Joseph McGarrity, Irish American political activist best known for his leadership in Clan na Gael in the United States and his support of Irish republicanism back in Ireland, is born on March 28, 1874 in Carrickmore, County Tyrone.
McGarrity’s family grows up in poverty, motivating his need to immigrate later in life. He grows up hearing his father discussing Irish politics, including topics such as the Fenians, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and Irish Home Rule. By the time he is an adult, he has developed a keen interest in politics himself.
McGarrity immigrates to the United States in 1892 at the age of 18. He is reputed to have walked to Dublin before boarding a cattle boat to Liverpool disguised as a drover, and then sailing to the United States using a ticket belonging to someone else. He settles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and becomes successful in the liquor business. His business fails, however, on three occasions, twice due to embezzlement by his business partner.
In 1893 McGarrity joins Clan na Gael, an Irish organisation based in the United States committed to aiding the establishment of an independent Irish state. Clan na Gael had been heavily involved with the Fenian Brotherhood that McGarrity had grown up hearing about, and by the latter half of the 19th century had become a sister organisation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). In the decade just before McGarrity joins, Clan na Gael and the Fenian movement had waged the Fenian dynamite campaign, where they attempted to force the British state to make concessions on Ireland by bombing British Infrastructure. However, this had caused a split within Clan na Gael that is not mended until seven years after McGarrity joins when, in 1900, the factions reunite and plead to support “the complete independence of the Irish people, and the establishment of an Irish republic.” In the years that follow the 1880s and 1890s, he is, amongst others, credited with helping to stitch the organisation back together and bring it renewed strength.
McGarrity helps sponsor several Irish Race Conventions and founds and runs a newspaper called The Irish Press from 1918-22 that supports the Irish War of Independence. He is the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of Clan Na Gael.
During World War I, while the United States is still neutral, McGarrity is involved in the Hindu–German Conspiracy. He arranges the Annie Larsen arms purchase and shipment from New York to San Diego for India.
When Éamon de Valera arrives in the United States in 1919 they strike up an immediate rapport and McGarrity manages de Valera’s tour of the country. He persuades de Valera of the benefits of supporting him and the Philadelphia branch against the New York branch of the Friends of Irish Freedom organisation led by John Devoy and Judge Daniel F. Cohalan. He becomes president of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. He christens his newborn son Éamon de Valera McGarrity, although their relationship becomes strained upon de Valera’s entry back into Dáil Éireann in the Irish Free State.
McGarrity opposes the Anglo-Irish Treaty and travels to Dublin in 1922 and assists the development of the short-lived Collins/De Valera Pact by bringing de Valera and Michael Collins together before the 1922 Irish general election.
The Irish Civil War sees a split in Clan na Gael just as it had split Sinn Féin back in Ireland. McGarrity and a minority of Clan na Gael members support the anti-treaty side but a majority support the pro-treaty side, including John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan. Furthermore, in October 1920 Harry Boland informs the Clan na Gael leadership that the IRB will be cutting their ties to the Clan unless the IRB is given more influence over their affairs. Devoy and Cohalan resist this but McGarrity sees the Clan’s connection with the IRB as vital. While McGarrity’s faction is initially labelled “Reorganised Clan na Gael,” they are able to inherit total control of the Clan na Gael name as Devoy is not able to keep effective organisation of the group. In general, however, the in-fighting amongst the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic is quite disheartening for Irish Americans and in the years to come neither pro or anti-treaty sides of Clan na Gael see much in the way of donations.
With the scope of Clan na Gael now narrowed, and Devoy and Cohalan removed from the picture, McGarrity becomes chairman of the organisation. He does not support the founding of Fianna Fáil in 1926 and opposes the party’s entry into the Dáil in 1927. Even after the Irish Civil War, he still supports the idea that a 32-county Irish Republic can be achieved through force. in the spring of 1926, he receives Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army Andrew Cooney to the United States. Cooney and Clan na Gael formally agree that each organisation will support the other and that Clan na Gael will raise funds, purchase weapons and build support for the IRA in the United States.
Going into the late 1920s though Clan na Gael, as are most Irish American organisations, is struggling. Having limped past the split caused by the Irish Civil War, the rejection of Fianna Fáil has caused a second split in the membership. Many Irish Americans see the IRA and Fianna Fáil as one and the same at that point and Clan na Gael and McGarrity’s hostility to them causes much friction.
By July 1929, the Clan’s membership in one of its strongholds, New York City, is down to just 620 paid members. Then in October of that same year Wall Street crashes and the Great Depression hits. In 1933 McGarrity is left almost bankrupt after he is found guilty of “false bookkeeping entries.” His livelihood is saved when he becomes one of the main ticket agents in the United States for the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake. He is a personal friend of Joseph McGrath, one of the founders of the Sweepstake. The sweepstakes allow him to turn his fortunes around.
Despite the trying times of both Clan na Gael and his personal life, McGarrity holds fast in his belief in physical force Irish Republicanism. In 1939 he supports the demand from Seán Russell for the “S-Plan” bombing campaign in Britain, which proves disastrous. He allegedly meets Hermann Göring in Berlin in 1939 to ask for aid for the IRA, which leads indirectly to “Plan Kathleen.”
McGarrity is a lifelong friend of fellow Carrickmore native and avid Republican, Patrick McCartan. When he dies on September 4, 1940 a mass is held in the St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. He remains an unrepentant physical force republican all his life. A number of McGarrity’s papers are in the National Library of Ireland. He donates his personal Library to Villanova University.
The IRA signs all its statements ‘J.J. McGarrity’ until 1969 when the organisation splits into the ‘Official‘ and ‘Provisional‘ movements. Thereafter the term continues to be used by the Officials while the Provisionals adopt the moniker ‘P.O’Neill.’