The Harp Without The Crown – Mary MacSwiney


“Under the Irish Free State Treaty (passed in 1921), the English king controls the country…is head of state…summons and dissolves parliament…is head of judiciary…head of army…no law is valid until it has obtained his signature.” Quote from Mary MacSwiney upon her arrival in Butte, Montana in March 1921.

Hello this is John Conlan, host of the Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this edition of the Harp without the Crown where I will be discussing Mary MacSwiney’s visits to Butte in 1921 and 1925.

Mary MacSwiney was a member of the Irish Gaelic League, Munster Women’s Franchise League, Sinn Fein party leader and founding member of the Cork branch of the Cumann na mBan, a radical Irish women’s organization dedicated to Irish independence. It was the first Irish organization to overwhelmingly declare opposition to the Irish Free State Treaty, which was passed in 1921. The Cumann na mBan felt that the treaty did not provide for total Irish independence and kept Ireland under England’s rule. Their opposition to the treaty was so fierce that Irish President Cosgrave despised them and felt it was not “possible to consider these women as ordinary females.”

Mary was arrested and served two prison terms for activities related to Irish independence. She initiated two hunger strikes while in prison, both lasting over 20 days. During the 1922 hunger strike at Mountjoy, she refused medical help and was given the last rites. Hunger strikes were seen as an effective weapon to bring awareness concerning the failures of the Free State Government. Women prisoners at Kilmainham Jail issued a statement of support for her hunger strike hoping ”her death will bring back her fellow countrymen to their ideals and make them brothers-in-arms again.” Mary accepted the implications of a hunger strike “realising fully the probability of death and (was) ready for it.” MacSwiney’s brother Terence was a Sinn Fein Mayor of Cork City, imprisoned for sedition and died after a 73 day hunger strike.

Mary came to Butte on two occasions, in 1921 and 1925. Her March 1921 visit was a part of a 70 city tour of America. Her visit had a twofold purpose: to give evidence about her brother’s death and imprisonment and report on conditions in Ireland. She came at the invitation of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, which was established to gather testimony from witnesses on the state of Ireland after the 1919 to 1921 Irish War of Independence. The report accused the British government of a campaign to destroy the means of existence of the Irish people. The report was criticized by the British government and some news outlets. While in America, MacSwiney wanted to expose falsehoods and propaganda made by the British Government concerning the economic and social conditions found in Ireland detailed in the witness accounts.

Mary arrived in Butte March 16,1921 from Spokane. Local representatives of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic sponsored her Butte visit. James E. Murray, future U.S. Montana Senator, was the state chairman for the organization. Her unofficial parade from the Depot through uptown Butte was attended by thousands and included an escort by an honor guard of veterans from the American Legion. The group proceeded to the Courthouse for a reception. Granite Street was packed with people from Montana Street to Main Street. The festive ceremony at the Courthouse greeted Mary with music and speeches welcoming her to Butte

She arrived at the Broadway Theater for an 8 P.M. address. It was reported in the Butte Miner that many people were turned away due to a lack of seating at the theater, which could hold 2,220. The Irish Rebel Nurses Corps, formed at St. James Hospital, acted as ushers and also collected money from the audience for the Irish Relief Fund. $3,000 was given during her stay and was part of the $30,000 that was collected from the Butte and Anaconda areas over the course of several months during the Irish Relief Fund Drive.

Her American appearances were intentionally simple with little fanfare and ceremony. MacSwiney wanted every meeting to be serious and a protest against the atrocities of the British government. She did not want her presence to take away from the suffering of the Irish people. “ I am here for a message and that is to help Ireland.” Her speeches in both Butte and Anaconda reminded audiences that living in Ireland under a British occupation army of 200,000 was unacceptable and a violation of Irish civil liberties. She also emphasized the majority of Irish people did not favor the recently enacted Irish Free State Treaty and there could not be Irish independence under that treaty. Mary discussed at length the parallels between the American Revolution and the thirteen colonies’ quest for freedom and the Irish independence movement. Also during her stay she addressed a women’s meeting at the Butte High School that focused on the important role that women have played and are playing in the fight for Irish independence.

There were many special moments during her stay in Butte. One moment in particular involved Butte resident, Edith Davenport Miller, of 507 Ash Street, who composed and sang, “Ireland’s Martyr,” at a reception held that week in memory of Mary’s brother Terence. Catherine Flannigan, Mary’s secretary on the American tour, reflected on that moment “this is one of the best of the many appreciations shown since we arrived in America.”

Mary came back to Butte in April of 1925. Like many profiled in this series, she came to America and Butte at the request of Irish President Eamon de Valera to describe the events of Ireland in the past three years and to gain moral and financial support for Irish independence. She was very happy to return to Butte and said “it is with great pleasure that I greet the people of Butte.”

Her schedule was packed with events. She spoke in Anaconda at St. Paul’s Church and a special delegation from Butte attended. The next day Mary attended a banquet at the Finlen Hotel in Butte sponsored by the Butte Republican Club, an organization devoted to Irish independence. Her main event included an address held at the Butte Temple Theater where she again forcefully compared the struggle for Irish independence to that of the thirteen colonies during the American revolution. She continued to dispute the benefits of the Irish Free State and to contradict those in Ireland and the United States who thought the treaty was a stepping stone to an Irish Republic. She also made the bold prediction that upon her arrival back in Ireland she would be arrested. She stated that her arrest would lead to her death and that her “third hunger strike will be to the end.” Mary also encouraged her audiences to lobby politicians in Washington D.C. to get formal recognition for Irish independence and become active in the political process.

Mary MacSwiney was among a group of Irish women activists who visited Butte committed and dedicated to obtaining Irish independence. They faced extreme hardships and conditions but overcame many obstacles during their quest for independence. Mary died in 1942 just a few short years before Ireland achieved independence and became a Republic.

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp without the Crown.