One of the leading republican activists of his generation and often remembered for the circumstances of his death, Terence MacSwiney’s life reveals a complex character, says
Terence James MacSwiney was born at 23 North Main St, Cork City, on March 28, 1879, the fourth of John and Mary MacSwiney’s nine children. One of his earliest memories is reciting poetry on Sunday afternoons: The more rebellious, the better his father liked it.
When John MacSwiney’s tobacco factory goes bust, he emigrates to Australia, leaving Mary to raise the children.
Educated by the Christian Brothers at North Monastery, “Terry” develops a passion for Irish history and language.
Leaving school at 15, he works as a warehouse clerk for Dwyer and Co but becomes “utterly sick” of office life, and begins studying medicine at night. In 1898, he suffers a breakdown.
After graduating from UCC in mental and moral science in 1907, MacSwiney works for the Cork Municipal School of Commerce as a peripatetic teacher of business methods.
By then, he was “part of a small group of Republicans, cultural nationalists, and artists, who were challenging the status quo”, says historian John Borgonovo.
Sharing his mother’s strict Catholic principles, he frequently quotes from scriptures and describes Ireland’s struggle for independence as a religious crusade.
A vocal member of the Cork Celtic Literary Society, he criticises the British government’s recruitment in Ireland for the Boer War, and during King Edward VII’s visit to Cork in 1902, unfurls a large black flag.
As a playwright and co-founder of the Cork Dramatic Society, he seeks to promote a republic through Irish theatre. In The Last Warriors of Coole (1910) he explores the courage to fight in the face of adversity; in The Revolutionist (1914) the hero works himself to death for the cause.
Writing in his newspaper, entitled Fianna Fáil, he claims Ireland’s interests are being sacrificed to “England and her Empire”.
“There is one straightforward course, and that course must be followed, without swerving, to the end...” he declares in Principles of Freedom: The Irish must be shaken from their apathy to form a new Catholic state.
In 1913 MacSwiney helps set up the Cork Brigade of Irish Volunteers. Although they are not involved in the 1916 Easter Rising, a cloud of suspicion hangs over him and he is arrested and imprisoned.
While in Bromyard internment camp, Herefordshire, on June 8, 1917, he marries 25-year-old Muriel Murphy from the Cork distilling and brewing family. An Irish rebel and the daughter of a wealthy Catholic family made an unlikely match, but Muriel is taken by this hard-working, handsome young man — whose big lock of black hair “was always getting over his face… I did not get the opportunity to meet Republicans when I was a child!” she exclaims.
No sooner had they set up home in Douglas Rd, Cork City, that September, when MacSwiney is arrested for wearing an IRA uniform.
On June 23, 1918, Muriel gives birth to a baby girl, Máire. Seeing her for the first time, in Belfast prison, her father urges that she be taught Irish.
In December 1918, MacSwiney is elected MP for Mid-Cork. Like other Sinn Féin members, he refuses to take his seat at Westminster, determined to serve in Dáil Éireann instead.
At home and abroad, he raises funds for an independent Ireland and establishes the Dáil Éireann courts — “the end of English authority in Ireland”.
On March 20, 1920, police burst into the home of his friend, Tomás MacCurtain, and shoot him dead.
Eight days later, MacSwiney succeeds him as commandant of the Cork No1 Brigade of the IRA, and Lord Mayor of Cork.
In his inaugural speech he declares: “This contest of ours is… one of endurance — it is not to those who can inflict the most but to those who can suffer the most, who will conquer.”
The Cork Examiner praised MacSwiney’s “great energy and determination… absolute impartiality, lovable and kindly disposition”.
Francis Costello calls his plans to build houses for working people, and develop technical education: “innovative and industrious”.
MacSwiney worked from 10am until 10pm, snatching meals, seeing very little of Muriel and Máire, only venturing out with a bodyguard.
On August 12, City Hall is raided and he is charged with possessing “documents likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty”, and a cipher used by the RIC to encrypt messages.
His court-martial in Dublin — which MacSwiney declares illegal — takes only 15 minutes to find him guilty of sedition, and imposes a two-year sentence.
“I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month,” he tells the court.
At 3am the next morning, he is taken to Brixton Prison, south London, where he refuses to eat. “I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release,” he states.
Suddenly MacSwiney becomes an international figure, triggering mass demonstrations from Buenos Aires to Boston. Riots break out on the streets of Barcelona, workers down tools in New York.
In Ireland, the GAA abandons its fixtures, workers at Jacob’s biscuits in Dublin go on strike, and in Dundalk, railwaymen listen to a rosary for “a man lying prostrate in an English dungeon”.
Fearing a martyr on their hands, one British MP suggests putting vitamins into his water.
But when MacSwiney survives week after week, some thought his sister, Mary, was secretly feeding him.
As he prepares for death, he finds solace in writing poetry and reading Thomas à Kempis’ manual, The Imitation of Christ.
On October 20, he falls into a coma, and five days later — after 73 days without food — he breathes his last.
News of his death causes a riot outside Brixton prison, and “a surge of shame” across England”, writes historian DG Boyce.
Terence MacSwiney died “in the cause of freedom”, says his grandson, Professor Cathal MacSwiney Brugha.
In Milan that night, La Scala remained closed because Irish soprano Margaret Burke-Sheridan felt unable to perform.
Some 30,000 people filed past MacSwiney’s body in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, most unaware that beneath his IRA uniform he wore the rough brown habit of a Franciscan monk.
To avoid demonstrations in Dublin, MacSwiney was taken directly to Cork. The many children who passed the coffin in City Hall were, fortunately, not tall enough to see the emaciated face inside, commented the Manchester Guardian.
The St Patrick’s Society of Montreal, the Bilbao Juventud Vacay Society, and the Chicago Police Lieutenants’ Club were among dozens of groups worldwide that send Muriel messages of sympathy.
Over 100,000 line the streets on October 31 to watch MacSwiney being taken from Cork’s Roman Catholic Cathedral to St Finbarr’s Cemetery, Glasheen, to be buried close to his friend, Tomás MacCurtain.
North Vietnam’s future president, Ho Chi Minh, who worked in London washing dishes at the time, said: “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender.” Cork’s Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin cited him as a catalyst for Indian nationalists Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. In 1981 IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands named MacSwiney as an influence.
Today, a community college in Knocknaheeny carries MacSwiney’s name, as does a road, MacSwiney’s Villas, off Blarney St, Cork City. They keep alive the memory of a courageous, uncompromising man, whose “heroic sacrifice” gained victory over “the enemies of his country’s independence” (Arthur Griffith).