Agony of Terence MacSwiney's 74-day hunger strike captured on screen

Agony of Terence MacSwiney's 74-day hunger strike captured on screen

Documentary makers have used high-end digital technology to re-create a medical model showing the impact of the 74-day hunger strike on Terence MacSwiney’s body.

Documentary makers use hi-tech graphics to shed new light on the physical suffering of Terence MacSwiney during his 74-day hunger strike, which ended in death a century ago this Sunday.

The new programme captures in the starkest form yet the day-by-day physical deterioration of the former lord mayor of Cork whose death in a British jail focused international attention on Ireland’s struggle for independence. 

His death on October 25, 1920, after what remains one of the longest hunger strikes on record, is regarded as one of the most important events in the history of the Irish revolutionary period.

 The funeral procession in London on October 28, 1922 of Terence MacSwiney who died on the 74th day of his hunger strike in Brixton Prison and was brought back to Cork for burial. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
 The funeral procession in London on October 28, 1922 of Terence MacSwiney who died on the 74th day of his hunger strike in Brixton Prison and was brought back to Cork for burial. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The circumstances of his death piled such pressure on the British government that it returned to the negotiating table, triggering the start of a long process which ultimately led to the establishment, in 1922, of the Irish Free State.

MacSwiney's sacrifice also inspired independence leaders around the world, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Commemorative events to mark MacSwiney’s death, and the assassination at the hands of Crown Forces of his mayoral predecessor, Tomás MacCurtain, who was shot dead during a raid on his home in Blackpool just a few months previously, have been disrupted by Covid-19.

But on Wednesday, a new documentary on the last 74-days of MacSwiney’s life, and the impact they had on Irish history, is due to air.

Marcus Lamb as Terence MacSwiney in 74 days: The hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney on RTÉ One on Wednesday, October 21.
Marcus Lamb as Terence MacSwiney in 74 days: The hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney on RTÉ One on Wednesday, October 21.

Presented by NUIG historian, Sarah-Anne Buckley, ‘74 Days’ hopes to provide a fresh perspective into this pivotal moment in Irish history.

Ms Buckley said MacSwiney’s hunger strike was a catalyst for the intensification of Ireland’s War of Independence but she said it is also one of the great, marginal stories from modern Irish history, suggesting that he is arguably better known internationally, in places like Vietnam and Catalonia, than he is at home.

His story needs to now be told at home, she said.

Personal letters, diaries and witness statements

In the documentary, she builds a thesis using the personal letters, diaries and witness statements of three extraordinary women central to the hunger strike and who were by MacSwiney’s bedside throughout it — his wife Muriel and his sisters Annie and Mary.

These three women were witnesses to history, as well as active participants and victims of it, she said.

Terence MacSwiney and family.
Terence MacSwiney and family.

The documentary also features GP Dr Phil Kieran and clinical psychologist, Eddie Murphy, who combine detailed medical notes with first-person, eye-witness testimony of MacSwiney’s time on hunger-strike and blend the details with high-end digital graphics technology to create a contemporary medical model to reveal the most detailed account to date of the physical and psychological suffering MacSwiney endured during those 74days on hunger strike, first in Cork Gaol and then in Brixton prison where he died.

Other contributors to the documentary include UCC historian John Borgonovo, Ciara Breathnach, Cork Museum curator, Daniel Breen, Linda Hogan, Tomás MacConmara, Laurence McKeown, William Murphy, Niall Murray, Helene O’Keeffe and Anne Twomey.

74 Days: The Hunger Strike of Terence MacSwiney, directed by Ciara Hyland of ForeFront Productions for RTÉ, airs on RTÉ One, Wednesday October 21 at 9.30pm.

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