Terence MacSwiney was not just a rebel hero - he made a huge contribution to the cultural life of Cork

Before he died on hunger strike, Terence MacSwiney had a made a huge contribution to the cultural life of his native Cork, writes Marjorie Brennan

Hugh C. Charde's Portrait of Terence MacSwiney from the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, part of a current exhibition at the venue.

TERENCE MacSwiney is a key political figure in Irish history, his death by hunger strike when he was Lord Mayor of Cork bringing the struggle for independence to the international stage. However, it is MacSwiney’s cultural legacy that is being celebrated as part of a new exhibition at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

Conflicting Visions in a Turbulent Age, 1900-1916 features poignant personal items belonging to MacSwiney, loaned from the MacSwiney Brugha collection, including a notebook, a crucifix and signed books gifted to him by the revolutionary O’Donovan Rossa.

Curator Éimear O’Connor was inspired to seek out the material by a serendipitous discovery. “I was in New York when I was asked to curate the show and that’s when I came across The Revolutionist, a play published by MacSwiney in 1914. It struck me that all a lot of people seemed to know about MacSwiney was that he was Lord Mayor of Cork, he was a very political person, and that he died on hunger strike. I thought we should really try and find out more and do more to celebrate MacSwiney. Looking at his material and being in his archive, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck.”

As part of the exhibition, the Crawford gallery will also host a public symposium on MacSwiney’s work in Cork Opera House on June 17, attended by members of the MacSwiney-Brugha family. The programme of events will include performances of excerpts from The Revolutionist and talks, including one by MacSwiney’s grandson, Cathal MacSwiney Brugha. The events will be filmed, edited and then included in the exhibition.

Terence MacSwiney

Historian John Borgonovo, an expert on the Irish revolution in Cork, believes MacSwiney’s political and cultural contributions were interdependent.

“The political aspect of his identity goes back to his cultural activities from the turn of the century onwards — he was part of a small group of republicans, cultural nationalists and artists, who were challenging the status quo. There has been a lot of attention paid to WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Abbey’s role in Dublin, but there was something similar, though on a smaller scale, going on in Cork and Belfast,” says Borgonovo.

MacSwiney’s main collaborator in the cultural arena in Cork was writer Daniel Corkery, with whom he founded the Cork Dramatic Society in 1908. It produced many of MacSwiney’s plays.

“What was distinctive about the Cork Dramatic Society was that they only put on productions of authors that were local, not Shakespeare or music hall. It was all about nurturing theatrical movements in Ireland. A lot of the people who became the revolutionary elite were involved in those productions,” says Borgonovo.

He adds that MacSwiney’s work as a playwright is significant in terms of what it represented in his development as a revolutionary. “He became used to writing for an audience, speaking in public, theatrics. When you think about what the independence movement achieved, a lot of it was through smoke and mirrors — street theatre. MacSwiney would have been thinking along those lines, what symbolic steps can you take, how do you co-ordinate defiance of state authority, and doing so in a clear and public way so that the public can understand it.”

MacSwiney’s cultural activities would also have helped nurture his organisational skills, says Borgonovo, which were crucial to the development of the movement towards independence.

“He organised for the Gaelic League, which was a continuing education, at a time when most people didn’t go to university. It brought people with common interests together and taught them skills such as holding meetings, keeping accounts, speaking in public, organising events, and publicity. These would have helped MacSwiney as a political organiser later.”

MacSwiney, front centre, with the cast of his play, The Last Warrior of Coole, in Cork in 1911. Irish Examiner Archive

MacSwiney, who had left school at 15 to support his family after his father left home, later returned to education.

“There’s often a misunderstanding that he was middle class,” says Borgonovo. “He wasn’t, he was totally self-made. He got himself a degree at a time when nobody had a degree, by studying part-time. He set up his own newspaper in 1914, and in order to raise the funds he sold his library, which for him was like parting with his children. That gives a sense of who he was, someone who loved ideas.”

MacSwiney’s talents and skills were so broad and numerous, it is only natural to ponder what contribution he might have made had he had sacrificed his life for his political ideals.

“Terence MacSwiney was someone with a political vision for Ireland. He was well-read and curious about the world, and he was a significant loss because he was someone who would have thought imaginatively about how the State would function,” says Borgonovo. “He was a global figure because of his hunger strike. It wasn’t just one of the biggest events in Ireland in 1920, but globally. It was huge, and really struck people — that idea of moral force, particularly in the aftermath of the First World War. You could make the argument MacSwiney is the best-known Irishman of the 20th century. Maybe Yeats has become better known since, but in his own lifetime, certainly.”

Conflicting Visions in a Turbulent Age

When it came to curating the Conflicting Visions in a Turbulent Age exhibition, Éimear O’Connor was keen to do something different.

“I have this thing about visual art and galleries being about ‘us’ not just ‘me’. As a curator, one must create a narrative in order to know what to borrow and from where but it struck me that it would be a very good idea to get more of ‘us’. So I got permission to hold a people’s history day in the gallery last November. We encouraged the people of Cork to come in with their own historical material. We photographed everything and we got people to write why the items were important to them. We have included that digitised material in what we have called the People’s Exhibition.”

The exhibition also features rarely seen works held in private collections, including a John B Yeats portrait of Lady Augusta Gregory’s son Robert, which will be shown in public for the first time.

“He was a pilot in the British Army, shot down in error by a member of his own side in 1918,” says O’Connor.

“John B Yeats, who was a very good friend of the family, did the portrait when Robert was only about 18, about to go to Oxford. It is beautiful. It’s from a private collection so I can’t say where it came from. It just so happened that we were looking for something else from this person and he came forward and said he had this. I nearly died of delight, it is a wonderful thing.”

The exhibition also features a portrait by Sean Keating of his brother Claude. While Keating is renowned for his depictions of those involved in the struggle for independence, his brother joined the British Army.

Another work by Keating, Thinking Out Gobnait, a rarely-seen portrait of the stained glass artist Harry Clarke, currently on show in Boston, will be added to the exhibition later this month.

Clarke is also represented in the exhibition strand devoted to the Honan Chapel at UCC, which was consecrated in 1916. 

  • Conflicting Visions in a Turbulent Age 1900-1916 runs until August 20 at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork


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