Updated: Sep 23, 2020
On 23 August 1920, Broadway actress Eileen Curran and her friend, Helen Crowe began a picket outside the British Consulate in New York in a demonstration of sympathy for Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike. Their placard containing words adapted from the Cornish ballad, The Song of the Western Men, asked the question, ‘And shall MacSwiney die? And shall MacSwiney die? There’s twenty million Irishmen Will know the reason why!’ ‘Are two Mayors of Cork to be murdered in six months to sustain British Rule in Ireland?’
However, pickets were being staged prior to the commencement of the Cork and Brixton hunger strikes. In America, supporters of the Irish cause, predominately women, held daily pickets throughout 1920. On 17 April, three women dressed in black mourning veils picketed the Treasury Department in Washington; one banner carried the words ‘in memory of Irish Martyrs slain by American loans to England’. The demonstrations escalated when on 2 June, several women including Kathleen Savage, Mary Keena and Helen O’Brien, tore up and burned a British flag, again in front of the Treasury. (Figure 1) The British Embassy in Washington was also a target for the pickets which began when ‘Patrick McCartan, the Provisional Irish Government’s envoy to the United States … called for protests by American’s Irish nationalists.’ Gertrude Corless, a journalist from New York, responded to McCartan’s call to action, and organised a number of Irish American women to begin picketing.
Matters intensified during the summer Cork born Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel raised the issue of the Irish cause. He was due to meet the Pope at the Vatican, intending to travel there firstly via America and then Ireland. The Archbishop arrived in San Francisco in early June and travelled across America giving a series of lectures highlighting the injustice that Ireland was suffering under the leadership of Lloyd George. In an interview with Mazie E. Clemens, he quipped that Ireland’s ‘resources are many, its natural wealth is great, its harbours are magnificent. But are those reasons why its people should be denied freedom? England thinks so.’ He was scheduled to sail from Manhattan to Queenstown (Cobh) on 31 July 1920 and on the day of his departure from New York aboard the SS Baltic, fifty Women Pickets demonstrated at Chelsea’s Pier 60 in Manhattan to show their support for Archbishop Mannix’s beliefs.
The situation was to get even more fraught as the SS Baltic neared the Irish coast. Several British Royal Navy destroyers began escorting the ship and on 9 August a boarding party was dispatched. On foot of an order by General Macready, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Ireland, Archbishop Mannix was removed and brought aboard the destroyer, Wyvern. The party had two orders; one prohibiting the Archbishop from setting foot in Ireland and the other forbidding him from visiting Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow. He was dropped off at ‘the first and most remote location, nine miles from Land’s End at Penzance.’ The timing of the action, coupled with the fact that the Archbishop had generated enormous publicity during his tour of America was a major faux-pas on behalf of the British.
The treatment of Archbishop Mannix coupled with the Cork Lord Mayor’s hunger strike encouraged the American Women’s Picket and the Irish Progressive League to intensify their demonstrations. What ensued was what The Sun and the New York Herald described as ‘the first wholly political strike in the history of the United States.’ The Baltic was due back on American shores on 27 August 1920 and the New York Women Pickets moved their protests from the British Embassy to Pier 60 in Manhattan. Carrying banners, ‘The steamship Baltic is dirty and stands for tyranny. Let tyranny rot till it is rotten’, the women’s action prompted ‘2,000 Longshoremen walk out in protest against Britain’s tyranny in Ireland’. The Women Pickets sent a telegram to Lloyd George that afternoon, ‘the sound of death in the throat of Terence MacSwiney is the death knell of your adventure in Ireland. We hear the bells tolling. The people are gathering. Oil your tanks. Polish your guns.’
Due to the persistence of the Women Pickets and activist, Marcus Garvey, the strike lasted over three weeks, spread to Brooklyn and Boston and not only involved Irish Americans but indeed African American Longshoremen. On 4 September 1920, as the SS Baltic left Manhattan, four of the women aboard a launch stopped the ship and fixed signs to the side, one proclaiming, ‘Up Mannix. Up MacSwiney. Down Tyranny.’ On 9 September 1920, two women, Catherine Garland and Helen Mirriam disguised as longshoremen boarded the Imperator shortly before she left New York shores. The two women distributed Irish propaganda urging the crew ‘to quit in protest against the imprisonment of Terence MacSwiney’.
Unfortunately, Mark Sturgis records in his diary on 13 September that Lloyd George ‘L.G. is quite clear that no hunger striker is to be let out’. However, this did not discourage Irish Volunteers from attempting to gain leverage to make the Prime Minister change his mind.
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 The Evening Huronite, 14 September 1920.  Library of Congress Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-hec-29996  Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-npcc-01722  David Brundage, Irish Nationalists in America, The politics of exile, 1798-1998 (New York, 2016), p. 134.  Boston Sunday Globe, 1 August 1920.  https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/arid-30943244.html  The Sun and New York Herald, 28 August 1920.  The Washington Times, 28 August 1920.  Joe Doyle, ‘Striking for Ireland on the New York Docks’ in R.H. Bayor and T.J. Meagher (eds.), The New York Irish (Baltimore, 1996), p. 367.  The Evening World, 4 September 1920.  Albuquerque Morning Journal, 18 September 1920.  Hopkinson, The last days of Dublin Castle: the Mark Sturgis diaries, p. 39.