the appearance at the meeting of a uniformed IRA officer – one of the recently released prisoners – after he had, in her eyes, unfavourably compared the ‘Free State Army’ to what he described as ‘the real, true IRA boys’.[33]

Martha Larkin and ‘her own small coterie of supporters’, as they were labelled by the ISDL’s own journal The Irish Exile,[34] were about, however, to receive some support from an unexpected source, when Barrington, Purcell and Jarrow-born Joseph Connolly, who had been the Tyneside Brigade’s Adjutant before moving to South Wales as an ISDL Organiser and gun-runner, were released from prison at the beginning of April 1922.[35]

And so to the meeting in Clayton Street of the ISDL’s Tyneside District Council on 6 June 1922.

We are fortunate in having two accounts of what happened at this meeting. The first is in the Minute Book of the ISDL’s wholeheartedly republican Jarrow branch.[36] This is privately owned, but I was privileged to be given a photocopy several years ago.

The second is in the Art O’Brian papers in The National Library in Dublin.[37] O’Brian, who had formed the ISDL on de Valera’s instructions, held various executive positions within the League, and ran its London office. O’Brien was sent a copy of the District Council’s minutes by Mary Emms – the equally republican sister of Theresa Mason. And it is these minutes, and her covering letter that reveal in detail the depth of the split.[38]

In the chair was Richard Purcell, who opened the meeting by thanking the Council for re-electing him District President after his release from prison, but he then announced his resignation with immediate effect, saying that he no longer supported the ISDL’s policy regarding the Treaty.

And he explained that, after his release from Dartmoor, he had travelled to Ireland, where he had found ‘the people were almost unanimous in accepting the Treaty’, and that, for him, the Dáil’s ratification of the Treaty had ‘made all the difference’.

He further explained that he had been offered, and had accepted, a job explaining the case for the Free State to the Irish living in the North of England and Scotland.[39]

The republican majority on the council immediately condemned Purcell, with Gilbert Barrington declaring that there was now ‘an unbridgeable political chasm’ between them, though they had once enjoyed a ‘close political friendship’.

In another attack, Newcastle’s branch president declared that Purcell had ‘sounded the death knell of the ISDL in the North’. And he bitterly condemned Purcell for ‘joining hands’ with ‘all the old leaders of the UIL, the men with the money and the power at their back, the men who would not touch the ISDL in its hard struggle for Ireland during the last three years’.

And in an impassioned speech, Theresa Mason pleaded for the ISDL’s continuation as it had, she said, ‘revived the national spirit’, and had developed ‘the holy ideal of a free Ireland in the hearts of the Irish people born in England, who had had no chance of throwing off their English training until the League’. But she believed the League would survive Purcell’s leaving, as there were, she maintained, still enough ‘men and women left with red blood in their veins and truth in their hearts to carry on’.

Richard Purcell was supported at the council meeting by fellow released-prisoner Joseph Connelly, who also announced his resignation as District Secretary, and by Martha Larkin, who told Purcell that ‘she never felt so proud to take his hand, as she did at that hour’. She also added, in a gibe at Theresa Mason’s English background and her poetry writing, that she was Irish ‘when some of those present were writing odes to Queen Victoria’.

At the end of the meeting, Terence O’Connor, who had tried to calm the row between the two women, expressed his shock at the proceedings, but announced that he would remain loyal to the ISDL.[40]

In late June 1922, as shells fell on the Four Courts, a Pro-Treaty Propaganda Committee was formed on Tyneside to support the new Provisional Government in Dublin.[41] With ex-prisoner Joseph Connolly as secretary, Patrick Crilly from Newcastle’s Irish National Club as treasurer, and Richard Purcell as organiser, this committee was an extraordinary coalition of ISDL, IRB, IRA, United Irish League, and Irish Labour Party.[42]

Art O’Brien derided this Pro-Treaty Propaganda Committee as a ragbag of those, who had ‘wobbled out of the old UIL’ and ‘tumbled out of the ISDL’.[43]

The first Pro-Treaty rally was held in the Boilermaker’s Hall in Sunderland on 9 July 1922, where this resolution was carried unanimously:

‘That this meeting of Irish exiles, in view of the recent election in Ireland and wishing to ally ourselves with the vast majority of the Irish people at home to pledge our moral and material support to Messrs Griffith and Collins, as leaders of the Provisional Government, in their endeavour to restore ordered government in Ireland based upon the will of the Irish people.’[44]

And not a single anti-Treaty voice was heard on 6 August, when the same resolution was put to a crowded meeting in Consett town hall.[45]

Over the next few months a series of Pro-Treaty indoor and outdoor rallies was held across the North East. Most were well-attended, for example a rally on Town Moor on 16 July was estimated by the police to be some 800 strong. But not everyone there was prepared to give ‘three cheers for the Free State and Michael Collins’. And, when he was speaking, Richard Purcell was called a ‘traitor’ by someone in the crowd. Purcell responded by saying that ‘if he was a traitor he was in good company as he had 80% of the people of Ireland with him’.[46]

The ISDL’s Tyneside District Council was slow to react to the initial energy of the pro-Treaty activists. The defection of Purcell and Connolly had been demoralising, and, added to this, Gilbert Barrington had left Tyneside for Dublin in mid-June, taking his organisational and leadership skills with him.

Barrington had hoped to return to work in St Bede’s school, but was barred by South Shields’ Education Committee, after an informer reported him for telling a school assembly, just after his release from prison, that ‘he was proud to have been imprisoned and to have suffered for the cause of Ireland’, and for advising the boys that ‘when they grew up to be men, to fight for Ireland and against the British Government’.[47]

Gilbert Barrington continued his anti-Treaty activities in Ireland and was interned by the Free State government in March 1923. He died in 1977. And, if you are interested, his witness statement – one of the key sources for the history of Irish nationalism on Tyneside after the Great War – is held by Dublin’s Bureau of Military History and is freely available to download.[48]

In mid-July, the republican-dominated Tyneside District Council met to discuss arrangements for the annual gala to be held in Durham City on Bank Holiday Monday 7 August, and was told that the Mid-Durham District, which Barrington had described as being dominated by ‘Free Staters’,[49] had taken over the arrangements for the gala. Terence O’Connor had also been ousted as gala treasurer, meaning that Mid-Durham and not Tyneside would control any gala profits.

Incensed, the Tyneside District Council instructed its member branches to boycott the Durham gala, though this decision was opposed by Martha Larkin and a delegate from Hebburn.[50] Details of this meeting appear to have survived only in the Minute Book of Jarrow’s ISDL branch, and, at the end of the minute, the branch secretary has added his own comment:

‘It was agreeable to find that most of the Branches including our own are boycotting the Durham gathering, and still flying the old flag of the Irish Republic.’ 

Either at that District Council meeting or, far more likely, when Martha Larkin was not present, plans were laid to disrupt two major, pro-Treaty rallies over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The first was on Sunday evening 6 August in St. James’s Hall, Newcastle, when an estimated 1,300 people packed the hall. On the platform were Richard Purcell, Joseph Connolly and Sean Milroy, plus several Newcastle priests.

Just after the chairman, John Gorman, who was president of the Irish National Club, began to speak the disturbances began with shouts of ‘liar’ and ‘traitor’. Feet were stamped, fireworks were thrown, motor horns blasted, as a group of some fifty people in one corner of the hall interrupted proceedings for over an hour.

Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle dismissed this group as comprising ‘girls in their teens, some with their hair in plaits’ and ‘youths of the hobble de hoy type’, and claimed that they were being directed by what the newspaper described as the ‘leaders of the Republicans in Newcastle’, who were sitting apart from the noisy crowd. I suspect that Theresa Mason and her sister Mary Emms were amongst those leaders in the hall.[51]

The second attempt was in Durham the following day, when the Wharton Park gala, organised by the ISDL’s Mid-Durham District and with a platform packed with pro-Treaty speakers, but boycotted by the Tyneside District, was invaded by anti-Treaty supporters. And the Evening Chronicle gleefully related the afternoon’s events, as Richard Purcell and one of the invaders ‘fell struggling to the ground’; two women fought over a flag ripping it to shreds; and an anti-Treatyite, accused of insulting a priest, was ‘flung down two flights of stone steps’; whilst motor horns, whistles, and screams drowned out the speakers; and a smoke bomb scattered the crowd ‘terror-stricken’.[52]

In reporting the disturbance to the British Cabinet, the Director of Intelligence named Thomas Flynn of South Shields and John King of Newcastle as the organisers.[53] Both were among those arrested by British police and briefly deported to the Free State in March 1923.[54]

Though Art O’Brien knew that the ISDL was disintegrating across the country, and had admitted as much in a letter to Gilbert Barrington in June 1922, he sent the League’s London organiser, confusingly named Richard Patrick Purcell, north to encourage the Tyneside republicans.[55] And, on 9 August, the London organiser shared the platform with Theresa Mason at an anti-Treaty rally on Town Moor, chaired by Jarrow’s branch president, John Philbin.[56]

Later that week, Purcell was in Jarrow, reassuring the League branch that ‘the Irish Republic proclaimed in Easter Week 1916 was still functioning’, and appealing to members ‘to strengthen the branch and help keep up the good name Jarrow always had’.[57] Purcell returned to London on 19 August, his trip to Tyneside dismissed by the Director of Intelligence in his report to the Cabinet as ‘more or less a failure’.[58]

Two requiem masses held that August in Newcastle’s St Mary’s Cathedral reveal the widespread support for the Treaty on Tyneside, and the extent to which the anti-Treaty republicans had isolated themselves within the Irish community. These were the masses following the deaths of the Free State leaders Arthur Griffiths on 12 August and Michael Collins on 22 August 1922.

The Evening Chronicle described the requiem mass for Michael Collins held in the Cathedral on 28 August:[59]

‘Not since the magnificent church was consecrated has it held so many people within its walls. The congregation overflowed through the porch onto the street… The catafalque in the sanctuary was draped with the Irish national flag and stood between rows of flaming torches… The great majority of those in the congregation wore the tri-colour bound in crepe as a rosette. The fervour of a great grief was in the sacred building… women wept and men exhibited emotion.’

In the congregation were the leaders of all the old and the new Irish nationalist organisations on Tyneside. All bar the anti-Treaty rump of the ISDL, which was not present. And its absence was subsequently highlighted in a somewhat petulant letter to the Evening Chronicle from Theresa Mason, who denied that the League had been ‘officially represented’ at the requiem mass, or had sent any flowers.[60]

Meanwhile, across the North East, as across the rest of Britain, support for the ISDL was draining away. In early September 1922, the ISDL’s Mid-Durham District Council announced that it had unanimously agreed to sever all links with Art O’Brien and the League’s London leadership over their anti-Treaty stance, but would, however, ‘support any scheme which has for its object the carrying out of the policy of the late President Griffith and General Collins’.[61]

Before the end of the year, the Pro-Treaty Propaganda Committee stopped organising meetings on Tyneside. Its work was done, but not before Richard Purcell and Joseph Connolly, described in the Evening Chronicle’s report as the Irish Free State’s ‘representatives on Tyneside’, attended a banquet on 22 November to celebrate the golden jubilee of Newcastle’s Irish National Club.[62] There Purcell, echoing Parnell’s words, proposed a toast to ‘Ireland, a nation’.

A toast, however, that would not have been shared by Theresa Mason and the rest of republican Tyneside.

Those republicans made a special effort for St Patrick’s Day 1923, welcoming the heroine of 1916, the Countess Markievicz, who was touring the North of England. She spoke in Jarrow on Saturday 17 March to an audience of 300 (the police estimating that 60 per cent were female), and in Newcastle’s town hall on the Sunday evening.[63]

Sharing the platform in Newcastle with the Countess was Theresa Mason, who condemned the men who signed the Treaty for breaking ‘their oath’, and called on the Irish living in England to ‘demand the withdrawal of the Treaty’.[64]

The Countess went further asserting that the Treaty had been forced on the Irish people; criticising Michael Collins; and praising de Valera, saying that he ‘stood for peace, but it would be a fair peace with England and not a submission, pretending to be a treaty’.

She also bitterly attacked the Free State’s adoption of the tri-colour, saying, to applause, that ‘no Free State traitors and Home Rulers had a right to one of the colours of the flag’, and adding that ‘the whole of the insignia of the Republic had been stolen as mere camouflage for British rule’.

No bravura performance by the Countess Markievicz, however, could disguise the reality of the decline of republican Tyneside, and that decline is captured in that amazing survival, the Minute Book of Jarrow’s ISDL branch.

During late 1922 and 1923, the minutes show this ‘purely republican branch’ battling against a shrinking membership to remain faithful to what it believed were the ideals of 1916.[65] But, gradually, it became little more than a republican social club arranging dances and card nights, though each meeting still ended defiantly with ‘The Soldiers’ Song’.

Occasionally, however, external events intruded, and so in late 1922 prayers were said for Erskine Childers and Rory O’Connor executed by the Free State, and in March 1923 a telegram was sent to Dublin demanding Gilbert Barrington’s immediate release from internment.[66]

That any republican branches of the ISDL survived on Tyneside beyond the end of 1922 was probably due to the tireless work of Theresa Mason, whose position within the ISDL locally was recognised by her appointment as Tyneside District organiser in late 1922, and nationally, when she spoke at a protest rally in London in place of Maud Gonne McBride, who had been arrested.[67] Inexplicably, however, Theresa Mason was not seized during the mass arrest of Irish republicans in Britain in March 1923, when over 100 people were arrested, though only four from the North East.[68]

By late 1924, Theresa’s health was failing, prompting a pilgrimage to Lourdes that October, and, in spite of her efforts, the Tyneside District had shrunk to just five branches: with the Newcastle branch still meeting weekly with 40 to 50 members; the Jarrow and South Shields branches meeting fortnightly with 20 to 30 members each; Sunderland meeting fortnightly with just 12 members; and Felling reduced to just a committee of four.[69]

Before she retired, however, Theresa Mason had one last act to perform. By late 1924, the ISDL’s leadership in London was riven by personal rivalries. Theresa’s appeals for unity had been ignored, and so in December 1924 she told the Tyneside District Council, or what remained of it, that Newcastle’s ISDL branch ‘disheartened by the failure… to realise unity among the meagre Republican population that was left’ had affiliated to Sinn Féin in Dublin and was, therefore, no longer part of the ISDL.[70]

Then in April 1925, de Valera wrote to Art O’Brien in London telling him that there was now ‘but one Republican organisation in Great Britain – SINN FÉIN’, and ordering all remaining ISDL branches to ‘immediately’ begin the transfer process.[71] After five years, de Valera had finally decided that the ISDL, his own republican organisation created in the very ‘heart of the British Empire’, had ceased to have any value to the wider Irish republican movement.

I don’t know for how long Newcastle’s Sinn Féin branch survived, or, indeed, if any of the remaining ISDL branches transferred to Sinn Féin. Further research is needed there. But what is clear is that the Treaty – and indeed political events in Ireland – no longer mattered to the vast majority of the Irish living in the North East of England.[72]    

The Irish Free State might not have been what Gilbert Barrington, Theresa Mason,[73] the Countess Markievicz, and all the others who opposed the Treaty, had struggled for, had suffered for. But for the vast majority of those Irish people, once described by Theresa Mason as ‘Exiles in England’,[74] it was enough, however incomplete, however flawed, it was enough.

And for them their daily economic and social concerns – work, housing, schools – took on far greater importance than the re-drawing of boundaries in a partitioned Ireland or the freeing of republican political prisoners.

Finally, as a postscript, on August Bank Holiday Monday 1923, there was another Irish gala in Durham’s Wharton Park. Terence O’Connor was once again on the platform, but this time there were more priests than republicans accompanying him, and Canon Augustine Magill, formerly of St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle, was the main speaker.

And the main topic of the day was not the Treaty or Partition, or, indeed, anything to do with Irish nationalist politics, but rather Catholic education in Durham, and the fact that there were no Catholic secondary schools in Durham, forcing girls to travel to Sunderland and boys to Newcastle.[75]

And this gala passed off without fireworks or fist-fights or flags being torn to shreds.

The Treaty debate for these North East Irish was over.


[1] Tyneside Catholic News, 17 May 1919.

[2] Tyneside Catholic News, 21 August 1920.

[3] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 10 December 1921.

[4] National Library of Ireland (NLI), Art Ó Briain Papers, MS 8436/24/1, 12 June 1922.

[5] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 7 August 1922.

[6] UILGB 1914 membership: 47,000 in 550 branches. Freeman’s Journal, 1 June 1914.

[7] Patrick Martin to Art Ó Briain, 30 April and 12 May 1919, and from Art Ó Briain to Patrick Martin, 14 and 23 May 1919 (NLI, MS 8436 /15); Patrick Martin to Art Ó Briain, 10 July, 5 August, and 18 September 1919 (NLI, MS 8433 /50).

[8] Tyneside Catholic News, 4 October 1919.

[9] Report, 3rd Annual Conference, 1 April 1922 (NLI, MS 8432 /43). Known North East ISDL branches: Annitsford, Ashington, Backworth, Bedlington, Bishop Auckland, Blackhill, Blyth, Chester le Street, Chopwell, Consett, Cornsay Colliery, Cowpen, Crawcrook, Crook, Dipton, Durham, Easington, Esh Winning, Felling, Gateshead, Gosforth/Coxlodge, Grangetown, Hartlepool, Haverton Hill, Hebburn, Horden, Houghton le Spring, Jarrow, Kelloe, Lanchester, Leadgate, Middlesbrough, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Shields, Port Clarence, Redcar, Sacriston, Seaham, Shildon, South Bank, South Shields, Spennymoor, Stanley, Stockton, Sunderland, Thornley, Tow Law, Trimdon, Ushaw Moor, Walker, Wallsend, Washington, Waterhouses, Willington, Willington Quay, Wingate, & Witton Park.

[10] Durham County Advertiser, 6 August 1920; Durham Chronicle, 6 August 1920.

[11] Photo of Sean Milroy from on-line catalogue, Lot 21, 28.4.2009, Adam’s, Auctioneers, Dublin.

[12] Terence O’Connor died in 1939.

[13] Tyneside Catholic News, 7 February 1920.

[14] Tyneside Catholic News, 6 September 1919.

[15] Durham County Advertiser, 5 August 1921.

[16] NLI, MS 8454/16/2, 19 November 1921.

[17] Between March and December 1921, ISDL membership fell by half from 38,726 to 19,104. Membership report, nd (late December 1921) (NLI, MS 8432 /5).

[18] Note: Membership of Tyneside’s ISDL branches are not included in the report.

[19] Membership report, nd (late December 1921) (NLI, MS 8432 /5); Report by Sean McGrath to ISDL Central Executive, 5 March 1922 (NLI, MS 8432 /43).

[20] Report on Organisers, 3rd Annual Conference (NLI, MS 8432 /43); McGrath visited Middlesbrough on 1 February 1922 but found only ‘apathy’. Report by Sean McGrath to ISDL Standing Committee, 11 February 1922 (NLI, MS 8432 /43).

[21] Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, Home Office Directorate of Intelligence [RORO] 15 December 1921.

[22] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 17 December 1921.

[23] Tyneside Catholic News, 31 December 1921.

[24] Catholic Times & Catholic Opinion, 14 January 1922.

[25] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 24 December 1921.

[26] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 21 January 1922.

[27] Auckland & County Chronicle, 2 February 1922.

[28] Auckland & County Chronicle, 2 March 1922.

[29] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 4 February 1922.

[30] RORO, 9 February 1922.

[31] The Irish Exile, April 1922.

[32] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 24 December 1921.

[33] The Irish Exile, May 1922.

[34] The Irish Exile, May 1922.

[35] In January 1922, the Cabinet had been informed that ‘some of the most extreme Sinn Feiners and members of the Irish Republican Army are amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of the Treaty’. RORO, 19 January 1922.

[36] Jarrow ISDL Minute Book 1922-23, 3 June 1922.

[37] NLI, MS 8436/24/1, 6 June 1922.

[38] Letter from Mrs Mary Emms, secretary, Newcastle ISDL branch, to Art Ó Briain, 12 June 1922 (NLI, MS 8436 /24). The minutes of the Tyneside District meeting of 6 June 1922 accompanied this letter (NLI, MS 8436 /24).

[39] Art O’Brien reported that a Provisional Government representative had visited him in January 1922 ‘with a message that the anti-Treaty tendencies of the organisation [ISDL] were repugnant to the Provisional Government, and that if we did not mend our ways they… would start another organisation here… presumably because we did not mend our ways, a “pro-treaty” organiser was sent from Dublin to the Tyneside, where he is still’. Circular letter to ISDL branches from Art Ó Briain, August – September 1922 (NLI, MS 8436 /24).

[40] Catholic Herald, 29 September 1939.  

[41] Tyneside Catholic News, 17 June 1922. Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 8 July 1922.

[42] Tyneside Catholic News, 17 June 1922.

[43] Circular letter from Art O’Brien, August – September 1922 (NLI, MS 8436 /24).

[44] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 10 July 1922.

[45] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 7 August 1922.

[46] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 17 July 1922; RORO, 27 July 1922.

[47] Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 6 May 1922.

[48] Letters from Gilbert Barrington to Art Ó Briain, 25 and 31 May, and 13 June 1922 (NLI, MS 8433 /12); Barrington continued his anti-Treaty activities in Ireland and was interned by the Free State government in March 1923. Mary Barrington, Irish Independence, p. 5.

[49] NLI, MS 8433/12/4, 13 Jun. 1922.

[50] Jarrow ISDL Minute Book 1922-23, 15 July 1922.

[51] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 7 August 1922.

[52] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 8 August 1922.

[53] RORO, 10 August 1922.

[54] Tyneside Catholic News, 17 March 1923.

[55] Letter from Art Ó Briain to Gilbert Barrington, 8 June 1922 (NLI, MS 8433 /12).

[56] Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle, 11 August 1922. Newcastle City Library https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/services/libraries-culture/your-libraries/city-library

[57] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 11 August 1922; Jarrow ISDL Minute Book, 11 August 1922.

[58] RORO, 24 August 1922.

[59] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 28 August 1922.

[60] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 29 August 1922.

[61] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 7 September 1922.

[62] Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 24 September 1922.

[63] RORO, 28 March 1923.

[64] Newcastle Chronicle & Northern Mail, 19 March 1923.

[65] In 1921, Jarrow’s branch suggested the ISDL should be renamed the ‘Irish Republican League’. Draft for new ISDL Constitution, nd (possibly February 1921) (NLI, MS 8435 /12).

[66] Jarrow ISDL Minute Book, undated entry (24 November 1922?), 8 December 1922, 5 January, 26 February, and 5 March 1923.

[67] Jarrow ISDL Minute Book, undated entry (15 December 1922?); RORO, 3 May 1923.

[68] Tyneside Catholic News, 17 March 1923.

[69] She complained of her failing sight and ‘weak’ lungs, and explained that she had sought a cure at Lourdes. Letters from Theresa Mason to Art Ó Briain, 8 and 27 October 1924 (NLI, MS 8432 /13).

[70] Tyneside District Committee, Minutes, 6 December 1924 (NLI, MS 8432 /13); see the Art Ó Briain Papers for the increasingly bitter correspondence between London and Dublin in late 1924/early 1925 (NLI, MS 8460 /55, MS 8438 /7, and MS 8432 /44).

[71] Letter from de Valera to Art Ó Briain and Sean McGrath, 20 April 1925 (NLI, MS 8432 /44).

[72] Even the Irish National Club in Newcastle closed its doors for the last time in September 1939. Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 19 September 1939.

[73] Theresa Mason died in 1940, aged 58 years.

[74] Tyneside Catholic News, 22 November 1919.

[75] The Tablet, 11 August 1923.

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