The death of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork

Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork died in Brixton jail on the 25th of October 1920 after 74 days on hunger strike in protest at the treatment of republican prisoners in British jails.

MacSwiney was a soldier, playwright, politician and poet but overall, he was an ardent Irish Nationalist who would give his life in the fight for Irish freedom.

Creating a Rebel Heart

Born in March 1879 in Cork he was one of 8 children to John and Mary MacSwiney. His father was a restless spirit, who had fought in Italy with the papal guard against Garibaldi and who eventually abandoned the family after a business failure to make a new life for himself in Australia.

Terence was brought up by his mother who instilled in him a strong belief in Irish nationalism.

He was educated by the Christian brothers in Cork City before he left at 15 to help feed the family.

A bright lad, he was an accountancy clerk and studied at night at the Royal University and in 1907 he graduated with a degree in Mental and Moral Science.

With a deep interest in the arts, Terence was a founding member of the Celtic Literary Society and in 1908 he became part of the Cork Dramatic Society and he wrote his first play that year ‘The last Warriors of Coole’. He became a prolific writer and distributed pamphlets on Irish history and secured a regular column in the nationalist Irish Freedom newspaper.

His writing brought him to the attention of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and in 1913 he was inducted into the secret society. He also became an enthusiastic member of the Gaelic League, which sought to promote the Irish language and culture.

Terence was a founding member of the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers and was elected President of the Cork Branch of Sinn Féin.

In 1914 Terence set up a short-lived Nationalist newspaper the ‘Fianna Fáil’ which was shut down by the authorities after only 11 issues.

Love was to come to Terence in 1915 when he met Muriel Murphy but despite a mutual attraction Muriel’s family were very much against her relationship with the Republican firebrand and the couple would have to wait until June 1917 before they could marry.  

Becoming a soldier

In April 1916 Terence was to be the 2nd in command of the Irish Volunteer forces taking part in the Easter Rising but was forced to stand down his men following the orders of Eoin MacNeill who issued a countermand to the order for Volunteers to mobilise on Easter Sunday 1916.

Following the rising Terence was arrested along with hundreds of other Irish Volunteers under the Defence of the Realm Act. He was deported from Ireland and held captive in British internment camps until June 1917.

Muriel had followed Terence to England and on his release, they became man and wife on the 9th of June 1917, one day after Muriel’s 25th birthday when she had received her family inheritance and was now free to live an independent life and marry the man of her choice.

Terence’s best man was Richard Mulcahy who would go to be commander-in-chief of the National Army in the Irish Civil War after the death of Michael Collins.

Returning to Ireland, Terence was arrested once again for the crime of wearing an Irish volunteer uniform and imprisoned in November 1917. In a poignant signal to the future, he had begun a hunger strike 3 days before his release.

In the tumultuous election of 1918 Terence was elected unopposed as the Sinn Féin member for mid cork and was a participant in the first Dáil Éireann.

Lord Mayor of Cork

On the 20th of March 1920, Terence’s close friend the Lord Mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain was murdered by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Terence was elected as his replacement but on August the 12th MacSwiney was arrested again on charges of sedition and procession of a cipher key allegedly for secret messaging.

He was quickly tried and found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment in Brixton Jail.

While awaiting his transfer to England, Terence was held in Cork Prison, where 65 republican prisoners interned without trial had begun a hunger strike, demanding release from prison, and reinstatement of their status as political prisoners. Terence joined the hunger strike and continued when he was eventually transferred to Brixton.

When he arrived thousands of supporters protested outside Brixton jail and on the 25th of August the tension boiled over into a riot when police moved to disperse the crowd.  

Despite this outcry at his imprisonment on August the 26th, The British Government issued a statement that if Terence was to be released it would have :

“Disastrous results in Ireland and would possibly lead to a mutiny by both the military and police force in the south of Ireland.”

Hunger strike

As Terence continued his hunger strike the world looked on and his stance drew admiration across the globe. 10,000 protested in Glasgow, Irish Americans called for a boycott of British goods, appeals were made for papal intervention. Protests were held in Germany, France and Australia where his case was discussed in the Federal parliament.

The Mayor of New York the Irish American John F Hylan, sent a telegram to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George urging him to end:

“the imprisonment of Lord Mayor MacSwiney whose heroic fortitude in representing even unto death the opinions of the citizens who elected him has won the admiration of all the peoples who believe in rule of the people by the people”.

The British would not budge, and the hunger strike continued.

As Terence weakened the British authorities attempted to force-feed him. This was despite earlier medical advice that latent tuberculosis meant that he was too weak physically to withstand force-feeding.

On October the 20th 1920 Terence MacSwiney the Lord Mayor of Cork slipped into a coma from which he would never awaken and died 5 days later.

The aftermath and legacy of MacSwiney’s death

An inquest was held at Brixton prison on October the 27th and the jury took only 15 minutes to return an open verdict absolving the British authorities of any blame.

Terence MacSwiney’s body was taken to St George's Cathedral, Southwark in London where 30,000 people paid their respects to an Irish martyr. One of whom was the Labour Mayor of Stepney Clement Atlee, who would later become the British Prime Minister.

MacSwiney’s coffin was taken to Euston Station in a procession that stretched for more than a mile. It was led by mounted police, followed by members of the Irish Volunteer movement and hundreds of priests. Many police officers wore black gloves as a sign of respect, and they saluted the coffin as it passed. His body was then placed on a train bound for Holyhead, where it was transported by boat to Ireland.

The British fearing MacSwiney even in death were worried about public sentiment and diverted his body from Dublin directly to Cork.

His funeral was held on October 31st in Cork’s Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne. Huge crowds heard Arthur Griffith deliver the graveside oration in the Republican plot in Saint Finbarr's Cemetery in Cork.

The martyrdom of Terence MacSwiney inspired other revolutionaries both peaceful and violent.

In India, Jawaharlal Nehru was inspired by MacSwiney's sacrifice and writings. Mahatma Gandhi also counted him among his influences.

According to MacSwiney’s biographer, Dave Hannigan, a young Vietnamese man named Nguyen Tat Thanhn was working in the kitchen of a central London hotel when Terence died. As he heard the news, he is quoted as, saying “A country with a citizen like this will never surrender”.

On his return to Vietnam, the young man changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, and he would go on to lead the Vietnamese resistance movement for three decades, fighting Japanese and French imperialists and later the United States.

Terence MacSwiney's legacy continues to inspire generations of Irish nationalists. His principled stand, unwavering commitment, and ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of Irish independence solidified his place in Irish history.

John Joe McGinley October 2023