Born into the extremely wealthy Murphy distillery family, Muriel MacSwiney is best known as the widow of Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney.
His 74-day hunger strike and death in a London prison captured the international press and public’s attention in autumn 1920. With Terence’s commitment to his ideals visible on a world stage, Muriel was catapulted into the spotlight too, often photographed or reported on as she visited the prison.
When Terence died, Muriel received some 200 telegrams of condolence from all over the world.
Much more than just an Irish revolutionary’s widow, Muriel was already a militant republican with a keen social conscience by the time she met her husband. In 1915 she rejected the life of privilege before her and joined Cumann na mBan, much to her family’s dismay:
“My parents are not quite like myself. I think I am rather characteristic of a certain section in Ireland. The younger people of Ireland have been thinking in a way that some of the older ones have not.
“There, some years ago, the unionists did not wish an Irish Republic. They wished to belong to England. They were well off and quite comfortable and thought only of themselves. That is dying out now. The younger members of such families are republican.”
Opinionated, highly-intelligent and immersed in radical, nationalist and socialist literature, around 1915 Muriel actively threw herself into social causes and the struggle for Irish independence.
“You know there is a great deal of poverty in Ireland, especially in Cork [..] As I grew older I saw that things could not be set right except by government […] If we had our own government we could do something; […] and I learned that England was only there as a thief, and had no right to be there at all.”
She also became friendly with other republican activists like Tomás MacCurtain and her future husband Terence.
Courting from 1916, Terence and Muriel were married at an English prison camp in 1917, where Terence was being held. In fact, in the four years the couple were together, almost half of that time was spent apart as Terence was in and out of internment camps and prisons. Their only daughter, Máire, was born in 1918, while Terence was in Belfast Gaol.
Following the shocking murder of MacCurtain, Terence MacSwiney succeeded him as Cork’s first citizen. From August to October 1920, and at the centre of an international media storm, Muriel MacSwiney bore witness to the traumatic deterioration and eventual death of her husband.
“The assistant doctor in the prison asked me to ask my husband to take food. I did not resent this, I understood. He said ‘He might be released permanently injured, you might have more children and this might affect them’.
I said I had been thinking this for the past two years but I never interfered with my husband in a matter of conscience [...] He died as all the world knows on October 25th [...] Fortunately there are others like him in different parts of the world. If it were not so, our life would be unbearably abominable.”
Despite this being an immensely distressing time for the young widow, the unprecedented global impact of MacSwiney’s death saw Muriel and Terence’s sister Mary travel to Washington to give evidence at the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. The pair also addressed thousands as they toured the States raising funds for the Republican movement.
Prior to her marriage and after Terence’s death, Muriel suffered bouts of ill health and depression. Receiving medical treatment in Germany, she and Máire moved there in 1923.
Before he had become Lord Mayor, MacSwiney made a will granting his sister Mary co-guardianship of Máire, a decision Máire attributed in later life to her father’s worry that Muriel wouldn’t cope should anything happen to him.
Máire attended boarding school and later lived with various family friends in Germany while Muriel lived in Paris. There she mixed with communist writers, journalists and intellectuals. Máire and Muriel would only see each other on summer holidays spent across Germany, France and Ireland.
Aged 14, in 1932 Máire chose to return to Ireland and to the care of her aunt Mary. A custody battle later saw Mary awarded full guardianship of Máire. Muriel never reconciled her relationships with Máire, the MacSwineys or her own family and refused all attempts.
Completely opposed to Catholicism, Muriel was an atheist and life-long communist. A member of the Irish Worker League and the Communist Parties of Germany, France and Great Britain, she later had a relationship and child with Pierre Kaan, leader of the French Anti-Nazi Resistance. Kaan died in Buchenwald concentration camp just weeks before the end of the Second World War.
Muriel MacSwiney lived her later years in Kent and died on 26 October 1982, aged 90.