One hundred years ago this week, Terence MacSwiney was elected Lord Mayor of Cork following the murder of Tomas MacCurtain.
Kieran McCarthy profiles his brief, but hugely influential, political career and we republish his inaugural speech from the Irish Examiner archives.
Following the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain, a special meeting of Cork Corporation was held on March 30, 1920, to elect a successor.
Terence MacSwiney was unanimously elected. His inauguration speech, for the first time, provided an insight into the mind and motivations, and drive of MacSwiney.
It is filled with thoughts of sacrifice, endurance, martyrdom, and faith. It is very different to the speeches of previous lord mayors.
Born in 1879, MacSwiney was educated by the Christian Brothers at the North Monastery school in Cork City, but left at 15 in order to help support his family.
He became an accountancy clerk, but continued his studies and matriculated successfully.
He continued in full-time employment while he studied at the Royal University (now University College Cork), graduating with a degree in mental and moral science in 1907.
Terence MacSwiney took a very active part in the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin, and devoted much time to literary and dramatic groups such as the Young Ireland Society and the Celtic Literary Society.
On Easter Sunday morning, April 23, 1916, he was a part of the group of 163 Volunteers from the Cork City Battalion who, together with others from Cobh and Dungourney, paraded under arms outside of the Volunteer Hall prepared to take part in the manoeuvres that were a cover for the Rising planned to establish an independent Irish Republic.
After an address by Brigade Commandant Tomás Mac Curtain, they marched off to Capwell Railway Station to board a train for Crookstown.
However, just as they were departing, an order arrived from Dublin cancelling the operation.
Later negotiations between both the British army and the Volunteers led to the surrender of weapons.
Mac Curtain and MacSwiney were arrested and detained in Frongoch internment camp in Wales along with those who fought in Dublin. It was the first in a long line of detentions.
In January 1917, the Cork Volunteers began to regroup under Mac Curtain.
Close police attention led to their arrest again and both were brought to Arbour Hill Barracks in Dublin.
Here they were served with deportation orders, and condemning them to be out of Ireland for an unspecified period to small English towns.
On Easter Monday, 1917, they marked the first anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising in Dublin in their own way.
MacSwiney, during his exile, also married Muriel Murphy of the Cork distillery owing family.
MacSwiney’s internment in March 1918 saw him miss two major life events — the birth of his daughter Máire in June 1918, and his election to the first Dáil Éireann as TD for Mid Cork, in December 1918.
Released in spring 1919, he took his Dáil seat. He was elected Lord Mayor of Cork on March 30, 1920.
Five months later, he was arrested again and sentenced to two years in Brixton Prison.
He immediately went on hunger strike, generating headlines and support from around the world.
He died 73 days later. He is buried at a republican plot at St Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.
- Kieran McCarthy is a geographer, Cork historian, and an independent member of Cork City Council.
His historical work can be viewed at www.corkheritage.ie
He is the co-author, with John O’Mahony, of 'Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás Mac Curtain Inquest' (2020, Irish Examiner).
"I shall be as brief as possible.
"This is not an occasion for many words, least of all a conventional exchange of compliments and thanks. The circumstances of the vacancy in the effect of Lord Mayor governed inevitably the filling of it.
"And I come here more as a soldier, stepping into the breach, than an administrator to fill the first post in the municipality. At a normal tine it would be your duty to find for this post the Councillor most practised and experienced in public affairs. But the time is not normal.
"We see in the manner in which our late Lord Mayor was murdered an attempt to terrify us all.
"Our first duty is to answer that threat in the only lilting manner by showing ourselves unterrified, cool and inflexible, for the fulfilment of our chief purpose — the establishment of the independence and integrity and the peace and happiness of our country.
"To that end, I am here.
"I was more closely associated than any other with our late murdered friend and colleague, both before and since the events of Easter week, in prison and out of it, in a common work of love for Ireland, down to the hour of his death.
"For that reason I take his place. It is, I think, though I say it, the fitting answer to those who struck him down. Following from that there is a further matter of importance only less great — it touches the efficient continuance of our civic administration.
"If this recent unbearable aggravation of our persecution by our enemies should cause us to suspend voluntarily the normal discharge of our duties it would help them very materially in their campaign to overthrow our cause.
"I feel the question of the future conduct of our affairs is in all our mind.
"And I think I’m voicing the general view when I say that the normal functions of our corporate body must proceed, as far as in our power lies, uninterrupted, with that efficiency and integrity of which our late civic head gave such brilliant promise.
"I don’t wish to sound a personal note, but this much may be permitted under the circumstances – I made myself active in the selection of our late colleague for the office of Lord Mayor.
"He did not seek the honour, and would not accept it as such, but when put to him as a duty he stepped up to his place like a soldier.
"Before his election, we discussed together in the intimate way we discussed everything touching our common work since Easter week.
"We debated together what ought to be done and what could be done, keeping in mind, us in duty bound, not only the ideal line of action, but the practicable line at the moment as well.
"That time he followed with an ability and success all his own.
"Gentlemen, you have paid tribute to him on all sides. It will be my duty and ready purpose to follow that line as faithfully as in my power, though no man in this council could hope to discharge its functions with his ability and his perfect grasp of public business in all its details and, as one harmonious whole.
"I have thought it necessary to touch on this normal duty of ours, though — and it may seem strange to say it — I feel at the moment it is even a digression.
"Inspired by our initial act, when we dedicated it and formally attested our allegiance, to bring by our administration of the city the glory to our allegiance, and by working for our city’s advancement with constancy in all honourable ways in her new dignity as one of the first cities of Ireland, to work for, and, if need be, to die for.
"I would recall some words of mine on that day of our first meeting after the election of Lord Mayor.
"I realised that most of you in the minority here would be loyal to us, if doing so did not threaten your lives; but that you lacked the spirit and the hope to join with us to complete the work of liberation so well begun.
"I allude to it here again, because I wish to point out again the secret of our strength and the assurance of our final victory.
"This content of ours is not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance — it is not they who can inflict most but they who can suffer most – who will conquer — though we do not abrogate our function to demand and see that evildoers and murderers are punished for their crime?
"But it is conceivable they could interrupt our course for a time; then it becomes a question simply of trust in God and endurance.
"Those whose faith is strong will endure to the end, and triumph. The shining hope in our time is the great majority of our people are now strong in that faith.
"To you, gentlemen of the minority here, I would address a word. I ask you again to take courage and hope. To me it seems — and I don’t say it to have won — that you have a lively faith in the power of the devil, and but little faith in God.
"But God is over us, and in His Divine Intervention we have perfect trust.
"Anyone surveying the events in Ireland for the past five years must see that it is approaching a miracle how our country has been preserved.
"God has permitted this to be to try our spirits, to prove us for a great and noble destiny. You among us have yet no vision of the future have been led astray by false prophets.
"Sometimes in our grief we cry out foolish and unthinking words; 'the sacrifice is too great'. But it is because they were our best and bravest they had to die. No lesser sacrifice would save us.
"Because of it our struggle is holy — our battle is sanctified by their blood, and our victory is assured by their martyrdom.
"We, taking up the work they left is complete confident in God, offer in turn sacrifice from ourselves. It is not we who take innocent blood, but we offer it, sustained by the example of our immortal dead and that Divine example, which inspires us all — for the redemption of our country.
"Facing our enemies, we must declare our attitude supply. We ask for no mercy, and we make no compromise. But to the Divine author of mercy, and we will make no compromise.
"But to the Divine author of mercy we appeal for strength to sustain us, whatever the persecution, that we may bring our people victory in the end. The civilised world dare not continue to look on indifferent.
"But if the rulers of earth fail us we have yet sure succour in the Ruler of Heaven; and though to some impatient ears his judgements seem slow, they never fail, and when they fail they are overwhelming and final."
- As published in The Cork Examiner March 31, 1920