From Ribbon Gangs to Mayors: The Irish in Gateshead to 1945.


The story of Mary Gunn and the Irish Labour Party has featured in a previous post on this website Mary Gunn: Gateshead’s Irish nationalist and Labour activist.[2]

This post sets that story against the background of Irish Catholic settlement in Gateshead from the mid-nineteenth century, and shows how, by the late 1920s, the Labour movement had come to replace Irish nationalism, or – to put it more graphically – how red replaced green in the hearts and minds of the Irish community in Gateshead.

The Origins of the Irish Catholic Community in Gateshead.

In early 1851, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle ordered Father Frederick Betham, an English convert, to leave St Andrew’s Church in Newcastle and set up a new parish in Gateshead. And, before St Joseph’s Church was built and opened on High West Street in 1859, Father Betham used the upper floor of a warehouse in Hillgate as a temporary chapel.[3] This had room for 300 people, yet when the Census of Religious Worship was taken on Easter Sunday morning 30 March 1851, there were 500 people at mass.[4] So the need for a new Catholic parish in Gateshead was clear, and, probably, all of Father Betham’s congregation that busy Easter Sunday morning were Irish migrants.

But why were these Irish Catholics in Gateshead?

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, a combination of distance from the Irish Sea entry ports and, especially, the lack of work limited the numbers of Irish men, and they were probably all men, coming to Gateshead and the North East to seasonal harvesters, tramping hawkers, and transient navvies. Few of these temporary workers settled permanently in the region, but they established links between Ireland and the North East of England that facilitated later migration.[5]

That migration began in earnest around 1840, when steam ferries and railways made the journey from Ireland to the North East of England, via Belfast and Derry, Whitehaven and Glasgow, easier, quicker, and cheaper. And these migrants were being drawn to the North East by the unprecedented expansion of the region’s heavy industry. These heavy industries had existed in the region before 1840, but the sudden and massive growth in the local economy demanded unskilled labour on a scale that could not be satisfied internally and so provided opportunities for migrant labour.[6] 

By 1840, Gateshead had been transformed from a semi-rural into an industrial town and the collieries and the new industries were all hungry for unskilled workers. So, for example, Abbot’s iron works in Oakwellgate grew from 190 workers in 1831 to 640 in 1842. And there was one industry that employed many Irish labourers, probably because it was so dangerous and was shunned by other workers. That was the chemical industry that made vitriol, caustic soda, and other noxious chemicals.[7] Irish labourers were also welcomed by the coal owners because of their mobility; easily moving from pit to pit, as pits opened and then closed within a few years.[8]

Almost 500 Irish-born migrants were counted by the census in 1841 in Gateshead. One of these was James Dockerty, a forty-year-old Irish labourer, living in Pipewellgate with his Irish-born wife and their four children, the eldest of whom was born in Ireland, the middle two in Scotland, and the youngest, just two months old, in England.[9] This family shows just how mobile Irish workers were.

The Dockerty’s were soon joined by those fleeing Ireland during the terrible years of the Famine, the majority from Ulster and north Connacht. And when the census was taken again in 1851, Gateshead’s population had swollen to 25,568 with 2,195 born in Ireland, some 8.6 per cent of the total. Gateshead in 1851 had the third largest Irish-born community in the North East, after Newcastle and Sunderland. And that same census gave Northumberland and County Durham the fourth highest Irish-born population in England with 31,200 people or 4.4 per cent of the total population.[10]

Irish-born migrants continued to settle in Gateshead as the decades passed, but by 1911 only 1,412 were counted out of a population of over 140,000, barely 1 per cent of the total population.[11] And that decline was reflected across the North East and the rest of Britain. But those earlier Irish-born migrants had children and grand-children, many – if not most – of whom continued to live and work on Tyneside. And many of whom would have identified themselves as Irish regardless of where they had been born.

As part of its oral history collection, Beamish Museum has an interview with an elderly Gateshead couple, Terence and Irene Monaghan, recorded in 1991. Irene, whose parents had only left Westmeath in 1907, tells the interviewer that she was first-generation-Irish born in 1917. Terence, however, explains that he was second-generation-Irish born in 1911. His Gaelic-speaking grandfather had left Mayo in 1860 and, after working in Scotland, had moved to Gateshead and a chemical works. When the interviewer asks them both if they felt Irish or English, they both quickly replied ‘Oh, always Irish’.[12]

When the Irish journalist Hugh Heinrick surveyed the Irish in the North East of England in 1872, he estimated that in the Tyne Valley, within ten miles of Newcastle, there were 83,000 Irish, including both first and second generation.[13] This made Tyneside the fourth largest Irish settlement in England after London, Liverpool, and Manchester.[14] And in Gateshead, he estimated that out of a total population of 64,000, one third were Irish.[15]

So, the Irish came to Gateshead for work, and, if the work dried up, the Gateshead Union provided poor relief that was far superior to that provided by Ireland’s Poor Law, even if the paupers often had to sleep two to a bed in Gateshead’s overcrowded workhouse.[16]

These Irish migrants also found in Gateshead the appalling living conditions suffered by the town’s indigenous poor, which casts light on the conditions they had left behind in Ireland, even before the horrors of the Great Famine.

Gateshead’s former Local History Librarian, Francis Manders, in his excellent book A History of Gateshead, published in 1973, vividly describes the overcrowded tenements found in Pipewellgate & Hillgate, where drunkenness and crime were endemic; with open sewers running between the decaying buildings, water drunk from contaminated wells, and frequent outbreaks of typhus and cholera. Pipewellgate, which was not completely levelled until the 1930s, had a mortality rate in 1843 of 1 in 30 (almost as high as Liverpool, which was the worst in England). And the street, which was just 300 yards long and 8 feet wide, had only three privies for a population of 2,040.[17]


So how did Irish migrants survive in the alien, harsh, and often hostile, Protestant environment that was Gateshead? Before Father Betham crossed the Tyne, there was no Catholic priest or mission in Gateshead to support a newly arrived migrant; no priest to help find work or lodgings. But there were almost certainly the Ribbonmen in whose beer-house lodges new Catholic migrants would be welcomed and assisted in return for their sworn allegiance. These Ribbonmen may even have known the new migrant or his family from townland or street back home in Ireland. And so, for a new migrant, the Ribbon lodge was a little bit of back home – a sanctuary – in the middle of an alien land. So, who were these Ribbonmen?

Emerging in Ireland in the 1810s, Ribbonism was an exclusively male, oath-bound, Catholic secret society that gained widespread support among the peasantry and urban working-class, especially in Ulster, for its ‘muscular’ opposition to the Orange Order, before spreading to Britain, where it provided Catholic migrants with much-needed continuity, support, purpose, and defence, whilst affirming their Irish Catholic identity.[18]

But Ribbonism was not just about finding work for its sworn members or providing a drinking club or fighting Orangemen.[19] Rather, Ribbonmen, though unashamedly sectarian and quick to violence, often amongst themselves, wanted an independent Ireland. So, behind the criminality and the secret signs and passwords and rituals, the Ribbonmen were Irish nationalists.[20]

Declared illegal by the civil authorities and condemned as a secret society by the Catholic Church, Ribbon lodges in England soon adopted the legitimate role of friendly society to hide their activities from prying eyes.

In 1834, Liverpool Ribbonmen formed the ‘Liverpool Hibernian Benevolent Burial Society,[21] and that same year the ‘Newcastle Hibernian Benevolent Society’ was officially registered as a friendly society.[22]

When Daniel O’Connell, who had prised Catholic emancipation from a hostile government in 1828, made his only visit to Tyneside in 1835,[23] the Newcastle Hibernians were out in force, marching behind their green silk banner, to greet ‘King Dan’.[24] And they were seen again at Chartist demonstrations, like the one in 1839 when they marched across the bridge to Gateshead, behind banner and band.[25]

Tyneside’s Hibernians, however, were normally only seen publicly on St Patrick’s Day, when, wearing green and white scarves or sashes embroidered with shamrocks,[26] they paraded through the streets on both sides of the Tyne before splitting into their different lodges to celebrate in their own home beer-houses.[27]

The change of name and the shows of outward respectability, however, did not fool the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, who denounced Ribbonmen, regardless of what name they hid behind, as belonging to ‘secret societies… so destructive of the peace and social happiness of Ireland’, and he banned all Hibernians from receiving the sacraments.[28]

In Gateshead, Father Betham nailed to the door of his temporary chapel in Hillgate in December 1851 a warning that he would record the names of any ‘misguided men’, who refused to recant of the ‘secret societies’, as the Pope demanded, and he would post their names on the chapel door for all to see.[29] Father Betham followed this with a report to the Vatican on Tyneside’s secret Catholic societies.[30]

From the events in Felling on Saturday 12 July 1856, however, it is clear that not all of Gateshead’s Ribbonmen recanted. That afternoon, a parade by the Grand Protestant Association of Loyal Orangemen to celebrate the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ – and on a route through Felling deliberately chosen to provoke the local Irish Catholics – was attacked by several hundred men armed with, according to the press reports, ‘pistols, swords, bludgeons’, and weighted canes called ‘morgan rattlers’. One man even had a scythe, which he brandished above his head.[31]

The police eventually restored order and some of the rioters, possibly the ringleaders, were arrested, tried, and imprisoned. Among them were five men from Lee’s alkali works in Felling; a worker from Abbot’s iron works; and a publican.[32] The following year, 1857, all St Patrick’s Day parades in Gateshead and Newcastle were banned in case Orangemen sought revenge and the Ribbonmen were waiting for them.

As the nineteenth century progressed, so the Ribbonmen’s grip on the Irish Catholic community across Tyneside weakened. A major cause of this was the increase in the number of Catholic priests and churches across the region. In 1850, when the new Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle was inaugurated, there were just 35 churches or chapels and 55 priests. By 1914, there were 200 priests and 71 churches, including St Joseph’s in Gateshead and St Patrick’s in Felling, and these new parishes provided for their largely Irish congregations almost all that had first driven those migrants into the arms of the Ribbon lodges, but without the underlying secrecy, criminality, and violence, so condemned by the Church. These new parishes also offered something that the Ribbon lodges could never offer – a Catholic education for their children.

Another key factor in the decline of the Ribbonmen on Tyneside was the emergence in the 1860s of new Irish nationalist organisations, initially revolutionary, that rejected the Ribbonmen’s sectarianism and criminality.

Fenians and Constitutional Nationalists.

Though denounced by the Catholic Church as another secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the Fenians – must have found recruits in Gateshead, as across the rest of Tyneside. In 1874, an IRB conference in Manchester heard that the Fenians’ Northern Division in England had some 4,000 members, owned over 1,400 assorted firearms and had £3,000 in funds.[33] How many of these Fenians lived on Tyneside, and specifically Gateshead, however, remains hidden in the shadows. But what may be seen is the effect the mass arrests, imprisonment, and executions of Fenians had on the Irish in Gateshead and across the North East. And that effect was their political awakening and the consequent development of the national movement in the region.[34]

This political awakening first showed itself in collections for the Fenian prisoners and their dependents. In September 1866, a letter from Gateshead printed in the nationalist newspaper The Irishman, stated that collections had been made and claimed that ‘the collectors never met a refusal.’[35] And in November 1867, the same Dublin newspaper published the names of 59 people from Gateshead who had contributed to the defence of the Fenian prisoners in Manchester.[36] That defence failed and on 23 November the three Fenian prisoners were publicly hanged outside Salford gaol. A year later, an anniversary mass for the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ was said in Gateshead,[37] and anniversary masses for the executed Fenians continued to be held across Tyneside down to the Great War.

Irish anger over the treatment of the Fenian prisoners was soon channelled into the demand for their release. In October 1869 and again in October 1872, demonstrations were held on Newcastle’s Town Moor to demand an amnesty for all Fenian prisoners. Between 10,000 and 40,000 people attended these meetings (the numbers depending on the political sympathies of the newspaper printing the figures), with contingents travelling from across Tyneside, including Gateshead and Felling, and marching to Town Moor behind green banners bearing such slogans as ‘God Save Ireland’ and ‘Set the prisoners free’.[38]

In 1870, Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa, whose Fenian husband had been imprisoned for treason-felony in 1865, undertook a lecture tour of the North East, playing to packed houses in West Hartlepool, Consett, Middlesbrough, North and South Shields, Stockton, Darlington, Sunderland, Walker, and Bishop Auckland: all places with growing – and increasingly politically aware – Irish communities. On 14 November, she spoke in Gateshead’s newly-opened town hall.[39] A building topped with a statue of Queen Victoria in whose name her husband had been imprisoned.

Not everyone who attended an anniversary mass, gave to a collection, or attended an Amnesty demonstration, however, was a Fenian. But Fenians were, in many cases, the organisers, as in the Town Moor demonstrations organised by Wexford-born John Barry, who was running guns for the Fenians in Newcastle in 1870,[40] and was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Supreme Council in 1875.

And in 1869 the Fenian journalist Peter McCorry argued in the nationalist newspaper The Flag of Ireland: ‘There is but one step, and a short one too, between sympathy with the cause and becoming adherents of that same cause… The cause of Fenianism is simply the cause of Irish independence.’[41]

In parallel with the demand for Amnesty for the Fenian prisoners rose the demand for Irish Home Rule, and in January 1872 a meeting in Newcastle’s Town Hall of nationalists from across Tyneside agreed to form a branch of the Irish Home Rule Association in the town. Whilst John Barry and other Fenians were heavily involved in this Association, it was – publicly at least – sufficiently free from any Fenian taint to allow Catholic priests to attend, including Felling’s Father Kelley.[42]   

Over the next forty years, new Irish constitutional, as distinct from revolutionary, nationalist organisations came and went but their demand was always the same – Home Rule for Ireland, which meant the restoration of Ireland’s own parliament in Dublin, though this was a long, long way from the Fenians’ revolutionary demand for a fully independent Irish Republic.

Gateshead’s own branch of the Home Rule Association met for the first time in November 1872 in the Temperance Hall on High Street and pledged ‘by all the constitutional means in our power to assist the Home Rule Association to obtain for Ireland the restoration of her own parliament’.[43]

Gateshead’s constitutional nationalists knew that if Westminster was ever to agree to Irish Home Rule, then sympathetic MPs had to be elected and these would more likely be Liberals. So, before the 1874 general election, Liberal candidates across the North East, including Walter James in Gateshead, were asked to pledge themselves to Home Rule.[44] Once elected, however, James told Irish electors at a stormy meeting that he had never made such a pledge and that he opposed Home Rule.[45] His Irish constituents then took every opportunity to harass him. His public meetings were interrupted,[46] and an open letter, printed in the nationalist newspaper ‘United Ireland’, called on Gateshead’s Irish electors to defeat ‘one of the stupidest and bitterest foes of Ireland in the Whig ranks’.[47] 

Though Gateshead’s Home Rulers knew the importance of registering all Irish voters to ensure that the town’s Irish voice would be heard,[48] there were simply not enough Irish voters to defeat James and he remained as the town’s Liberal MP until his elevation to the House of Lords in 1893.

Home Rule or Catholic Schools.

In 1904, though weakened by parliament’s rejection of Irish Home Rule in 1886 and 1893 and the bitter division following Parnell’s fall from grace, nationalists in Gateshead continued to meet under the auspices of a newly-formed organisation the United Irish League of Great Britain and press for Home Rule, which, they believed, would only be delivered by a Liberal government.

Not all Irish Catholics in Gateshead, however, remained loyal to the Liberal Party. The problem, however, was not Home Rule but Catholic schools, and at the centre of the dispute in the town was Francis Joseph Finn.

Born in Gateshead in 1863, the son of an Irish Catholic migrant, Finn started work aged seven selling his father’s clay pipes. He subsequently took over and expanded his father’s business, opening shops in Oakwellgate and the High Street, and made his money. Elected a councillor in 1895, he was also a JP and Poor Law Guardian, and became the town’s first Roman Catholic Mayor in 1898.[49] 

Finn’s name is regularly seen in newspaper reports of nationalist activity in Gateshead from the late 1880s. He chairs St Patrick’s Day demonstrations;[50] he frequents Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute; he uses his wagons to ferry Irish voters to vote for a Liberal candidate in a local parliamentary by-election;[51] and he attends nationalist conventions in Dublin as a North East representative.[52]

In 1897, he did incur the wrath of more militant nationalists when he attended a mayoral party in Gateshead to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.[53] Ostensibly, however, he remained faithful to the cause of Home Rule, that is until January 1904 and a by-election in the town, called after the sitting Liberal MP had died.

Briefly put, the Liberals opposed the Tory government’s Education Act of 1902 that replaced School Boards with Local Education Authorities and took over the staffing and running costs of voluntary schools, including Catholic schools. Whilst supported by the Catholic bishops, who had regularly put the building of schools before the building of churches, this Education Act was denounced by Liberals and their Nonconformist supporters as Rome on the Rates’.[54]

At a meeting in St Joseph’s Catholic Young Men’s Society rooms, Finn said that Catholic voters should only vote for a candidate who backed Catholic schools. And at a subsequent meeting of representatives from the town’s four United Irish League branches, he argued that their children’s Catholic education must take precedence over Home Rule. The very opposite of what the United Irish League’s leadership in London was arguing.[55]

The United Irish League threw resources into the election campaign to ensure that the Liberal candidate who supported Home Rule won.[56] And he did win, but the emotive issue of Catholic schools had not gone away, sapping working class Irish Catholic support for the Liberal Party, so much so that after the Liberals regained power at Westminster, Irish Catholic anger erupted across the North East.

In June 1906, Gateshead’s Windmill Hill saw a demonstration by 6,000 people, including 1,000 school children, demanding ‘Catholic schools, Catholic control and Catholic teachers for Catholic children’.[57] This was followed by rallies in Newcastle,[58] and in Durham’s Wharton Park, where 20,000 people marched behind banners bearing the slogans ‘Catholic schools for our bairns’ and ‘Catholic rates for Catholic schools’.[59] Few, if any, Irish nationalist demonstrations in the North East, even in the depths of the Anglo-Irish War in 1920, would ever attract such numbers as these Catholic demonstrations.

So, by 1914, working class Irish Catholic support in Gateshead and across the North East for the Liberal Party was waning, driven by the schools issue and the rise of Labour, and it is possible that most working-class Irish Catholic voters were already voting for British Labour party candidates and shunning candidates backed by the United Irish League. The Liberals, however, still had successes, not least in Gateshead in the general election of January 1910. Then the sitting MP, John Johnson, who had switched from the Liberals to Labour, was not only supported by the town’s Irish Catholic voters, but had also won the reluctant approval of the United Irish League’s leadership. Despite this backing, however, Johnson lost to the Liberal candidate.[60] Proof that there were simply not enough Irish voters in the town to swing the election.   

But were there still Irish nationalists in Gateshead? Was there still support for Irish Home Rule or, perhaps, even support for the Fenian goal of an Irish Republic? Or was the green fading away?

From Home Rule to Self-Determination.

What re-galvanised Irish nationalists in Gateshead and across Tyneside was the introduction of a third Irish Home Rule Bill by the Liberal government in April 1913. In response, an armed citizen’s militia was raised in Ulster – the Ulster Volunteer Force.[61] It was then inevitable that Irish nationalists would respond, and in November 1913 the nationalists’ own militia – the Irish Volunteers – was formed in Dublin. As Ireland teetered on the edge of civil war, Irish Volunteer companies were raised in England, first in London and then in Liverpool and Manchester.[62] Then on 9 May 1914, the Tyneside Catholic News printed an anonymous letter from Gateshead, signed ‘Erin Go Bragh’ [Ireland For Ever], calling on Irish nationalists in England to join the Volunteers.[63]

The writer was almost certainly Thomas Lavin, who had retired from the British Army after 21 years with the rank of Colour Sergeant, and he was offering to help form ‘a Tyneside army of Irish Volunteers’ made up of one or two battalions with headquarters in Newcastle, and companies from Gateshead to South Shields.

Tyneside’s first Irish Volunteer company was reportedly raised in Gateshead on 17 June 1914, with Lavin as organiser.[64] Other companies followed at Jarrow, Walker and elsewhere, and, according to Dublin’s Irish Volunteer newspaper, the Gateshead company soon had 700 Volunteers.[65] But how many young, Irish Catholic men actually enrolled, wore Volunteer uniform, and attended drill nights during the early summer of 1914 is open to doubt.[66] No orders, muster rolls, or other documentation seems to have survived, and it is possible that Tyneside’s army of Irish Volunteers may only have existed in the pages of the local and nationalist press.

But the crisis in Ulster and the raising of the armed militias had put Ireland back on the front page, though war in Europe soon replaced it. And when the war ended in 1918, Irish politics had been transformed. There was revolution in Ireland, Home Rule was dead, Sinn Féin had swept away the Irish Parliamentary Party at the polls, and the goal was an Irish Republic.

Irish nationalist politics in the North East of England had also changed forever. By 1918, the United Irish League of Great Britain, that had dominated nationalist politics in the region for almost two decades, was struggling. Its membership had collapsed, as so many young men had joined the Tyneside Irish and other local regiments, leaving just old men wedded to the outdated policies championed by the League’s leadership, especially the alliance with the Liberal Party: a party tarnished by the executions in Dublin in 1916.

In December 1918, on the opening day of the first general election in Britain and Ireland for eight years, a Liverpool Catholic newspaper printed this advice:[67]

Vote for Labour… every vote for Labour is a vote for Ireland and for decent treatment of Catholic Irishmen… Do not trust Mr George. Do not trust Mr Asquith. Both of them betrayed Ireland. Trust Labour alone. Cast your votes for Labour and for justice to the working classes.

This call was repeated in Tyneside’s and Wearside’s Catholic newspapers, and in the weeks before the election, Irish Catholic voters, men and women, from across the North East met to discuss how they would cast their votes. In Gateshead, voters met in the Catholic Young Men’s’ Society hall in Ellison Street and agreed unanimously to support the Labour candidate, John Brotherton.[68]

When the general election results were declared, however, there was disappointment. Labour had won seats in the mining-dominated constituencies in Northumberland and Durham – once Liberal strongholds – but in Middlesbrough, Newcastle, South Shields, and Sunderland Labour failed to win a single seat. And in Gateshead, John Brotherton was decisively defeated by a Coalition Conservative by 10,000 votes.[69]

After this setback, Derry-born Charles Diamond, owner of the Tyneside Catholic News and similar newspapers, who had himself unsuccessfully stood for Labour in the recent general election, argued that it was time for Irish Catholics in Britain to leave the ‘Irish Ghetto’ for ‘wider, freer, healthier air’, and assimilate into their adopted country.[70]

Diamond’s argument was rejected by many, and there would be no assimilation for these advanced nationalists. They were self-styled ‘Irish exiles in the north of England’; part of ‘an Irish garrison in England’;[71] part of the fight for an Irish Republic. And they joined a new nationalist organisation created in England in 1919 by Sinn Féin the Irish Self Determination League. And, a year later, formed the Tyneside Brigade of the Irish Republican Army.

The Irish Labour Party.

But what of those working-class Tyneside Irish who, whilst edging towards assimilation, still retained a strong sense of their own culture, their own religion, their own unique ethnic identity, and who were unwilling to join a British political party, even if it did champion their class, whilst the Irish national question remained unresolved? They needed a half-way house. And so, the Irish Labour Party was born.

The Irish Labour Party was formed in Tyne Dock in late 1918 and spread in early 1919 from South Shields up the Tyne,[72] first to Newcastle, and then to Gateshead.[73] By May 1920, the party had moved further up river to Crawcrook and Greenside, and, then in September, to the Durham iron and coal towns of Consett and West Stanley.[74]

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. 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.[75]

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.

The first meeting of the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead was held in the Catholic Young Men’s Society’s rooms on Sunday afternoon 9 March 1919 with speakers from Tyne Dock and Newcastle.[76] 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’.

At this meeting a young shop worker, Annie Hanlon was elected assistant branch secretary.[77] She was Mary Gunn’s younger sister, who had lived in Gateshead since 1902 and was working in Newcastle. Active in the Shop Assistants’ Union, she was later described in Gateshead’s 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’.[78]

Though Irish self-determination was the chief aim of Gateshead’s branch, the second aim – ‘affiliation to the British Labour Party’ – was soon achieved, when the branch, with its ‘enthusiastic workers’, was admitted in May 1919 to Gateshead’s Labour Party and Trades Council.[79] The significance of this affiliation was explained at the Irish Labour Party’s first conference in July 1919, 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 just four months, the branch had almost 400 members affiliated to the local Labour Party.[80]

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.[81] 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. Then in August, Mary Gunn’s brother-in-law, James Gunn, was selected to fight the North ward for Labour.

Born in Fermanagh, James Gunnwas 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 James Gunn was denounced from the pulpit and accused of being ‘anti-clerical’, he was elected as Labour’s fifth, and the Irish Labour Party’s second, councillor in Gateshead.[82]

Gateshead’s branch achieved further success in the municipal elections of November 1919, when two more of its members were elected as Labour councillors.[83] Then, in the municipal elections a year later, two Irish Labour Party women were selected as Labour candidates – the first women to be chosen as Labour candidates in Gateshead.

In the North West ward was Mary Gunn. Born Mary Hanlon in Sunderland in 1883, where her Irish-born father had worked as a miner, her first job was in service, but later she worked as a school teacher in Gateshead. In 1904, she married Hugh Gunn.

Mary had joined the Irish Labour Party, when it was formed in March 1919, and by October 1920 was also on the executive committee of Gateshead’s Labour Party and Trades Council, the newsletter of which described her as ‘one of our most active workers’, who ‘has all a mother’s interest in domestic questions and the care of child life’.[84] 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’.[85]

Standing in the East ward was Mary’s sister, Annie Hanlon. Both women, however, were defeated by male Coalition candidates.[86] These 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 may also have played its part.

After the disappointments of 1920, the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead hoped for greater success in 1921, though the results were mixed. James Gunn lost his seat, though his sister-in-law, Mary Gunn, standing once againin the North West ward, defeated a male Ratepayers Association candidate by 1,669 votes to 1,038.[87] And so Mary became Gateshead’s first female Labour councillor, and the first female Catholic municipal councillor in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.[88] 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 unknown family reasons, she did not seek re-election.[89]

As for Hugh Gunn, Mary’s husband. He too was born in Fermanagh and, probably, moved to Tyneside with his younger brother in the late nineteenth century. Hugh had then worked for twenty years in public houses in Newcastle, but by 1911 was living in Gateshead with his wife Mary, and both were working as insurance agents. 

Hugh Gunn had also been a founding member of the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead, though he never stood for the town council.[90] Rather, he was elected to the 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’.[91]

Though success in local politics was a key aim, the Irish Labour Party in Gateshead was, from the start, an Irish nationalist organisation that sought to aid the nationalist cause by influencing British Labour to support Irish self-determination.

The branch had its first major success in October 1919, when the local 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’.[92] Further success followed, when the Labour Party and Trades Council called on the Parliamentary Labour Party ‘to demand the immediate release or trial of all the Irish political prisoners’.[93] Demands for the release of Irish political prisoners, the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland, and Irish self-determination then became the pattern at Irish Labour Party meetings and rallies in Gateshead.[94]

As war in Ireland intensified during 1920, so the Irish Labour Party became increasingly militant. And one event above all others galvanised Irish Catholic opinion in the town and across Tyneside, and that was the hunger strike to the death of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork.

In Gateshead’s council chamber, James Gunn and the other four Irish Labour Party councillors persuaded the council to pass a resolution demanding the Lord Mayor’s release, whilst the Trades Council 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’.[95]  Anger over the treatment of the Lord Mayor led to the formation of a second branch of the Irish Labour Party in the town.[96]

By the end of 1920, with the death of Cork’s Lord Mayor after 74 days on hunger strike, and the deepening crisis in Ireland, British Labour’s attitude to Irish self-determination was changing. Across the North East, local Labour parties were demanding ‘the withdrawal of British troops’ from Ireland,[97] whilst in January 1921 a packed ‘Peace with Ireland’ meeting, organised by the Irish Labour Party, was held in Gateshead’s town hall with John Brotherton, the prospective Labour parliamentary candidate, in the chair.[98]

On 17 March 1921, the Irish Labour Party organised a St Patrick’s Day demonstration in Gateshead’s 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 in Dublin in 1916, was the guest of Councillor James Gunn and his Armagh-born wife, Katie.[99]

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.[100] Negotiations followed and, on 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London.[101]

The St Patrick’s Day event organised in March 1922 by the Irish Labour Party in the town hall, however, was no demonstration, but rather a celebration, during which Father Patrick Staunton from St Joseph’s Church said 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 treaty.[102] 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. The party had begun life in 1919 as a half-way house, but, with peace in Ireland, however incomplete, however flawed, the Irish Labour Party became a bridge. And by the late 1920s, the branch had merged with the mainstream British Labour Party in the town and ceased to be a distinct political organisation, though still meeting for social and cultural events.[103] It was not, however, forgotten.

In 1942, Alderman Mary Gunn was chosen as the first female mayor of the borough,[104] 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’.[105] And in 1944, another Irish Labour Party stalwart, Tipperary-born Thomas Ryan, was elected Mayor.

In the one hundred years from the 1840s to the 1940s, Irish Catholics in Gateshead travelled from the secret, criminal world of the Ribbon lodges to the mayoral office and local political power. And, by the time that journey ended, the Irish Catholic community in Gateshead, whilst remaining true to its origins, had replaced the green of Irish nationalism with the red of the British Labour movement.

[1] This post was originally given as an illustrated talk at Gateshead Central Library on 9 February 2023. The omission of the illustrations here has necessitated changes to the text.


[3] F.W.D. Manders, A History of Gateshead (Gateshead, 1973), pp.142-43.


[5] Roger Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie: The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle 1840-1880 (Sunderland, 2005), pp.13-14.

[6] Donald M. MacRaild, ‘Foreword’, in Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie, pp.xi-xii.

[7] For Gateshead’s industrial development, see Manders, History of Gateshead, pp.66-76.

[8] Frank Neal, ‘English – Irish Conflict in the North East of England’, in P Buckland and J Belchem (eds.), The Irish in British Labour History (Liverpool, 1993). p.60.

[9] 1841 England Census. Class: HO107; Piece: 296; Book: 9; Civil Parish: Gateshead; County: Durham; Enumeration District: 1; Folio: 9; Page: 13; Line: 7; GSU roll: 241345.

[10] Frank Neal, ‘Irish settlement in the north-east and north-west of England in the mid-nineteenth century’, in Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds), The Irish in Victorian Britain: The Local Dimension(Dublin 1999), pp.75-100.


[12] Beamish Sound Archive: No: 1991/54. Interview with Mr Terence and Mrs Irene Monaghan, 1991.

[13] Alan O’Day (ed.), Hugh Heinrick, A Survey of the Irish in England, 1872 (London, 1990).

[14] Graham Davis, The Irish in Britain 1815-1914 (Dublin, 1991), pp.119-20.

[15] Donald M. MacRaild, Irish Migrants in Modern Britain, 1750-1922 (Basingstoke, 1999), pp.72-73.

[16] Manders, Gateshead, p.224.

[17] Ibid, pp.162-53, 178-79.

[18] For Ribbonism, see Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie, pp.34-36; Joseph Lee, ‘The Ribbonmen’, in T. Desmond Williams (ed.), Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973), p.27; Donald M. MacRaild, The Irish Diaspora in Britain, 1750-1939 (Basingstoke, 2011), pp.114-15.

[19] Kyle Hughes and Donald M. MacRaild, Ribbon Societies in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and its Diaspora (Liverpool, 2018).

[20] Hughes and MacRaild, Ribbon Societies, p.3.

[21] John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse. The History of the Liverpool-Irish, 1800-1939 (Liverpool, 2007), p.98.

[22] Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, ‘Private Bills, Friendly Societies, Poor Laws (Ireland), etc’, Jan-Jul 1837, vol.51, p.20.

[23] Newcastle Courant, 19 September 1835.

[24] Daniel O’Connell in Newcastle.

[25] The Northern Liberator, 20 July 1839.

[26] Durham County Advertiser, 23 March 1855.

[27] Newcastle Courant, 20 March 1846.

[28] North and South Shields Daily Gazette, 16 April 1852.

[29] Cooter, When Paddy met Geordie, p.200.

[30] Vatican Archives, Scritture Originali Nelle Congregazioni, vol 13 (1852-4), p.295, cited by Neal ‘English-Irish Conflict’, p.64.

[31] Newcastle Weekly Courant, 18 July 1856.

[32] Newcastle Weekly Courant, 25 July 1856.

[33] T.W. Moody and Leon Ó Broin, ‘The IRB Supreme Council, 1868-78’, Irish Historical Studies, 19.75 (1975), p.332.

[34] Cooter, When Paddy Met Geordie, p.157.

[35] The Irishman, 22 September 1866.

[36] Newcastle Daily Journal, 5 November 1867.

[37] The Flag of Ireland, 14 November 1868.

[38] Newcastle Daily Journal, 25 October 1869; The Irishman, 2 November 1872.

[39] The Irishman, 5 November 1870.

[40] Newcastle Daily Journal, 28 May 1870. See John Denvir, The Life Story if an Old Rebel (Dublin, 1910, reprinted Shannon, 1972), p.127.

[41] The Flag of Ireland, 20 November 1869.

[42] The Irishman, 13 January 1872.

[43] The Nation, 30 November 1872.

[44] The Flag of Ireland, 7 February 1874.

[45] The Flag of Ireland, 18 September 1875.

[46]Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph, 23 November 1881.

[47] United Ireland, 30 June 1883.

[48] The Irishman, 29 November 1873.

[49] Manders, Gateshead, pp:80-81. See Finn’s portrait in the Shipley Art Gallery:

[50] Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 21 March 1896.

[51] Northern Echo, 18 July 1890.

[52] Freeman’s Journal, 5 September 1896.

[53] The Nation, 31 July 1897.

[54] Michael Morris and Leo Gooch, Down Your Aisles, The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, 1850-2000 (Hartlepool, 2000), pp.25-26.

[55] Tyneside Catholic News, 9 January 1904.

[56] The Times, 21 January 1904.

[57] Tyneside Catholic News, 16 June 1906.

[58] Tyneside Catholic News, 14 July 1906.

[59] Durham Chronicle, 20 July 1906.

[60] Neal Blewett, The Peers, the Parties and the People: The General Elections of 1910 (London, 1972), pp.350-52; Gateshead’s miners voted for the Liberals in 1910 because Johnson supported the eight-hour day, which went against local working practices. Manders, Gateshead, p.279.

[61] Bulmer Hobson, ‘The foundation and growth of the Irish Volunteers, 1913-14’, in F. X. Martin (ed.) The Irish Volunteers 1913-1915: Recollections and Documents (Dublin, 1963), p.16.

[62] The Irish Volunteer, 1.12 (25 April 1914);  (Liverpool) Daily Courier, 2 May 1914.

[63] Tyneside Catholic News, 9 May 1914.

[64] There is a photograph of the Gateshead Irish Volunteers’ committee, but none were wearing military uniform. Newcastle Illustrated Chronicle, 19 June 1914.

[65]  The Irish Volunteer, 1.18 (6 June 1914).

[66] There is no mention of the Irish Volunteers on Tyneside in 1914 in Felix Lavery (compiler), Irish Heroes in the War (London, 1917); nor in John Sheen, Tyneside Irish: A history of the Tyneside Irish Brigade raised in the North East in World War One (Barnsley, 1998). The only brief published reference is in Máirtín Seán Ó Catháin, Irish Republicanism in Scotland, 1858-1916, Fenians in Exile (Dublin, 2007), p.234.

[67] Catholic Times and Catholic Opinion, 14 December 1918.

[68] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 9 December 1918.

[69] Manders, Gateshead, p.279; A.W. Purdue, ‘The ILP in the North East of England’, in James, Jowitt, and Laybourn (eds), The Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party, p.35.

[70] Tyneside Catholic News, 11 January 1919; Charles Diamond stood unsuccessfully as a Labour parliamentary candidate in London in 1918, 1922, and 1924. Neil Riddell, ‘The Catholic Church and the Labour Party, 1918-1931’, Twentieth Century British History, 8.2 (1997), p.173.

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

[72] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 24 February and 10 March 1919.

[73] Manders, Gateshead, p.279.

[74] Tyneside Catholic News, 22 May and 4 September 1920.

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

[76] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 10 March 1919.

[77] Tyneside Catholic News, 15 March 1919.

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

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

[80] Tyneside Catholic News, 19 July 1919.

[81] Tyneside Catholic News, 19 April 1919.

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

[83] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 3 November 1919.

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

[85] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 25 October 1920.

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

[87] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 2 November 1921.

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

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

[90] Newcastle Journal and North Star, 1 February 1927.

[91] Gateshead and District Labour News, 31 (March 1927).

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

[93] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 16 April 1920.

[94] Tyneside Catholic News, 12 June 1920.

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

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

[97] Auckland and County Chronicle and Stanley News, 20 January 1921.

[98] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 1 February 1921.

[99] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 17 and 18 March 1921.

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

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

[102] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 18 March 1922.

[103] 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).

[104] Mary Gunn, Mayor of Gateshead:

[105] Gateshead Herald, December 1942.

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