MacSwiney’s body was sent straight to Cork despite protests from Lord Mayor’s family

Martyred after a 74-day hunger strike in London, Terence MacSwiney was supposed to have a funeral commemoration in Dublin before being brought by train to Cork for burial. The British authorities had other ideas and scuppered these plans.
MacSwiney’s body was sent straight to Cork despite protests from Lord Mayor’s family

The funeral parade in Cork of Terence MacSwiney remains. Picture: Cork Public Museum

Monday October 18, 1920 marked the 67th day of Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike in London’s Brixton Prison. As his health continued to deteriorate, the end was only days away.

In her diary, his sister Anne recalls he was conscious when she was with him from early that morning till lunchtime. Three prison doctors Peddard, Griffith, Hijson visited him at 1pm.

They were with him some time, and when they left the room, they spoke to Terence’s wife Muriel. Dr Griffith was adamant that he should take some food. Dr Peddard told her Terence was developing scurvy and should take lime juice to ward it off. Muriel refused to give permission as did other family members.

Over the ensuing days, Terence would waiver in and out of consciousness and become delirious. Sometimes he tried to get out of bed. Sometimes he struggled into a sitting posture.

In his emaciated condition, everything was difficult. Insistence by the doctors to take some food led to further delirium of Terence and anger by his family members (brothers Peter and Seán, and sisters Mary and Annie) who visited him and championed his hunger strike position. Whatever was given was quickly vomited up as his condition faded.

Irish and British newspapers such as the Cork Examiner carried news of his ordeal and pictures of family figures and friends of the Republican cause coming and going from the gaol. There is tiredness and concern in their eyes.

Public meetings were held as far away as France and Germany with other countries requesting his release.

At 5.40 am on Monday, October 25, day 74 of Terence’s hunger strike, he passed away.

Anne again in her diary tried to capture the immediate aftermath of his death. It captures the emotion of family members with him as he passed, the grief, the confusion but above, their anger at Westminster’s Home Office and the policing authorities.

A short few hours after his death, Terence’s inquest was fixed for 11 am. Present were siblings as well as Fr Dominic, Florence McCarthy (Town Clerk of Cork, William Hegarty (Lord Mayor’s secretary), and Donal J Galvin (Cork City Solicitor).

Muriel MacSwiney refused to give permission for doctors to give Terence MacSwiney some food. 	Picture: Mercier Press
Muriel MacSwiney refused to give permission for doctors to give Terence MacSwiney some food. Picture: Mercier Press

Terence’s wife Muriel was served with a notice by the prison authorities to appear to identify the body, but the policing authorities seemed rather anxious that she should not appear.

Defiant but traumatised, she walked past the plethora of photographers at the prison gate, appeared in a dark veil and answered in short sentences to the questions before Coroner Dr G P Wyatt and the sworn in jury from the Brixton area.

Muriel became animated in her intervention when she described that Terence was a soldier of the Irish Republican Army and that his occupation was to work for his country.

Sometime later in his summing up to the jury, the Coroner asked of the jury three questions:

  • Did MacSwiney deliberately take his own life?
  • Did refusing food unbalance his mind that he was not clearly thinking?
  • Or was he hoping that the hunger strike would lead to his release?

The verdict of the inquest read: “The deceased died from heart failure consequent upon his refusal to take food”.

When the inquest was over, Mr James Heyman McDonnell, the family solicitor, asked for the certificate that would give Terence’s body into the family’s keeping. This was when further red tape were presented to the family.

The Coroner argued that he had no power to give release of the body for burial outside England. Mr McDonnell asked for release to Southwark Cathedral, but that, too, was refused.

Eventually, it was decided that Muriel and Art O’Brien should go to the Home Office and ask for an explanation. Art was the envoy of Dáil Éireann in Britain (since 1919) and was also a leading figure in organising campaigns for the release of Irish political prisoners held in Britain and in orchestrating the publicity campaign surrounding the hunger-strike of Terence.

At the home office, Mr McDonnell was informed that a British government vessel would be placed at the family’s disposal, free of all expense, and every facility offered if they went straight to Cork.

Muriel was quite upset by this political call, wishing for her husband to get a national commemoration in Dublin. Going straight to Mr Edward Shortt, English Secretary of State for Home Affairs, she made her case and asked for her husband’s body without restrictions.

A short time late, Mr Shortt sent a special message to Muriel expressing his view and regret at any delay, and assuring her that he merely wished to find out how he stood and expressing the perspective that he was not sure of his legal powers.

He had attended the Home Office and got clearance to have Terence’s body handed over to the family without restrictions. Terence’s body was then taken from Brixton Prison to the historic St George’s Southwark Cathedral in Bankside on London’s south side of the Thames.

Thousands lined the street as the funeral carriage passed. The coffin was shouldered into the church by six members of Cork Corporation.

A 21-member delegation had travelled to London with members of the Cork Harbour Board to accompany their mayor home. The coffin on its catafalque was ringed by the Volunteers forming a sentry over their colleague for the night.

On the coffin was an Irish inscription, which was translated as “Murdered by the Foreigner in Brixton Prison, London, England on October 25th 1920. The fourth year of the Republic. Aged 40 years. God have mercy on his soul”.

The funeral procession of Terence MacSwiney.	 Picture: Cork Public Museum.
The funeral procession of Terence MacSwiney. Picture: Cork Public Museum.

Once the church reopened the following morning, tens of thousands flocked to see the body. Many were Irish or of Irish extraction.

Mass was fixed for 11 am, which was a ticketed affair. Police had to link arms to prevent those with no tickets from pushing their way in.

Six men wearing long coats presented tickets to the policemen and once inside took their coats off to reveal that the green unformed members of the IRA. They replaced their colleagues as the honour guard by the coffin. Muriel was too sick to attend or to travel back to Ireland.

Two of Terence’s sisters Margaret and Kit, both nuns, could not travel home from America or Tokyo.

After the Requiem, the procession of the coffin on the horse-drawn hearse, which was almost a mile long – began for Euston Station in Camden. Terence’s two brothers and two sisters reached Euston Station at 4.30 pm.

On arrival at the station, the siblings were informed the train was due to leave at 4.45 pm.

After they had accompanied Terry’s body to a good’s carriage van they hurried down the platform to their carriage. Without notice, the departure was put back till 6 pm.

The train was also crowded with police in every carriage.

A train guard came to family friend Art O’Brien and said the police inspector wished to speak to him and was looking for Muriel. He said he had a communication for her, but could not make it until they had passed Crewe.

Once the train passed Crewe, the inspector visited the MacSwiney delegation again and gave a letter from Chief Secretary for Ireland Thomas Hamar-Greenwood, addressed to Muriel.

Opening it they found a copy of a letter addressed to the press to the effect that, owing to a possibility of trouble, the British Government had ordered that the remains should go straight to Cork.

They were utterly taken aback and began to lecture them on their duty to the dead and the sacredness of the dead.

The family noted that the Lady Mayoress was in London and they could take no decision without consulting her, and that the coffin should remain in Holyhead while someone went back to lay the facts before her.

The request was turned down and the transport of the body continued to the English coast bound for Cork.

The train reached Holyhead about midnight. The family had arranged that all should go at once to the van where Terry’s body lay.

The train stopped at the town station and it was there the SS Kenmare was immediately waiting to depart. Family friend Art O’Brien produced the contract of the railway to take Terence’s body via Kingstown, to Cork, and he ordered them to carry it out.

However, a British Government order said the stationmaster should not carry out the contract.

In protest, the family joined hands around the coffin. In a tense standoff, railwaymen entered the carriage and began removing the wreaths. Outside police and Black and Tans and ordinary military lined the platform.

However, once the railwaymen tried to get access to the coffin they family blocked their way and said: “Don’t dare touch that coffin, we forbid you to touch it”.

With that, the police rushed forward, pushed the family to one side and away from the coffin and surrounded it. The coffin was lifted out of the van and on to the steamer, the HMS Rathmore. The family was left on the quayside looking on.

To add insult to injury, the family was forced to get the train for Holyhead and board a separate steamer there. The journey to Dun Laoghaire was quiet.

The following morning, they attended a High Mass for Terence in Dublin without the coffin present.

After the Mass, the family delegation went in funeral procession behind the empty hearse. They left for by train for Cork at 2 pm.

Terence MacSwiney lying in State.
Terence MacSwiney lying in State.

Meanwhile back in Cork, within four hours of Terence’s death, large written notices were erected outside the offices of the Cork Examiner and Cork City Hall, which caused a thrill of sorrow throughout the city.

By mid-morning, the streets of Cork were filled with people who wore Republican rosettes with black crepe. The Municipal and Harbour Board flags flew at half-mast, and most of the city’s establishments had their premises partly shuttered. 

Most of the ships in the harbour had their flags at half-mast.

All public functions were cancelled, and theatres and other such amusement spaces closed.

A special meeting of Cork Corporation was convened where councillors expressed their condolences and raw emotion at losing the City’s Lord Mayor.

The Deputy Lord Mayor Councillor Donal Óg O’Callaghan issued a defiant statement, decrying that despite Terence’s death, the merit of Republicanism will still linger and pass on:

“The only message that I on behalf of the Republicans of Cork give today over the corpse of the late Lord Mayor is that Cork has definitely yielded its allegiance to the Republic, that the people of Cork will continue that allegiance unswervingly and that those of us who man the Municipal Council will attempt as far as us lies to follow the noble and glorious lead of the two martyred Republican Magistrates.

“The Republican hold on the Municipal Chair of Cork ceases only when the last Republican in Cork has followed Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney into the Grave. Death will not terrorise us”.

  • Kieran McCarthy is a local historian, geographer and an independent member of Cork City Council. His latest book ‘Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás MacCurtain’ is now available to purchase online at

Crowds gathered at Cobh quayside as body returns

The remains of the Lord Mayor of Cork arrived off Depp Water Quay, Cobh, at 1.43 pm. The Rathmore, which brought the body from Holyhead, was met inside the harbour by the Admiralty tug Hellespont and arrived beside the railway station at the time stated.

The moment the vessel was sighted, the population of Cobh gathered along the beach and when the Rathmore reached its berth hundreds of people awaited it with heads uncovered.

But nobody would take charge of the remains. In so acting, the people were only complying with the wishes of the relatives. But they did all that was left for them to do in the way of showing their respect for the dead Lord Mayor of Cork.

The authorities apparently thought that they would be relieved of the odium of bringing back to Cork the body of the man whom they arrested on the 12th August last, and who has been in their custody alive and dead ever since.

An officer of the Cameron’s called to the town Clerk (Mr H. F. O’Reilly) and asked him if his Council had any wishes in the matter. He said they had none, and the officer went away.

During the morning an officer from Cork Barracks visited the Bishop and informed him that the people would not be permitted to march in military formation at the funeral, and no display of flags would be allowed.

With a like purpose, an officer of the Cameron’s stationed at Belmont Hutments also called on the Bishop. But to their astonishment, they found that the people not only didn’t intend to march in military formation or display flags but did not intend to march at all or to receive the body.

So, the Rathmore remained beside the quay, its docks full of armed men. These included Cameron Highlanders, London Metropolitan Police, and a strong force of R.I.C. Auxiliaries. They stood grimly on the deck.

Crowds line the quayside in Cobh for the arrival of the body of Terence MacSwiney on the steamer 'Rathmore' in October 10, 1920.	 Picture File:  Ref. 224
Crowds line the quayside in Cobh for the arrival of the body of Terence MacSwiney on the steamer 'Rathmore' in October 10, 1920. Picture File:  Ref. 224

Opposite the bier on the quay were: His Lordship Most Rev. Dr. Browne, Rev David Kent, Adm.; Rev. P. Fouhy, C.C.; Rev. S Wigmore, D.D., C.C.; Rev, W.F. Browne, C.C.; Rev J.K. Fielding. Chicago; Rev. D. O’Keefe, C.C; Rev, J. Callanan. Spike Island; Rev. J. Tuohy. Carrigtwohill; Rev. FR. Lyons, U.S.A; Rev. Gabiel D’Aroy, Manchester.

Several Christian Brothers, all the members of Town Commissioners who are not “on the run;” the town Clerk and the young men and women of Cobh.

Volunteers lined the quay and kept the crowds from pressing in, while inside the cordon they had drawn stood the Bishop, the priests, and the public men.

For an hour all waited there watching the movements if those on board and calculating upon the possibilities which the afternoon held.

At 2.45 the Hellespont drew alongside, and the people at once concluded that the coffin was to be transferred from the Rathmore and taken by the Hellespont to Cork.

But again, the Hellespont moved off and the Mary Tavy, another Admiralty tug appeared. Deckhands then unloosed the ropes around the coffin, which was covered with sailcloth; the military and the police called to attention, and the coffin was taken on to the tug by members of the crew. The wreaths were next transferred and the Admiralty tug, flying a black flag moved up the river for Cork, the auxiliary police having in the meantime gone aboard.

When the tug moved off the Bishop asked the crowd to kneel, and prayers were then recited for the soul of the departed patriot. The bells of the Cathedral tolled while the body was on board the Rathmore.

Body arrives at city centre At 4.15 pm the Admiralty tug Mary Tavy, flying the blue ensign at half-mast, arrived at the southern side of the Customs House Quay, and after some minutes she came alongside.

As early as 3 o’clock crowds began to assemble in the vicinity of Albert Quay, the new bridge, and every point of advantage around, so that long before the arrival of the tug the entire place was densely packed, even the rigging of some shifts on the opposite jetty holding many onlookers.

The announcement made earlier in the day that in the absence of the relatives no one had the authority to receive the body, was not known either by the large party of military who had come there in half a dozen lorries, accompanied by two armoured cars, or by the party of fifty auxiliary police who accompanied the tug from Cobh, and they expected that come of the municipal authorities would have been there to receive the coffin.

The officer commanding the troops who arrived from Cork Barracks explained to a number of assembled Pressmen that his duties were solely to maintain order should any disturbance arise and when he communicated with the barracks and informed the General of the situation he was directed to withdraw.

This he did, and the tug still in charge of the auxiliary police, remained at the quayside with the remains of the Lord Mayor.

The funeral procession passing along the South Mall in Cork.
The funeral procession passing along the South Mall in Cork.

The after part of the vessel was literally covered with floral tributes and all the time the huge concourse of people who lined the quays knew nothing of what would happen.

At 6.20 pm the special train from Dublin conveying the relatives of the deceased Lord Mayor arrived at the Glanmire terminus of the G.S. and W. Railway, and in the carriages which were waiting they drive to the City Hall, the wreaths which accompanied them being conveyed in the Corporation ambulances.

About 7pm the auxiliary police removed the body from the tug. The coffin was then lifted by hand and placed on the quay. Soon after the Mary Tavy took her departure for Cobh. The large number of wreaths on the tug were also taken off, and as many of them as it would hold places on the coffin, the others being laid on the quayside.

On arrival of the Rathmore in the harbour, pilots refused to take the steamer to Cork.

  • Irish Examiner archives. Original article published October 1920

A patriot, his sacrifice was as noble as his life was pure

BY the death of Lord Mayor MacSwiney, Ireland has lost another of her most patriotic and noble-spirited sons, and Cork its leading citizen.

His demise, under such terrible and tragic circumstances, has cast gloom throughout the length and breadth of the country, as well as in many distant lands in which many Irishmen and women at present reside.

Lord Mayor MacSwiney made the great sacrifice: He gave his life for Ireland and the cause of the freedom of his country. From an early day, he demonstrated his love of country and his desire to forward her interests by every means in his power, and throughout his life, he never failed to work in that noble and patriotic direction.

Terence McSwiney and his family.
Terence McSwiney and his family.

Following a brilliant scholastic and university career, during which he obtained, with honours, the Bachelor of Arts degree, he devoted a number of years to the educational training of the youth of the country, and in this important capacity, his efforts proved eminently successful.

He was a brilliant educationalist, and his great abilities were ever placed at the disposal of the numerous students who came under his tuition. He was possessed of a magnetic personality, but it was as one of the pioneers of the Sinn Féin movement in the South that his great worth as one of Ireland most self-sacrificing sons became apparent.

The movement had a small beginning, but his Lordship persevered in most determined fashion, and even when it had reached the height of its power throughout the country, he never ceased his labours.

Up to the time of his death, he was a vigorous worker in the cause of Ireland. By means of manuscript journals, to which he was a regular contributor, he accomplished a great deal of useful propaganda work for the movement with which he was identified.

He was also a most valuable asset to the work of the Irish Literary Society, the Gaelic League, and Cork Industrial Development Association, and he laboured in most untiring fashion for the advancement of those well-known organisations.

A fluent Irish speaker, a dramatist, and an ardent supporter of industrial revival, he was of most invaluable assistance to those movements. It was, however, in the Volunteer movement, in which he held a most important and responsible post, that he was best known.

He was deeply interested in the Volunteers and it was mainly through his exertions that that movement, so far as the South of Ireland was concerned, was brought to such a state of perfection. During the course of his organisational work on behalf of the Volunteers, he was subjected to some police prosecutions and, later, following the rebellion of Easter Week 1916, he, with numerous other Irish men from all parts of Ireland, was arrested and interned.

He spent terms of imprisonment in Richmond Barracks, Wakefield Prison, Frongoch Prison, and other jails, both in England and Ireland, but he never wavered in his allegiance to his principles, and on each occasion that he was released he was as determined and as energetic as ever in Ireland’s work.

During 1918, he again underwent terms of imprisonment in England and Ireland. At the general election, he was nominated as parliamentary representative for the Mid-Cork constituency, and secured an unopposed return, while at the Cork Municipal elections, he was a candidate in the Central Area, and was elected Councillor, having obtained a very large number of votes.

In public life, his abilities were soon recognised and appreciated. His efforts were mainly directed towards the reconstruction of the administration of public affairs, and with the late Lord Mayor MacCurtain, he was instrumental in accomplishing many reforms, not alone in the Corporation, but in many of the local institutions with which he was identified, and there can be no doubt if his life had been spared, that he would have successfully completed beneficial work to his credit in public life.

He was undoubtedly a most useful public representative. Following the murder of Lord Mayor MacCurtain, he was unanimously chosen by the Corporation to fill the vacancy. It was an appointment that met with the approval of all creeds and classes in Cork.

From the moment of his election, Lord Mayor MacSwiney was most indefatigable in the performance of the onerous duties connected with that high court. His great energy and determination, coupled with his absolute impartiality and his lovable and kindly disposition, gained for him the respect and esteem of every member of the Town Council, and under his able guidance Corporate affairs were conducted with a thoroughness that it would be impossible to excel.

It was at a moment when that work was being carried out in such a successful manner that Lord Mayor MacSwiney was again arrested. A party of armed military visited the City Hall and took his Lordship into custody. 

The events associated with that military visit created a great sensation throughout the city, as well as many parts of the country, but no one realised the terrible tragedy that was to follow.

As a protest against his arrest and detention, Lord Mayor MacSwiney went on hunger strike. While indulging in such a protest, he was tried by District Court-martial at Victoria Barracks, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

He was then subjected to great cruelty, as, after having been without food for several days, he was removed in a state of great weakness from Cork Gaol, placed on board a Government sloop, and taken across by sea to Penzance, and cast into Brixton Prison.

His determination to continue his protest, however, never changed. An idea of his great willpower can be obtained from the words that he uttered on the occasion of his election as Lord Mayor, and also when he was tried by court-martial.

How the newspapers reported the death of Terence MacSwiney
How the newspapers reported the death of Terence MacSwiney

On the first-mentioned occasion, he said: “It is not to those who can inflict the most, but to those who can suffer the most that the victory will be”; and at the court-martial, he declared: “I have decided the term of my detention, whatever your Government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.” 

These were noble sentiments that many may feel, that all must admire, but that few, other than the late Toirdhealbhach Mac Suibhne, could live up to. He spoke them and acted them, and while the city throbbed with anxiety throughout the prolonged, anguishing days that he lay in Brixton Prison breathing to the last his determination, his love for his colleagues, and steadfastness to a great principle, it now mourns with sincerity the premature death of as pure-souled an Irishman as ever lived.

The days of his grand struggle will be forever an inspiring memory, and not the least impelling thought will be the recollection of his gentle, but firm, turning down of admirers who urged him by letter to desist from the strike — in fact, he ordered that letters to this character be not delivered to him.

He passed away, surrounded with all the affection of his dear relatives and the esteem of the highest representatives, clerical and lay, of not only Cork but other parts of Ireland.

His visitors each day were his widow, the Lady Mayoress: his sisters, the Misses MacSwiney, and his brothers, Messrs Sean MacSwiney and Peter J MacSwiney, and his chaplain Rev Father Dominic, OSFC, who administered to him during the final stages and gave him the strengthening comfort of the Sacraments.

Other anxious visitors were his Lordship Most Rev Dr Cohalan, Bishop of Cork; his Lordship Most Rev Dr Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe; his Grace Archbishop Mannix, Ald De Roiste, MP, Professor Stocklet, etc.

Lord Mayor MacSwiney’s sacrifice was as noble as his life was pure and his work unselfish.

May be rest in peace in the fervent prayer of the whole Irish nation, and particularly of his loved native city.

  • Irish Examiner’ archives. Original article published October 1920.

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