With a roll call of political achievements in her own right — including Sinn Féin leadership in 1927 — and lauded for her oratory and publicity prowess, much of Mary MacSwiney’s activities in 1920, unsurprisingly, revolved around her younger brother Terence.
An outspoken powerhouse and school teacher, Mary was a member of the Women’s Franchise League, the Gaelic League, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, and was a founding member of Cork’s Cumann na mBan — the inaugural meeting of which was held in the MacSwiney home. Prior to 1920, due to her republican activities and connections to Terence, Mary was arrested mid-lesson in her St Angela’s College classroom and subsequently dismissed from her teaching post.
She then established Scoil Íte (St Ita’s), with her teacher sister Annie, a school in the model of Pádraig Pearse’s St Enda’s. At Scoil Íte, the pair taught the daughters of many
Friends of the MacCurtain family, the MacSwineys were horrified at Tomás’ murder in March 1920. Such risks did not, however, deter Mary from championing her brother to succeed his friend as Lord Mayor.
Mary protested outside of Cork’s Victoria (now Collins) Barracks when Terence was arrested, court-martialled and sent to Brixton Prison that August. In full support of MacSwiney’s gruelling hunger strike, the two sisters and Terence’s wife Muriel kept a daily vigil at the London prison.
Annie’s diary entries from this time describe her brother’s traumatic deterioration: “The concentrated horror of that first two hours of delirium is beyond the imagination of anyone who did not witness it.”
As Terence’s hunger strike played out before the world’s press, Mary rose to national prominence. A spokeswoman for her silenced brother, she was instrumental in keeping the media informed on his struggle.
Her daily updates to international media illustrated the strength of her resolve. Following Terence’s death in October 1920, after 74 days on hunger strike, Éamon de Valera, then-leader of Sinn Féin and the First Dáil, tasked Mary and Muriel with giving evidence in Washington at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.
The purpose of the Commission was to ascertain “for the American people the truth about conditions in Ireland”, considering it “a matter of grave international concern”,
Mary gave evidence to the commission in December 1920.
“Our secret service has not done badly. They have gotten a lot of information about the enemy’s plans. We know that today they want the Volunteers in Ireland to come out into the open. And they thought that since my brother had the confidence and affection of the Volunteers of Cork, that if they let him die, the Volunteers would lose their heads and come out into the open, and then they could shoot them down.”
The commission and its findings were widely reported across the international press. Mary and Muriel then undertook a four-week tour of the United States, generating significant publicity for the independence cause. Both women received the Freedom of Chicago during their visit. Considered one of Ireland’s outstanding orators, Mary would traverse the United States again in 1921, on a 58-stop lecture tour that continued to attract crowds in their thousands.
“At any event, we are going to get our freedom. England cannot keep us in slavery,” she told the commission.