On the centenary of Terence MacSwiney’s death, the current leaders of the independent Irish State, whose existence owes much to his sacrifice, would do well to heed his words, writes his grandson,.
Terence MacSwiney was an author, dramatist, poet, philosopher, and lecturer. He and his wife Muriel had one daughter Máire Óg, my mother.
She was only two-years-old when he died in Brixton Prison in London after 74 days refusing food. His plan was to confront the British Empire, and end England’s authority to rule in Ireland.
What made him different was that he had a plan all worked out, how to stop the British Empire from destroying the lives of the people in Ireland. To achieve that required inflicting a defeat on the British Empire. This would be a battle for the authority to govern the Irish people.
To succeed he needed to be an optimist, a pragmatist, an idealist, and an opportunist.
His closest friend in this work was Tomás Mac Curtáin. His other closest friends in this work were his sisters Mary and Annie, his wife Muriel, and the best man at his wedding, and godfather of his daughter Maire Óg, Dick Mulcahy.
Mac Curtáin and MacSwiney were together in everything. It would later emerge that Mary and Muriel lacked pragmatism, despite their idealism. And Dick’s later behaviour showed he lacked idealism.
The British policy of divide and rule meant that they were constantly looking for opportunities to further subjugate the Irish people. They used the shooting by Volunteers of a police constable as an opportunity to order their Protestant police chief in Cork to assassinate Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain, and try to turn the War of Independence from Britain into a sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants.
Terence MacSwiney realised that the British Government’s public credibility as idealistic rulers of Ireland was vulnerable. It gave him an opportunity to drive them from Ireland.
He stepped into the role of Lord Mayor, and went on the offensive, realising that he could not expect anything different than what his friend had suffered, which was death.
At the meeting where he was chosen to be Lord Mayor, he said: "This contest of ours is not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance - it is not they who can inflict most but they who can suffer most will conquer."
Previously he had written in articles that were later published in his book Principles of Freedom.
“A spiritual necessity makes the true significance of our claim to freedom: the material aspect is only a secondary consideration. A man facing life is gifted with certain powers of soul and body.
"It is of vital importance to himself and the community that he be given a full opportunity to develop his powers, and to fill his place worthily. In a free state he is in the natural environment for full self-development. In an enslaved state it is the reverse.
"When one country holds another in subjection that other suffers materially and morally. It suffers materially, being a prey for plunder. It suffers morally because of the corrupt influences the bigger nation sets at work to maintain its ascendancy.
"Because of this moral corruption national subjection should be resisted, as a state fostering vice; and as in the case of vice, when we understand it we have no option but to fight. With it we can make no terms.
"It is the duty of the rightful power to develop the best in its subjects: it is the practice of the usurping power to develop the basest. Our history affords many examples. When our rulers visit Ireland they bestow favours and titles on the supporters of their regime - but it is always seen that the greatest favours and highest titles are not for the honest adherent of their power - but for him who has betrayed the national cause that he entered public life to support.
"Observe the men who might be respected are passed over for him who ought to be despised. In the corrupt politician there was surely a better nature. A free state would have encouraged and developed it. The usurping state titled him for the use of his baser instincts.
"Such allurement must mean demoralisation. We are none of us angels, and under the best of circumstances find it hard to do worthy things; when all the temptation is to do unworthy things we are demoralised. Most of us, happily, will not give ourselves over to the evil influence, but we lose faith in the ideal. We are apathetic.
"We have powers and let them lie fallow. Our minds should be restless for noble and beautiful things; they are hopeless in a land everywhere confined and wasted. In the destruction of spirit entailed lies the deeper significance of our claim to freedom.
"It is a spiritual appeal, then, that primarily moves us. We are urged to action by a beautiful ideal. The motive force must be likewise true and beautiful. It is love of country that inspires us; not hate of the enemy and desire for full satisfaction for the past.
"That we be found worthy; let this be borne in mind. For it is true that here only is our great danger. If with our freedom to win, our country to open up, our future to develop, we learn no lesson from the mistakes of nations and live no better life than the great Powers, we shall have missed a golden opportunity, and shall be one of the failures of history.
"We led Europe once; let us lead again with a beautiful realisation of freedom; and let us beware of the delusion that is abroad, that we seek nothing more than to be free of restraint, as England, France and Germany are to-day; let us beware of the delusion that if we can scramble through anyhow to freedom we can then begin to live worthily, but that in the interval we cannot be too particular.
"These are the two great resting-places in our historic survey: the generation of the living flame and the generation of despair; and it is for us to decide - for the decision rests with us - whether we shall in our time merely mark time or write another luminous chapter in the splendid history of our race.”
What I learned from my grandfather is that you need to be an optimist, a pragmatist, an idealist, and an opportunist, to deal with really bad, serious, scary problems, such as environmental depletion, forest fires, corona viruses, and political corruption.
Partial, temporary, half-measures are useless, like throwing a glass of water at a forest fire. To succeed, such a campaign must be universal, complete, total, and successful.
The modern analogy is that the British Empire was like a virus that used corruption to spread through society.
Exterminating the British virus required a global campaign that spread to India, China, Viet Nam, and regions such as Catalonia, a campaign about right, for which people would fight, that was bright, and that would defeat the might of the British Empire.
Why bright? It needed to be open, visible, public, transparent, full of hope, and that others would join, other people, and other countries. The weapon that MacSwiney used was shame: to shame the Empire, the King, the Prime Minister Lloyd George, the British Government who backed the Empire, the people who worked for the Empire, the people who tolerated the Empire, the people who did not resist the Empire, the people who benefitted from the Empire.
Public shame was their weakness, their vulnerability.
MacSwiney’s campaign needed to succeed globally, to get Irish independence.
He did shame the Empire – with the help of support from the poet Guo Morou in China, Ho Chi Minh in Viet Nam, Marcus Garvey the Leader of 400 million black people seeking freedom, to the good people of Catalonia who came out in thousands to protest in his support, and to Mahatma Gandhi in India.
Indeed in India they spoke of their shame, how could such a small country, and so near England, stand up against the powerful British Empire, and they in India were so big, and so far away, and could not?
He did shame the King – who petitioned his own British Government to release MacSwiney.
He did shame the Prime Minister Lloyd George – who hid in his holiday home in Switzerland, rather than face the protests throughout Britain, and the Empire.
He did shame the religious leaders who sat back in their palaces.
And ultimately this shaming did wake people throughout the world to stand up and seek their own independence.
His small action was like making a small hole under the water-line in the Great Ship Britannia. It started sinking, and is still sinking, and soon will no longer have any influence on Europe, a continent they once dominated.
Terence MacSwiney would be happy that the Irish people are remembering him this week, a century after his death. But he would prefer that we remember the hundreds of men and women who suffered and died, for Irish independence, and not just in that generation.
Also, he was not one for looking back. He was forever looking forward, encouraging, teaching, motivating. He would be more interested in what we are doing about the Covid 19 epidemic, than in commemorations.
He wrote: “That we shall win our freedom I have no doubt; that we shall use it well I am not so certain, for see how sadly misused it is abroad through the world to-day.
"That should be our final consideration, and we should make this a resolution - our future history shall be more glorious than that of any contemporary state. We shall look for prosperity, no doubt, but let our enthusiasm be for beautiful living; we shall build up our strength, yet not for conquest, but as a pledge of brotherhood and a defence for the weaker ones of the earth; we shall take pride in our institutions, not only as guaranteeing the stability of the state, but as securing the happiness of the citizens, and we shall lead Europe again as we led it of old.
"We shall rouse the world from a wicked dream of material greed, of tyrannical power, of corrupt and callous politics to the wonder of a regenerated spirit, a new and beautiful dream; and we shall establish our state in a true freedom that will endure for ever.”
To succeed against a pandemic as difficult as Covid 19, he would suggest you need to be an optimist, a pragmatist, an idealist, and an opportunist. The optimist inspires and engages the community in every way that is right for the campaign.
The pragmatist exploits and enforces every possible contribution to the fight. The idealist explains and encourages every capability that is bright. The opportunist imposes and empowers every capacity that adds to the might of the campaign.
The current global campaign against Covid 19 is not particularly bright. This is not intended to shame Ireland, which, at least, has been honest about publishing the Irish figures about Covid.
Why do I say it has not been bright? Like other countries we are in the middle of a second wave, and we don’t know how that has happened.
Elderly people who have been doing everything right since March, to protect themselves, have contracted Covid, and they don’t know how they caught it, and those who gave it to them don’t know that they have it, how they caught it, and that they gave it to their grandparent, or whoever.
What do I mean by bright? Approaches to deal with Covid are still needed that will be open, visible, public, transparent, full of hope, and that others would join, other people, and other countries.
This is not the place to describe them in detail. Sufficient to say that what we are doing now is overly pragmatic, not particularly optimistic, and definitely not ideal.
And, if we had been taking this approach a century ago, we would not have made such strides towards our independence.
The relevance of recollecting MacSwiney, on the centary of his death, is that he showed the benefits of becoming brighter, more optimistic, and that we could even lead the world, as some of our leaders did, a century ago.